Nature: a writer’s mirror

Black FeathersYes! This is it!

This is the novel; the one that will change everything. It’s the best idea you’ve ever had. The world is rich, the characters fascinating and this tale of the hardships they must overcome will blow every reader’s mind. Your body’s humming with inspiration and the words tumble from you as though from a fathomless spring. And – OMFG – you’re happy. For the first time in as long as you can remember, you’re actually enjoying writing.

You stop mid-sentence. It’s okay, this is a good pause. The logic of what will come next is rich, you can feel it. Seconds pass. A minute. Your eyes defocus. You glance out of the window and then back at your work. The rest of the sentence won’t come. You reread the first part of the sentence. It’s drivel. You scan the previous paragraph and then go back a couple of pages.

Who wrote this rubbish?

Well, you know the answer to that if nothing else.

The Work In Progress becomes the Agony That Will Only Ever Intensify. You’re not holding a huge uncut diamond, you’re staring at a double handful of shit. And that’s it. You’ve stopped. Project stalled.

I wish I could say this never happens to me. I’d be lying, though. It happens all the time. Fortunately, I have strategies in place to help me.

First thing to remember: if you felt that way about a story, it’s because it really does have merit. Don’t stash it with all the other things you haven’t finished.

Do this instead:

Write a question about your project. A big question. The question which, if answered, would bump you out of this rut. Put it in your pocket and go out for a walk, somewhere rural and quiet if possible but even a city park will work. Set yourself a time limit; whatever you can spare but an hour or more is ideal.

Partway through this walk – you’ll know the right moment – sit down for a while and watch the movement of the natural world. Make a few notes. When you’re done sitting, head home, remaining as aware as you can of things going on around you: trees, animals, insects, the weather, colours and smells, any kind of sensation. When you get in, write down the rest of what you saw, any impressions you had and what that might mean for you.

Leave the notes alone until the following day before reading them. When you revisit your question and the details of the short journey you made in nature, you will have your answer and, most importantly, you’ll be able to work again.

I’ve done this many, many times – shows how often I get stuck! – and it works. Always.

The most significant occasion was when I gave up on a novel about 30,000 words in. I quit because the material was giving me such awful horrors and because I’d lost faith in the idea. When a publisher expressed an interest in the unfinished idea, I took a cycle ride and sat in the countryside for a long time. The things I saw and the way I interpreted them got me back to my desk, enabling me to finish. That was my sixth novel. It became my debut, MEAT, kicking off my writing career and winning me a BFS award. Not to mention garnering some lovely praise from Stephen King.

What we discover all around us is in the natural world is simply this: a mirror. This mirror reveals what’s inside us. The land is the writer’s ally. All you need to do is step outside in a spirit of trust. For me, the power of nature, as inspiration and tutor, is boundless. And, as a writer, the reflections of the land are invaluable.

Who knows what nature might show you?


Joseph D'LaceyJoseph D’Lacey is best known for his shocking eco-horror novel Meat. The book has been widely translated and prompted Stephen King to say “Joseph D’Lacey rocks!”.

His other published works to-date include Garbage Man, Snake Eyes, The Kill Crew, The Failing  Flesh and Splinters – a collection of his best short stories. He won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer in 2009.

His forthcoming novel, Black Feathers, is released on 4 April, 2013.

Youth, slang and subculture in writing

Boyz N The HoodI have this friend who works as a script doctor and he told me a story about a screenplay that he had worked on which was to be partly funded by a well known British institution. The story was about a dysfunctional and violent teenager that is involved in gang activity, but manages to turn his life around.

My friend tells me that the film was funded mainly because the writer had real experience in ‘dealing with these kinds of people’ having worked in the council of one of London’s roughest boroughs, and could thus provide an ‘authentic glimpse’ into what it was like to grow-up in a deprived area, to be poor, to be thrust into a life of drugs, crime, and eventually murder – which is a bit like saying, “I’m really interested in the minds of serial killers but I work in Tesco and have no psychology experience but I’m going to be a self-employed detective because I’ve watched every episode of CSI.” Okay, maybe that is a loose and extreme analogy, but the point I was trying to make was the writer of the screenplay probably had no experience in writing or any interest in it, but decided that he would put pen to paper because he felt like he had a story in him. Which is fair enough. But his right to write does not necessarily mean that he has the right to call himself a writer – in my opinion of course.

So my friend goes on to tell me about the script. He says that the story had a copy-and-paste narrative detailing a boy in a gang that tries to turn his life around but is eventually killed in the end, just as he is on the cusp of a better future (for the record, the film was released in 2006 and went straight to DVD, probably sectioned under Boyz n the Hood Clone).

Among the list of problems that led to the film’s dire rating on IMDB, the biggest contributing factor to the film’s aesthetic downfall was the dialogue. Imagine a middle-aged man from a middle class family attempting to write from the perspective of a sixteen year old gang member. There was a lot of “innit man” and ‘words like blood’ (for those of you that are unfamiliar with the term, blood is the colloquial word for pal, friend, buddy etc, often used in greeting) throughout.

Conversely, even amidst the plethora of films that are released in the UK that are written by young urbanites from scary estates whose viewpoint would also be deemed authentic due to their geography, you will find the same awful, forced dialogue and insistence on slang. What happens is that instead of the film or writing having some sort of meaningful social commentary, it becomes a parody that triggers the cringe reflex.

Now I’m not saying that people can’t write from other perspectives that are completely foreign to their own. As a writer, it is my duty to invent characters and explore different viewpoints, people from other races, sexes, religions, cultures, and so on. But you have to know what to use and when to use it otherwise you end up writing a stereotype and a hideous cliché.

For one of my creative writing modules back at university, we had a lesson on being able to identify clichés within genres, the lesson being that it would help you avoid them in your writing. So if I wrote a story now and included “she heard a bloodcurdling scream,” it’s safe to assume that the educational system failed me. (Note: It is not my opinion that a creative writing degree makes you a good writer.)

Anyway, in my opinion, the way to avoid writing dialogue that makes your skin cringe off your body is to avoid slang completely, or use it sparingly. Slang constantly changes and can make your work seem dated extremely quickly if you go to town on it. One could argue that the use of modern slang makes a piece authentic, which I suppose is correct. But who would want to read it? If you were into chick lit but the character continued to use phrases like “OMG that was totes amazeballs, he was such a hottie,” you would probably vomit blood, even if you were just after a mindless read while you lay by a pool on holiday.

Here’s a true story, one of many from my ailing would-be career as a writer. Recently I was working on writing my own screenplay with a friend who happened to be quite connected in the film business. We decided to craft a nice tight treatment and a detailed beat sheet before we actually began working on the bones of the script. The film idea was about a man who gets caught outside during the London riots and battles through the streets to make his way home to his heavily pregnant girlfriend (of course we took liberties with the actual facts of the riots to suit our narrative and make it more exciting). The film was in no way intended to be a ‘street film’ but more of a thriller in the same vein as something like The Warriors (1979) or a low budget Escape from New York (1981). So my friend shows it to a filmmaker she knows and his response was rather than call the film Riot Night, as originally planned, we should call it Riotz. I interpreted this as “Well, if you play it safe and really hype up all the seemingly fashionable elements such as it being set in London and the gang activity, and if we spell the title incorrectly it will emphasise the street credibility of this particular product and thus, be easier to fund.”

Needless to say the project fizzled out. I guess the most important aspect of this piece is, if you can’t spot a cliché, you’re bound to become one.


Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.


How to choose submissions

Editors and busesSubmissions really can be like buses, especially if you work for an independent publisher. You can go months without anything arriving in your inbox then ten appear in a week. This usually happens around the publication of titles from your imprint; it’s the time when authors and agents remember you’re still in business and might stay around long enough to publish something of theirs.

Consequently you have to develop a filtering system that streamlines the process. Remember, you may only choose one of those ten submissions, or none at all.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that reasons for rejecting a submission may have little to do with the value of the manuscript as a work of art. The story and writer has to be right for you and your imprint. As a commissioning editor the first thought at the front of your mind should be “How can I pitch this to my publisher?”

There are a number of factors that enable you to decide which manuscript to take to the next level. The first line of defense for a busy editor is your established submission guidelines. In my case, I want a covering email, a one or two page synopsis and three chapters. I’ve not arrived at these requirements in an arbitrary manner; they enable me to assess the experience and aspirations of the writer, to sense how the story is structured and to get a feeling for the author’s writing style.

Can you work with an author if they cannot be bothered to follow your submission guidelines? I know there are people out there who’ll claim you should be able to work with a tyrant if the novel is a piece of genius. Well… no. The publication of a novel is a collaborative process, and first and foremost I need a collaborator. Prima donnas are not serious writers who want to publish their work. If a writer is not going to abide by your reasonable requirements, then how are they going to respond to the editorial process?

I have received emails from writers asking to send me a different package and I’ve always accepted. This is because the writer is immediately showing me courtesy and explaining why they’ve got a better solution. The writer is already engaging in an editorial conversation; he, or she, wants to work with me and it is only right that I show I want to work with them. (Agents can, of course, be very helpful in expediting this process, and in other factors mentioned in this piece.)

So once you’ve decided you can work with this person, the next consideration should be – is this submission commercial? I have to convince my publisher that they will make their money back on this venture. The commercial considerations of print books are tight because of the distribution and promotion costs of a physical product. As commissioning editor, you have to apply your knowledge of genre and commercial trends. I have rejected submissions because I cannot identify a clear readership or position for a manuscript (or concept) in the market. I’ve always explained this to an author; it may be something fixable, or it may encourage the writer to focus on a new project rather than flog a dead horse. (It may also encourage them to submit something else to you in future – the next project might be a winner!)

If the submission has passed the commercial test, the next factor has to be – do you like it?

I have eclectic tastes in my particular area of publishing, some editors have quite specific areas they ‘like’ and should always communicate this to potential submitters. You have to have enthusiasm for a project; if it doesn’t catch you then how can you possibly play your part in catching a readership?

As a commissioning editor of an independent publisher, I’m going to be intimately involved in every stage of the publication process. There are things that can be fixed: structure, characterisation, writing style (to a degree), but if the submission does not excite you then you’re better off rejecting it. It could be that this is your subconscious telling you this is something that really won’t work, or it could simply be that you (and by implication your imprint) are wrong for the job.

And finally comes the most unfair reason for rejecting a manuscript. You may already have a very similar project in the works. A publisher is like a gambler; they know several of their projects will ‘fail’ so they need to spread their bets. Two similar books from the same publisher at the same time are just not commercial. They will also invite unhelpful comparisons from potential reviewers. As a commissioning editor, you must avoid projects that clash; you must reject the submission.

If the submission has passed all your self-imposed filter systems, if you’ve then read the full manuscript and you’re still excited by the thought of this potential project, then it’s time to get to know the writer. We’re still at the very beginning of a journey that could last up to a year, but, by following a few simple rules, you’ve found the right bus.


He Said She Said We Said: simple rules of dialogue attribution

Writing trick: cards

“I love you,” Laura sighed.

Okay, what’s wrong with that sentence? You. Yes, you at the back: you have ten seconds to answer. Come on now, don’t be shy. I’m waiting…

Yes, that’s right. It’s the bit outside the speech marks: the dialogue attribution. I mean, who the hell in the real world ‘sighs’ dialogue? I know I don’t, even if I am in love. Or perhaps Laura has a problem with her lungs?

I see this kind of thing all the time in genre fiction (and also in mainstream or literary fiction, but to a lesser extent). There’s no need for it. What’s wrong with the following?

“I love you,” Laura said.

Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Laura hasn’t sighed the words, or laughed the words, or even (God forbid) breathed the words… she’s said them. Just like I do. Just like you do. We say the words.

So when it comes to dialogue attribution, the worst thing we can do as writers is to insert these pointless melodramatic verbs. Often it’s better if you can leave out the dialogue attribution altogether. Certainly it’s possible to use it sparingly, merely to identify who’s speaking.

This brings us to redundant dialogue attribution.

Here’s an example:

“How are you?” Laura asked.

Do we really need to put “asked” at the end of that sentence? I think not. The question mark at the end of her dialogue tells us that it’s a question, so the attribution is superfluous. It’s just using words for the sake of it rather than using them as tools to convey meaning.

“How are you?” Laura said.

That scans much better. It’s neat and tidy, and it works.

We can go one further with this and use action and dialogue to express what a character means, what they are feeling. The old adage “show not tell” comes into play here.

Laura barged through the crowd, her fists clenched. “I hate you,” she said.

See what I mean? She said. She didn’t shout or yell or snarl or growl. She said. Her actions told us that she was angry. She barged through the crowd. She clenched her fists. That Laura: she’s one angry kid. Her emotions seem to turn on a penny. I’m glad she doesn’t love me. Or hate me.

  • Grumbled
  • Gasped
  • Cautioned
  • Lied

These are all examples of horrible, even silly, dialogue attributions that I’ve seen in books. There’s nothing that can’t be conveyed using other means. If someone’s grumbling, what kind of mood are they in? How can we get that across to the reader without sticking it on the end of a line of dialogue? This sounds like simple stuff – basic stuff – and it is, but it’s amazing how many writers (both established and beginners) forget about the simple rules, the ones we’re first taught at school.

My personal philosophy is that it’s part of my job as a writer to convey complex thoughts, emotions and situations in as simple language as possible. I don’t want to impress a reader with my vocabulary, and I certainly don’t want to jolt them out of the story to go and look for a dictionary. Also, I want my characters to be as believable as I can make them, to speak like real people rather than ciphers. This means that they say words, they don’t sigh them. They speak in a way that’s as close to real speech as I can create.

Writing is like literary sleight of hand. You try to distract the reader so they don’t notice how you do the trick. Simple rules like this one are all part of the craft; they make it easier for a writer to slip one past the reader. Writing isn’t reality, but good, careful writing can echo reality.

Writing is a lie, a cheat that’s used to expose or elucidate some finer truth. And as every good liar knows, you need to make the lie as close as possible to the truth if you want people to believe it.


Stories matter: commissioning fiction and personal influences

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis CarrollFor me, good fiction makes sense, revealing our waking lives to ourselves (and sometimes our dreams) in ways we may not have before considered; which is a rather round-about way of saying that stories matter.

Stories have been a vital part of my life for as long as I can remember. Alice in Wonderland cracked open my imagination when my mother read it to me as a child. The reason I connected so strongly with the book is because it’s about a child interacting with a chaotic and seemingly nonsensical world, and when you’re five that’s exactly how the world feels. When I went through my first bad bout of depression as a teenager, I stopped reading horror, having somehow convinced myself that dark fiction had contributed to my mindset. Low and behold, reading mainly light comedies had absolutely no positive effect on my illness. Instead, a drop of the dark stuff helped pull me through. I can remember the book I was reading when I first started to date my wife – it was Light by M. John Harrison. When Maia, our daughter was born, I’d just set out on the epic journey of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, not quite aware of the true nature of the huge adventure we were now embarking on as a family.

Even when fiction deals with the fantastical, it reflects our lives and our world. Erikson’s aforementioned Malazan books brilliantly explore the nature of power, both political and religious, and its corrupting and potentially liberating effects. To use a personal example my first novel, Twilight of Kerberos: The Call of Kerberos, had as its central threat a massive flood and a baby as a core part of its cast of characters. In retrospect it’s easy to see how I used fiction to work out a lot of the stress caused by being flooded in 2007 and the anxiety of trying for a child as we underwent IVF treatment. Again, we can see how stories make sense of ourselves.

As a commissioning editor it’s only natural that my personal preferences are going to influence the fiction that I buy. That’s not to say that I don’t buy with a view to keeping as broad a list as possible, but stories are going to have to resonate with me on an intimate level if I’m going to want to pursue them.  I’ve mentioned Steve Rasnic Tem before in this column but it’s precisely because his stories are so honest, truthful and unafraid to explore potentially uncomfortable issues that his fiction resonates with me. When Steve and Melanie Tem wanted to explore the nature of their own family they did so in fiction, with the brilliant novella The Man on The Ceiling; a truly incredible work of fantastical biography. Steve’s heartfelt phantasmagoria, Deadfall Hotel, possibly connected to me so strongly because it deals with the issue of how you protect your child from a chaotic and indifferent world. At the time of commissioning this work, we’d just welcomed our daughter into the world, so the themes of fatherhood in this extraordinary book really struck a chord with me.

It’s when we stop telling stories, stop using narrative to enrich and talk about our lives, that the darkness can set in. For a time, my father used counselling to help artists who had stopped painting rediscover their art. There is a piece in my parent’s house that’s one of the most incredible portraits I’ve seen. It’s a portrait of my father and my father’s work, but instead of being a naturalistic picture of the man himself, it is instead a picture of light battling through and overcoming a nebulous darkness. This, to me, shows the importance of talking about our lives, using whatever expressive medium best suits us in order to rediscover and express what is within. My friend and poet, A.F. Harrold, wrote an incredibly moving piece shortly after his father died, using verse to express his grief and to say goodbye in the best way he knew how. Listening to Ashley the night he read that piece was an incredibly moving experience, one that reminded me what stories – in whatever form – are for.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing – be it dragons and wizards or social realism – what matters is that you write truthfully, telling the best story you can. Because stories matter; they deserve to be well told.


Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.

An expert’s introduction to structural editing

Bloodshot eyes editorThere are two things an editor should always bear in mind when faced with a manuscript:

  1. All novels are too long
  2. The writer has already edited the manuscript until his or her eyes have bled.

I put these thoughts upfront because a lot of what I am about to say may suggest I am promoting the butchery of manuscripts, when I am in fact demonstrating how an editor should be proactive in improving the structure of a novel.

When I say all novels are too long, I’m not suggesting a particular word limit; I mean every novel that comes to me is overwritten.  It is the hardest thing to edit your own work effectively. Emotional investment trumps intellectual engagement every time.  There are writers who are very good at it; Lil Chase talks about reducing a first draft from 74,501 to 49,501, and I’ve known writers who edit very effectively as they write, but in my experience it takes an expert second pair of eyes to perfect the structure of a novel. In 100% of these cases, this will mean cutting.

So how do I cut a novel?

Well the first question to ask is do we need that Prologue? If yes, how much can I shave off it to get the reader into the main bulk of the story as quickly as possible? Indeed, in the world of expanding electronic publishing, the need to get a story started quickly is an absolute given – think Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature; this is the battleground where readers choose or reject books.

After this I systematically go through every chapter, and every scene, looking to see if it can start later in, and finish earlier.  This is a good exercise for any writer and can profoundly change the pace of a novel.

And then there are the things that will hurt the most. If a scene does not lend itself towards advancing the story of a novel, it should be cut. No matter how good it is, how beautiful a description, how delicate a character reveal, it is junk.

I often find myself reading published novels and my attention beginning to drift just after the middle and into the last third. This is basically because the editor has not been ruthless enough to sacrifice good scenes that slow the story down. Now I’m all for a novel with a consistent leisurely pace that fits the style and thematic drive of the story, but to have an inconsistent pace often results in an uneven reading experience. This is down to bad editing – the buck stops with me.

An editor is not a tyrant. If I change something and a writer comes back at me saying this subverts the original vision of their story, character, or theme – then I will back down. The writer is right. I have a duty to be ruthless and proactive, but I must be willing to defer to the writer on fundamental ideas that he or she brings to the story. It is never my novel. If a writer trusts that you understand where they are coming from, they are far more likely to accept radical change that will improve their novel.

With this in mind, nothing is off the table. Sometimes it is possible to remove one, or two characters. If they are minor, exist only to provide background colour, and do not serve the story, what are the advantages of deleting them? Well, by removing two characters I have been able to completely lose a chapter in the middle of a book, tighten the story and keep the reader’s attention on the main characters and the primary drive of the story. If you can show this to your writer, and they trust you, they will go with you.

Of course cutting is only part of the process. The editor brings an overview to the novel that is invaluable.

Is everything in the right order?

Scenes are moveable, and it can greatly improve the structure of a story if certain events happen earlier, or later.

What is missing?

This is where the trust shared with your writer really pays off, because you have to go back to them and say the story needs new scenes to smooth transitions and make the novel logical. Not only that, but there may need to be things added which reflect deep story-structure, for instance, we need the main character to refuse the ‘call of adventure’ for as long as possible, we need perhaps two scenes that see him/her in conflict about this matter. And remember – you never write scenes for a writer. You might make alternate suggestions that solve a problem – you might work very closely with a writer on a particular passage – but you NEVER indulge in re-writing the writer. Apart from the ethical reasons for this, the writer is the driver and you are the navigator, undermine these roles and you destroy the process that makes a good book.

All these factors bring us to the end of a novel. Here the big-picture view of the editor means I must make sure that every loose end is tied up, that all characters finish their journey, that the resolution is satisfying. At the same time, we have to get out quick. Do we need that epilogue? Is it so long because the story conclusion is inadequate? If it is essential, how much can we reduce it?  If you’ve taken your writer on a journey of trust, he or she will see the need to make changes and will always, in my experience, rise to the challenge.

I always look at the structural part of a novel first – it is my particular way of working. The production of a novel is an evolution, a complex process of collaboration that moves through many stages. When these matters have been resolved, a whole new stage is started, one that involves a far finer, more detailed, approach. In the end everyone’s eyes will bleed.


Steve Haynes, EditorSteve Haynes lives and works in Cornwall. He is the commissioning editor of Proxima Books, the science-fiction, fantasy, and horror imprint of Salt Publishing.

How to write for the Internet

internet questionThe key to good quality writing for the web is content that is short, simple and direct. Chunky paragraphs, convoluted sentences and excess punctuation marks not only stick out – they can damage the integrity of the channel or brand you’re writing for. To avoid the pitfalls of bad web writing, there are a few basic rules to keep in mind.

Keep it brief

Most online readers want to quickly scan through an article for the information they need. They don’t want to plough through long, rambling sentences and huge blocks of text. Limit your word count by trimming your sentences of superfluous words and check that your paragraphs don’t exceed ten lines. Preferences vary between websites but, generally speaking, if a paragraph runs over fifteen lines it can usually be broken up for better readability.

Avoid excess punctuation

Punctuation when sparingly used allows writers to clearly structure their sentences. However, excessive use of it can make your sentences harder to read, losing impact along the way. Try to avoid more advanced punctuation, such as semi-colons, colons and multiple commas, by rewriting your sentences.

E.g. ‘It is really important to keep three things in mind when buying a new car; practicality, affordability, and maintenance.’

Should be: ‘Practicality, affordability and maintenance should be kept in mind when buying a new car.’

Pick your headlines wisely

Your headline should be a short and accurate description of the following content. Writing a clear and concise headline (e.g. ‘How to write for the Internet’ instead of ‘Ten principles of writing good-quality copy for the Internet’) means your article is more likely to crop up at the fore of search engine results. Also, make sure that your headline isn’t too generic or it’ll get lost amongst the rest. A quick Google check to size up your competition beforehand helps.

Refer to any relevant style guidelines

Many websites will have a house style guide (or at least refer to a popular style guide, such as those used by The Economist or The Guardian). These make sure that all written content is consistent across the site, particularly where style, spelling, punctuation and format are concerned. Following a style guide while writing ensures consistency and therefore maintains the site’s credibility.

Your first paragraph is key

When it comes to attracting an online audience first impressions count; readers will often assess whether or not to read an article based on the first paragraph. To keep your audience hooked, make sure your opening paragraph is unusual, attention grabbing and/or punctuated with keywords or phrases (i.e. if you’re writing an article about ‘extreme winter sports’ make sure you repeat this two to three times).

Use sub-headings to break up your article

Sub-headings help to break text up into easy-to-digest chunks, while giving the reader both a sense of aesthetic order and narrative structure. They also act as handy signposts for the reader, allowing them to quickly pinpoint the information they’re looking for.

Hyperlinks are your friend

Part of the fun of web writing is the level of interactivity that the Internet allows. Hyperlinks can be used to put any obscure references in your article into context. They can also be used to link to other media (e.g. images, videos and previously written articles) and direct traffic towards other areas of the website you’re writing for.

Make sure your writing is of high quality, relevant and interesting

Producing great-quality content should be the first rule of web writing; even so, there are plenty of examples where key words and phrases are crowbarred into an article for the sake of search engine optimisation. Yet even if a site’s content is perfectly optimised, if it isn’t relevant to the reader or engaging in style the likelihood of it attracting repeat visitors is slim.


Alexandra SzydlowskaAlexandra Szydlowska is a freelance writer and journalist, currently based in London. She is keen on roaming the world while writing about travel, culture, food and women’s issues. She sometimes struggles to stay chained to her desk.



Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part IV

Dark North by Paul FinchCan you tell our readers about your writing process? Do you plan incessantly or freestyle as you go along?

On one hand, I’m an inveterate planner. For example, with a novel or script, I tend to write a detailed chapter-by-chapter (or scene-by-scene) outline before even commencing the actual writing, though I suppose in the professional game it’s incumbent on you to do that anyway. On the other hand, I do have this tendency to jump in, to try and strike while the iron’s hot – though that applies to short stories rather than longer works. And even then, once my first wind is blown, I tend to sit back and take stock, try to work out exactly where the tale is going. Though even then, having worked out the beats on paper, that might not be the final storyline. I think, whatever you’re writing, you’ve got to be aware, throughout, that you might get an even better idea which may send you off at a tangent or may have you backtracking to make changes so that it will fit. But if it’s a better idea it’s a better idea, and it’s got to be worth the extra effort – at least that’s my view.

So I suppose, to answer the question less long-windedly, I plan whenever possible. That always helps you create a balanced structure and a clear narrative. In addition, I blitz it whenever I get one of those wonderful moments of inspiration – no matter how orderly and organised you like to be, I don’t think you can afford to ignore those moments (‘the divine breath’ as my dad used to call them). But overall I keep everything pretty loose until the final draft. And I don’t think that’s a particularly radical approach.

Do you approach short stories in a different way to longer fiction?

I think I’ve partly answered this in the question before but maybe there’s a bit more I can add. First off, writing is writing, and I don’t think the approach varies too much overall. At least it doesn’t in my case. However, there are some noticeable differences.

The general consensus seems to be that the short story is more about the short, sharp shock, even if it’s not necessarily a thriller or horror story. O’Henry, for example, one of the world’s greatest short story writers, delivered a gut-punch with every one of his short tales, even those that were essentially comedies. But that almost makes it sound as if there’s no more to short stories than the sting in the tale and I don’t think that’s true. Roald Dahl’s classic Lamb To The Slaughter is a masterful piece of short story writing. It’s as funny as it’s horrific and at the same time is an amazing murder mystery. Green Fingers by Charles Birkin is a slow-burning character-study in evil and yet at the same time is much more profound than that. Its central character is a middle-class German woman who stumbles almost blindly into participating in the Holocaust. Birkin was never regarded as having produced works of great depth and yet that story in particular is one of the most chilling I’ve ever read for all kinds of different reasons, not least what it says about ordinary everyday people and their terrible capabilities.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that good short story writing combines all the finer elements of fiction, but crisply, economically and yet with greater intensity. At least that’s what those of us who write them aspire to. The short form is a big discipline; it’s certainly not something you can knock off as a quick earner. My personal approach is to give it a lot of thought beforehand – as much, if possible (though it rarely is) as a book, screenplay or novella – to wring as much out of it as I can, and then, once it’s written, to proof it until the cows come home – though I have to be realistic, and admit that the average writer’s schedule rarely allows for this. At the end of the day, just be aware that in writing short stories, you’re writing for a community of readers who are not just fond of contemporary authors, but of those who are long dead and whose work lives on. It’s tough company in which to shine.

For all that, even more thought and planning needs to go into the longer form, be it a novel, a novella or screenplay – quite simply because you’re working on a much broader canvas, and it’s got to be filled, but filled with good, relevant stuff. The moment a story starts to sag, the audience will notice, and may abandon it. That’s the main risk of the longer form as I see it. You’ve got to stay on top of it all the way through and be ruthless with yourself. You’ve got to ensure that everything you put in adds to the product as a whole. If it doesn’t, it’s got to come out; anything that isn’t entertaining your audience in some way has to come out – even if this means you lose length.

One of the most instructive things I was ever told about writing was while I was a trainee journalist. It sounds simple, it may even sound glib, but I was reporting on some local minor issue and when I asked the editor how much he wanted, he replied: “Give it what it’s worth.” That rules applies universally in writing, as far as I can see – even to the blockbuster novel. If it’s worth 200,000 words, give it 200,000, though you’d better be sure you’re right, because people won’t read it all if it isn’t and that’s a lot of wasted effort on your part.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that, while short stories can’t be undertaken lightly, you need to be on your game – remaining sharp and focussed – for a much longer time if you’re writing something a lot meatier. Again, how do I personally approach this? The same way I do with the short story, though I feel there’s an extra dimension of discipline required with a novel. I don’t like to drag things out ad infinitum, because that way I’d never finish anything. So I always impose a fairly rigorous time-frame on my longer form writing, aiming to finish the first draft of a screenplay within a month and a novel within three months. Okay, sometimes you bust it, but at least that gives you strong motivation. You have to divide that time up sensibly of course – with a novel, making sure you write at least 2,000 words a day – but this is my day-job now, so it’s not quite as onerous as it may sound.


If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

How to find an editor to suit your needs and budget

Editors to suit your needsOver the course of the previous articles, I’ve been explaining exactly what it is a book editor does (and what they don’t). As promised, in this short article I will go on to explain how to go about finding an editor to suit your needs and pocket (unless, of course you get picked up by a major publishing house, in which they’ll have in-house editors).

The first, and best piece of advice, anyone could give would be, simply: do your research properly! In one of my previous articles on here, I mentioned that, just like publishers, editors also specialise in certain types of literature, so your first point of action should be to look for those editors who list your genre as one of their specialities. Doing this will also save you a lot of time in the long run and, more pertinently, save any editor’s time, too. There is nothing more irritating for an editor, especially after explicitly stating what types of manuscripts they are willing to work on, than to receive something entirely out of their purview. You’re wasting their valuable time, and you are also wasting your own when you could be out looking for someone more knowledgeable about your specific genre.

So, how do you go about finding one of these creatures? The best and most immediate source of information is the internet, of course, but there is one treasure-house of essential information that is always worth investing in: The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. This is an annual publication and is an absolutely indispensable sourcebook, containing everything that you should ever need as a writer who is absolutely serious about their work. However, if such a book isn’t your kind of thing, it goes without saying that the majority (if not all) of those featured in the listings have their own websites, all of which can be found through a search engine: however the Yearbook will save you an enormous amount of time, enabling you to hone in on those editors who work within your particular area in fairly quick order.

Once you find some likely candidates that match your criteria, contact them (via email). One point to emphasise here: don’t send them your manuscript with your first email! The purpose of that initial email is to make contact and get some discussions going. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – I would say it’s expected. Conversely, they’ll want to ask you questions as well, as they’ll also want to satisfy themselves that they can work with you. A further point to ponder is does their website have testimonials from those they have previously worked with? This can be like gold to an editor: unsolicited testimonials from satisfied customers praising the work of their editor counts for a heck of a lot, and what they have to say should also be taken into account when making your choice.

In making the decision on who to employ, don’t go for the least expensive option: just like in all other fields, you pays your money and you takes your choice.  Neither should you go for the most expensive – it doesn’t necessarily follow that someone who charges top whack is any better than someone else whose fees are absolutely rock-bottom. The only gauge of quality should be how well they’ve edited a book or two, and whether the edits they’ve made are unobtrusive and appropriate. It also goes without saying that you shouldn’t take on the first person you find – it may be convenient and save time, but ultimately it might not represent value for money in the long run.

Other methods of finding an editor are social media platforms and conventions – being a writer, chances are your social media friends list is full of authors and, naturally, conventions are the ideal place for meeting editors in real life. At least at the latter events, you and any potential editors can discuss needs and requirements without having to wait for email replies and what have you. In addition, personal recommendations from other writers is a very good way of being introduced to that particular person who will help you craft a good piece of work, plus you can also find out what they are like to work with. You not only want someone who can do a good job: their approach also has to be professional, they must be willing to work with you, to produce work to a deadline and they should be completely open to discussion about your material. (Of course, it also works the other way – editing is an exercise in mutual reciprocation: you want your story to shine, which the editor also wants because it ultimately reflects well on them, BUT he/she has the experience to know what works and what doesn’t. You are paying for their expertise, after all – as an analogy, if you want an extension to your house built, you employ someone who knows what they’re doing – they would take umbrage if you started telling them how to do their job, but simultaneously they will do their level best to make what you want a reality).

As I’ve said elsewhere, editing is a collaborative effort between writer and editor. A good one will help shape your work to show it off to its best advantage. Whilst it is true that the author is the main star of the piece, a lot of credit must still go to that unsung hero, the editor. They can not only help sculpt your work into something to be proud of, they can also teach you about things which you may not have been aware of, such as hints on pacing, plot structure and the flow of the story. Above all that, a good editor will also give you a fair assessment of your potential as a writer – as an editor myself, I would dearly like to see all my clients succeed and do well for themselves, but if I don’t think they’ll make the grade then I will tell them what they need to work on to increase their chances.

After a while, some writers build up such a rapport with their editors that the working relationship is something akin to symbiosis – certainly the editor will understand the needs of the client, and how he/she works and writes. That kind of relationship is worth a lot and it is perhaps something worthwhile aiming for, because it means that it’s become more than just a customer/client thing, but something more vibrant and fundamental.  In other words, your goal is to find the editor who works the best for you and your writing – simply your work will ultimately benefit from it immensely.


Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part II

Paul Finch, WriterHow does your approach vary when writing for the screen and page?

Well, they both start out the same way, but the nature of the two beasts is essentially different. First of all, in both cases, you have to convince someone – either a producer or a publisher that you’ve got a great premise. In both cases you’ve then got to go off and write an impressive treatment. But from the moment they okay it, the two courses diverge.

If you’re writing a screenplay, you’re in company almost all the way through. Okay, you’ll write your first draft on your own, but after that your script editor, your producer, maybe even your director, will have an awful lot to say about its development, and I won’t pretend that this doesn’t give you problems. Trying to serve more than one master in any walk of like is extraordinarily difficult – and it happens a lot in film and TV, because artistic types differ on what they think will work, and often it’s something that is purely subjective, which can be mind-bogglingly frustrating. You’ll do rewrite after rewrite until everyone is finally satisfied. But when the finance people are brought in, you’ll have to do a whole lot more – because they think that because they are paying for the film, they have a say in its artistic development too. At some stage you may find that another writer gets attached; you may even be replaced. It sounds horrible I know, but that is a hazard of film and TV scripting. Just make sure beforehand that it’s in the contract you’ll still be paid the full fee and still be credited as lead writer.

Of course, that would be unthinkable in terms of a novel. I always say this to people who ask me which is the easiest route – well, neither of them are easy, but can you imagine writing a novel and half way through your editor gives you a call and says: “Thanks for your efforts. Someone else will take it from here.” It just wouldn’t happen. In novel writing, the chain of command is much shorter, and there are far fewer people to try and please. In my novel experience, I’ve dealt with the commissioning editor and the senior editor, and that is about it. Okay, they will always request changes, alterations and sometimes extensive rewrites, but you don’t tend to find yourself in daily telephone conversations about this and receiving reams of notes from various different people, some of which contradict each other. And for that reason, I feel writing a novel is a gentler, more relaxed process.

So when you ask how does my approach vary, I’d have to say that it’s primarily a mental thing. If you’re writing a script you might as well accept from the beginning that it’s going to be much more of a team effort. You can’t afford to be precious or proprietorial about film or TV. Understand from the outset that it isn’t really your project and you won’t end up being disappointed.

Do you think you have gained any skills that overlap from screenwriting to prose?

Yes. Screenwriting has improved my other writing no end. It’s taught me to be punchy and succinct, to try and say much more with much less. Many writers of course do that naturally. But I didn’t when I first started out. I had a tendency to overwrite – it was my main weakness. However, when you’re writing a script the only thing you’re putting on paper is the dialogue and the bare minimum stage directions and scene setters the director needs in order to create his vision. In other words, you’re telling a complete story with as little as possible. You are developing characters and unfolding a subtext as stringently as you can.

It’s an intense discipline, not something you can carry over into a novel completely – the average reader would feel very short-changed if that was something you served him, but it’s a great attitude to have when you’re writing a book because it enables you to do the most important job first – lay down the bare bones of a great story – and then add any necessary extra material, the descriptive prose, the steams of consciousness and so on, to create a fuller picture.

I’ve been told that my prose has a very filmic style in that I tend to write in scenes, each one ending with a cliff-hanger. If so, that’s entirely down to my film-writing experience. It’s not to everyone’s taste – I’m well aware of that, but quite a few people seem to like it, and from a personal POV, I find that it helps me produce a tight, linear and very visual narrative.

As well as writing for The Bill on television, you have penned a number of screenplays. What are the major differences between writing for television and film?

There are less these days than there used to be. In the early days of TV, what you basically got were stage-plays on television. Minuscule budgets, restricted studio space and limited camera facility meant that you didn’t very often go beyond the three walls of the main set, and so you had to tell the story primarily through dialogue, and this meant there was lots of it. Anyone watching re-runs of any classic screenplays of the 1980s and earlier, maybe even stuff from as recently as the 1990s, will probably be surprised at how static and talkie they seem. These days TV is very different and much more tightly edited, much more filmic – as exemplified by the modern incarnation of Dr Who, for example, which has lots of short scenes, very little explanatory dialogue and vastly more FX than it used to. This was the way TV had to go in an era when high-energy computer games provide rival entertainment, and all kinds of blockbuster movies are available on download. That said, much present day television is still strongly based around personal drama rather than pretty imagery, so though it tends to look a lot better than it did, it’s not quite as concise a medium as film.

Cinematic movies are still what they have been since their inception in the silent era: mainly a visual experience. It really is all about telling a story through pictures, which is why the directors are so lauded. As the writer, you still have to lay out the narrative and create the drama, but less is more when it comes to dialogue, and exposition has almost no place at all. I’ll give you an example – take a movie like The French Connection (1971): there is very little dialogue in the entire film – many scenes feature none at all, and many feature no more than one or two lines – and yet it’s so well-made, so visually driven a plot, that you barely notice. It doesn’t matter that we have almost no details about the troubled history of Popeye Doyle, or who the other cop is he accidentally killed, or the drugs baron Alain Charnier, or how he got to be France’s number one heroin exporter – we just accept all this because we’re so engrossed in the fast-moving, skin tight narrative.

Writing that way is a discipline that you must acquire if you want to pen movies. And that’s another thing – not only do you have to tell a story with the minimum chat, you have to make the chat count, so quality dialogue tends to be the rule in movies even if it isn’t the kind of dialogue you hear in real life (just because Quentin Tarantino gets away with scripting the kind of meandering, repetitive conversations people have on the street, doesn’t mean every other screen-writer can). The same applies to scene setting and stage-directions. You need to keep those to a minimum. When writing a movie script, rather than fill it with detailed prose, you only need put in what the producer and the director need to know, a) because they will have their own ideas about how it should look anyway, and b) because it will look as good as they ultimately can afford it to look. So for example, ‘a luxuriant tract of jungle, thick with vine and leaf, with a muddy road winding through it, the sort only pack-animals could use’ becomes ‘a thick jungle with a muddy road’, and ‘the two cars roar along the darkened street neck-and-neck like modern-day chariots, striking sparks off each other, the red one veering in front of the blue one, the blue one veering in front of the red’ becomes ‘the cars race dangerously along the darkened street’.

You also have a duty when writing a movie to keep ramping up the tension. People go to the cinema for the same reason they go to fairgrounds – to experience a couple of hours of entertainment. A couple of hours – that’s all they’ve got – so it’s got to be intense. When writing a movie, there’s no room for padding, and I’m not just talking about action and thriller movies here. Even a serious drama must keep the audience on the edge of their seats, so as the writer it’s your job to make sure that every scene ends on some kind of ‘OMG’.

I was quite fortunate when I made my transition from TV to movie-writing as episodes of The Bill were usually about 30% exterior shoots, often entailing action – fighting, chasing and so forth – fast, fluid sequences which required crisp scripting, minimal dialogue and much variation of camera angles – so I had a fairly good grounding in those essential techniques.


If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Playing Nicely With Others – Writing in The Shared Worlds of Abaddon Books

Arrowhead by Paul KaneIt was, from the outside, admittedly, an odd proposal: take the model used by publishers of tie-in fiction, and use it to create original worlds without any link to a game, film, TV series etc etc. Abaddon Books was established in 2006 by myself (in the role of Editor-in-Chief) and Jason and Chris Kingsley at Rebellion. Before I joined, Rebellion had been known principally for two things – video games and 2000 AD. However, the Kingsleys were keen to extend the remit of the company and go into publishing genre fiction. Jason and Chris are also very much interested in generating new Intellectual Properties that can then go on to be used in a variety of different media. Abaddon Books, then, was created to be an ideas factory.

The first stage in setting up the imprint was deciding what flavours of fiction we wanted to publish; what worlds we thought genre fans would like to see. The first four series created for Abaddon were Pax Britannia (a steampunk adventure series, principally written by Jonathan Green), Dreams of Inan (a sci-fi/fantasy trilogy), Tomes of The Dead (a long-running collection of zombie novels) and The Afterblight Chronicles (a series set in a post-apocalyptic world). The challenge then was to get in the authors and make sure they all sung from the same hymn-sheet, whichever of our worlds they were working in. To some this may sounds like a logistical nightmare – visions of huge, weighty world bibles come to mind, and painstakingly-checked continuity – but that really wasn’t where the challenges lay. What Abaddon is for, is telling lots of different types of stories, within several different ‘flavours’ of fiction. So, while we have certain story arcs within our series (the St Mark’s trilogy in The Afterblight Chronicles springs to mind, and Ulysses’ Quicksilver’s adventure in Pax Britannia), it’s been much more important to us that our authors stay true to the spirit of a series, rather than feel tied-down by any perceived rules and regulations.

I know that rather than feeling this to be a limiting influence on their writing,  most of our authors find this a liberating experience. Al Ewing, for example, whose first novel I was very lucky to have published, really used the series he wrote in to run wild with his imagination. His novel I, Zombie for the Tomes of the Dead, for example, took a zombie story and within three or so chapters had totally turned it on its head, introducing aliens, the royal family, a Buckingham Palace that turned into a walking battle droid and all sorts of… madness. In Scott Andrew’s St Mark’s trilogy, the author used the themes of apocalypse and a small community to explore some weighty issues and themes.

Of course, Abaddon is a work-for-hire publisher, meaning that our authors assign the copyright in their stories to us, and naturally this isn’t going to be for everybody. However, we have provided a terrific opportunity for new writers, or those authors wanting to try their hand at something different. I’ve been very encouraged to see some of the authors we’ve introduced to the world, go on to wider acclaim. I’ve always been very proud that we published the first mass market paperbacks of such brilliant writers as Gary McMahon, Chuck Wendig and Simon Bestwick.

And what this really comes down to, and hence the title of this article, is sharing the experience of the act of creation with our authors. Both myself and my co-editor David Moore take great delight in working alongside our writers to create new series of fun, brilliantly written and innovative genre fiction. I believe that this collaborative effort has produced some startling works of genre fiction, and I know that our readers will be delighted by some of the surprises we have coming their way in 2013.


Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.

If you enjoyed Jonathan’s article why not buy one of his books? Please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Buy Jonathan Oliver books (UK)
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Interview: Lil Chase on language, editing and routine

Sam Bonner recently caught up with Lil Chase, a fellow Creative Writing classmate of his from London Metropolitan University, to talk about writing and editing. Since leaving university, she has gone on to publish two books for teens with Quercus, Boys For Beginners and Secrets, Lies & Locker 62.

Lil ChaseWhat is your writing routine and do you have a set amount of words to write or time to spend per session?

Sticking to the writing routine is the hardest thing about being a writer. I have a part-time day job so on the days that I’m working I come home from work, walk the dog, eat dinner, then head up to my desk at 9pm. I tell myself that I only have to write for twenty minutes, but when I get there I usually write for an hour or two. I also spend one day of the weekend working. I have heard that some people aim for word count targets, but I find that too intimidating. I accept that there are some days when the words won’t come, but if I stick to a routine no matter what, I’ll be back again writing the next day, when hopefully the words will be back too.

Explain how the use of language affects the pace of a YA book. What are some of the genre trappings you try and avoid when writing?

Language affects pace in all books: every word choice is crucial. It’s hard with YA because teens use so much slang in their speech, and slang is always changing. I try to use slang that is unlikely to date, and also invent new slang; that way it will never date. Inventing slang is also a good way to avoid swearing. So Gwynnie, in Boys For Beginners, says ‘What the flan [am I going to do?]’ quite a lot. Maya in Secrets, Lies & Locker 62 uses variations of the word ‘hideous’ and makes that her thing that she says.

How much do you edit after you have finished the first draft? And how much do you have once a new editor comes aboard?

I have said many a time, “I’m not a very good writer, but I am a very good editor.” The writing is done quickly, over a few months, and I overwrite like mad: the first draft of Secrets, Lies and Locker 62 was 74,501 words. The final draft was 49,396 words(!). By cutting back that much you can make sure that every word is a good one.

Outside editorial feedback is essential, and my editor at Quercus is amazing at picking out the parts to change to make the book more cohesive. I’m always amazed at how each round of edits improves the manuscript and I have never disagreed with a suggestion she’s made…even if it hurts to hear it at first.

What literary tools do you employ to engage with a reader?

I took a BA in Creative Writing and some of the most helpful modules were the poetry modules (there is a little poetry in Secrets, Lies & Locker 62, but that’s not really what I mean). Poetry is a really good way to learn how to use language effectively: how an image can convey so much more than a statement (essentially, show, don’t tell). How the last word of a sentence should be the word with the most punch. How ‘less is more’ is always the best policy. I wouldn’t ever advocate ‘flowery prose’ in novels, especially not for teens, but being aware of the power of each one of your words is terribly important.

What, in your opinion, distinguishes your writing from your peers in your genre?

Hmm, this is a tricky one. I write in the first person – which many YA authors do – but I really work hard to make that young teen voice authentic. When I write a sentence I ask myself, “can I imagine a 13 year old saying that?” When was the last time you heard a 13 year old use the word, ‘exclaim’ or ‘retort’ or ‘pondered’. Actually, when did you hear anyone use those words outside of a book?

But there are plenty of writers who get this spot on: Louise Rennison is an obvious choice. Chris Higgins is another. Melvin Burges for slightly older readers. Their writing feels 100% authentic, and teens love it.

Explain how you learned the craft of writing, and what you believe have been the most integral areas of this learning process.

Practice, practice, practice. Keep reading – to learn what styles you’d like to emulate and what styles you don’t want to emulate. Keep writing – to develop your voice, and to get in the habit of the writing routine. Keep listening to criticism – it’s always useful, even if you ignore it. If you are not able to take a degree in Creative Writing as I did, then read Story by Robert McKee. It’s about screenwriting, but it works for novel writing too. It is, in my opinion, the most useful book on storytelling available. His focus is on moving your story forward so as not to bore your readers. And he gives you the techniques on how to do just that.

What books would you say you learnt the most from with regards to your own writing style?

Before writing my first teen book – Boys For Beginners – I read Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging. It is unbelievably funny. As an adult, you read it with such nostalgia thinking “Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what it was like.” I genuinely did not know that books for teens were allowed to be that good, that kind of no-holds-barred funny. It was an inspiration.


Learn more about Lil Chase.

If you enjoyed our interview and want to read Lil Chase’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Lil Chase fiction (UK)
Lil Chase fiction (US)

When the words won’t come (the struggles of writing and editing)

The Wrath of Kerberos by Jonathan OliverI should be writing. Obviously I’m writing this, but I mean writing writing. Fiction writing. Because as well as being an editor, part of what defines me, mostly to myself admittedly, is that I’m a writer.

I’m not a very prolific writer. Over the years I’ve scribbled a bunch of short stories and had two relatively obscure novels published. I’ve never garnered huge critical acclaim, but neither has the criticism been harsh or unpleasant. And I’ve certainly never made bags of money from it. So, why do it at all? And the answer, as corny as this sounds, is that I can’t not.

But the fact of the matter is that right now I’m not. I finished a story recently, one of which I’m very proud – ‘Raise The Beam High’ to appear in the anthology A Town Called Pandemonium this November – and that was nice to do, but I haven’t written any fiction in about a month now.

I know roughly what I want to do. I’ve had this character in my head for at least 8 years and I know roughly the story I want to tell. But will the words come? Will they fuck!

I’ve written about four lines of dialogue and that’s it.

I think that the problem is that this next thing is a novel, and having written two already, I’m well aware of the challenges writing a novel poses. I have a full-time job, a wife and an eighteenth month old daughter. Novels take a long time to write. Finding the time in such circumstances is tricky. And, let’s face it, when I get home from work, having read fiction all day, sometimes I’d rather put on the Xbox or watch a movie than deal with more words. But like I said, I’ve written two novels before. Maia – our daughter – arrived half way through the second and I still managed to write it.

So, why can’t I this time?

The answer, of course, is that I can. The only solution to the problem of not being able to write, is to write. There’s no magic formula, no amount of planning or prevaricating is going to be a substitute for getting words onto the page. That, at its base level, is really all there is to writing.

That’s not to say writing is easy. I’ve never ever found the experience easy, and yet I still do it. If it’s going badly, I convince myself I’m rubbish. If it’s going really well, there’s a part of me that’s saying to myself, “this is coming too easy, there must therefore be something wrong.”

Writers, huh? Neurotic buggers.

This self-doubt, these common concerns experienced by pretty much every writer ever, (although maybe Dan Brown sits typing on his throne of $1000 dollar bills, wildly grinning to himself and cackling, “Solid gold, Brown! Solid Gold!”) are also experienced by the editor.

I would love (absolutely fucking love) to be that ideal of an editor: that suave, slightly academic individual, who chooses his words with care, holds forth with great wit at dinner parties and has absolute confidence in every one of his decisions and knows the formula to success. But that’s the ideal. It doesn’t exist, even though I really really want it to. The truth of the matter is that editors are as neurotic as writers. I worry about every single one of my babies (and by babies, I mean the works I publish [see, I told you I was neurotic, this is all getting disturbingly Freudian]). I commission the books and stories I love and I desperately hope that everybody will love them as much as I do and that they’ll find a place in people’s hearts and make everybody wealthy and happy and artistically fulfilled and… and.. and that truth and justice will prevail…and our children are the future… and

And, relax.

You can see, I’m sure, how difficult it is for me. And I’m sure your heart bleeds. No really.

But none of this changes the fact that I’m not writing.

I guess I’ll take another look at those four lines of dialogue, and maybe, if I’m feeling brave enough, I’ll add four more.


Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.

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What can I do to become a better writer?

writing notepadAll artists want to become better at their craft – writers are no exception. One of the most frequently asked questions within the business is, “what can I do to become a better writer?” Unfortunately there is no magic formula or quick fix that will ensure you’re a better writer, but reading and listening to those that are already better than you and understand the craft is absolutely invaluable. With that said, here are a few words from some of the best writers and professionals in the business.

“Be clear, be concise and always, always follow your heart, not the money. Explore what genuinely excites you on the deepest possible level. Interrogate and challenge yourself, because if it feels safe, you are doing something wrong.”

Stephen Volk

“Read widely across a variety of genres because you can always find different writing techniques that can be used in your own work. It can add texture to your prose that might not otherwise be there if you stick to just one genre.

Write something every day even if it’s just a micro-fiction or a paragraph about anything at all – just keep in practice. Grow a thick skin and learn how to distinguish the helpful advice from the unhelpful, and always remember that the first draft is never, ever the last draft…”

Angela Slatter

“Like Stephen King and everybody says, just read. And read and read and read. Read things you don’t expect to like. Read stuff off the best-seller list. Read stuff that’s fifty years old and has stains all over it. Read read read. But hopefully this goes without saying, too. So — but this is just as obvious — write. A whole lot. With me, twenty or thirty stories in, I felt like I had a handle on the craft. Some good suspicions anyway. But then I got to sixty or so stories and it was like a little distant bell chimed in some dark recess of my head, and I recognised that, oh, yeah, this is how you do it. This is how you write. Which, you forget it all after each story, have to learn it all again every time. It doesn’t necessarily get easier, but you get more confidence, kind of. That, if you have one line, one scene, one chapter, then the next is going to be there waiting. Also, a big trick is not miring down in just one story for months. I like Bradbury’s model, of a story a week. You learn a lot that way, and produce a lot. And, I guess the easy answer to this, and I maybe should have started there, it’s ‘Have talent.’ But, talent or not, you still need to hone it. And you can’t do that without setting pen to paper over and over, every chance you get.”

Stephen Graham Jones

“I am presuming that, as a writer, you have an extensive vocabulary and a reasonable knowledge of grammar and sentence structure. After that, the secret is to live whatever you are writing as if you were really there. Forget about the page or the screen in front of you. Be there. Feel the wind. Hear the voices of people talking behind you. No matter how much research you have done, tell the story as if you are living it. Your research will come over without you lecturing your readers. Cut out any fancy words that people won’t understand. Get the rhythm of your sentences right so that they don’t jar when people read them. Write lots of poetry and very short fiction for practise. If you can’t write a poem you can’t write a novel. This is a very abbreviated version of my words about writing. You can check out more at the Fiction section of my website under the heading Rules of Writing.”

Graham Masterton

“Writers first begin to sell consistently when they find their own particular way of writing complete, satisfying stories. And once you find your own particular way that works it’s tempting to stay in that mode your entire career. But to improve as a writer you have to step away from that, writing stories about subjects and emotions which make you feel uncomfortable, using unfamiliar approaches and structures, sometimes pushing aside what you know about genre or even what constitutes a story in order to discover a new ‘way’ with each piece you write. Most importantly, you have to start writing stories you may believe you’re not yet good enough to write. Don’t be afraid of writing a ‘bad’ story–sometimes you will–it’s the price you pay for risk.”

Steve Rasnic Tem


Conrad Williams

To become a better writer I must continue to be vigilant with each line of prose, omitting unnecessary words. I’ve now got into the habit of challenging every sentence by asking myself whether it could work as well with fewer words. Often I find that a phrase consisting of two words can be replaced with just one. Other words like ‘now’, ‘then’ and ‘well’ can often be removed altogether. The finished product – leaner, zippier – gets closer to the way experienced professionals write. The reader perceives no ‘slack’. Incidentally, that second sentence above – the one that starts, ‘I’ve now got into the habit . . .’ – well, we can lose that ‘now’ easily enough. That’s how fussy you have to be.”

Gary Fry

“I’m always wary of any kind of writing advice, so let me answer this question in terms of myself. It’s my belief that everyone can become a better writer. We all strive towards the kind of perfection that we will never reach. For me, I believe that practice is the key. I write all the time, and nothing is wasted. I write and I write and I write, and then I write some more. I also read the best to see how they do it. Reading crap is a waste of time. It teaches you nothing but how not to write. By doing these things, I hope that each new writing project is better than the last, and that I understand the mechanics better through repetition. Hopefully before I die I’ll have become the best writer that I can be – because I’m not in competition with my peers. I’m in competition with myself.”

Gary McMahon


An introduction to screenwriting: suspension of belief

Why do so many horror (and fantasy & science fiction) films play fast and loose with common sense?

Stone Cold Steve AustinYou’re familar with the scene; you’ve seen it time and again, ever since you were a kid sneaking a late-night scary movie on TV after your parents had gone to bed. The ingredients: attractive scantily clad girl-woman; old house in the woods at the dead of night; raging thunderstorm; bolt of lightning that fries the fuses; trembling torchlight exploration; a coughing sound a bit like a chainsaw pull-start coming from the basement…

Okay, so what happens next? Does she: (a) grab some clothes and get the HELL out of there, or (b) tiptoe to the basement door, open it, call “Is anybody there?” and follow the dim torch-beam down the stairs, one small step at a time, to her almost certain bloody demise?

See, that’s the problem, right there in a nutshell. What she does is the opposite of what you’d do, what anyone in their right mind would do, especially if scantily clad. The writing flies in the face of all logic. Even Stone Cold Steve Austin would make Olympic time hightailing it out of there because it’s doubtful that who or whatever made that noise is someone nice with your best interests at heart. At this point the willing suspension of disbelief is shattered in anyone over the age of, say, 14 – the very people for whom you’d be forgiven for thinking horror films are actually made. And once that suspension is shattered, it’s nigh-on impossible to build it back up again.

Many ‘fantastic’ genre films (horror and its cousins fantasy and science fiction) fail to suspend viewers’ disbelief at crucial junctures because of a propensity to formulaic plotting and over-familiar tropes. They habitually display cavalier attitudes to situational credibility and motivational integrity. Horror screenwriting almost by definition issues a licence to play fast and loose with the rules of logic, but this has led to a basic disregard for those rules and, by extension, for viewers. Audiences appreciate careful crafting of a solid three-dimensional universe, populated with believable characters whose actions are driven by their personalities and traits, much more than crude plot necessity to deliver scantily clad Girl A into the bloodstained bludgeoning hands of the Butcher in the Basement.

Fantasy and SF hold an advantage over horror; because they are made for younger audiences they are more easily forgiven for operating on plot logic that poses no problems for the average 14 year-old.

Indeed, fantasy comes with its own inbuilt get-out-of-jail-free card: magic. Once you can invoke magic you can use it to get out of any plot situation, no matter how impossible. This is also known as cheating. It’s the equivalent of the clause in a contract that reserves the right to amend it in any way at any time – so whether the document is one page long or a hundred, that’s the only clause that matters. Why slog to invent an ingenious solution when you can simply invoke the magic clause? And yes, sacred cow The Lord of the Rings, I am looking at you.

From its early days SF too has humped its own anti-logic cross. Frederik Pohl wrote “When print science fiction is translated into film science fiction the subtle parts are left out.” The media coined a pejorative term for these commercial mutations, which unfortunately has become the default for all science fiction: ‘sci-fi’. Harlan Ellison, SF’s most strident voice, summarised the distinction: “The public image of what is, and what ain’t, science fiction film – an image as twisted as one of Tod Browning’s Freaks – is the result of decades of paralogia, arrogant stupidity, conscious flummery, and amateurism that have comprised the universal curriculum of milieu that passes for filmic education for a gullible audience. If it goes bangity-bang in space; if it throbs and screams and breaks out of its shell with slimy malevolence; if it seeks to enslave your body, your mind, your gonads or your planet; if it looks cuddly and beeps a lot, it’s ‘sci-fi’. We pronounce that: skiffy. And if you love fantasy, you’ll love skiffy. And skiffy is to science fiction as Attila was to good table manners.” Skiffy is what happens when you remove the science and allow the fantastic free rein.

Most 14 year-olds will forgive bad science, muddled reasoning, absurd plot developments, ridiculous decisions and 5% solutions as long as things explode loudly, ugly creatures slice each other up in dank caves and scantily clad girls-women look great and scream loudly as they meet their unmaker. Horror audiences should, in theory, reject such clumsy, unsubtle machinations, yet they keep coming back for more despite films digging wider and deeper logic graves from which their characters have no chance of escape. In horror narratives the dangers to protagonists from butchers, monsters and psychos can be chickenfeed compared to those posed by clunky, cringe-worthy plotting.

So if this unholy state of affairs has always existed, what factors are making it worse today? I’ll set the monsters’ ball rolling with a few thoughts, I’m sure you can add more of your own.

Hollywood-led dilution of adult material in favour of a wider appeal to younger audiences

In chasing the extra box-office bucks of the tween generation, studios have alienated those older folks discerning enough to remember and value multi-layered plots, complex characters and narratives that go beyond the superficial to supply subtext, symbolism and thematic depth.

Filmmaking-by-numbers instant production processes

The screenplay is the single most important element of a film but in reality it is often the least developed one, sacrificed at the altar of haemorrhaging production dollars. The producers’ meter is ticking from the moment they commission or purchase the script, so they want to make the film yesterday whether the script is ready or not. And because they rarely cough up development dough, it’s likely to be half-baked at best.

The writer’s need to eat meets the industry’s need to turn a profit

Screenwriters almost never walk into gigs by creating an amazing original work that a producer just has to make with its aesthetic integrity intact. Rather, they’re awarded to whomever might sell the most sausages for producers and investors on the other side of the mincing machine. Commercial considerations often mean that horror scripts are placed in the hands of writers with little understanding of the genre. How can they know what works and what doesn’t if they have no feeling for how the codes and conventions of the genre have evolved, nor how those codes can be extended, or better still, subverted? They’d be well advised to concentrate on building a fantastic universe with its own tight-knit set of rules, as considered as a classy crime thriller. When time is money though, where is their incentive to do better work and take longer over it if the damn flick is going to be turned around double-quick regardless?

What the hell is going on?

Closely linked with the previous point is the ever-growing need for writers to explain exactly what is happening in excruciating detail, or avoid explaining anything because doing so would only give rise to awkward questions. Some auteurs like David Lynch have explored the abstract while steadfastly refusing to explain it, but they tend to have a deep inner understanding of their metaphysical territory. How can Lynch give a meaningful account of why a suited dwarf is speaking in reverse in a room with monochrome zigzag patterned flooring and red velvet curtains? We get it on an instinctual level, but struggle to put it into words. Some writers employ sixth-form surrealism and refrain from attempting narrative cohesion, so the result is beyond comprehension and we’re left not knowing or caring what happens or why. On the flipside, and equally as bad, others over-elaborate by hammering us into the ground with the bleedin’ obvious; a non-aficionado’s desire to explain the inexplicable, thus rendering it ludicrous or just plain cardboard.

Technological advances and social changes

The late, great Dan O’Bannon – creator of Alien; writer, star and de facto co-director of Dark Star; director of Return of the Living Dead – said that when technology is capable of putting anything on the screen, the first casualty is every other aspect of the film. The most serious one is the script. The scariest things are not guts splattered across the screen, but the unseen eviscerations that happen just off it. The spectator’s subconscious mind delivers horror punch-lines far more effectively than 3D CGI can. Directors like Hitchcock knew this very well; indeed, they had to supply most of their shocks through suggestion as the censorship policies of their era did not accommodate on-screen atrocities. And a very good thing that was, too. Modern writers and directors would do well to study and recreate the genuine atmospheric dread of yesteryear instead of decorating apartments with slimy entrails and thinking their job is done.

Tired tropes and contemptuous caricatures

Absence makes the heart grow fonder; familiarity breeds contempt. Zombies, vampires, werewolves, toxic monsters – anything that transforms or somehow cheats death – mostly obey predictable and unsatisfying formulae, and their very presence is becoming a turn-off. On the rare occasions a wunderkind comes along and breathes new death into them, there’s a surge of hope that this may herald a quality watershed – but then the next batch arrives and normal service is resumed. Trying to update the rules is hard but rewarding when you do it right, and far better than slavishly aping them. Just make sure that you don’t try something real stoopid like making vampires able to walk in daylight, and glow in the sun. Oh, er, hang on… (I can forgive Blade for the former, but not Tw*l*ght.)

That’ll do for now. There are plenty more reasons of course, so throw in a few of your own. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a short list of films that in my honest opinion create a good solid force-field of suspension of disbelief around themselves; plus somewhere the force-field is more like a moth-eaten nightdress (not unlike the one our attractive girl-woman is nearly wearing) with holes that leak belief by the moment; and finally a few that are so stylised, mad-in-a-good-way, or both, that suspension of disbelief never becomes an issue – you’re just happy to be along for the ride.

Force-field intact: Pan’s Labyrinth / The Exorcist / Texas Chainsaw Massacre (you know which one) / Dawn of the Dead (ditto) / Alien / The Shining / Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer / The Vanishing / Halloween / An American Werewolf in London / Psycho

Holy moth-eaten nightdress Batman: The Human Centipede / Tw*l*ght / What Lies Beneath / Prince of Darkness / Planet of the Apes re-imagining (a personal nadir; if only imagination had played any part) / Halloween II / Exorcist II: the Heretic / An American Werewolf in Paris

Divine madness: The Evil Dead / Phantasm / Suspiria / Videodrome / Troll Hunter / Eraserhead / Possession / Audition / Carnival Of Souls


John CostelloJohn Costello is a freelance author, screenwriter, script analyst, lecturer and electronic musician. His sole author credits include Writing A Screenplay (2002, last ed. 2006), David Cronenberg (2000) and Science Fiction Films (2004), all published by Pocket Essentials.