I’m still at the stage in my writing career where every review is special to me. I’ve recently had a couple of great ones from talented bloggers Shaun Green and Sadie Forsythe , who both wrote insightful and witty critiques of Mervyn vs. Dennis. Alongside these, something new and exciting has just happened: my first ever video review. It’s by J. Cassidy (or perhaps Faye Kename) who runs a great blog called 6twistedbiscuits specialising in comedy and book reviews. She’s also a talented writer and game developer herself, so be sure to check out her site and work too. Here it is:
Don’t forget to like and subscribe to her channel!
Mervyn vs. Dennis is one of the funnest books I’ve read this year. Mervyn struggles with keeping his strange and intrusive boss out of his personal life. What was the inspiration for the relationship between Mervyn and Dennis?
Most of us have made a friend that we later regretted. I wanted to take that idea to its furthest extreme. Likewise, unless you’ve never worked or been extremely lucky, you’ve probably had a boss who made your life a living hell. Both of these situations are familiar comedy tropes but I wanted to combine them into something fresh. In both personality and outlook, Mervyn and Dennis couldn’t be more different. Mervyn is liberal and open-minded whereas Dennis is bigoted and mean-spirited. I wanted to explore whether two such disparate men could ever reconcile their differences or if they’d clash until the bitter end. During the writing process…
As an author, you are god to your characters. No matter their religious beliefs, when your characters pray to their own gods, they are really praying to an empty sky. You, as god, decide which prayers to answer and which to ignore. Likewise, if your characters are atheists, you choose whether to fulfil or crush their irreligious hopes and dreams. As authors, we play god, and we have to choose what kind of god we’ll be. Will we be a vengeful and interventionist Old Testament style deity? Or will we be a caring and peaceful god who loves their characters like their own children? The choice you make will make a huge impact on the style, tone and content of your story, so it’s wise to consider what kind of god you’ll be before you start writing.
Playing God by the Rules
First off, you need ground rules. In my writing, as god, I have control over luck, the weather and coincidences. This means if a character goes to a casino, it’s entirely up to me whether they win or lose. Likewise, I decide if it’s sunny or rainy. This is where John Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy comes into play. We can use the weather to mirror a character’s emotions or we can use it ironically as a contrast. It’s something of a cliché to have a broken-hearted character walk through rainy streets but it doesn’t have to be so dramatic. A depressed character, for example, is more likely to notice the grey clouds in the sky than the warm and pleasant breeze on their face.
Don’t Reveal Yourself
As god, you have a responsibility not to reveal yourself. Imagine having a character who won the lottery ten weeks in a row. Both your character and your reader wouldn’t believe it. By fixing the odds irresponsibly, you’ve broken the reader’s suspension of disbelief and also likely driven your character insane. They might, understandably, start to believe they’ve been blessed by a higher power. This would cause them to act irrationally and doubt the very order of the universe itself. This could make a good starting off point for a story but you’d have to balance all that good luck with something else to satisfy the reader’s desire for order. If a character prays, they are actually praying to you. If you choose to answer back, you’ll have to accept the consequences.
Telling a Good Story
What does a good story typically need? Conflict. As god, it’s your job to engineer situations whereby characters will find themselves entrenched in conflict. This is where it starts getting tricky to be a benevolent god. If you grant all your characters’ wishes, your story will be over. Therefore, you have to take a step back and allow your characters to achieve them on their own. Unfortunately, happiness is rarely interesting for long. To tell a compelling story, we need our characters to struggle and suffer. For the greater good of your story, you have to be cruel to be kind. As always, though, it’s a balance. Be too cruel and the reader may become so depressed they can’t even finish your book.
The Power of Free Will
As a god, you have a lot of power, but you also have your limits. Never force your characters to do things they don’t want to. It’s tempting to do this if you have a great idea and want the character to fulfil it, but I can guarantee one thing: if you allow your characters to make their own decisions, they’ll do something more interesting than what you had planned. If you force your godly will upon your characters, there’s a good chance your characters will revolt and you’ll suffer from writer’s block. Throw as many obstacles in their path as you want but never influence their will. If you want to change their mind, try doing it obliquely through metaphors and coincidences. In this way, your characters’ interaction with their god (you) may well mirror your own interaction with God (if you’re a believer).
Do You Believe in Fate?
If you’ve sketched out your story in a plan, you may have plotted the deaths of certain characters. In my experience, these rarely change. This might contradict what I said above about free will but if you’ve decided a certain character is fated to die, it’s likely you’ve foreshadowed that death and made it such an integral part of the story that they simply have to die. This is one place where, as an author, you can make death mean more than it does in real life. Whereas death in our own world often seems random, pointless and cruel, in our stories, death is a narrative device to drive or resolve conflict. Have fun killing your characters but make sure it means something.
Authors Work in Mysterious Ways
As writers we are bound to the conventions of storytelling. Readers expect mysteries to be revealed and conflicts to be resolved. As the author, it’s up to you choose if you’re a fickle god or not. Will you punish the good guy and reward the bad? Will the wishes you grant be double-edged swords? A lot of it is guided by the kind of story we want to tell, whether moralistic or nihilistic. For the sake of a good story, I tend to put my characters through the wringer. On more than one occasion, I’ve had characters directly curse me, as their god, for the situations I’ve engineered. The weird thing is, I adore them all. My characters are like my kids. Even though I love them, I want them to have compelling stories, so I make bad things happen to them (which I wouldn’t wish upon my real life kids).
What Kind of God Are You?
Are you benevolent? Malevolent? An interventionist? Do you agree that characters should have their own free will? Let me know in the comments!
Next up for the quick-fire round of 20 questions is newcomer Niels Saunders. The most important thing you need to know about Niels? Do Not Challenge This Man To A Chili Eating Competition! You will lose. And if you want to find out why he’s holding a pineapple, you’ll have to read his book. Take it away Niels!
‘God I love a good pineapple’
1. Hemingway famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Where the hell do you find the motivation to stick at it? Once I invent a character, they’re extremely pushy. They demand to have their story told and won’t let me rest. Writing is the only way I can get them to shut up. Stories are like secrets : they demand to be told. As storytellers, it’s our duty to tell them the best we…
I have no idea how to begin this review. I can say that it became one of my new favourites. Like, ever. It’s going on the Top Shelf. Only three other authors have a place on the Top Shelf.
There’s a lot of humour, and a lot of darkness hiding away under it. It’s like a person. A charming, funny person that you love to be around but spend a lot of time thinking about because there’s something about them that isn’t quite sunshine.
Mervyn is in need of a job so he pretends to be racist. So his tale of woe begins, brought entirely on himself. His ultra-racist and super-allergic new boss is a grade-A tosspot who somehow manages to wriggle his way into Mervyn’s life deeper and deeper like the slimy worm that he is.
Just over a month ago, I self-published my novel Mervyn vs. Dennis on Amazon. A lot’s happened since then and I’ve been much busier than I expected. Here’s a fairly self-congratulatory list of the things I’ve managed to do in 5 weeks:
Run Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads advertisements
Send out paperbacks to interested reviewers
Write this massive list of things I’ve done
Self-Promotion and Advertising
So how has it all gone? Well, I haven’t exactly stormed the bestseller charts and I’m not writing my Pulitzer acceptance speech yet, but it’s gone as well as I could’ve realistically hoped. I announced the launch on Facebook to friends and family and many were kind enough to buy a copy. From there, of course, sales died down. I paid for a promotion package at Awesome Book Promotion to coincide with the launch and for the following weeks. I’m not sure how effective this was. All those initial sales I can largely trace to friends and family. The ads may have given me some good exposure and customer awareness but I’m not convinced they directly led to any sales. It may have worked better if timed with a giveaway rather than a launch.
I ran a few Amazon advertisements, using the pay-per-click method. So far I’ve manged to sell a grand total of 3 books through this method and have spent more than I’ve earned. I do get a lot of impressions but there’s no way of knowing how many people have actually seen the ad. I’ve cancelled the more expensive campaign and kept the cheaper ones running for now. I also did some Facebook and Twitter advertising and got quite a lot of clicks from my call to action but no actual sales I can account for. The way they sell their advertising packages is extremely tempting. The more you’re willing to spend, the more clicks you get. You can actually buy your way to success (and bankruptcy). Twitter was the most expensive and probably the least effective method.
What I’ve Learned About Self-Publishing
Start as early as you can
This was the best advice I read many times before I self-published, and it’s also the best advice I ignored. This is typical of me, however, and I’m not sure how else I would’ve got anything done. To get sufficiently excited about promoting a book, I needed a book already sat there on the internet. The sensible thing to do, of course, is start promoting your book before you actually publish it. Get some early reviews in, drum up some excitement, organise a giveaway, get your paperbacks printed–that sort of thing. For me, the pressure of having a book already out there gave me kick up the butt to start promoting. If you can, you really should start early. Don’t be like me. Please.
Bookbub is king
I’ve done a lot of research on all the different promotion sites and Bookbub is definitely the promo don. If you can get your novel on Bookbub, don’t think twice about the cost, just bite their hand off. Mervyn vs. Dennis was rejected for a promo, most likely because of my lack of Amazon.com reviews. I’m working on this, though, and have a few reviews coming in from bloggers that should help my chances next time. Getting Mervyn vs. Dennis included in a Bookbub sale is one of my next main targets. Wish me luck!
People want your money
There are a lot of books out there and every author wants to be read. The vultures have realised this, too, and there are many dodgy places that will take your money in exchange for competitions, reviews or promotions. I’ve seen competitions that cost £100 to enter and what do you get for winning? A badge to stick on your site or book cover that you have to pay to download. I’m not even kidding. There are also countless Twitter-based promotion sites that will tweet about your book to their thousands of followers in exchange for cash. I’m still undecided about these. Some do have a lot of followers but many just seem to follow each other. They’re also, of course, followed by the authors who’ve used their services and not, more importantly, by people who want to read good books.
Free promotions work
I ran a free promotion for Mervyn vs. Dennis over one weekend and took out a Books Butterfly promo to advertise it. This went really well, with over 1500 downloads. I’d also done a lot of promotion off my own back including emailing countless sites who kindly agreed to add my sale to their newsletters and feeds. The very next morning after the giveaway, I received the following wonderful 5 star review on Amazon.com:
This book was actually fascinating; although set ten years ago there was so much concerning racism and homophobia it could have been written in 2016. Besides all that it was often hilarious and totally lol funny:) I was mildly surprised that I read it all in one go. Although there were other things to do, I couldn’t put it down. The relationships between Mervyn and Dennis, Mervyn and Clyde, Cecil, Sara, Adam were all totally enthralling. If you enjoy well written stories with quirky characters and interesting plots, this book is for you.
Whoever you are, Kindle Customer, thank you! Just this one review made all my self-promotion and the giveaway worthwhile. There are also a few people currently reading Mervyn vs. Dennis on Goodreads and I’ve had some more newsletter subscribers. It’s easy to think that I gave away 1500 copies of my book and lost potentially a thousand pounds in royalties, but most of those downloads were in America where there are still plenty of sales to be had.
The free promotion also sent me to the top of the charts in my genres at Amazon.com. Mervyn vs. Dennis was the number one most downloaded title in both satire and comedy. Getting to the top, largely thanks to the Books Butterfly promotion, must have also resulted in people simply downloading it because it was number 1. It’s the opposite of a vicious circle, which pretty much sums up self-promotion: you’re either in a vicious circle or a positive one. It’s hard to break out of the vicious one and you’ve got the make the most of the positive one while it lasts. Overall sales have increased since the promo so perhaps I’m getting some good word-of-mouth as well.
People are really nice
The most surprising thing of all, especially considering that this is the internet, is how nice people have been. I’ve had many complete strangers, and old friends I thought I’d lost contact with, contact me about my book and how much they enjoyed it. Instead of the depressing slog I imagined it would be (it’s been a slog for sure, just not a depressing one), the whole process has been rather heartwarming. I got my paperbacks printed mainly as promotional items for reviewers and prizes but holding the first one in my hands was a lovely moment. They look a lot better than I expected and kudos to BookPrintingUK for the fantastic job they did on them.
It’s time consuming and addictive
Right now there are several things I’d like to work on for my next phase in self-promotion. Writing this blog is one of them. After this, there’s an interview I need to do. There really is no limit to the amount of work you can put in. It’s an all-consuming activity. I’m constantly checking my emails for news from reviewers and checking the Amazon kdp site for my updated sales figures. It’s great to wake up in the morning and see I’ve sold some more copies or that someone’s read the whole book in one day through the Kindle Edition Normalized Pages (KENP)tracking. To my profound shame, I’m rapidly becoming one of those people who check their phone every 5 seconds.
Reviews are hard to get
Getting good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads is one of the most important factors in the success of an ebook. The problem is that many friends are worried about writing something that comes across as dumb or trite. Meanwhile, with random people, they understandably can’t be bothered. I’m just as bad myself–I rarely write reviews for products on Amazon, so I totally understand when people don’t do them either. The problem is, I suppose, people underestimate just how important they are. Even just a two line review makes a world of difference. So if you’ve read my book but haven’t reviewed it yet, please do! It doesn’t have to be an Ebert-style analysis, just something short is absolutely dandy. It really makes a massive impact on sales and my chances of getting a Bookbub slot. I have actually added a grovelling request at the end of my book asking for reviews but, silly me, I didn’t do it before my free promotion, so most people only got the newsletter request. Hey ho!
Pinterest and Tumblr are weird
I still don’t understand them. Can someone explain them to me?
Should You Self Publish?
In my opinion, yes! I decided to self publish as something of a last resort and I’ve found it much more enjoyable and exciting than I imagined. I’ve got a clear plan for the future and I’m currently editing my next novel Grand Theft Octo which will hopefully be out in a few months. The only problem I’ve faced is never having enough time. Striking a balance between writing and promotion (let alone home and social life) is really difficult. It’s always appealing to write something new but there’s always the temptation to do a bit more promo in case you find a brand evangelist who’ll recommend your novel to the whole of the internet.
Check Out These Great Blogs:
Here are some great blogs with more invaluable tips and advice on self-promotion:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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!
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.)
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!