Wednesday, 27 September 2017


It's been a while, hasn't it? Where the ruddy heck have I been? you are well entitled to ask.

Well, physically, nowhere. I'm still in the same draughty little Victorian terraced house with no internal doors on the bottom floor, in the same neck of the woods. But mentally and emotionally - well, stuff's happened. My son has had his last year of primary school before moving on up to secondary school, so it's been a year of eleven-plus-es, SATS exams and sorting out his new school. I've had to give up my allotment space, partly because it proved to be untameable (turns out there were good reasons why it had been left to go wild for two years before I claimed it, and its very untameable-ness was the main one.) But also because I decided to take on a volunteer job as a moderator on the Scribophile writing community site. It's a great gig, but not without its learning curve, and I've spent the last few months adapting to that curve (and frightening the pants off mental muscles I never knew I was supposed to have in the process.)

But through it all I have still been writing. Redemption has finally been exposed to some beta readers, and received a ton of useful feedback from those awesome beta readers. Yes, I now have detailed information about all the things that are wrong with the story and why I need to fix them.

'Oh no!' I hear you cry. 'After all that work, slogging away to make your story as good as it can be, now you're being told it's not working and you have to rewrite it all? How awful! You must be so disheartened!'

Actually... no. In fact, if anything, it's given me even more drive to work on it.

I'm not going to lie to you; there have been more than a few moments in the process where I've hung my head and thought "Holy cow, this thing is too flawed to ever be fixable. How could I have got it so wrong, whilst all the time believing I was getting it... well, at least a little bit right?"

See, that's the thing about criticism from living, breathing beta readers - the flaws they pick up on are rarely the ones you think they'll be. Oh sure, if you have an icky feeling that a certain plot point is a bit weak, or that this character's a bit flat and undeveloped, your beta readers are likely to notice it too. But sometimes they don't because their attention is drawn away by some other problem, that's way bigger and more noticeable - but something you thought was working just fine.

It's pure logic if you think about it; if you'd identified it as a problem you'd have fixed it already before giving it to beta readers, wouldn't you? But that doesn't make the unexpected criticisms any less of a curveball when they smack you in the guts. It makes you question your writing judgement momentarily - and sends your Inner Grinch into a happy-dance of smugness as he cackles "See? I told you you're not as good at this as you thought you were! Ha ha, those beta readers really took you down a peg or ten, didn't they? You and your high-falutin' ideas about being a 'proper writer!'"

(My Inner Grinch is a world-class git when he wants to be.)

It hurts, and he shouts so loud it's hard not to think that maybe he's right. But that's the time to take a deep breath and remember these important things:

- These flaws are not set in stone. They are fixable.
- Bad writing does not make you a bad writer. Even great writers do bad writing before shaping it into good (and then great) writing.
- If your beta readers have pointed out these flaws, they must trust you have the ability to fix it, otherwise they wouldn't bother giving you the feedback.

Then you can dive in and forage through what they've said - all the curveballs and nitpicks and unexpected misunderstandings - and take them apart.

Some of them will strike a chord with you straight away; the moment you read them you'll slap your forehead and say "Of course! How could I have missed that?" Those are the no-brainer, must-be-fixed notes.

Then there are the ones that make you think "Hmm... really? But that's how I intended you to interpret it - you don't like that? Oh... okay then..." Those are the ones where you can weigh up how strong the feeling is among your beta readers on this point (i.e. are they all saying it, or is it just one or two, with others saying the opposite?) against what your own vision for the story is and how true to that you want to remain.

And then there is a third category - and this is where a lot of the hidden gold is. You'll know when a piece of criticism falls into this category, because when you receive it you'll get an immediate urge to respond with sentences starting with "Yeah, but that's because..." or "No, actually, what's happening there is..."

Basically, it's anything you feel like the reader Just Isn't Getting or Doesn't Seem To Have Realised - and it's when, if you're smart, you bite back the urge to plotsplain and instead ask yourself "Why are they interpreting this thing this way?" Maybe you're not saying what you think you're saying, you haven't said enough, or you're saying too much. Whatever it is, readers are adding 2+3 when you want them to be adding 1+4.

Often it's because you know the backstory of both your world and the characters in it - what happened before this story started and how things got to be the way they are now - but, because you know your world so well, you're unable to see the way this alters the present-day world from 'the norm' the reader expects. An example: maybe in your sci-fi future-world they've been experimenting with genetically-modifying coffee beans for the last five years, trying to increase the yield. As an unexpected result of this experimental tomfoolery, coffee now produces the same effects as a Class-A drug.

You might take this information for granted and therefore not think it's necessary to include it, because you've been up to your eyeballs in your worldbuilding for months already. But your readers haven't, and without this key piece of backstory they're going to wonder why a) coffee seems to be the beverage of choice for addicts, and b) everyone behaves like lunatics every time they have a cup of joe. But they might not say it like that; they might instead say "these characters are a bit over-the-top in this scene," or "the hyped-up-on-endless-cups-of-coffee thing is a very tired cliche these days." So it's up to you to put the pieces together - and you can only do that by listening to feedback, rather than immediately going on the defensive.

Of course, this isn't to say that you must heed every single piece of advice and change your work accordingly. Sometimes a beta reader will not like something you've written because... they just don't like it. It's not their thing, or they wouldn't have done it that way themselves (this can often happen if they're writers too.) That's okay. All readers are different, which is a wonderful thing, or there would be far less variety across the genres and styles of books out there. Think of their comments as a barometer of the reading public in general, telling you which way your audience is likely to swing. So if your military sci-fi-loving beta reader is the one hating the romantic sub-plot in your epic fantasy, you can be reasonably reassured that you shouldn't ditch it based on just his say-so. In fact, his reasons for hating it might be exactly why fans of epic fantasy love it.

So don't fear criticism. It's there to make you a better writer, and it can help you to stretch yourself further than you ever thought you could reach. Good criticism points out the faults in the writing, not the writer, so feel free to ignore anything that attacks you personally. (But at the same time, resist the temptation to bite back. Swallow your pride, thank them for their time and move on. It might feel like they win, but honestly, mounting any kind of retaliation or even defence is a sure-fire way for you to really lose.)

Part of exposing your work (and by association, a teeny piece of your soul) to the world is getting a few scrapes and bruises to the ego. Critiques can sting a bit at first. But you toughen up a little bit more with each bump and knock, and eventually you'll come to see them for the character-building exercises they are. And you'll love them for it.

Monday, 3 April 2017


If you've made it past the title I'm assuming you don't need any further 'trigger warnings.' That title is there for a reason, and I trust you guys to be smart enough to figure out the implications. Okay? Are we good? Right then, with that said...

This is a blog post I never imagined I would write. I shied away from it for a long time before I finally bit the bullet and started writing it, and it's been one of the toughest I've ever written. But I pushed myself through it, because it felt important.

I can imagine there are some of you out there with hackles already up to your ear-tops right now. Judging from the numbers of comments on various other webpages on this subject, there's nothing more infuriating than some writer-person trying to make you feel bad about writing (or even reading) rape scenes. Relax, that's not my aim. Trying to eradicate or heavily censor them in fiction would do more harm than good in the long run - in fact I'll even say that there are not just valid but good reasons to include them in fiction. But... there are some very definite bad reasons to include them too.

And sometimes it's hard to pin down not only what those bad reasons are, but why they're so damaging and unhelpful. This is partly because certain assumptions are often made about people who have been unfortunate enough to go through any kind of sexual assault for real. It's assumed their objections to seeing it in fiction are to do with being 'triggered' - that any and all such scenes in fiction will make traumatic memories come flooding back and so they don't want it there because they 'can't handle it.'

As someone who - well, let's say 'can report from the trenches' - I can tell you that's not true. Far too simplistic to be true. But because it is so simplistic (and therefore quicker to trot out,) it's the accusation that often gets hurled at survivors by those feeling they're just being party poopers. And let's be clear that, while I'm obviously speaking from the perspective of a woman and will therefore be using the female victim as my default, I'm aware that men are victims too, and anything written here could equally apply to them, in fiction and in real life.

So the purpose of this post is to try and isolate those aforementioned bad reasons and define specifically why they're hurtful and insulting. And here they are:

1 - To Give The Hero A Reason To Hero.

This one is obvious - so obvious it's already considered an unhealthy trope in fiction (see Fridging Female Characters.) Hero has thus far not engaged with the Big Bad Villain, but when said villain violates His Woman that's the thing that spurs him into action. Now it's personal - he's gonna step up to the plate and get his justice on!

Why is this so objectionable? Because all too often it paints the victim as being little more than the 'property' of the hero - "I wasn't gonna fight with you dude, but then you went and messed with my stuff and now I'm MAD! Grrrr!" Another unsavoury aspect of this plot device is that the effect of the assault on the woman - i.e. how she feels and copes with the aftermath - is barely even acknowledged, never mind discussed within the plot. That's because it's not about her and her feelings, it's all about Hero Dude. I mean, this is some traumatic shit he's going through, right? Think about his pride, his self-esteem, his reputation..!

Sorry, but here's the thing: no matter how badly her rape has pissed all over his day, he doesn't get to own it as the start of his Personal Journey to Awesomeness. Here are two little tests for you:
1) If you can replace the phrase "rape the hero's love interest" with "shave the hero's pet dog" does the plot stay pretty much the same because dogs don't talk much either? And 2) Do the details of the actual rape scene and the Hero's Rallying Revenge Speech take up more page space than any and all of the other text about this plot put together?

If you answer 'yes' to either of those questions for such a scene you've crafted, you are Fridging your Female Character. And, in spite of the trope name, that's not cool.

2 - To Remind The Smart, Capable Female Character She's Not So Smart And Capable After All. Temporarily.

Strong female characters can be strong in different ways. Some are physically strong, built like Amazon ninjas and handy with a wide array of weapons and kick-ass fighting skills. Others are sneaky and stealthy and able to manipulate and charm their way to Winning At Life. Other others are super-smart and practical, able to out-talk and out-think most of their male peers. Strong female characters are fun to read and get us all cheering, but obviously for the purpose of plot we can't have them being strong and capable all the time, before the story's even ended, can we? Every now and then she needs to get a massive knock-down - something that completely knocks the wind out of her and makes her seem temporarily weak and powerless. Hmmm, what could we pick for that? Seeing as she's a woman and all...?

No, not that. Not again. Not if the reasoning behind it goes no further than "well she's a woman and that's the way your standard Evil Bloke would show her who's boss." For starters, why would that be the go-to 'punishment' if said woman was a highly-trained assassin, or a super-intelligent astrophysicist? Presumably she's dangerous to the bad guy in some way, so he'd just kill her and be done with it, wouldn't he? Y'know, like he would if she was a male?  And even if he does decide to kill her in the end, why does he have to do that first?

It's alright, I already know what the counter-argument for this one is: "she needs to stay alive for plot reasons so the bad guy can't just kill her, but something pretty awful needs to happen to her to, y'know, kind of break her spirit for a bit." And that right there is where the second problem often occurs. Even for a woman trained in kung-fu and handy with a weapon, being raped would still be a traumatic and humiliating experience. In fact, I'd argue it would be even more so for a woman like that, because she would be used to the idea of being able to defend herself from any kind of attack and most likely suffer deep shame and self-loathing at her 'failure' to do so in that instance. That's going to mess up her head for a very long time.

Which is why those stories where such characters are stoic and cool-headed about it, are planning their counter-move from the start of the next scene and getting back to kicking ass again with a new-found determination by the end of the chapter are not realistic. And no, there is no 'training' a woman can undergo to deal with the psychological damage of rape, so there is no reason to suppose that, just because she's had combat training, she's somehow 'more equipped' to deal with it.

I'm not saying don't have this happen in your story; I accept that that it does happen in real life and therefore has every right to form part of your plot -  if it's included for plausible reasons. But please don't reach for it as the first default for hurting a strong female character - writers are supposed to be more creative and innovative than that, aren't they? And if you do decide this belongs in your story, please do the courtesy of committing to it - which means not glossing over the aftermath and pretending she can shrug it off like a grazed knee.

3 - To Give The Story That Authentic Olde-Worlde-y Vibe.

Want your world to look properly medieval-ish? Or Roman-ish? Or pretty much any historical-era-ish? Your women need to be getting raped left, right and centre then, because that's totally how it was back in the olden days. And nobody gave a monkeys, because it was just, like, so normal. A woman got raped for going outside and her husband, brothers and dad were like "yeah, whatevs, shit happens, doesn't it? Maybe she won't go making eye contact with people next time, eh?"

Except... no, it actually wasn't like that. Articles like this one state that, while it certainly happened, and likely as often then as it does now, when it did it was still considered a crime. So the male population of that era didn't consist of whole legions of knuckle-dragging sexual predators lumbering after every woman who dared to act all capable and sassy, and those women who were unlucky enough to be victims of an assault wouldn't have just shrugged it off as 'one of those things' and carried on with their day.

And if you're writing fantasy - even historical fantasy - you have even less leeway in claiming "I'm just making it feel authentic, man." Does your hero have yellowed or even rotten teeth, and terrible stink-breath? Does he get unsightly rashes and occasional pus-filled boils in sweaty places? He would if you were truly going for 'authentic' - but strangely, that piece of realism gets filtered out of  historical and epic fantasy novels surprisingly often. Readers still read it though, so there you go - removing the ickier truths of 'history' can be done!

Think of it this way; if a rape is an inevitable part of the story you're telling, i.e. because of the characters involved and the dangers they find themselves in, fair enough. I'm not telling anyone to avoid it as a plot point if it makes sense for it to be there. But if it happens simply because the world you've built demands that it does, to fit in with the 'culture' - I'd argue you didn't work very hard on your worldbuilding. You grabbed a deeply unsavoury cliche and bolted it in like a LEGO brick.

4. To Help A Female Character Grow/Become A Better Person.

NO. Just.... NO.

Rape is one of the most horrible experiences you can ever go through. It's traumatic, it leaves permanent mental scars and it kills a tiny piece of your soul forever; you are never the same person again afterwards. It is not a frigging Learning Experience, okay? No woman in the history of forever has ever said "Y'know, on reflection, being raped actually did me some good, because it helped me to become the well-adjusted individual I am today."

And yet this has happened in fiction. The fun-loving party girl who likes her drink and her casual hook-ups just a little too much, the uptight little mouse who keeps herself to herself, the little miss sassy-pants who just happens to smart-mouth the wrong dude...

Being raped is the bomb that gets thrown under her ass, but instead of blowing her to pieces (like in real life) it apparently prompts her to Take a Look at Herself and Then Make the Change. Party Girl, for example, might well decide to quit drinking and save herself for Mr. Right after the attack, but this should not be because she's realised she'd been Doing Life Wrong before then and now she's Seen The Light. In real life, that dramatic switch in behaviour would be a reaction born from mental trauma and the fear of something like that happening again - a negative and inhibiting response to a soul-crushing event. It should therefore not be painted in fiction as a harsh-but-fair wake-up call that inspires her to transform like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, because that's not only bloody insulting in the way it trivialises the aftermath of rape, but horribly judgemental.

And yes, there are many memoir-type books written by rape survivors - but they tell the story of how those people rebuilt their life afterwards in spite of what happened to them, not how they 'became stronger people as a result of it.' The difference is subtle, but it's important.

5. Because Sex Sells But You Don't Do That Romance Shit.

Sex in fiction has become almost mainstream now - that's an inescapable fact in this modern media world, whether we like it or not. Obviously there are still genres where an absence of sex is an asset (most of the more traditional Romances and children's books for example,) but increasingly more and more genres are now moving toward embracing the raunchy stuff. You've probably heard the advice from various sources about adding a bit of sexy spice to make your story more 'marketable' - even if it's just a flash of rude bits or heated fumbling.

But what if your story can't accommodate a romance because you're writing a gritty sci-fi full of futuristic soldiers kicking ass, or super-brained scientists trying to create biological weapons? Or what if the idea of writing yucky kissy-makey-out-y scenes makes you want to hurl, because you don't even read books like that so there aint no way you're writing them? How can you get some genital-bumping in there without having to go all Bella and Edward on your readers?

Stop right there. Rape should hella not be considered the romance-free alternative to a 'sex scene' that allows you to avoid having to write about love and expressing mutual desires and changing relationships between characters. And if that is what you're trying to do, please please do not insult the intelligence of anyone by justifying it with any words or phrases resembling 'shocking plot twist.' News flash: that's not a 'twist,' of plot or any other kind - it's just a bastard move on the part of the rapist character.

If you really want to ride the raunch train to commercial success, there are lots of ways to sex things up in a non-Romance-with-a-capital-R way that don't require resorting to forced, non-consensual sex acts. There are lots of ways to include Shocking Plot Twists that don't involve some character morphing into Super-Douchebag and surprise-violating some unsuspecting victim to reveal his hitherto unknown Secret Dark Side (or alternatively, super-charging the Evil Factor to a thousand on a douchebag who was already hitting the high hundreds.) But of course, the other alternative is simply not selling out to the Sex Sells trend and instead being true to your own story - which was never meant to have sex in it in the first place. Now there's a thought...

6. Because Some Rapists Are Just Damaged And Misunderstood Souls. And Damn Hot, So... Y'know...

I bet I can guess what you think I'm referencing now. A certain book based off another book that became insanely famous, gave birth to the genre of Mummy Porn and has since spawned a gazillion rip-offs homages, am I right? Well, that's not the worst offender to come under this category. Not even close. I'm talking about stories where a rugged, handsome cad (they're always rugged and handsome) rapes a woman, but then realises this was A Bad Thing and goes out of his way to make it up to his victim, until eventually she sees the poor, wounded soul underneath and... falls in love with him.

Oh hell holy crap just NO. That is so goddamn NOT how it works.

I've already mentioned the permanent mental and emotional damage done by sexual assaults, haven't I? And yes, I accept there is such a thing as Stockholm Syndrome and this could feasibly account for a survivor character falling for a rapist character. But this is universally regarded as an unhealthy state of mind that requires therapy to fix. If instead you're selling this as the actual 'happy' ending to your story - because, you know, the guy did say sorry, and he's been a real sweetie ever since, and he only did it in the first place because his mother never loved him...

Let's look at it from another angle. There are plenty of men out there whose mothers were cold, cruel - even downright abusive to them. There are men who've been through the most horrible experiences that have left them scarred and unable to 'open up' to people. They still wouldn't rape another person. You know why? Because it involves forcing a part of their body into another person's body, knowing that person doesn't want it, that the person is terrified, that by doing what they're doing they're dehumanising that person and that (very often) they're causing them horrendous physical pain as well as mental anguish. You would have to know you were doing all of those things and still keep doing it anyway, because what you wanted was far more important to you than the pain and distress of another person.

So... brushing off the actions of a character who rapes another character as 'a reaction to their tortured past?' That's pretty damn insulting to those real-life damaged men who would never hurt others the way they were hurt - and there are far more of them around than the vengeful type. Who, by the way, no woman with a working brain is going to actually fall in love with anyway, because they're not the type to feel remorse, straight afterwards or ever. If their 'tortured past' is what's left them believing they're entitled to strike back in this way, aint no amount of crying and guilt-tripping gonna make them change their minds. They might be able to deliver an Oscar-winning performance of pretending they're sorry - but that'll last only until the next time they pull that crap again - and again, and again... And that's not how you define 'happy ending' in anyone's book.

I'm not saying you have to make sure any and all rapist characters are justiced to death by an angry mob of vengeful side-characters before burning in hell; that rarely happens in real life, so there's no reason it has to happen in your fiction either. But please don't betray your survivor character, real-life survivors and real-life damaged men by giving a rapist character a Charm Makeover.


Well, that's my list. I still can't quite believe I've actually written this post - I'll probably look back on it later and wonder if it was me, and not some other person. But it's done now, and I'm going to post it before I chicken out and hit the 'Delete' button instead. Have I left anything out? I'd be interested to know your thoughts.

Thursday, 16 March 2017


I had an interesting discussion with some writing friends the other day. It started when one of us posed the question "How do you get to be a 'great' writer?"

We'd been (re)reading Stephen King's book On Writing, and specifically the part where King states that, with enough time, determination and years of practice, mediocre writers can learn to become competent writers and competent writers can learn to become good writers. But that's as far you can ever get up the pyramid with persistence and hard graft alone. Great writers, he argues - the ones with a god-given talent that puts them head and shoulders above the rest in a class of their own - are born, not made. If you didn't have that magic fairy-dust sprinkled on you from the day of your birth, you will never be admitted into that exclusive Great Writers' Club, no matter how long and hard you try.

It's not a new claim by any means. Great Writers Are Born Not Made has been argued for centuries, with people defending their favoured camp with passion and fury. On the opposing side to Stephen King and chums are those who claim great writing is a learnable skill just like carpentry, bricklaying or plumbing, and that with enough repeated practice even the most cack-brained pen-wrangler can become an accomplished writer. Might take some of them a very long time, but if they never give up eventually they'll get there...

Who do I think is right? Well, if you're interested (and I'll assume you are if you're still reading this, otherwise you'd already be looking at cat videos on YouTube instead...)

I think both camps are at least a little bit right. Yes, if you have the drive and the desire to write, no matter how terrible you are at it to start with, or lacking in the 'proper education' - or even 'not of the right social class, old bean' - you can learn all the necessary skills for being a writer. And then, if you practice those learned skills for a long enough time that they become ingrained into you, you can produce work that people will want to read. You can get to that standard, no matter how swampy and bottom-dwelling your starting-point in literary gene pool was. So - hurray!

Buuuut.... you wanna be an actual Stephen King? Or Hemingway? Or on a par with any of the other 'great' writers who have achieved worldwide fame, enduring success and ridiculous amounts of money? You want the world to say your name with the same kind of reverence they reserve for the likes of 'Charles Dickens' or 'Mark Twain?' Because that's what we're talking about when it comes to attaining the title of 'Great Writer.' So what are, say, your odds of achieving that?

Statistically? Not that brilliant, if you want the truth.

Don't worry, mine aren't either. In fact, most writers who produce and publish stuff for others to read have more chance of being struck by lightning than getting a pass to the Great Writers' Hall of Fame. It's the same reason everyone who takes up running doesn't eventually become Usain Bolt, or everyone who sings every day of their life doesn't acquire a voice like a young Pavarotti. When it comes to sorting the Greats from the Try Really Really Hards, life just doesn't buy into that kind of Equal Opportunities malarkey.

Talent - pure, natural talent that burns like a mystical internal flame - exists. Skills can be honed and perfected, experience and knowledge can be accumulated, but natural talent is that something extra - the mutant superpower that only the select band of spandex-clad heroes have. This has to be true, because otherwise the whole concept of 'great' writers - or 'great' anything, for that matter - would be meaningless. After all, people don't attempt to climb to the summit of Mount Everest because anyone can do it - they do it because it's recognised as being a badass-hard task that only a small percentage of the population are capable of doing. That's what makes the achievement 'great.'

So this is where we've got to. Yes, to truly be a 'great' writer you do have to have that elusive McGuffin they call 'natural talent,' and if you don't have that spliced into your DNA your chances of ever wearing that Great Writer Badge are eye-wateringly small in the grand scheme of things.

Now for the really important question with regards to the rest of your writing life. How do you feel about that?

I suppose the answer to that depends on your answer to 'why do you write?' Is it because you saw J.K. Rowling's or E.L. James' phenomenal rise to fame and fortune and thought "I'd like me some of that?" Is it because the idea of working in a dead-end desk job or life as a sales rep sounds like Hell on Earth, and you'd much rather make a living doing Something Creative instead? They're not bad reasons, and there's certainly nothing illogical about them. But if they're the only reasons you have... well, they're not going to sustain you for the long haul as a writer. And it is a long haul.

The best reason for wanting to be a writer - and the one that will carry you through anything and everything the road to being one throws at you - is that you couldn't stop being one even if you tried. Even if you never make a penny from writing, even if you never become well-known for your work, if you'd still carry on writing anyway, you've got a fighting chance of staying the distance. By all means dream of literary fame and fortune, because dreams are great. Dreams are like the carrot you wave in front of you to spur you on. But just remember they're not real carrots, as in, you can't actually eat them and stave off real-life starvation. So don't make them your only plan for survival.

If one person on the planet loves your book, you'll be a Great Writer to them. If lots of people do, you earn even more Great Writer Points. But those points are pretty meaningless when it comes right down to it, because the best way to be a Great Writer is to be the best writer you can be.

Never stop aiming to reach the top of your own mountain - and don't worry about how high your mountain is compared to everyone else's. It's great to be you.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017


If you have been writing with a mind to getting published at some point, particularly in the last ten years or so, you will have read at least one book on the craft of writing already. Seriously, I probably don't even know you personally and I'd still put money on that.

This is because there are literally thousands of them available now, in both e- and dead-tree form. Many are written by authors who have sold decent shedloads of their novels and are passing on wisdom and experience that they've gained through dedicated practice and results, while others are written (I suspect) by enterprising individuals who are fantastic at marketing and know how to 'adopt' ideas from several other writing craft books and put their own spin on them to make something that appears to be full of entirely new information (which, in fairness, also requires good writing skills - just different ones from writing novels.)

Either way, it'd be hard to escape hearing the most popular pearls of writing wisdom that crop up all the chuffin' time. Adverbs are the devil's crystal meth, Show Don't Tell if you don't want the Story Gods flaying you alive and selling your internal organs on eBay, a kitten dies every time you use Passive Voice... yes, yes, we know all those, thanks very much. But once you get past the basics, and start delving deeper into The Craft books, you get to the next level, which is all to do with Story Structure.

At the most basic level, there's the Three-Act Structure. In spite of its numerical leanings, this actually splits the story into four parts; Act One (the first 25% of the story,) Act Two (the next 50% of the story, but with the all-important  'Midpoint' splitting the whole into a kind of 'before and after the game like, totally changes,' with 25% on each side) and Act Three (the remaining 25% of the story.) Layered on top of that is the seven-point story structure - or the twelve, for the more ambitious - that splits the stages down even further. Joseph Campbell calls his version The Hero's Journey. Whichever way you slice it, this is where you find terms like The Inciting Incident, The Call to Adventure, The Final Battle...

Sound familiar? It's hardly surprising. The Three-Act Structure is very, very popular among professional writers in all media: novels, comic books, stage plays, screenplays. The reasons for this are simple; it works, has worked well for as long as people have been telling stories, and it mirrors the way naturally gifted storytellers tell stories (even back in the days before writing how-to books - or writing as we know it.) It follows the life cycle of most living creatures on this planet (Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 = Child, Adult, Elder,) so we relate to it on a subconscious level as humans. And the seven (or twelve) plot points link up with the stages we humans go through in solving a major problem in our own lives. Every story ever written or told, when you boil it right down to its essence, is 'some person has a major problem and then does stuff to solve it.'

But there are those who rail against making their stories fit a predetermined structure. Anything that sounds like it's trying to introduce some degree of conformity onto what is supposed to be a creative process will inevitably be viewed with suspicion - and this is particularly true for those who believe writers are born, not made. That only those imbued with pure, natural talent can truly become successful writers - and if you don't already possess it, all the studying and practising in the world won't help you acquire it. They in particular hate the idea that something from the well-springs of imagination could actually be improved by shaping it with the tools of rules and structure - "We're supposed to be bohemian, radical free-thinkers, man! We don't do rules!"

And that's when they use the f-word. No, not that one, I mean 'formulaic.' They say things like the three-act structure are why so many 'commercial' novels these days are 'all the same,' 'lacking originality' and 'recycling the same old plots, over and over again.' They claim it's how 'bad writers' can have a successful career and sell millions of 'terrible' novels, because they're all just using the equivalent of a factory template to churn out cookie-cutter stories, production line-stylee.

They say it with the kind of venom that's born from fear; the fear that 'anyone' (i.e. even the ignorantly untalented, defiantly lazy and cynically opportunistic) could write a successful novel armed with little more than a fill-in-the-blanks template. That's a pretty soul-crushing thought if you've toiled for years at your writing, believing in it and the notion that only those who truly possess The Gift and nurture it with pride and dedication earn success and respect in the end. Anything that purports to make the writing process easier - when you know from personal experience that it's mostly bloody hard work - can automatically sound like it wants to 'dumb down the craft.'

But I think that's where the misunderstanding occurs. Yes, using devices like the three-act structure will change the way you write your stories. You will find yourself shuffling bits of plot and character development around, adding particular elements in or taking other bits out to make a story more closely fit that structure. But - and here's the key - only when you already have a story to work with.

Three-act structures, seven-point-plot structures - all of those things -  are not the same as a template; you can't just fill in the boxes with characters and plot pieces to see what kind of story you end up with like one of those multiple-choice questionnaires in teenage magazines. You need to have at least a beginning, middle, some sort of ending, and a basic idea of who the main characters are. It's the same as baking a cake; the structure is just your recipe, you've still got to collect all the ingredients and equipment you need first. Without those... well, that recipe could be as detailed and precise as the average legal document but you still can't make your cake, can you?

Structures and frameworks are not quick and easy short-cuts to writing formula novels designed to cater to the dumb masses. In fact, if anything they require the writer to put even more time and effort into their stories. Most of the greatest novels, plays and movies ever written follow, at the very least, the three-act structure - it might not be obvious at first glance, but the genius of a great writer is that you don't see them pulling the strings and working the levers.

So don't be afraid of them cramping your style if you want to give them a go - they might improve your storytelling capabilities in ways you never thought possible.

 On the other hand, if you're more a stream-of-consciousness, wildly-experimental kinda writer then carry on as you are - there's room for that kind of writing too, so you go right ahead and keep doing you. Just accept that you're making that artistic choice, and it will have an impact on how much money you make from your work and how widely it sells. If you're writing purely for yourself that won't matter, but if you're in it with hopes for wealth and/or fame... well, unfortunately you can't have it both ways. Remaining defiantly 'unique and quirky' while accusing other writers of 'selling out' when they use tried and trusted methods for commercial success just makes you look bitter and kind of full of yourself.

Because whatever choices you make about using structure or not, one thing all writers should remember is that it's the readers who ultimately make the choices. Readers have the right to love what they love and hate what they hate - and if what they love is the stuff you would never choose to write it doesn't make them bad or stupid people.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


Any writer who's ever turned their thoughts to self-publishing will have heard the term 'gatekeeper' at some point. It's usually used to define those who, in traditional publishing, attempt to 'vet' those who wish to be published - the sorters of wheat from chaff, of men from boys, of 'bona fide authors' from 'wannabe hacks.'

They're not viewed with much affection by many writers who self-pub. In some circles they're regarded as nothing more than an Old Boys' Network; if your name's down you can come in, but if your face don't fit you can forget it, chutney. Come back when you're wearing proper bling-studded trainers that you bought with the royalties of all of your books that are already selling. And while that sounds harsh, it's not really much different from a lot of other career avenues - it just that, in some ways, it seems far more unfair when it applies to writing or indeed any creative profession. Nobody minds the selection process being stringent for brain surgeons, for example - in fact, we all have good reason to prefer that system - but since nobody actually dies if an artist doofs up their latest creation, perhaps we feel the judgement should be a little less - well, judge-y - when it comes to art of the heart.

And this is why some writers who self-pub or aspire to coined the phrase 'Gatekeeper,' and put under this moniker the traditional publishers, literary agents and, in some cases, literary critics. But did they also consider there might be other categories of people who view the self-published with a degree of suspicion? Like, for instance, some traditionally-published writers?

I read this article recently, written by an author who bills herself  "Award-winning author of three memoirs, she is also a journalist and travel writer." I'm sure she's not lying about that, or even over-egging her pudding, so I'm not here to cast doubt on whether or not she's 'earned' her right to voice the opinions she airs in her article.

I will admit, however, that when I first read it I had to check to make sure this was actually a fairly recent piece, and not something written five or more years ago. I mean, I know self-publishing had a pretty bad rep back in its early days, but I was under the impression that things had changed since then, especially with many already-famous and successful authors getting in on it now.

But no, the article was posted in December 2016 - barely a month ago. And this lady certainly doesn't mince her words when it comes to her opinion of those with the audacity to put their work out there without receiving the approval of a trad publisher or agent.

My first reaction was indignation. With Redemption, my primary plan of action was to submit to trad publishers and agents first, but if the feedback I got was positive but didn't get any results (i.e. they liked it but couldn't see a market for it and therefore weren't willing to take a risk) I would self-publish it. Putting my Realist Head on, that's the best-case scenario I'm imagining for me (the worst being that no-one wants to take a risk on it because they all hate it.)

And now here was this woman, this random writer, telling me that if I'm looking to self-publish it will only be because I'm a shit writer writing shit. No arguments, no actually reading anything I've written to make that judgement, just the bald-faced, sweeping assumption. And that judgement doesn't just extend to me; it covers every self-published writer out there. She might not have read a single word of any of your books, all you self-pubbed out there, but she doesn't need to - she knows, with absolute certainty, that everything you've put out there is pure, unadulterated crap, and you are a creeping virus that's hurting her personal credibility as a 'proper,' trad-pubbed author. I wouldn't be surprised if she's got an E.L. James voodoo doll impaled with nine-inch nails hidden in the back of her writing drawer somewhere.

But when I asked myself "why does she think this way?" I had to concede it was because... she's not entirely wrong either.

I've seen some of those books she's railing against. Heck, if you're a reader or a writer you've probably seen them too. Usually by accident, with the 'Look Inside!' option (God bless you for that, Amazon, even though I imagine you only implemented it because the thought of legions of furious customers frightened the digital pants off you.) There's no denying, there is a tsunami of crap out there in self-publishing land.

Of course, there's also a heck of a lot of fine-quality writing out there as well, but just like you can't spot a diamond in a dog turd from fifty feet up, the well-written self-published books are competing with all those written by people who are the literary equivalent of the tone-deaf squawkers on reality/talent shows who claim they're The Next Whitney Houston. Either that or they've figured out they only need to sell a 99p zero-draft, 15-page 'novel' once to a hundred or so people to make a reasonable profit, and since you can write a zero-draft, 15-page 'novel' in a few days... four a month, with perhaps a few different pen-names to cover your tracks, and you could legitimately claim to have earned money as an 'author.'

So what's the answer?  Amazon, Smashwords and the like aren't going to introduce 'minimum standards' for potential authors anytime soon (and you could argue they won't because doing so would bring them just as much 'Gatekeeper' hate as is currently directed at traditional publishing,) So how do we persuade authors like the one who wrote her damning article that not all self-published books are crimes against literature?

We have to police ourselves. We have to be our own gatekeepers. And that means being honest with ourselves and not settling for 'that'll do' when we should be aiming for 'this is of a high enough standard to be traditionally published.' If you're a writer and you're considering self-publishing your work, please, take the following to your heart:

1 - Writing 'The End' is just the beginning. Don't just publish your first draft of anything - once it's complete, let it sit for a while, then come back to it and read it through again. You will see places where it can be improved. Make those improvements. Repeat this process until you reach a point where you honestly feel you can't do any more on your own to improve it. (If you don't know what I mean by a 'first draft,' then you don't yet know enough about writing in general and you definitely shouldn't publish it. Read some writing how-to books, join an online writing community, learn stuff about writing. Then go through the above stages.)

2 - Get it beta-read, by other humans. You've been eyeball-deep in your word-baby for all the time it took you to write it, and you can't see everything that's wrong with it from that height. Other people - people who haven't invested that time in its creation and therefore have no emotional attachment to it - will be able to see problems you can't. Your friends and family probably aren't the best (as in, unbiased) guys for this job, so other options include writing groups and online writing communities (many of which offer critiquing services.) Weigh up to the feedback you get - you don't have to act on all of it, but if many beta-readers are saying the same thing they're most likely right. Don't like the idea of complete strangers picking your book apart? Well, what do you think readers are going to do once it's published? At least with beta reader crits, anything negative they say won't end up on Amazon, Smashwords and GoodReads, for all the world to see...

3 - Get it checked for typos and formatting errors - by a professional. That might mean hiring an editor and/or proofreader for actual money, or, if you're lucky enough to have a qualified copy editor friend or relative who'll do it for free or a favour, ask them. Sorry, but no - get the idea out of your head right now that self-publishing means being able to get your work Out There for free or cheap as chips. If you've got connections (like the aforementioned editor pal and others which I'll come to next) then you might be able to get away with that, but if not... if you're self-publishing your books you are producing a product, for customers. It doesn't matter if you're charging 99p or £9.99 for that product, you owe it to your customers to give them a product that works like it's supposed to. It should be produced to the same standard as any traditionally-published book - and that means not full of typos, errors and wonky formatting.

4 - Be prepared to spend money on making it look like a proper book. If you know next to nothing about designing book covers, don't knock up your own book cover in an afternoon, using that software program you got a free demo of a few months back. Don't use a photo you took on your smartphone and then slap your title and name over the top with a text box in Microsoft Word/Publisher/Paint. Unlike actual people, readers really do judge a book by its cover, and if yours looks like it was put together by a chimpanzee on crystal meth you are simply embarrassing yourself and all other self-published authors who took the time to get a professional involved. If you know a skilled artist who's happy to create some quality cover art (and by that I mean not something that looks like it was painted by your kid, or your auntie Shirley who's 'quite good at drawing') you'll be one step ahead, but if not DeviantArt is a great source for artwork, and you can approach artists individually and negotiate rates. There are some good online book cover design services too, offering everything from reasonably-priced commercial templates to the more expensive bespoke layouts.

If any of the above has annoyed you... well, I'm sorry about that. Actually no, I'm not. You needed the wake-up call, frankly, if that's the case. Self-publishing with the goal of making money from your work is not - and, more importantly, should not be - considered the cheap-and-cheerful, minimal effort option for wannabe authors. You are a business if you self-publish, and as such you are obliged to behave in a professional manner befitting of the boss of that business. If you're not prepared to invest as much time, care and effort in your product as traditional publishers invest in theirs, you should not be asking your customers to pay for your product. If you genuinely can't afford to self-publish to the standards I've listed, you could always try setting up a KickStarter or Patreon page to raise the funds - many others have done that, and successfully too.

Post your work online, for free, at designated websites or on your own blog if you simply want people to appreciate your work. There's no shame in not making a profit from your writing, and building up a fanbase that loves your stuff for free does not make you less of a writer in any way. Best of all, it'll mean you already have an existing readership who'll be willing to take a chance on you when you can finally either afford to get your work professionally self-published or get traditionally published.

Some of you may be thinking this is an 'elitist' attitude. But where did you get this idea that any human who can make words should expect money from people's wallets in return for whatever they produce? You realise that criteria includes the average YouTube commenter, right? If you have any self-respect as a writer, you won't aspire to be little more than those 'authors' whose books never make it past the 'Look Inside' stage. You'll want your product to be the best it can be.