Overcoming Writer’s Block: Which Type Do You Have?

How to deal with writer's block

The first step in overcoming writer’s block is knowing what type you’re suffering from. That’s right: there are many kinds of writer’s block and they all need different remedies. The classic image of an author scowling at their typewriter with a blank sheet of paper is a common enough problem but writers are just as likely to get blocked in the middle of a story as they are at the beginning. So let’s go over all the different types and how to overcome them.

Starting a New Chapter

This one can be a real pain. It might be the very first scene in a book, a chapter from the middle or even the epilogue. You know what’s meant to happen but, for some maddening reason, you can’t start the chapter. So you try to write regardless but it feels awkward and trite. Then you start to wonder if you’ve got the whole story wrong. Self-doubt overwhelms you and you question why the hell you chose to write a novel in the first place. Don’t give in to despair, though. When you’re suffering from writer’s block at the start of the chapter, it’s not the story that’s the problem but the storytelling.

The chances are you’ve started the scene at the wrong point in time. Your location and choice of characters are probably already spot on, you’ve just picked the wrong moment to get the action going. My advice: arrive late. If you’re having trouble, try starting the chapter in the middle of the action. You can easily explain how you got there through exposition or even a mini flashback. In all the times I’ve had writer’s block at the start of a chapter, I’ve never once resolved it by starting the scene earlier.

I actually used this technique in Mervyn vs. Dennis. The narrative begins in the middle of an awkward job interview. I could’ve started much earlier, when Mervyn (our narrator) was eating his breakfast or printing out his CV. This would’ve been effective to build anticipation before the interview began and to also get a clearer first impression of Dennis. Instead, I followed my instincts. This is simply how the story wanted to be told. Although the reader is thrown in the deep end, it’s into a scene that anyone can relate to. We’ve all endured job interviews. They’re easy to imagine and the reader understands the power dynamic without any explanation.

One word of warning with this method. If you arrive too late in a scene, especially in the first chapter where none of your characters are established, you might end up resorting to an infodump to explain how you got there. Infodumps, by their nature, are more interesting later in a novel when the reader is already invested in a character and wants to learn more about their history. Just think about Snape’s massive infodump in the final Harry Potter. Rowling actually paused the climactic battle to have an infodump flashback and completely got away with it. They can work in the first chapter but they have to be entertaining. Faulkner’s great at infodumps simply because his characters’ histories are so fascinating that you want to know as much about them as possible.

William Faulkner, Master of the Infodump

William Cuthbert Faulkner – Master of the Infodump

Stuck in the Middle

I’ve suffered from this form of writer’s block too many times to count. It happens when you’re in the middle of a story or novel and suddenly the words dry up. Everything you write feels clichéd, futile and wrong. For me it tends to manifest as encroaching despair. I dread the thought of writing and, when I’m working on the scene in question, I’m overwhelmed with pointlessness. I used to misinterpret it as self-doubt but I eventually realised it was my mind’s indirect way of telling me I’d done something wrong in the story.

My most common mistake is forcing a character to do something they don’t want to. That makes them sound petulant. And in a way, they are. Characters have free will (to an extent) and they don’t take kindly to being ordered about. That’s exactly why everything you write feels pointless when you’re suffering from writer’s block. The characters are no longer authentic–they’re doing what you want, not what they want.

This is both a good and bad thing. If you’ve carefully planned your narrative and suddenly a character no longer wants to follow it, what the hell’s going to happen to the rest of the story? In my experience, however, they rarely wander far astray. And the greatest thing of all is this: if you let them choose their own direction, they always take you somewhere much more interesting than where you’d already planned. In a way, they’re helping you discover what your narrative is really meant to be. Often, your characters understand your own story better than you do.

Finding a Solution

So how do you figure out the problem? To be honest, it’s tricky. The first thing you have to do is pinpoint where the writing starts to feel wrong. You may have to backtrack 100, 1000 or even 10,000 words. Find the last place in your text that you’re completely happy with. The chances are that your mistake is somewhere around there. Once you’ve figured out the area, it’s time to work out what’s wrong. This is the hardest part of all. In the past I’ve spent entire weeks mulling over a certain scene that felt off. They’ve typically been solved by light bulb moments just before I fall asleep or while I’m taking a dump shower. The best thing to do is imagine the scene in your mind. Play it over and over and experiment. Try as many variations as you can. Think about what’s happening from your characters’ perspectives, even those that have no narrative viewpoint in your story. Imagine what they’re thinking and feeling and how they could react.

These problems often arise when characters are being reticent. In one scene from The Papyrus Empire, two characters are trying to get information off each other while pretending not to. They both know too much and are trying to drop hints without fully showing their hands. It was an utter nightmare to write and I got seriously blocked several times in a row. Because the characters were being so evasive and ironic, it was difficult to imagine what exactly they should say and do. In the end it just took time and experimentation. If you want to make things easy on yourself, you can always just have straightforward characters who always speak their mind.

Over-complicating

Because we know our characters so well, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of their feelings and motivations. As such, you’ll sometimes find yourself utterly overwhelmed by the scale of the task in hand. This can paralyse you and lead to a writer’s block it’s hard to escape from. When I say complicated, I don’t mean the labyrinthine plot of a neo-noir mystery. The emotions of a married couple can be just as complex as a twisty-turny thriller. If you know your characters well enough, and you’re prepared to look deep into their hearts, you’ll know exactly what makes them tick, both consciously and unconsciously. All this is great for building believable and interesting characters, but bearing so much information in mind can be a burden for the writer.

How best to resolve it? In short: simplify. If you’re ever tangled up in knots, you don’t have to explain your way out with clunky exposition. There’s always a simple solution if you’re prepared to look. Don’t settle for deus ex machinas–your reader might not forgive you. The trick is to find the easy solution while also avoiding plotholes. In Mervyn vs. Dennis, I always knew I wanted Dennis to gatecrash Mervyn’s party. That alone would’ve been easy enough but I needed Dennis to arrive at a certain time. No matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t come up with a believable way that Dennis would arrive on cue. The more I tried to explain his lateness, the more it sounded like I was trying to dig myself out of a plothole.

But then I had a brainwave. I was thinking too much about Dennis. The answer, in fact, was in the secondary characters. Suffering from the fear, Mervyn’s brother Cecil invites Dennis’s ‘sister’ Glenda to cheer himself up. Being the busybody that he is, Dennis intercepts the message and arrives in her place. This way, everyone acts naturally. Additionally, we learn that Dennis sleeps in the same bed as Glenda, giving the reader an extra glimpse into his creepy private life. It’s natural to focus on your main characters but if you ever get caught up in over-complications, think about your secondary characters and how they might be able to help.

A Lack of Ideas

Thankfully, this is one form of writer’s block I’ve almost never struggled with. Right now, I’ve got at least five novels planned out that I could be working on. I’ve never suffered from a lack of ideas, just a lack of time. But if you’re sitting at your computer sighing at that blinking cursor, the best thing you can do is something else. Writers have their own way of looking at the world. We tend to notice things that other people don’t. So if you’ve run out of ideas, it’s time to go out and get noticing. You don’t have to go skydiving or visit a gallery. Even a trip to the supermarket is a potential goldmine of ideas. The most important thing is to look. Steal ideas from the world. You might even have some fun!

It’s easy to blame mobile phones. All in all, I think they’re rather useful, but they’ve also stopped us from having contemplative moments. These days, when people are waiting for the bus, they no longer stare into space. Instead, they whip out their mobile and check Facebook or Twitter for ten minutes. Although waiting for the bus is tedious and painful, those quiet moments when you’re alone with your thoughts are invaluable for solving writing problems. It’s why so many people have great ideas in the shower. It’s a form of meditation where your body acts out a routine, allowing your mind to wander, contemplate life’s disappointments and invent bestselling consumer products.

Instead of sitting down and trying to write a scene from scratch, a great way to come up with ideas is to make up synopses. It’s a challenge I set myself after I finished The Papyrus Empire: writing the synopses for five entirely new novels. They were super cheesy blurbs, full of portentous clichés and dramatic tropes, but one of them ended up becoming Mervyn vs. Dennis. A couple of the others aren’t so bad as well and might even blossom into real novels one day.

Other Writer’s Block Solutions

If you’re suffering from writer’s block and none of my suggestions have helped, it’s not time to abandon all hope just yet. When I’m faced with a baffling scene where nothing seems to work, I print out the section and rewrite it in pen onto a fresh sheet of paper. It’s amazing how often this works. Word processors are great because you can write so quickly–almost at the speed your mind is working at–but sometimes your mind works better when it takes its time. The slower and more deliberate technique of writing by hand allows you to consider each word carefully. Through writing by hand, you’re more connected to the words in a tactile way. Away from the constant distractions and reminders of a computer, all you’ve got is your pen and your mind. It’s you vs. the words, and it works better than you’d think.

Do you have someone to talk to? Even if they don’t understand the details of your story, often just by explaining the scene to someone else, you’ll see it from another angle and realise what the problem is. Thinking to yourself too long can become an echo chamber. All you hear are your own thoughts and anxieties repeated back. By explaining the situation to somebody else, however, you have to reword it in a way so they can get a handle on the plot and the scene. This summarising allows you to see its component parts and spot the weak link.

Other people might tell you to go and write something else. If that words for you, then great. For me, though, it’s impossible. Once I’ve started writing something, I can’t work on something else (unless it’s just editing). They might also tell you to go and take a break. There’s truth in this, of course, but you have to make sure you’ve taking the right kind of break. Try to immerse yourself in as much culture as possible. Highbrow or lowbrow, it doesn’t matter. Your mind will make connections no matter what its consuming. You’re just as likely to find your answer by watching a game show as you are at the opera.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

While some authors never get writer’s block at all, others suffer from it pathologically. In my opinion, the more you care about a story and the characters, the more likely you are to experience writer’s block. If you’re in the business of churning out cheesy thrillers full of plotholes and cardboard characters, writer’s block won’t even slow you down. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, quite simply it means you care. You want to write something exceptional that makes perfect sense, both in terms of emotion and the narrative. Good for you!

Do you have any tips for dealing with writer’s block? Has this blog helped you to overcome a problem? Let me know in the comments below.

George R R Martin Writer's Block

Good luck with The Winds of Winter, George. Take all the time you need!

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Read a Funny Scene from My Book for Free

Funny scene from Mervyn vs Dennis

Despairing about Brexit? Homework ate your dog? Liven up your morning with a funny scene from my novel Mervyn vs. Dennis:

When I was fourteen, I came out to my dad as a joke. I was testing his love, I suppose, to see his reaction, whether he’d hug me or throw me out. He did neither, in fact. Life is rarely dramatic. One evening after dinner, he was sitting in the kitchen with his biscuits and his paper. The Daily Mail and custard creams: middle-market bigotry and hydrogenated fats. I sat opposite him and pretended to fidget. Without looking up, he dunked a biscuit in his tea, engrossed by an article.

“Dad?”

Still reading, he reached out, offering the soggy custard cream.

“Dad, I’m gay.”

He finally looked up, biscuit still extended. “As in happy?”

I sighed. “As in gay. As in I don’t like girls. I always have been gay, I always will be gay. I hope you don’t mind.”

The biscuit fell in half and splatted on the table. “I knew it.”

“You what?”

“Is this why you’re so mad about Schwarzenegger? I thought you were into explosions, not muscles.” He leaned to whisper. “They do it up the bum, you know.”

My mum wandered in, wrapped in her nightie.

“Mervyn’s a bender,” he said.

She frowned. “Like Uri Geller?”

“Not spoons, you bint. He just told me he’s a fudge packer.”

“Oh.” She grabbed some kitchen roll and cleaned up the biscuit. “Is that why he’s so into baking?”

“That’s all you’ve got to say?”

“Well Freddie Mercury was a poofter, and you’ve got all his albums. That’s why I call you Mr Fahrenheit.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Are you sure about this, Mervyn?” She leaned to whisper. “They do it up the bum, you know.”

“Enough with the bums.”

“Maybe it’s a phase. Have you found a boyfriend? Don’t date a Frenchman, whatever you do.”

“Well if you have,” Dad said, “don’t bring him here. There’ll be no bumming in my house.”

Mum went bright red. “No. Absolutely not.”

“Do you really call him Mr Fahrenheit?” I asked.

My younger brother Cecil strode in. “What’s going on?”

I put my head in my hands. “I’m gay.”

He burst out laughing. “You wish.”

Dad over-dunked a biscuit and it plopped into his tea. “For crying out loud.”

“He’s only saying that because he can’t get a girlfriend.” Ever precocious, my twelve year old brother had already dated half the girls in his class. “Go look at the jazz mags under his bed. There’s not a single todger in them.”

“He’s right,” Dad said. “They’re filthy.”

“I thought I threw those out,” Mum said.

I slammed my fist on the table. “What are you all doing looking under my bed?”

“Does this mean you’re not gay?” Mum said. “I was just warming to the idea.”

“I’m gay,” I said. “I like baking muffins and watching Terminator 2.”

“Nobody’s gay,” Dad said. “I’ve decided. There’s enough going round as it is.”

And that was the day I was forced to come out, by my own family, as a heterosexual.

(Mervyn vs. Dennis is available to buy on Amazon for only £1.99)

How to Write 500 Perfect Words a Day

Whether you’re starting your first novel or nearly finishing your tenth, every writer needs a target to see them to the end. 500 words might not sound a lot, but these aren’t 500 normal words we’re talking about. We want 500 perfect words. What do I mean by perfect? I mean words that are publishable, words that you’d be proud for anyone to read, including literary agents, publishers or your adoring fans. By following this method, I wrote my latest novel Mervyn vs. Dennis in nine months. Compared to my other books, that’s a miracle. The Octopus Teaser took three years whereas The Papyrus Empire took six to plan, write and edit (two particularly tricky chapters took an entire year).

First off, you’ll need a draft. This doesn’t have to be a draft of the entire novel. Some writers don’t use drafts at all–they like to edit as they go. In that case, you need a draft of the scene you’re working on. As long as it’s 500 words or more, you’re set. If you don’t have 500 words to work with, go and write them now. I’ll wait. It doesn’t matter if they’re rubbish, we just need something to work with. One of the advantages of having a draft of the entire novel is that you’ll always have 500 words to work with. Personally, I don’t use drafts. I tried it once but it didn’t work; the draft I wrote sent the story in completely the wrong direction and it took me ages to figure out exactly where I’d gone wrong.

Okay, have you got 500 words to work with? Great! To show you how this process works, I’ll do it alongside you. The problem is, because I’ve been so busy publishing and promoting  my new novel Mervyn vs. Dennis, I don’t actually have 500 words to work with myself. So what I’m going to do, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, is go and bash out 500 words of potential crap so I’ve got something to work with. I’ll try and write an opening to a novel I’ve been planning called Ellipsis. Not only will you get to see my work in action but you’ll also catch a glimpse of my exciting new book. Hold on to your hosepipes!

Niels Saunders Write 500 Perfect Words a Day

Coffee drunk, nose picked, cat stroked, mysteries pondered, sighs exhaled…

Okay, all done. Thanks for waiting! I’ve just written the first 500 words of my new novel Ellipsis. This is going to be a double exclusive. First, it’s a sneak peak at a brand new novel. Second, I’ve never shown anyone a first draft before. I find them so poorly written and embarrassing that I wish they’d never even existed. Not only are you going to see one of my shamefully bad first drafts, but you’ll also be able to witness the whole sordid mess unfold before your eyes. By the power of video capture and YouTube, I recorded my desktop as I wrote the opening 500 words over the course of 26 minutes. I’d never subject you to all that, but here it is sped up six times to a dazzling 4 minutes (with comedy background music):

Here’s a screenshot of those 500 words, warts and all:

Screenshot of Ellipsis First Draft

To read this as an online document, click here

Okay, I know it’s not great. It’s rambling and glib and just a massive infodump. It’s rubbish and ropey and all over the place. But now I’ve got 500 words to work with, we can get on with the fun part: rewriting! What you want to do is open two word processor windows, side by side. A little something like this:

Editing 500 words in one day

I know it’s not a masterpiece. It’s not supposed to be!

Then type out everything from the right hand window into the left hand window (or vice versa), changing as you go. Keep the stuff you love and change the stuff you hate. If it feels wrong or reads badly, change it. Change it to what, you ask? Just follow your heart. Experiment and play. Most of all…have fun! The crucial thing to remember is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. This is just the second step in our editing process. There’s a good chance you’ll add things or even change whole sections. The great thing about this process is how the magic starts to happen straight away. Everything you write will be better than it was. Even if it’s new, it’ll be an improvement on what you started with. What you’re doing is like shaping clay. You’ve got the raw materials, now it’s time to build something special. With every line you rewrite, you’re discovering, word by word, the final form of your story. That’s your destination and there’s only one way to get there: writing!

In the interests of posterity, just like earlier, here’s a video of me rewriting those 500 words. This one has been sped up from 45 minutes to 7:

And here they are in all their (still rather warty) glory:

First revision of initial 500 words of Ellipsis by Niels Saunders

To read this online as a document, click here

Wow, what a difference! I’d expected a few changes but not quite this much. I tried to tackle the ‘infodump’ problem by placing the narrator directly in a scene where he could discuss his issues in context. I’m not entirely sure if it’s an exciting enough opening, though. I’m hoping the humour will carry the reader forward. I’m also not sure about the narrator’s tone. I’m concerned the joke is stretching too thin and that his overreaction is too bizarre. On the next revision, I won’t try to force the story in any of these directions. Instead, I’ll keep these issues in the back of my mind and try to confront them if it feels natural. This is always one of the most important things in writing: to do what feels natural. Give your characters room to breathe, to have their own thoughts and to make their own (often poor) decisions.

Next up, I’ll do exactly the same process again: retype what I just wrote, and see what happens. If you’re interested (and not sick of the comedy music), here’s the sped up video:

And here’s the revised writing itself:

Second live revision of Ellipsis by Niels Saunders

To read this online as a document, click here

Once again, some big changes. In completely retyping the text, I’ve given the words and ideas chance to move, flow and change. If you simply stare at what you’ve written and fiddle with the punctuation, you aren’t giving the words chance to become what they’re supposed to be. Working, in this form, is a kind of discovering and this rewriting method is like a second chance. With all the words back up in the air again, they can settle in new places or form entirely new scenes.

With this latest revision, I ended up heavily editing my last version and also combining it with the backstory from the first 500 words. Once again, I anticipated none of this. Many writers complain about how tedious editing can be but with this method you can see the potential creativity and fun. I’m definitely approaching the finished shape and structure of these 500 words. I’m not sure on the ending–it feels a little forced, as if I tried to twist the action into a mini conclusion. Once again, I’ll retype everything. How many times am I going to do this? As long as it takes. I’ll continue to retype these 500 words until I only make minor changes. That might be in the next revision on another five down the line. We’ll see! Here we go again, here comes the next revision in sped-up video form:

And here’s the text itself:

Fourth live revision of 500 words for Ellipsis by Niels Saunders

To read this as a document online, click here

Good news! While typing out this third revision, I only made minor changes. Now we can move on to the next stage of the process. What you need to do now is break your 500 words into chunks. I’ve split mine into three separated by line breaks as follows:

Three separate sections make self-editing 500 words much easier

Once they’re separated, read the first chunk through. If you decide to make a change, then re-read from the start. Do this again and again until you can read through an entire chunk without making any adjustments. If you’re having trouble or making a mess with too many changes, simply type everything back out again just like we were doing earlier. Once you’ve managed to read through the entire text without making any changes then you’ll have finally finished the day’s 500 perfect words. Congratulations! Now let’s see how it works in action:

And here’s the final edited text:

The first 500 perfect words of Ellipsis by Niels Saunders

To read this as a document online, click here

What’s that, I hear you cry? Those 500 words aren’t perfect? Right now, with my ability, they’re perfect to me. I’d gladly show these to anyone without feeling embarrassed (which couldn’t be said for my awful first draft). Of course I’ll make some changes further down the line. I’ll gladly accept critique and incorporate ideas. There’s always the chance that I’ll never even use this scene at all (I wrote over 20 different beginnings to The Papyrus Empire). With these 500 words complete, though, I’ve taken a huge step in starting another novel. If I do the same thing another 160 times, I’ll have an 80,000 word book to show for it.

You’ll notice that I still made plenty of adjustments. Many times I made changes and then unchanged them again. There’s no real way to tell you what changes to make. What I do is read each sentence and they either feel right or wrong. Most of the time I’m not even sure why they feel wrong. Occasionally it’s obvious–if I’ve used a cliché or the flow is clunky. But most of the time I’m simply working on instinct. It’s one of the things I’ve developed in the twenty years that I’ve been writing. When I first started out, I was happy with every single sentence I wrote, but as I developed my standards got higher. For a while, it paralysed me. I’d spend entire days working on single sentences. It’s why those two chapters from The Papyrus Empire took an entire year to write. But working out this method helped me a great deal and I hope it helps you too.

If you actually watched the video all the way to the end, then have yourself a Haribo. You’ll also have noticed that I had to cheat a little. Because of the sections I cut near the start, I ended up with only 450 words by the end, so I had to write an extra paragraph to bring the word count back up. I edited it on the fly as much as I could but it likely needs more work.

Now just because you’ve written 500 perfect words, it doesn’t mean they’ll stay perfect forever. What you need to do is read them through again the next day. If you make a change, then highlight the section. This is an example of the way I do it:

Final revision of Ellipsis opening by Niels Saunders with highlighted section for editing

Then on the following day, reread the highlighted section again. If you make another change, keep it highlighted overnight and reread it again in the morning. On the other hand, if you didn’t make any changes and everything’s groovy then unhighlight the section and give yourself a pat on the back.

People often say that writing is rewriting, that writing is the fun part and editing the chore. While I do enjoy the creative splurge of bashing out a first draft and exploring the unknown, I get much more satisfaction from basking in the warmth of 500 perfect words. While this technique might seem laborious, in my experience it’s actually the quickest way of editing your work. Without manually retyping the words back out, they’re much harder to manage and you’ll find yourself fiddling and fussing without any end.

Good luck and let me know in the comments if this technique has been helpful to you.

(If anybody’s curious, any similarity between Oliver James and Jamie Oliver is entirely coincidental.)

Jamie Oliver or Oliver James

In no way whatsoever connected to Oliver James

Self-Publishing First Steps

Peanut Butter Label for Mervyn vs. Dennis by Niels Saunders

I have no idea what I’m doing. If I wanted to be portentous, I’d write, ‘And so it begins…’ I’ve just released my comic novel, Mervyn vs. Dennis, as an e-book on Amazon. This isn’t what I’d planned. I doubt if self-publishing is the first choice of any serious writer. Even so, I’m trying to make the most of what I’ve got. So what exactly do I have? A book. Actually, I’ve got three, but Mervyn vs. Dennis is my most recent one. It’s a fun and enthralling story with a dark, satirical edge. And it only costs £1.99!

Getting Started With Self Publishing

I always believe what the internet tells me. The other day, it said the most important thing about self-publishing is promotion. As I won’t have an amazing literary agent or a great big strapping publisher to shout my name from the rooftops, I’ll have to make myself heard amid the clamour of the internet through this humble blog. Harassing random people on Twitter doesn’t really appeal so I’m hoping passers-by will stumble upon these very words you’re reading and learn a little bit about me and my novel. If you’re not a friend or a member of my family, then hello! Thanks for stopping by!

So what am I confused about? As a man who’s been good with computers throughout most of his life, I’m finally feeling technology catch up with me. I can (just about) handle WordPress but I’ve never been a massive fan of social media. I barely use Facebook anymore (too much humblebragging) and only check Twitter when I’m bored. Faced with the prospect of promoting myself through social media channels, I feel utterly geriatric. I’ve read all the usual dos and don’ts and tried not to ignore the ones that seem like too much hard work.

What to expect from this blog? It won’t all be about me. As someone who’s been writing seriously for two decades, I’ve got a lot to say about the craft of writing itself. As I’ve never managed to get a novel published, I’m not the most qualified man in the world to be imparting wisdom, but all my hard-earned knowledge is bound to help somebody. The internet, it seems, is full of struggling writers. There’s listicles all over the shop about common writing mistakes. While most of them are informative and doubtlessly helpful, they do all tend to cover the same ground as each other, and I’m looking forward to contributing my own.

So why am I doing this now? Self-publishing’s always been my last resort. After twenty years of slogging, I feel I’ve exhausted every possibility. I could write another book (I’ve got plenty of ideas) and try literary agents again, but after my lack of success with Mervyn vs. Dennis, I’m convinced that I’ll be wasting my time. Even if I sell a hundred books on Amazon, that’s a hundred more than I would’ve sold with my novel squatting mournfully in my hard drive. I’d always been determined to get an agent and a publisher but now I’ve finally accepted that’s never going to happen.

Is There a Market for Comic Fiction?

My book is great. I know that. I love it with all my heart. So why hasn’t an agent snatched me up? Who’s deluded–me or them? All I know is what they’ve told me: comic fiction doesn’t sell. Unless you’re an established comedian, your chances are slim to none. I’m sure they’re correct in mass market terms but I know there’s a readership for books that make you laugh. Not that I’m conceited enough to rank myself among them, but some of the most beloved authors of all time wrote hilarious novels: Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Jerome K Jerome, Douglas Adams, PG Wodehouse, John Kennedy Toole, Oscar Wilde, Hunter S Thompson…

Typing out that list, I realised: everybody’s dead. The greatest comic novels of all time were written by a bunch of stiffs. And in this way, I suppose, the agents are right. There isn’t the same audience for humorous books as there is for high-concept thrillers. But why not? Everybody likes to laugh. Just look at how successful stand-up comedy is right now. A book that makes you laugh is rare, and something to be treasured. Having said that, a good comic novel isn’t just about the comedy. There’s nothing worse than something relentlessly whacky and glib. Comic novels can be sad, dark, exciting and mysterious. The greatest thing about them is that they can be anything. And that’s one of the many reasons why you’ll absolutely love my book.

Comic novels can flit between genres. Comic novels can shock and surprise you. As long as they keep making you laugh, they can do whatever they want. Mervyn vs. Dennis is a comic novel but it also tackles grim and serious issues such as racism, homophobia, mental illness and abuse. It’s even rather timely in our post-Brexit Britain. Sometimes the story is lighthearted, sometimes it’s disturbing. Sometimes the humour is slapstick and fun, sometimes it’s bleak and awkward. The central narrative is a conflict with a clear protagonist and antagonist. Organically around that conflict, mystery and suspense emerge, and some sections of the climax could be lifted from a psychological thriller. By self-publishing my book, I’m not setting out to prove the agents wrong, but to prove myself right. There might not be a mass market for my novel at the moment, but who knows? There might be soon. And you could be one of the first!