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The truth about writing

Updated: Nov 26, 2018

My wife says I should blog more, particularly about writing. She pointed out that I’m just approaching the end of my first year as an author and folk might be interested to know a) how this change of career came about, b) how I went from writing no books at all to writing three in fairly short order, and c) is this something anyone can do?

I just stood on my chair to take a photo of my desk so that you can see what a book in progress looks like. On the left is my  appallingly-drawn map of a small region on an alien planet. My notebook is there too, full of semi-coherent ideas for book four, many contradicting each other. I also have notes on my phone and voice recordings. Some of the voice recordings make very little sense to me if I don’t transcribe the idea fairly swiftly. To the right of the macbook is the essential ingredient of any morning at my desk: coffee. That’s a double-walled cafetière that holds three large mug-fulls. Not just any coffee, mind. A local blend, freshly ground by the machine in my kitchen. Not just any mug, either. My youngest daughter won it in a raffle when she was eight and—when I discovered the china was the perfect thickness to enhance the consumption of black coffee—we came to a financial arrangement whereby ownership was transferred to me. This kind of thing is important.

So, to business.

a) How did I luck into becoming an author? This is one of those questions that can be answered in three words or three thousand. The three-word answer is I started writing.  Trite, but true. I won’t bore you with the three-thousand word answer. Here’s a short version. The World Walker didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve written before. Mostly pop songs, with the occasional foray into scripts. When I was twenty-one, I sent some comedy sketches to various TV production companies and ended up with one running gag being filmed by Hale and Pace. Did this lead to a glittering career hobnobbing with show-biz types? No. Around the same time, I was offered a job in a band about to spend the winter cruising the Caribbean. Well, what would you have done?

I worked as a musician for almost all of the next twenty-five years, briefly trying stockbroking along the way. Don’t ask. I also did about three and a half years on the UK stand-up comedy circuit. During this time, I was still writing, just not in a single-minded, disciplined way. About ten years ago, I co-wrote Unbelievable, a six-part radio series, on spec with a friend (John Ward) and sent it to the BBC. They liked it. This seemed good at first, until we realised it was the same kind of like you have when you like a nice cup of tea. In other words, no special affection really. You could take it or leave it. They left it. I know we should have thrown all our energy into marketing it, because it was a strong idea (supernatural comedy) and, with the right kind of support, might have got a lot further than it did. But I have a character trait that’s quite common among unshaven, creative types. Once I’ve finished a project, I want to start another, not do anything with the one I’ve just completed. (And John’s almost as bad.) Creatively, that’s the only way to be. Business-wise, that’s completely arse-about-face. Once a project is finished, that’s when the real work starts. Marketing, promotion, emails, post, phone-calls, agents, publishers, production companies. Just writing that last sentence made me feel tired.

When I decided to write a novel (mostly to stop my friend Murray McDonald nagging me), I still did it all wrong. I did the writing bit right(ish), and the clues as to how I managed to complete a 100,000+ word book are above: I started writing and I wrote in a single-minded, disciplined way.Because I’ve written before, my critical faculties were switched on before I started, and I managed to avoid some of the more common mistakes of the first-time novelist. Not all of them, though. Dear God, no. But there was a strong enough central premise and I found myself writing to find out exactly how it would all turn out. Then it was out into the big wide world, with my only expenses my time and a shiny cover from the talented Hristo Kovatliev. The rest was down to you – the readers, and you pretty much did the marketing for me. Somehow, you must have known how crap I was at marketing. If it wasn’t for the reviews, the book would have been dead in the water. (Please review books on Amazon, particular by new authors, self-published and small presses – it helps level the playing field. I read every review. My favourite was headlined Entertaining Rubbish. I told Mrs S that—if I were to set up a company to ‘publish’ my books, that would be its name. She wants to exercise her veto on that decision.)

b) The first book’s the hardest. Once you’ve proven to yourself that you can finish a novel-length piece of writing, you feel a little more confident about trying to repeat it. Since people were buying The World Walker and leaving reviews, I was able to set more time aside for book two. And book three. Now it’s my living. That’s the first time I’ve admitted that in print. It feels weirdly scary, bonkers and amazing at the same time. Urk.

c) Can anyone do it? Given the time, the drive, the ideas and a commitment to constantly trying to improve, yes. Why not? If you can finish a novel, that’s an achievement in itself. If people want to read it, great! If they don’t like it, they will certainly let you know. Then you can try again – and if you’re writing ebooks, it’s easy enough to change your pen-name and start over. Some people say it takes a million words to get the hang of this writing malarkey. Sounds like a figure plucked out of the air, but I understand the reasoning behind it. You’re going to improve if you keep working at it. It’s like Jack Nicklaus famously said: “The more I practise, the luckier I get.” I’m still practising so I can get lucky. That came out all wrong. You know what I mean.

And remember, if readers like what you’re writing, they will definitely let you know, and—take it from me—that’s in my top ten most satisfying experiences in life. I’d tell you the other nine, but, hey, children might be reading this.

It’s been an incredible twelve months. Thanks for being part of it.

PS I’m British. I wrote that last sentence and thought it sounded a bit much. I stared at it for five minutes, deleted it, wrote it again, stared at it for another five minutes then left it. Now I’m writing this in an attempt to be self-effacing. Silly arse.

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