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…
With the election in the US, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to politics, and where I might fit on the political spectrum. Here are my conclusions:
1) Everybody deserves the same chance
Your worth shouldn’t be determined by the lottery of your birthplace. If humanity is to survive, it needs the best minds; and that can’t happen if those minds don’t have access to education, healthcare and opportunity. Everybody deserves the same chance to become all they can be. This is why I support universal healthcare and universal income schemes, both of which have been shown to be hugely beneficial.
2) Scarcity is bullshit
Our current economic model (capitalism) is based on the idea that the scarcer something is, the more value it has. It is also based on the myth of eternal growth. Capitalist economies have to grow every year or (gasp) risk going into recession. But how can economies keep growing on a planet with finite resources–especially when a handful of billionaires already own most of the wealth generated by the system? If someone like Jeff Bezos can afford to end world hunger and world poverty and still have enough left over to be a billionaire, you have to admit the system is fucked.
Carefully managed, the resources of this world could support its current population, giving everyone the same chance. The focus on allowing a few successful businessmen to accumulate all the wealth shows the system doesn’t work–because the trouble with unfettered capitalism is that eventually somebody ends up with all the money and there’s none left for anyone else.
Start giving everyone the same economic and socio-economic opportunities and we’ll be able to stop worrying about the politics of resentment.
3) Sort the planet out
The destruction of the climate is an existential crisis for humanity. If a corporation or industry places their profits or existence above that of our survival, they should be immediately declared an enemy of the human race and disbanded. No exceptions.
4) Stop putting the ignorant in charge
In the UK we have a political class that go from boarding school to studying PPE at university, to a seat in the House of Commons. They have no real experience of the outside world. Parliament is an extension of school, and Boris is the epitome of this infantile cliche. But beyond the top jobs, I firmly believe that ministers (or secretaries in the US) of education, finance, health, foreign affairs, etc. should have some ground level experience in their field. It’s ridiculous that you have to get a qualification in teaching to be a teacher, but not to be minister of education. And the same goes for health and climate change.
We’re facing unprecedented times and desperate challenges. The only politics I’m interested in are those that treat the human race as one, place the importance of individual lives above that of the economy, and strive to ensure our continued survival.
Look after others the way you would wish to be looked after. One species, one world, one love.
One of the hardest things about writing a novel or screenplay is succinctly summing up the plot–but that’s exactly what you need to do if you’re going to pitch it to an agent, editor or studio.
To help you out, here’s the formula I use. I find it incredibly useful to fill it out at the start of the process, before I start writing, in order to make certain I’ve got all the essential ingredients of the story in place.
Here it is:
In order to [avoid problem] a [flawed character] must [try to achieve goal] but when [complication] they realise they must overcome [antagonist] and [personal flaw] by [action] before [deadline].
Wherever you see brackets, insert the relevant parts of your plot.
Want an example? See if you recognise this:
In order to ensure others haven’t fallen victim to the monster that killed her crew, a trauatised spacer must return to the planet where the killings started, but when she and her marine escorts are trapped on the surface, she realises she must defeat the aliens and her own feelings of loss for her daughter by facing the queen alien and escaping before the nuclear power plant explodes.
Yes, it’s ALIENS. How about this one:
In order to respond to a distress call from a princess, a naive farm boy must travel to the stars in order to return the plans she hid in his newly acquired R2 droid. But when his hired ship is captured by the Empire, he realises he must deliver those plans to the rebellion and exchange the cynicism of his uncle for a belief in the Force before the rebellion is forever destroyed.
Still not convinced? Here it is applied to my novel, EMBERS OF WAR:
In order to redeem herself a disgraced warship who accidentally developed a conscience must rescue the passengers of a crashed star liner. But when she comes into conflict with former comrades, she realises she must learn how to outhink rather than outfight her opponents, and solve the mystery of the alien objects in the star system known as the Gallery, before their skirmish sparks another devastating war.
Try it with your work-in-progress. It might point out gaps in your plot, and it will certainly make your pitching easier!
Concentration is a brittle thing and easily broken. I find low levels of background noise actually help me concentrate. But during the pandemic, it hasn’t been possible to write in coffee shops, so I’ve been raiding YouTube for recordings of cafe noise to play in the background while I’m working. It really seems to help.
Here are some of my favourites:
In addition, I’ve also created my own 70 hour long (!) playlist on Spotify, containing film soundtracks and ambient music that help get me in the mood to write.
I hope you find those links are useful. Feel free to suggest any others in the comments below.
Fiction is a conversation with itself, with the present and with the future. Even if everything goes wrong and the human race dwindles away to nothing, at least we will have had books. We will have recorded and shared our thoughts and ideas. Our experience of being human in a vast, cool and unsympathetic cosmos. We will have lived, and said to the world, “This is who we were and what we dreamed of and wondered about.”
And then, of course, there’s the possibility our words might inspire others to change our future. Our hopes, empathy, and warnings might galvanise young readers to go into engineering, politics, science, agriculture…
For me, to quit writing would be to give up on life. It would be to admit defeat. Because, after all, who really wants to live in a world without the beauty of books?
As writers or artists, we’re often preoccupied with our work. But sometimes, real world events intrude and leave us feeling unable to summon the energy to be creative, or leave us questioning the value of art in the face of tragedy.
When there’s a disaster or an unfolding crisis on the news, it can sometimes paralyse us. Why am I writing books about spaceships or painting pictures of abstract nudes, you might think, when there’s been an appalling disaster or terrorist attack, or when the economy’s tanking and the threat of global warming seems so pressing and bleak? How can art possibly matter in such a world? What’s the point?
How do we, in short, keep functioning in a crisis?
When I start to feel that way, I think back to everything writers and artists have had to contend with in the past. Our Paelolithic ancestors daubed handprints on the walls of their caves, and carved figures from stone and wood. The Vikings told their sagas. Even as Rome fell, there were poets writing and sculptors sculpting. In the Dark Ages, people were still singing songs and telling folk tales. Poets wrote in the trenches of WWI. While the Cuban Missile Crisis raged, people were still reading and writing novels and short stories. In 1984, at the height of the Cold War, with nuclear obliteration seemingly imminent, movies and TV programmes were made and watched, books were written and paintings painted and sold.
Art doesn’t stop for history. In some ways, art is history. It’s the way we record how we feel about our present, and a window on the thoughts and feelings of the past. And it’s also one of the best means we have to influence the future.
The language of a civilisation determines its development. If that language is one of fear and exclusion, oppression and hatred, the phrases and concepts those words encapsulate become ingrained in the fabric of everyday thought. They become normalised, and therefore more readily accepted. But if the language employed is one that favours tolerance and empathy, it can be those qualities that come to the fore.
Art and fiction are important because they put us in the shoes of others. They create empathy and understanding, and promote education and intelligence. They allow us to share ideas and discuss what it means to be human, and unpack the fundamental commonalities we all share. They can reveal truths, expand our minds, and provide lifetimes of enjoyment. But most of all, they encourage us to dream of other, better worlds, and begin to imagine how we might reach them.
No single painting or novel can change the world, just as no single drop of rain can wash away a town. We may feel we have no control over global events. But culture is a cumulative phenomenon, and every drop helps create the flood.
We all need a little escapism sometimes. Life would be a drudge were we unable to escape into fantasy worlds now and again, and there’s nothing frivolous about providing readers with fictional boltholes. Indeed, it’s a vital role that bards have been playing right back into the dawn of prehistory.
As artists and writers, our work allows us to express what’s in our minds and hearts. As consumers, it can comfort and distract us; but it can also educate and inspire, and nourish our souls. If we ever lost our art and fiction – or simply gave up producing them – we’d have lost a fundamental part of ourselves, and be all the poorer for it.
Art is one of the candles of civilisation. If we abandon it, the bad guys win.
So, excuse me if I keep right on imagining futures in which we’ve survived the challenges currently set out before us. For my children’s sake, and for my own sanity, I have to believe that somehow, we’ll get through. And so, I’m going to keep on writing and hoping and talking as honestly as I can about what it means to be human and alive.
Literature is the soul of a civilisation, and I fully intend to keep that flame burning.
So, pick up that paintbrush. Open that Word document. Every stroke of paint or line of prose you make is a blow struck against entropy and ignorance, and a contribution to the net beauty of the world. You are not being self-indulgent, you are communicating – and communicating is what people do. We’re a social species, and we need you to help bring forth and express our shared inner lives. To add your voices to the chorus of those who have gone before, uncounted, into the darkness, and simply say to the universe, “WE ARE ALIVE!”
This is a girl named Barbara. She came from Germany. I met her in the South of France when I was 16 years old. We were staying at an international campsite in the grounds of a monastery, and somehow we just gravitated together. It was one of those classic dramatically doomed teenage holiday romances, and we soon lost touch after going our separate ways. Now, thirty-something years later, I can’t even remember her surname. In this picture, she’s wearing my hat as we walk through the streets of the nearby village. It’s the only picture I have of her.
I’m telling you all this is because I included a slightly fictionalised account of our relationship in my story ‘The Redoubt’, which appears in my short fiction collection, The Last Reef and Other Stories. Here’s a relevant excerpt:
I remember it as an idyllic time. We took long walks together. There were wild poppies in the hedgerows and coloured lights in the trees. The village streets were steep and narrow. In the evenings we met our friends under the café’s corrugated tin roof, to drink wine and tell stories.
‘Come with me,’ I remember her saying on the last night we were together. She had a white cotton blouse and frayed blue jeans. She took my hand and led me downhill, away from the café and our circle of tents, until we came to the stone bridge where the lane crossed the stream.
‘I’m so glad I met you,’ she said, giving me a squeeze. ‘And I’ll be so sad tomorrow, when I have to leave.’
We leaned against the parapet. The rough stones held the day’s heat. The water bubbled and chuckled underneath.
‘Try not to think about it,’ I said smoothing a stray hair from her cheek. I knew I was going to miss her and didn’t want to talk about it. I tried to kiss her but she pulled away.
‘Will you write to me?’ she said.
‘Of course.’ ‘You promise you won’t forget me?’
‘I promise.’ She bit her lip. Then she pulled one of her wristbands off. ‘Here, I want you to have this,’ she said, and tucked it into my shirt pocket. I put my arms around her and kissed the top of her head. We could hear someone playing a guitar up in the café.
My first encounter with comics came at the age of five. On Mondays, the local garbagemen would throw marvel comics over the hedge into the school playground for the kids to scramble after. They must have found a stash of them somewhere and decided to ration them out, a few each week. I already knew of Batman from the campy TV series, but these random issues (or at least, the handful that wound up in my possession) introduced me to the bright world of Marvel. Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Namor the Submariner… Because of the lack of preceding or subsequent issues. I never found out how any of the stories ended, and there were always little footnotes from Stan Lee referencing events from other issues and titles–but I got the impression of a vast, sprawling universe filled with all these colourful, exciting characters. Some had been bitten by spiders, others were literally gods. And you never knew which of them might appear in any given issue.
The thing I most love about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it perfectly captured all these qualities. It eschewed the gritty darkness so beloved of DC in order to portray its heroes in the vivid tones that originally made them such icons; and it kept that intertextality. Events from one movie had bearing on another, giving the whole thing the same sense of cohesion that first impressed me in the comics.
When I sat in the cinema and watched 2012’s AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, I had a huge grin on my face from start to finish, because it was the film I had been waiting for since I was five years old.
If you want to be traditionally published, you’re likely to need a literary agent to look after your contracts, translation and TV rights, etc. But how do you go about getting one?
1. TARGET. Make a list of agents who represent work similar to yours. Maybe find out who represents your favourite authors by checking their social media and websites.
2. FOLLOW GUIDELINES. Do your reseach. Most agents list their submission guidelines on their website. Ignore them at your peril.
3. ONLY SEND YOUR BEST WORK. This shouldn’t need saying, but don’t bother submitting anything that isn’t already as good as you can possibly make it.
4. KEEP IT SHORT. An introductory letter needs to introduce you and your work. That’s it. This isn’t the place for a full autobiography. Stick to relevant details. Why are YOU the best person to have written this story?
5. INCLUDE A HOOK. The hook is the central question/concept of your book. What would you do if…? What happens when…? It is a simple human dillemma that sums up the struggle facing your protagonist and draws in the reader.
6. BE PATIENT. Agents get tons of submissions each month and response times of up to three months aren’t uncommon.
7. BE PROFESSIONAL. You wouldn’t want to work with an asshole, and neither will your agent. So, don’t act like one. Be professional and friendly at all times. Even if they eventually pass on your submission, simply thank them for their time and move on. Publishing is a small world and word gets around, and you don’t want to gain a reputation for being difficult.
8. PERSIST. It is highly likely you will get some rejections. If that happens, simply move to the next agent on your list, and keep going. If your book is truly outstanding, someone will express an interest sooner or later.
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Don’t let self doubt scupper your dreams. If you want to be a writer, actor or artist, the only permission you need is your own. Nobody’s going to tell you when to start; you just have to wake up one morning and start doing the work.
And it doesn’t matter if your first attempts are a bit scrappy. Art is a learning process. Word by word, chapter by chapter, canvas by canvas, performance by performance, we hone our technique and find our voice through doing, not doubting.
We only get one chance at this life. So, don’t wait. Start working towards your dream today.