Friday 14 June 2013

Shoot Me Now (writing advice)

I’ve noticed recently that there’s been a lot of writing advice posted on a variety of blogs, Facebook pages and anywhere else people can make their voice heard.  Some of it, such as those gems from Gareth L. Powell and Chuck Wendig, are brilliant - useful, dynamic and real - but a lot of it isn’t.  So, in the Friday spirit and safe in the knowledge that nobody has asked me, here are my writing tips.

1: Write
It seems so obvious, doesn’t it but if you want to be a writer, you need to write.  Don’t spend your time setting up a blog and making it look pretty, don’t spend your time creating cover art, don’t spend your time creating a web presence, just get the words down on paper.  Write and write a lot.  Once you have a finished product (and see later points for what I consider to be ‘finished product’), then you can set up a blog, build your profile and design cover art.  Walk before you run, in other words.

2: Beware Writing Advice
You’re reading a list, by me, of tips on writing and yet my number two is a proclamation to ignore it?  I know what you’re thinking but bear with me.  Like anything else in the world - such as get-rich-quick schemes, diet pills or hair re-growth serum (advertised late at night by gone-to-seed cricketers) - there are a lot of charlatans around and you should take heed of the old Woody Allen quote - “those who can do, those who can’t teach…”  Before you take writing advice, check out the person behind it.  Have they had any success, have they got a body of work that proves they stick to their own rules and it works for them - have they been published, in short (and not in those anthologies where acceptance is contingent on the writer buying a copy).  If they haven’t, if they have no record of their advice being useful, read it by all means and take what you need from it but also keep that pinch of salt handy.  After all, you wouldn’t let a surgeon loose on you if his only experience came from playing Operation, would you?

3: Beware Writing Advice (part 2)
You've found a writer you respect, who has a track record and seems to make sense.  So read the points but only take what you need.  As with any kind of list, some bits you’ll agree with and some bits you won’t.  If an item doesn’t agree with you, adapt it to make your own.  For example, most advice states that you should write every day and it’s probably very wise.  I don’t, I never have done.

4: Write

5: Revise, Revise, Revise
Congratulations, you’ve got that first draft completed and you’re thrilled to bits.  It’s taken a lot of hard work, you’ve spent ages on it, you’re deeply and madly in love with it.  Very good.  Now put it away to breathe for a while, go off and do something else and come back to it in a week or so (at least a week, leave it longer if you can).

Sit down, take a deep breath and start reading.  Marvel at the clunky bits, thrill at the passages and scenes that don’t work anywhere near as well as you thought they did, delight that one character manages to change clothes and hair colour halfway through.  Marvel at it but don't despair.

First drafts are the reason that we have second drafts and beyond (most of my work has at least three drafts, the second is the one I get my pre-readers to look at), because that original one contains most of the raw ingredients which we will then refine as we revise, revise, revise.  I’m sure people have published first drafts and there are writers who are so good and so disciplined that their first draft is almost there (Ian Whates, for one) but that certainly isn’t me and, no offence intended, it’s probably not you either.

6: Keep The Faith
Writing a piece of work doesn’t (often) happen overnight - it can take days, weeks, months or even years to complete.  Over that time, the idea you once thought was the best thing ever will become tarnished - you’ll see a film or read another story with the same kind of idea, you’ll re-read something and think it’s not good enough, you’ll doubt your ability and talent.  This happens to everyone, from the first-timer to someone with a whole raft of novels under their belt.  Keeping the faith isn’t easy but you need to keep plodding on because somehow (and nobody quite knows how this works) you’ll get through to the other side.

Remember - a book is published because someone wrote it and submitted it.  The path to good intentions is littered with half finished manuscripts.

Of course, this is a moot point if you read your work back and realise you’ve just homaged an entire episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ or something.

7: Make Friends
The writing community, especially if you focus on a particular genre, is relatively small and in these days of social media, smaller still.  When I started publishing, back in 2000 or so, if you wanted to chat with other writers you sent letters or emails (if they were online) or went to conventions.  I have a lot of writer friends now and our relationships can be traced back to those early days, to standing at the bar and saying to the person next to you “Hey, are you Simon Bestwick?*.  Be yourself and speak to people, engage them (if on social media) as you would in real life - don’t ram your latest project down their throat, but instead ask them how they’re doing.  Take interest in what they say.  In short, be nice and treat people how you would like to be treated.

There are a whole load of reasons to do this - it makes life easier, friendships are nice - but the key one is that the writing genre, as mentioned, is a small community.  If you’re an arrogant shit, or someone whose blog, Facebook and Twitter feeds are nothing but ads for their latest tomes, then it's going to become obvious really quickly and people aren’t going to want to spend time with you.  And you could be closing a lot of doors (which leads me, after the note below, to point eight).
* nb, this only actually works with Simon Bestwick

8: Network
I’ve never really figured out the proper way to do this, though I think I’ve inadvertently managed to do it by adhering to point seven.  Produce a body of work and write good stories, go to conventions and be visible, say hello and introduce yourself.

9: Get Some Pre-Readers
People have different terms for this role - some call them beta-readers, some call them first readers, I started calling mine pre-readers (which I know doesn’t really make any sense) and it stuck.  This is a trusted band of folk (which may take some time to put together), people who are willing to read your stuff (not always as easy as it sounds, especially if you write horror) but (and this is the key part) are willing to tell you exactly what they think of it.

“Mark, it was genius.  You’re a genius.  The way you put the words together, it’s magic”
That, as lovely as it would be to hear, is not in the slightest bit of use.  Because, after you’ve thanked your Mum for being so kind, what have you learned?  That’s right, nothing apart from the fact that your Mum loves you.

“Mark, that wasn’t bad but I didn’t like Uncle Fred.  He came across as too wishy-washy, you know?  I think what you ought to do with him is this, this, this and this.  And then this, just to make sure.”
Not bad, this person has definitely read the story and they have strong feelings for it, but they’re too prescriptive.  If you do “this, this, this and this.  And then this”, it’s not your story any more.

Years ago, I wrote a contemporary drama novel and decided to set it in the town I then lived in.  One of my pre-readers (and I swear this is true) sent me some notes, the main one being that I didn’t need to describe Kettering anywhere near as much as I had because she knew the lay-out and where things were already.

“Mark, that wasn’t bad but I don’t think this works and that bit didn’t make any sense and it all feels a bit rushed but this bit, well, that was great.”
Perfect.  You get a sense of how they felt about the story, they’ve pointed out some bits that don’t work for them (remember, every reader is different), explained things that don’t flow (which you, as the writer, might not immediately see since you can picture the scene in your head) but also given you hope to keep the faith.

10: Support
As you write more and settle into the genre and friendships, you will start to get more involved with your peers and the community.  People might ask you to be a pre-reader of their work or some might become your pre-readers, people might be putting together an anthology and ask you for a story, or a friend might suggest a collaboration.

Other friends will get deals, have some success and maybe even become the next big thing.

If this happens, support them.  Enjoy their success with them, be chuffed that they’ve cracked it, be pleased that their hard work is being recognised.  Don’t begrudge them it, don’t moan about it, don’t belittle them.

As an example, a friend of mine called Paul Finch has just signed a major book deal with a respected publisher.  I have known Paul since 1999, when my wife & I went to our first convention - WiganCon, in that fair city - and we’ve kept in touch ever since, either by email or at conventions.  He’s a lovely bloke and his stock has been rising steadily based on his solid writing talent.  Books, collections, edited anthologies, the screenplay for “Devil’s Rock” and now this deal.  Why should I be anything other than thrilled for him - he does great work and he works bloody hard, more power to him.

Envy is a poison - if you begrudge everyone you know who sells a story, gets a deal or has a mainstream publisher take them on, then you’re going to have a bitter life and who needs that?  Nobody is taking a deal away from you and to think that is equally poison - they got the deal or the sale because they worked for it, they sat down and produced the story and sent it off and it got accepted.

Instead, use their success as a spur for you - if Paul gets the mainstream book deal, write that novel proposal.  If someone cracks a market you'd love to get into, write a short story.  Enjoy the success, use it to drive you.

11: Writing Groups
Opinion is divided on these but I have belonged to two writing groups and both have been of real benefit to me, in very different ways.  The first one I joined, in 1998 when I was getting back into writing, was in Kettering and the leader of it didn’t know much more than me (if I’m honest).  But through it, I got a bit of confidence and I also met Sue Moorcroft, a wonderful Chick-Lit writer with whom I set up a still-going support network and whose second drafts I critique (one novel a year, it’s brilliant!).

The second group I joined a few years ago, when I realised I needed a shot of confidence and missed the kind of atmosphere and camaraderie that you get at conventions.  I auditioned for - and was lucky to get into - the Northampton Speculative Fiction Writers Group, chaired by the venerable Ian Watson and run by the indefatigable Ian Whates.  It’s a great group, very supportive (some of the critiques are cutting but often that’s what you need) and I’ve had a lot of success directly from being involved with them.

Again, groups will vary.  What you want is a bunch of like-minded people, who tend to share your love of genre and are willing to tell you straight what they think (imagine it as a kind of in-your-face pre-reader).  What you don’t want is a group of people who don’t like or understand your genre and have absolutely nothing to contribute to you making your piece of work the best that it can be - worse, they tell you it’s brilliant just for something to say and don’t offer any reasons why.

12: Read
I debated including this point because, to me, it’s so obvious it’s almost insulting but since I thought eleven was a strange stopping point, here it is.  Read and read a lot.  Read across genres, read books that challenge you, that push your understanding of how to create something well and at the same time read trashy books that make you smile but still teach you how not to do something.

In my case, I read horror, mystery/crime novels, thrillers, chick lit, some sci-fi, biographies, behind-the-scenes non-fiction, comic books (Calvin & Hobbes and Snoopy mainly) and, occasionally, what’s classed as literary fiction.  Read when you can, but make time for it and enjoy the universes that those writers create for you.  Learn, absorb, understand and then take that back to your own fiction.

Above all, enjoy yourself!

I hope this has been useful and, to cover myself with point 2, my bibliography is listed here.  Your mileage may vary on all of this advice but hey, if one person reads this and gets something from it, I'm cool with that.


  1. I would like to point out that I am not the writer from Kettering who told you I already know the layout. (I am the writer who was scared of your sabre toothed tiger ...)(And the toes.)

    Great post, Mark.

  2. Ha, yes, that's right! Looking back on it now, I wonder what possessed me to think that might be a nice introductory piece?

  3. You weren't to know that I had recurring nightmares from childhood about the sabre toothed tiger on the Flintstones.

  4. That was very useful! Particularly when you describe the worst kind of advice - the friends' feedback of, "Oh yeah, I thought it was AM-AZ-ING. SERIOUSLY. WOW."
    And that's it.

    I've had that several times and I've always felt more insulted, disheartened and slightly irritated as a result. It's a shame that it's difficult to find someone who isn't close to you, but is trustworthy in their advice and, best of all, actually willing to read your unpublished work.

    Eesh. ;)

  5. Really solid advice that addresses issues other lists often overlook. Such as social media presence as a person not a spambot.

    Oh one thing however. You are wrong about point 7. I've found this also works with Simon Bestwick impostors.

  6. Thanks Tony, much appreciated. I will try out point 7 at WFC and see if I can pick up any Bestwick impostors!

  7. Excellent advice and wise words.

    I think for some people it's quite nerve-racking to ask someone to pre/beta-read for you so the building of networks is vital. It can help bolster confidence. Conversely, I consider it a privilege to be asked to beta-read another writer's work. I hope my observations are useful - I try to do it with my editor's head on.

    Lastly, when I first realised I had to take writing seriously, I joined Writing Magazine's online forum Talkback in 2009 (it's where I 'met' Tony Cowin and Steven Chapman). This was extraordinarily helpful for a newbie. It also gave me my first publishing opportunity and I've never looked back. I later joined a writing group locally and the big thing I got from that was the confidence to read my work in front of others. Nearly fainted the first time - but I did it. A huge achievement - I'm massively shy in that respect.

    Conventions and other writerly or genre get-togethers - best networking of all. :-)

    Sorry to ramble on - it's just that what you've said makes such good sense.


    1. Thanks Lily and don't worry, you're not rambling! I think most writers I know are shy, which is why - although it's a wrench - going to Cons is a good thing, you realise everyone's in the same boat and it makes life so much easier!

  8. Great article and unlike most of the ones I've read where they tell you what you should and shouldn't do with the actual writing (and invariably, I've researched those individuals to discover they're not very good...), this is more along the lines of how to be both professional and personable within the writing community.

    I actually think point 12 is one of the most important ones. I'm always very wary of writers who profess disdain for most of what they read, or who claim not to read at all. Why then, are they writing in the first place, if not for a love of story? I'm equally wary of people who claim the title of 'horror writer' and yet have never read anything by the major names in this game. There's room for subjectivity on this, but when someone says they've only read a couple of Barker's short stories, dislike King, never read Ramsey Campbell, Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, James Herbert and so on, I have to wonder where they've gotten their horror influence from. But I digress...

    If it wren't for Mark, I wouldn't know hardly anyone in the horror circle because I'm terrified of approaching people. It took me five goes to ask Adam Nevill to sign some books for me at SCARdiff and when I first met Gary McMahon, my legs were jelly. I think a lot of writers, especially newer ones, believe that aggressive spamming techniques are the way forward, because they're focussed on the idea that it's all about popularity and selling. I expect most of them get that by being influenced by the 'wrong' sort of writer. I'd much rather focus on making the story and the writing as good as it can be within my ability to do so, and with talking to writers I admire and reading great works; anything else is a bonus.