My First “Novel”

At the age of ten years old, I scribbled a story into the pages of three spiral-topped reporters’ notebooks. Covering both sides of each page, it must have totalled somewhere in the region of 30,000 words. Heavily influenced by Star Wars and Blake’s 7, the story recounted the adventures of a crew of intrepid space traders and their aged vessel, The Argo. As it was handwritten, there were no rewrites. The story progressed episodically, with new adventures or plot twists thrown in whenever the pace started to lag or I watched a particularly exciting episode of Star Trek or Doctor Who. Sadly, I’ve no idea what became of those notebooks. I can’t even remember the title of the story. The books went astray decades ago. I suppose they may be hidden away in a dusty corner of the attic, but I haven’t laid eyes on them for 40 years. Maybe they’ll show up one day – but on the whole, it’s probably for the best if they don’t.

New Book

My horror novella Downdraught is now available as a paperback via Amazon. The story takes place in the same universe as my short stories ‘The Last Reef,’ ‘Flotsam’ and ‘Hard Rain.’

Here’s the back cover copy:

Lee and Kerri are two outcast teenagers in a small Welsh border town. One of them will grow up to be a mass murderer; the other will become something even more terrifying. 

Growing up as a lonely nerd is never easy, especially when your only friend starts dating the town bully. But when Lee stands up for himself, he’s simply making the first in a chain of catastrophically bad decisions that will lead him to corporate and political success but cost him more than he could ever have imagined. 

As strange alien entities begin to corrupt our world, Lee will have to face up to the ghosts of his past and try to save his best friend from the consequences of his actions.

As this is the third book I have independently published on Amazon, I guess that makes me what the cool kids call a “hybrid author,” having a mix of both traditionally published and self published work out there in the world.

Buy Now:

Finding Your Carnegie Hall

You’ve heard the old joke in which a tourist asks a musician how to get to the Carnegie Hall and is met with the response, “Practice, kid, practice!” The reason I mention it is that it contains a hefty dose of truth. Whatever your Carnegie Hall might be (a book contract, a starring role, a concert, a promotion…) the only way you’re going to get there is by keeping your skills honed and your ambition sharp.

If you’re a writer, some people say you should write everyday. I don’t think that’s necessary or feasible. Real life and the need to earn a living often intrude. But I think you should try to read everyday, if you can, as it keeps your brain in fiction mode.

And I guess the same would apply to artists or composers. You might not be able to paint or write music every day, but maybe take a couple of minutes to appreciate someone else’s work, just to keep the spark burning.

Art is a two-way process. In order to produce, we need to consume. 

So, choose your Carnegie Hall and keep it in mind, whatever you’re doing. Every time you have to make a decision, ask yourself whether or not your choice will bring you closer to your destination.

And practice, kid. Practice.

Strunk & White – Useful Guide or Outdated Pedantry?

When it comes to writing guides, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White seems to provoke the most vociferous reactions. Like Marmite, people either love or hate this iconic little book – and it’s not hard to see why.

William Strunk Jr, an English professor at Cornell University, wrote the first edition of the book in 1918. Intended to help his students write more lucid prose. It was subsequently expanded and revised by one of his former students, E.B. White, for a 1959 edition, and has been variously updated since.

Stephen King recommends the book in his own guide, On Writing (2000) and in 2011, it was included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books published since 1923.

The first time I encountered The Elements of Style was while working in marketing for a large software company. It was recommended as a neat guide to writing advertising copy – especially in its exhortation to ‘omit needless words’ and concentrate on the clarity of each sentence.

Critics of the book argue that it is outdated and prescriptive, and I tend to agree. The advice is rendered such that it comes across as bossy and pedantic, and some forms of usage seem terribly old fashioned.

While there are some useful nuggets within its pages, I would advise against taking everything it advocates at face value. Remember, it was written over a hundred years ago by a professor trying to teach his students how to write a clean and concise essay – therefore, its dictates may not always be strictly applicable to creative writing. In addition, our usage of the language has evolved over the past ten decades, and continues to evolve even now.

Writing in a 2016 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), asserted that: 

The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules

And the Boston Globe described it in 2009 as,

An ageing zombie of a book.

I own copy of The Elements of Style, and occasionally refer to it when writing an article or blog post. But these days, I’m more likely to consult a more contemporary style guide, of which there are many. Two I have close at hand are the Oxford Style Guide and the Guardian Style Guide – however, I rarely dip into either.

When writing in the white heat of inspiration, the last thing you need is to be worrying about persnickety rules of composition. If you read a lot, you’re going to have a fairly sound grasp of the way the language works, and any glaring errors can be tidied up in later drafts.

We each need to find our authorial voice, and as long as we know basic grammar, it matters little that we split a few infinitives or structure a sentence more for its rhythm and beauty than its brevity.

In summary, I’d say that while the book does contain some useful nuggets of information, you would probably be wise not to take everything it says as gospel.

Do you have a favourite writing guide? Tell us in the comments...

Ten Lockdown Self-Care Tips for Writers

Writing has always been a solitary profession fraught with disappointment, poverty and self-doubt. Even during the best of times, it can play havoc with your emotions and sense of self-worth. Rejections, bad reviews, writer’s block . . . add these to financial insecurity, lack of exercise and long hours spent alone at a keyboard, and it’s not hard to see why some authors become depressed or disillusioned.

But now, in these times of pandemic, those worries are amplified, and joined by a whole new set of stresses. Some of us are finding our creativity frozen because we’re overwhelmed by the situation. Some are lonely and find the lack of human contact dulls our desire to work, while others are suddenly stuck in a house filled with people who never leave, and never give us enough peace to be creative.

Faced with all this, it’s vital we learn to look after ourselves – for the sake of our mental and physical health as much as for the sake of our work. And the first step in looking after ourselves is to learn to put ourselves first.

Putting myself first doesn’t come naturally to me. I seem to be one of those people who looks after everybody else but can’t ask for help when he needs it. Not that this is a bad thing. I have people in my life who need a lot of looking after. But I also need to get better at learning to relax.

One of the things about being a writer under deadline is that I feel guilty for every minute in which I’m not writing. My inner voice tells me I should be working every spare moment to earn money and keep us afloat. And if I’m not writing, I should be cleaning the house or doing the laundry . . . It’s easy to get sucked into a constant whirl of competing tasks, to the point where you feel you aren’t succeeding at any of them because you’re too busy worrying about the others.

Sound familiar?

Recently, all this got on top of me and I lost the ability to write. So, I started taking time to do small things to help take care of my mental and physical health. Here are Ten Self-Care Tips you might like to try:

1. Schedule in an hour a day for recuperation and relaxation

Read a book, play a game, grab forty winks. It’s on the schedule, so you don’t need to feel guilty. You’re not slacking off; you’re investing in your ability to keep functioning.

2. Meet friends online.

I’ve been using Zoom and Skype to have face-to-face conversations and online parties with friends, where we dress up and drink wine together, and it has helped me feel like a participant in life again, rather than a bystander. Plus, as a writer, it’s good to talk more. Talking to people provides raw material when creating characters. It’s also good to step outside your own head sometimes.

3. Exercise

Go for a walk, if you can do it safely. Steer clear of shops and busy areas and enjoy the way the air smells fresher. It will stop you feeling imprisoned in your home and boost your mood and your immune system.

4. Brighten up the place

I have a vase of fake roses on my kitchen table. They look real but they don’t trigger my allergies. I’ve also put some fan art I’ve received up on my wall to remind me that people enjoy my books.

5. Feed your body as well as your brain.

Try to be imaginative with what food you have and vary your diet as much as possible. Keep it interesting. Cooking can be as much of a creative outlet as writing.

6. Try to worry only about the things you can control

Easier said than done, but it helps if you avoid the constant barrage of news and maybe only tune in once a day for the headlines, rather than exposing yourself to the firehose of anxiety and drama.

7. Make playlists to help you write and keep you cheerful

Make one filled with songs that make you want to dance around the room, and another to screen out background noise and help you concentrate. Personally, I find café noise helps me focus on my writing, and there are many two- or three-hour long videos of ambient coffee shop noise on YouTube.

8. Expose yourself to different media

You can’t spend all day and all night cooped up with your novel. You need to give your brain time to absorb other ideas and make new connections. So, read as much as you can. Binge watch your favourite shows. View some art on the Internet. Everything is fuel to your writing fire!

9. Make a housework rota to stop it feeling like it’s all getting on top of you

That way, you’ll have a specific and achievable task for each day, rather than a huge avalanche of outstanding jobs.

10. Embrace family life

Rather than seek solitude, I recently moved my work desk into the living room, so the kids can keep me company while I work, and because it’s brighter and less like a cave. This puts me at the heart of family life, even when working, so keeps those feelings of being a hermit at bay.

I still have a long way to go. I need to lose a bunch of weight and my diet still has room for improvement. But even making small positive steps has brightened my general mood considerably and helped me get my writing mojo back. A bright, tidy house provides a more relaxed environment, which in turn leads to a calmer, more creative mood.

But whatever you do, stay safe, stay well, and don’t put yourself under too much pressure. This will pass. All we have to do is look after ourselves until it does.

This post originally appeared on the Curtis Brown Creative blog.

Space exploration for introverts

As The Only Ones sang on their hit record ‘Another Girl, Another Planet,’ “Space travel’s in my blood. There ain’t nothing I can do about it.”

Previous generations heard the call of the horizon and the siren song of the sea. If they wanted to walk out of their old lives, they could embark on a new life of adventure in far away lands of opportunity.

I hear the call of space. The universe is so HUGE that it seems a terrible waste not to see as much of it as we can.

When I feel overwhelmed by the world, I dream of being alone in a vast starship, far out in uncharted space, with nothing but vacuum (and the occasional hydrogen atom) for light years in any direction.

Introversion expressed through exploration.

Writing in the car

I have had to make a number of long car journeys recently, and I’ve found that while my body and one part of my mind are occupied with driving, there’s another part of my mind that’s freed to churn over ideas and come up with stories and characters.

In the past, if something really worthwhile occurred to me, I would have to either pull over to make a note or try to remember the details until I reached my destination. Now, however, I’ve come up with a new way of working.

When I’m driving, I leave my mobile phone on the passenger seat. That way, when I get inspired, I can simply say, “Siri, take a note…” and then dictate my idea to my phone without taking my eyes off the road or my hands off the wheel.

And the best part is, as my phone and desktop are synched, those notes will be waiting for me on my computer when I get home.

A chat with my literary agent

Alexander Cohran

If you’re starting out on your writing journey, you might be wondering what a literary agent is, and whether or not you need one. To help shed some light on the matter, I had a chat with my agent, the brilliant Alexander Cochran from C&W Agency.

Hi Alexander!

How did you become a literary agent?
– When I started to look for work in publishing, I thought I wanted to be an editor (primarily because it was the job I’d heard of). While trying to get a foot in the door, I did placements at a small press, a literary agents, and with a literary scout. I quickly realised I found the agent side most interesting, and was lucky enough to eventually land a job as an assistant to a literary agent at C&W. I’ve been there ever since.

In short, what does a literary agent do?
– It’s a really varied role, but in the simplest terms we’re a combination of cheerleader and managers for our authors. We negotiate agreements on our author’s behalf, match them with the best publishers, make sure their books are published as successfully as they can be, and help to shape and steer their writing careers.

What are the advantages of having a literary agent?
– A good literary agent is invaluable. In a very basic view, they ensure an author is treated fairly, and gets the best terms possible, when dealing with a publisher. But they also give huge amounts of advice and guidance on the business focussed side of the industry, helping to negotiate tricky situations, giving editorial guidance, ensuring your work is seen by the right editors, and maximising an author’s options in their writing career. We handle the nuts and bolts that authors shouldn’t need to deal with. 

What would you advise authors to look for in an agent?
I’m taste driven when it comes to deciding what I represent, so I’d always say look for someone who shares a similar reading taste to you, or represents authors you admire. If there’s a novel you love, it’s worth skipping to the acknowledgements to try and figure out who the agent is. Beyond that, it comes down to trust. Although it’s a creative industry (and those of us who work in the industry do so because we love books), an author’s relationship with an agent is primarily a business relationship. You need someone you trust, both in terms of how they’d work for you but also in terms of having a shared vision for your career.

What genres do you represent?
My list is primarily SFF, and my taste tends towards the weird and subversive, but I’m also interested in crime, thriller, literary fiction, and serious non-fiction. It’s one of the joys of being an agent that if I love something, I can represent it. 

When you receive a submission, what are you looking for in it?
It depends a little on genre (what I’m looking for in a literary novel is probably different to what I want in a thriller) but I’m always keen for a voice that grabs me from the first page, a killer hook that keeps me reading, or beautiful writing that pulls me in and doesn’t let go.

Do you accept proposals, or does the book have to be already written?
For fiction, I almost always need to see the full novel. For non-fiction, proposals are fine.

What’s your top tip for approaching a literary agent?
Do your research and be friendly but professional. Every literary agent will have slightly different requirements when it comes to submitting, which can be frustrating, but they’re there for a reason. A submission that gives a good reason as to why it’s coming to me will always make me pay more attention.  If someone shows awareness of my list and my taste in their approach, it’s a sign they’re taking their submission seriously.

What’s a definite no-no?
Copying in numerous agents to one submission letter. It happens way more often than you’d think.

Do you still find time to read for pleasure?
I try to carve out time whenever I can, and normally have a book or two on the go at any time.

What have been your favourite recent reads?
THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead, A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE by Arkady Martine, EXHALATION by Ted Chiang.

Thank you for your time!

You can contact Alexander at C&W and find him on Twitter at @a_cochran

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Getting Back My Mojo

Photo copyright Bristolwench_Shooting_Stuff, 2020.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve started writing again. Yesterday, I managed over two thousand words on the new book, and I’m elated.

For most of this year, I’ve been too stressed to write, for one reason or another, and it’s felt like there’s been a part of me missing. I haven’t felt whole. Because the truth is, writing has always been more than a hobby for me; it’s been a compulsion, a craving and a necessity. A huge part of my self-identity. Without it, my life feels empty and rudderless.

But on days like yesterday, when I have a good day at the keyboard, I feel energised. I get all hyper and my mood skyrockets. I feel more confident and my mental health improves. It’s better than any drug. And over the past couple of days, I really feel I’ve recovered a missing part of myself.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to write…

[The photo above is of me at my desk. For more great photos, check out the photographer @bristolwench_shooting_stuff on Instagram.]