The Papyrus Empire is now available to buy in paperback and ebook from Amazon. Here’s the blurb:
When Tommy Duchesne takes out fifty perks from a cash machine, he thinks he’s been conned. It’s actually the currency of the Papyrus Empire, a secret society founded in the forties by Sigmund Papyrus, a Swiss entrepreneur with a splendid moustache.
Tommy tries spending the perks around town, and realises he wasn’t conned at all. If he uses it in shops, he gets special service. If he uses it on slot machines, he wins every spin. At first he has the time of his life, but a sinister side soon emerges.
A close friend is found dead, and he believes the Empire is to blame. To discover the truth, he joins their ranks himself. Allied with his enemies, the weight of that truth, and the price he pays to unearth it, will make him question everything he’s ever known.
The Papyrus Empire is a dark and complex thriller unlike anything you’ve read before.
The Papyrus Empire is the culmination of ten years of planning, writing and editing. It’s been through countless versions, but it’s finally ready. As you may have noticed from the Amazon listing, it’s the first instalment of The Empire Saga. Thankfully, my writing speed has increased dramatically over the years, so it hopefully won’t take another decade until its sequel, The Ivory Tower, is ready. The story is set in an English city named Vestibue, which some of you may recognise from my previous novel, Grand Theft Octo. You don’t have to have read any of my previous books to fully enjoy The Papyrus Empire, but there are some Easter eggs and character references to Grand Theft Octo sprinkled throughout.
In the days leading up to this launch, I’ve been making promotional posters inspired by events from the story:
If you’re not in the mood for buying an ebook or paperback, The Papyrus Empire is also available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Alternatively, you can check out the first few chapters on Amazon for free. Please do leave me a comment if you decide to read my book. Finally, if you enjoyed the posters I made, you can follow me on Facebook for more regular updates.
The book is dedicated to the memory of Arif Khan, whose death inspired much of the story. As such, there are no acknowledgements within the pages, but I’d like to thank the following people who’ve read the book in its various versions over the years and passed on their helpful comments: Nao Saunders, Susan Saunders, Gail Grantham, Preston Parris, Elina Zachariadi, Jerry Devenish, Robin Woodward, Paul Clark and Kiera Buckley-Jones.
A remarkable thing happened while working on my latest novel, Grand Theft Octo. I wrote about 500 words that needed almost no editing whatsoever. Although I didn’t splurge them out in a carefree frenzy, I didn’t write them especially slowly either. They took about an hour. There were a few places where I had to ponder and a couple of lines that tripped me up but somehow I managed to write about 500 words that required almost no editing whatsoever in an hour. If you’re not a writer yourself, you might wonder why that’s a big deal, but for me it was a miracle. Let me tell you why.
Writing is Rewriting
People say writing is rewriting. Writing is the fun part whereas the real skill and effort comes during editing and rewriting. A lot of this depends on the way someone writes. Some people edit as they go whereas others bash out a first draft before editing it later. Either way, editing and rewriting is the largest factor in the quality of prose. Most first drafts are full of clichés and humdrum phrasing. They almost never shine. Although you’ll occasionally get lucky and come up with a great line on the fly, most of the real gems come later.
You wouldn’t want to live there
Editing is a skill you hone, a muscle you develop. There are books to help you on the way but for most authors it’s self-taught. When I first started writing as a child, I thought everything I wrote was a masterpiece. Even if I re-read a story, I couldn’t spot a single thing to change. Criticisms from my teachers seemed absurd. I assumed they were biased or too stuffy to recognise my dazzling skill. The more I wrote, however, the fussier I became. I’d take more time with my sentences and ponder over the story instead of splurging it out. Nevertheless, writing was a joy. Each story I wrote was like an adventure. I’d polish them the best I could and looked forward to my future as a world-famous author.
Welcome to the Skill Plateau
When I was a teenager, after two abandoned novels, I started on another. That’s when I hit the plateau. I scrutinised every single word, trying to make each sentence perfect. I tried to inject subtext, metaphors and hidden meanings to subconsciously influence the reader. I wanted every description to paint a picture so vivid that the reader would see a realer world than the one outside their window. I avoided every cliché, I ran from every trope. And at this pace, I managed to write a sentence an hour. That’s not an exaggeration. The first (and only) chapter of my third (abandoned) book took six months to write. I re-read it not long ago and although it has some inventive language, it’s clearly over-laboured and bordering on pretentious.
For my next book, I tried to limber up. I didn’t want to make the same mistake. The problem is, I’m a perfectionist. Only the best would do. Although I managed to work quicker, my next book took three years to write. I only managed to get it finished by drinking 4 litres of Diet Coke every day and staying up to 6am. With that book, I’d bash out a chapter in a couple of days and then spend a month or two editing it. Tricky paragraphs could take whole days. I’d read and re-read them over and over, changing words and tweaking commas while ruining my kidneys with Diet Coke and testing the patience of my long-suffering girlfriend (thankfully now my wife and the mother of my children).
I didn’t look this elegant
Sit at Your Chair and Bleed
My next book was even harder. I wrote the first draft in a couple of weeks and then spent four years rewriting it. One particular chapter took an entire year. Nevertheless, I kept my head down and finally finished the damned thing. Then I was struck by an awful realisation: the better I got at writing, the harder it became. This is something the narrator of my novel, Mervyn vs. Dennis, discusses:
Writing works backwards. The better you get, the harder it is. I missed how I wrote when I was eight. I’d sit down and splurge and love every word, absurd little stories that made little sense. Now I spent half my time sweating about passive voice and dangling participles. I’d fret and I’d fuss over each precious word then come along a month later and bin the whole chapter. I knew this was the graft to make fiction flow but sometimes it felt like the wrong way around.
I was terrified about the future. If I kept getting better, writing would keep getting harder. It would get to the point where writing became so hard that I’d never be able to write at all.
Bleed, dear boy, bleed!
Escaping the Skill Plateau
At the time, I didn’t know there was a skill plateau. I honestly thought I was doomed. My own standards had become so cripplingly high and writing itself had become so hard that a lot of the pleasure of writing was lost. I’d put so many years into writing, at the expense or learning other skills, that I couldn’t simply give up on the only thing I seemed half-decent at. But the prospect of writing another book was so daunting that I couldn’t face it. Having just written a dark, complex thriller, I decided to write something light and easy. That’s where Mervyn vs. Dennis came from. Although it has many dark moments, it was a genuine pleasure to write, and much easier than my previous book. This time, I edited as I wrote, managing a steady 500 words per day. I finished the book in 9 months.
Despite being easier to write, I still spent a lot of time rewriting and editing. Those chunks of 500 words that I wrote and edited every day were several hours of work each. Nevertheless, I wrote an entire novel in under a year compared to writing a single chapter in a year. Having said that, I never had a moment like I did recently while writing Grand Theft Octo. I have never had a moment where I managed to write 500 words that required almost no editing whatsoever. So what has happened to me? Why am I finally able to write at a reasonable pace without feeling like I’m bashing my head against a wall? It’s something I’ve thought a lot about lately, and I have a few possible answers.
Beyond the Skill Plateau
The cynical answer is that my standards have slipped. I used to labour over my craft and now I churn out books without quality control. The problem with that theory is I think my writing is better than ever. I’m currently working on a dark fantasy novel and it’s the best stuff I’ve ever written. So if my standards haven’t slipped then what on earth is going on? I think, after countless years of toil and suffering, I’ve finally escaped the skill plateau. I’m not saying that I’ve mastered writing. I want to keep improving. But now I can write and edit much more efficiently. I’m no longer wandering in the dark. I know much better now what works and what doesn’t.
There are, of course, still moments when I bash my head against the wall. In that past, I would have been stuck for weeks but now all it takes is a contemplative walk or pensive shower. I now see 500 edited words per day as my absolute minimum. If I don’t have any freelance work from my day job, I can manage 1000 words. Once upon a time, that was unthinkable. Right now, not only do my first drafts need less work than they used do, but my editing process is so much more focused and efficient that it no longer feels like an uphill struggle. That allows me to look beyond the minutiae of the words themselves and focus even more on storytelling and character.
Never Give Up Hope
If you’re suffering in a skill plateau of your own, I have one message for you: there is hope. It won’t last forever. What you’re doing right now is improving. It might feel like a never-ending struggle but what’s really happening is that you’re becoming a better writer. All those hours you spend contemplating a tricky sentence aren’t wasted at all. They’re all part of your journey to improve your craft. So, keep on suffering, but always remember that it won’t last forever. There’s a chance, of course, that another skill plateau is heading my way. If that happens, hopefully I’ll be able to follow my own advice.
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…
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!