The fingerprints we leave on our manuscripts

800px-Martin_Amis_2012_by_Maximilian_SchoenherrI read an interview with Martin Amis once where he said that when you’re writing a novel you write about the things you didn’t know were on your mind. This certainly rings true for me.

When I’m writing I certainly don’t set out to write about myself and nobody who has read Song of the Sea God has suggested it might be CiderWithRosieautobiographical. My tale of the rise of a would-be god on an island of misfits told by a dwarfish mute is hardly Cider with Rosie.

And yet, I think that the big things and the little things in anything you write hark back to your own personal experience.

By big things I mean themes, and however much you marry these to your plot, your characters and so on, there will be something of your own concerns in there too. For example, in the book I wrote after Sea God, which is called the Pick Up Artist, and isn’t published yet, the main character’s mother died when he was young and this certainly influences his development and actions. I didn’t think much about this when I was writing but it’s certainly true that my own mother died only a couple of years before I wrote the book. And though I was a lot older when my mother died than when the character in my book lost his, well, we all feel too young when our parents die don’t we?

As for little things – here I’m taking about incident, asides, scraps of plot, flashes of character. I mean the jokes, the turns of phrase, the lines of dialogue, the descriptions. They all come from somewhere, and though they are all ‘made up’ in so much as they start life in your head and finish up on the page, many of them will track back to your own life, your own concerns or ideas.

So what of myself have I left on the page in Song of the Sea God?

People who have been kind enough to review the book on Amazon tend to talk about three things. They talk about the language, they talk about humour and finally they talk about the darkness. Where does this darkness come from?

Well firstly I suppose it reflects the confusion I feel about religion. I’m not religious, in so much as I wouldn’t identify with a particular faith and, if pushed, I would describe myself as agnostic. But admitting that I don’t know the mysteries of the universe is definitely not the same as saying I believe there are no mysteries. The feeling that there must be something more than what our senses tell us, the god-shaped hole in our lives, is something we all share I’m guessing, and those feelings are at the heart of the book.

Then there’s a sense of isolation in the text I think. The island the story is set on, which seems divorced from the rest of the world; the mute outsider who tells the tale. There is a loneliness here despite all the jokes and wise-cracks. I’ve always been blessed with a fantastic and close family – both growing up and now as an adult. Still, I think it’s JohnDonnepossible to feel that as a person, you come into this world and go out of it alone, you are essentially isolated – an individual. John Donne said ‘no man is an island’ but I think Song of the Sea God suggests that’s exactly what each of us is.

I didn’t set out to write about these things, and yet that is what I ended up doing. I believe the process of writing goes far deeper than our conscious mind knows.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Words of advice from Ray Bradbury

Here’s a link to a fantastic lecture by the late great Ray Bradbury on how to become a better writer.

Watch Ray Bradbury’s lecture here.

488px-Ray_Bradbury_(1975)_-cropped-Bradbury was, of course, a sci-fi genre writer but he produced work which still resonates and has had a significant impact on the culture. His first novel Fahrenheit 451 is named after the temperature at which paper ignites and presents a future where books are burned and freedom of speech and thought are banned. It’s a ‘fiction’ which is all too real in parts of the world today.

In this lecture Ray Bradbury was speaking to a room full of writing students and it’s a fascinating insight into the mind and work of a hugely successful author. His number one tip for writers who are starting out is this: write lots of short stories to practice rather than spend a year writing a novel which might be no good.

That’s strong advice I would say. Old Ray points out that if you write a story each week for a year then you are going to have 52 stories by the end of the year – and, chances are, not all of them are going to be bad!

“You are learning your craft – that’s the important thing.”

This craft, this habit of treating writing as something which has to be learned and practiced, is so important I think.

An issue which concerns me a little about the current trend towards self-publishing is that, for all the opportunities it brings, it can encourage people to publish work before they are really ready and to release books which are simply not good enough to be published. Knowing you face rejection encourages a writer to have self-discipline. Once you remove the possibility that your work might not be good enough some writers might believe there is no such thing as bad writing – the reader will be under no such illusion.

Ray also says: ‘writing is not a serious business, it is a joy and a celebration.’

It’s not work, he says, if it feels like work then stop doing it and do something else. His cure for writer’s block is simple – put down whatever you are writing and write something else instead, because you’ve picked the wrong subject.

Being true to yourself, and to the subjects which mean something to you, is the important thing he feels. During his lifetime he certainly put his money where his mouth was, turning down lucrative script writing jobs for movies because the subjects did not move him to write.

His advice to all of us writers is clear and honest and something we should all take heed of I think. He says, don’t concern yourself with what is commercial or what might sell, but write what you really ought to be writing.

“Your true self, your true fear, your true hope, your true love.”

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Running off at the mouth

Here’s something I’ve noticed. Or here’s one of my learnings, as the narrator would say in Vernon God Little (I’d definitely recommend that book by the way, it’s a good ‘un – top tip).

Writers are also runners.

Not all of them obviously, that would be a remarkable coincidence, but lots of them. More, I would be confident in saying, than in an average sample of the population. And you can, of course, be sure that I am basing this assertion on bone headed instinct rather than peer reviewed scientific research, I mean pah, who needs that right?

So writers are runners, according to me. And why is this? What causes this mysterious, and completely unproven, link between two disparate activities?

Me at Tower BridgeWell, I write, as you know. And I also run – sometimes. I’ve been a bit useless and lazy with the running of late, but I did complete the London Marathon in a crap time in 2010 (to prove it here’s me at Tower Bridge) and I’ve done maybe 15 or more half marathons around the UK over the years.

And I would say there is a link between running and writing. They have similarities.

Firstly, they are both endurance events. It takes a long time to run a marathon and it takes a long time to write a novel. Training for one and writing the other are activities best suited to those who have an eye for the long-perspective, for people who can defer their gratification.

Secondly, they are both lonely activities.
One of the most elegiac pieces of writing about running was Alan Sillitoe’s short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. And let us not forget the long distance writer, for she or he is lonely too, smuggled away in her quiet box room, staring at notebook or screen while the cool kids are out clubbing.

Thirdly, they both give you sore nipples.
Oh no, sorry, that’s just running.

Anyway, lots of us solitary, self-absorbed authors seem to run, and I think there is another reason we are suited to it too. Time to think. And not just time, but vintage time when there are no distractions and we are often in a heightened, almost hypnotic, state of mind in which thoughts flow through our brains which might not on other occasions.

I’ve written before about how a generation of writers, now recently passed, all seemed to be drunks – functioning alcoholics with a pen in one hand and a glass in the other. I would say that what sustenance they were getting from hitting the bottle many members of the current generation of writers seek out on the road or the trail.

It’s not just peace and quiet a writer finds while running, it’s not just an uninterrupted flow of thought. It’s also that chemically induced buzz which causes ideas to pop into your mind, or link together in unusual ways, which doesn’t happen at other times – except when you are just waking up from sleep, or are half drunk.

I have hatched countless stories while out on the road. Including The Runner, which won me the Bridport Prize and started life purely as a yearning to write about what it felt like to run.

Many scenes in Song of the Sea God were also born when my synapses sparked in unusual ways while I was running. It works – I think that’s why we do it, on some level we know it works.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

How to get published

Here’s a post which is a bit different from my usual ones about writing and reading – it’s in answer to a question a lot of new and unpublished writers have asked me. The question is: ‘How do you get published?’

I don’t just get asked this on social media – I get asked in everyday life too. In fact, in the next few weeks I have two speaking engagements coming up where, as well as reading from my novel and answering questions about that, I’m also due to be asked about my ‘road to publication.’

So I thought I’d share what little wisdom I have on the subject with you. My credentials for doing so are straightforward – I do have a novel out, it’s published by Skylight Press. You can find Song of the Sea God here in the UK and here in the USA and read the first few pages, see if it’s your kind of thing.

Just to be clear – I’m talking about traditional publishing in this post, not self-publishing or indie publishing which I know is very popular these days. I haven’t any experience of self-publishing so I don’t know the ins and outs – I’m sure there are many other places you can go to for advice on that.

So here are my top tips:

Write a good book
That’s my first piece of advice – and I don’t mean it to sound facetious. Of course, everyone who sets out to find a publisher believes they have a good book, otherwise they wouldn’t waste their time. But I’d remind you that, as a first time writer, all you have is your work. You have no reputation, no contacts, no track record, just that book – so are you sure it’s the best it can be? Go on – take another look at it – rewrite it again, it can’t hurt. Maybe show it to a couple of people whose judgement you trust and canvas their opinion on its strengths and weaknesses.

One thing my publisher has told me is that they get snowed under with a a great deal of material which is simply not good enough to have a realistic chance of being published – make sure your manuscript is one of the ones which is!

Do you need an agent?
Well I haven’t got one, and I do have a publisher, so I guess not. The way I see it is that, at my level, the main purpose of having an agent would be to help me find a publisher for my book so, if I can find a publisher on my own, then I don’t need one.

I’m sure there are many advantages to having an agent and perhaps in the future I will have one, who knows. You can send your work to agents directly so it’s probably worth approaching a few to see how it goes – you may get lucky, be snapped up by an agent who will then sell your book to a massive publisher for a huge advance. We travel in hope don’t we? And unless you apply to them you’ll never know. There are lists of agents all over the internet if you Google for them – many accept email submissions.

Can I approach publishers without an agent?
Many of the big publishers will only accept submissions from authors through an agent – which is why many unpublished writers are so keen to find an agent. Agents have become gate-keepers for the major publishers it seems to me, acting as their readers. The whole thing can feel a bit of a closed shop – the big publishers will only speak to you through an agent and the agents only take on a very few first time writers each year.

But the good news is that many smaller publishers will take submissions directly from first time authors and these are the ones you need to look for – typically they will be the smaller ones, independent of the big conglomerates. My experience has been that these small presses are much more approachable than either agents or major publishers. They tend to be run by enthusiasts who really care about the books more than anything else – just the same as you do.

Where can I find a list of smaller publishers?
Google for them for starters – there are lists all over the place. But I would say – decide first what you are looking for – look for someone who will be a good fit for your book, that’s more important than you might think. Publishers are spoilt for choice when it comes to manuscripts, as far as they are concerned it’s a buyer’s market. They are almost looking for reasons to turn you down as they can’t possibly accept everything. So if your book is a close fit to what they do publish then you have immediately pulled a little ahead of the field.

Another good place to look for publishers is on Twitter lists. Find the Twitter feed of a publisher who might suit you – then look at the lists they are on. More often than not you will find that the other members of these lists are other similar publishers who you can Google and submit to in the way they advise on their website.

What do they ask for?
Agents and publishers typically ask for a query letter, a short synopsis and the first 50 pages, or two or three chapters, of your book. Check the requirements on their website though as some vary. I might do another post on how to submit later.

Should I apply to just one agent or publisher at a time?
Nah – some of the agents grumble that it’s not cricket people applying to lots at once. They would like you to apply only to them, wait two months for them to turn you down and then apply to someone else. But frankly the odds are stacked so highly against you that you’d be a fool to worry too much about that. I’ve never heard a small publisher grumble about multiple submissions.

What happens next?
Mostly what happens is that you get rejected. They can reject your book simply by ignoring your query, or by sending you a form letter, or occasionally by scribbling or emailing you an encouraging note. It’s much rarer for them to ask for the complete manuscript but if they do they will probably reject it anyway. I’m not trying to be off-putting here, but it’s best to know.

I keep getting rejected – what should I do?
Keep on keeping on. As Samuel Goldwyn once said: ‘The harder I work the luckier I get.’ As I’ve said before, I could paper my house with rejection letters I‘ve had over the years – but I have had my successes too. And when I look up at my book shelves, there is my novel staring back at me – which makes all the hard work worth while.

Long story short

427px-Ernest_Hemingway_1950_cropChallenged to write a short story in just ten words Ernest Hemingway managed it in six. His story read:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

He later said it was the best thing he’d ever written.

And there is a skill of course in brevity. It’s a lesson you learn in newspaper journalism, where space is at a premium. Writing a good News In Brief is an art in itself, as is a tight story intro. They can become quite poetic in the right hands

The legendary newspaper editor Harold Evans offers up a cracking intro in his book Newsman’s English. His example, from the New York Sun, reads:

Chicago, Oct 31: James Wilson lighted a cigarette while bathing his feet in benzine. He may live.

Though not quite as compact as Hemingway’s shortest story it has the same function of carrying a whole world in a few words – of distilling the tale right down to its bare essentials.

That’s about it for today. A short blog this one – naturally.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.