Saturday 24 September 2011

This one's for the writers

There are a lot of writers out there. Most of the people who initiate a chat with me on FaceBook are writing something. Three of the four people who drifted out of the crowd for a signed book at my first and only signing were writing their own opus. And the father of the fourth one soon came to stand at his daughter’s side to declare that he too had a Work In Progress. The editors of magazines featuring short stories by and large acknowledge that most of their readers are also sending in submissions.

The question that almost all of these writers get around to, generally sooner rather than later, is how did I do it? What’s the secret code? What do I advise them to do next?
So this one is for the writers amongst you.

Asking that question – the big ‘HOW?’ the question that can be beaten into many shapes and sizes, is a sensible thing to do. I didn’t ask it myself because I never really believed there was a ‘how’, but it takes only a small touch of optimism to believe there is, and armed with that faith the sensible step is to ask someone who has jumped the hurdle.

I went through a stage of enjoying those metal puzzles you can get, interlocked loops and whatnot, all begging to be separated. Well, truth be told I enjoyed the first one or two, then everyone started buying them for me and I was buried in a sea of the shiny bastards. The thing is that whenever I solved a tricky one, the kids would cluster around and ask me how I did it. And generally speaking I had no idea. The puzzles just fell apart in my hand when I stopped thinking about it. And the reason I’ve led you down this back-alley? Simply to say that just because someone has done something doesn’t mean they know how they did it or can explain it to you or can even do it again. What I did with the puzzles was to say ‘watch’ and try to do it again. So all I can do writing-wise is say, ‘here’s what happened’ and leave you to draw your own conclusions.

In 2006 I got my first ever check for writing fiction, a princely $31 for ‘Song of the Mind-born’, from a now defunct magazine. I still have the check on the wall in a $1 frame. The story had done the rounds and been rejected by a fair number of mags. Rejections included ‘Black Gate’ which I’ve found to be an excellent market, both for good feedback and for being interested in good stories without any pseudo-intellectual snobbery, secret aesthetic, or requirement for your tale to present the three pillars of political correctness in exciting new colours.

By 2006 I’d written Prince of Thorns, destined to spend nearly three years in an electronic bottom drawer.

That fantasy story you love, the one where the farm boy gets the sword and kills that monster so the bad overlord is cast down and the princess is freed ... Prince of Thorns isn’t that one. Those stories, wrapped up in more sophisticated prose with a twist and turn and an OMG, are great. They're the strength and the curse of the genre. I didn't write one. I wrote an ugly awkward thing that has seriously made someone blog 'I got that horrible feeling in my tummy and could not read any more'. Prince of Thorns is an ungentle book.

I wrote a lot of short stories between 2001 and 2006 and sent them to a lot of magazines. I’ll focus on my experience with Black Gate as the most instructive. Black Gate turned down about five of my short stories. John O’Neill writes the best rejections of any magazine editor I’ve ever encountered, and believe me if we lived pre-email I would have enough rejections to reconstitute a sizeable tree. Reading an O’Neill rejection you know that the man has read your submission from top to bottom and put some thought into letting you know why he’s not going to pay you for it. He lets you walk away with dignity and hope.

This was the last O’Neill rejection I got: “It is with great pain that I am forced to reject you yet again. I really liked this story and read to the end, even though I was sure after the first few paragraphs that it wouldn't be a fit for Black Gate. It was very nicely done, and hit me on an emotional level. It works at all levels, I think -- except it's not a fit for Black Gate. Please put some of your excellent talent to use on an adventure story with some unique world building, and ship it my way.”

I took John’s advice and the next three submissions were all accepted. ‘Bulletproof’, accepted in 2006, will appear in Black Gate 16, perhaps Spring 2013? And that’s another thing I love about Black Gate (apart from the fact you can actually buy it off the shelves of real shops) – the optimism, the way they put the season on each issue as if the year wasn’t enough to uniquely identify it!

The stories of mine Black Gate rejected weren’t bad, in fact I think they were pretty good, but pretty good isn’t good enough. There are a huge number of short stories chasing vanishingly small sums of cash, and many of them are brilliant. One of the reasons I never had any expectation of being an author was just seeing how many superb short stories showed up to chase $10 at a magazine I was slush reading for. I thought if this many talented writers are producing this much class for a ten dollar bill, how can anyone ever entertain any realistic hope of winning through to a book deal?
I think the answer in my case was largely luck. Like the 2-ring puzzle, it just fell into place, a host of unseen factors coming into alignment more by chance than judgment.

One of the things that changed in my writing between Black Gate rejections and Black Gate acceptances was that I learned to distil real heart and emotion onto the page. It stopped being an exercise in clever wording and cunning ideas – you still need some of that stuff, but it’s not the total of it. I guess I learned that if you can’t be honest about the things that matter, if you can’t talk about what it really means to be human in some way shape or form on that page... then why bother. Yes we write fantasy, and yes it’s fun, but that doesn’t stop you giving it 100%.

I tried to write a book with layers, tried to have the words carry more than one meaning. I hope Prince of Thorns can be enjoyed as a violent swords and sorcery romp. Get your teeth into it though and there’s more there – it’s as much about our prince as it is about what he does. This is a damaged person and although the story is told in his words without a hint of excuse, there are lessons to be learned between the lines. It wasn’t until years had passed though, desperately scratching at the subject in the effort to come up with something to say in a blog post I was invited to supply, that I discovered another layer, deeper still.

I had always known that with Prince of Thorns there was a something raw and bleeding on the page. I knew that it had served as a place to vent anger and nihilism that wouldn’t serve my real life situation well. But for the longest time I hadn’t really seen any parallels past that.

In Prince of Thorns the main character has suffered a personal disaster. It’s not the ‘evil threatens the village’ of classic fantasy. It’s not injured pride or a looming darkness in the east. He’s been fucked over, a tsunami has rolled through his life and left devastation. And the book is in large part his reaction to that. It’s about where he takes his anger and where it takes him.
It’s only through the lens of half a decade and more that I see I was writing out ... not a version of my own experience, but a mapping of the emotions. Now I do see it I find it incredible that I hadn’t noticed before.

At the same time I started writing Prince of Thorns my daughter was born. Unless you’re a father this won’t touch you, but if you are then you might feel an echo of it. When your child comes into the world grey and limp, when the faces of the midwives freeze, when you’re rushed to intensive care... you hang helpless and watch everything that matters crumble. Memory offers that time back to you as frozen moments. You remember the nurse crying. You remember all the wires, all the tubes. You remember 4am when the consultant first says the words ‘massive brain damage’. There’s an image of your soft child in a Perspex box with all the monitors pulsing their jagged lines in reds and greens. And there’s the going home to your other children, seeing the cot and toys. And later explaining it to one person after the next as they come to congratulate you. Later still there’s the watching your friends vanish, most without even the courtesy of being ashamed, as they find it all too difficult and awkward to cope with.

Seven years down the line and although they came armed with a birth certificate and death certificate to fill in together, my daughter is alive and loves life. She’s doubly incontinent, can’t speak, is partially blind, can’t use her hands or limbs, has epilepsy ... but she is intelligent and laughs and smiles and wants to take part in everything. I won’t give you some bullshit about blessings and challenges, but it’s not as black a future as it had seemed back then. I do see now though that I made a character at least partly in my image, I heaped a version of my shit upon him, and I watched him react to it in very primal ways.

I didn’t write Prince of Thorns with any thought of publication. I had no plans to submit it, no patience with synopses, query letters, etc. I wrote it for an audience that could be counted on my fingers, and it gave me a freedom to follow the story wherever it led without compromise, without consideration for readers’ feelings, the state of the market, or any controversy it might cause.

A few years after Prince of Thorns was finished and filed away I was bullied (guilt tripped) into sending it out by a friend who kept buying me writers’ market books she couldn’t afford. I sent it off to four agents (from a list on the internet), mostly so I could tell her I had tried, and then forgot about it. Months later the last of the four wrote back and took me on. He told me not to expect to hear anything soon. The publishing business, he warned, moves at a glacial rate. Six weeks later he called me again to say that after an international bidding war between seven major publishers he had secured me a three book deal. A week later the second agent I wrote to sent me a form rejection. The other two have not yet replied. I like to think they are still considering me. Currently the book is out in many countries, 25 languages and quite a few alphabets. 

I feel that in all this, from babies to book deals, luck has been in the driving seat, with judgment duct taped away in the trunk.
So write because you enjoy it, but write with passion, be honest, write like your life depends on it, tell your secrets to the page. If it matters to you, it might matter to the reader.
I won’t tell anyone who writes to press on with it because ultimate success is assured – I’ll tell them that writing is the success in itself, and that the dividing line between international author and short story writer is so thin and jagged that it warrants little attention. Enjoy your writing and see what happens next.

The list of agents I used is this one:


  1. Mark, if you didn't just inspire the pants off some aspiring authors out there, then I don't know what. Effing excellent blog, my friend. Though you just intimidated the shite out of me about submitting to Black Gate when they open back up. :-)

  2. You know how I feel by now, so *insert usual adulation here*

  3. Great post! Thank you so much for sharing your story. :)

  4. Thank you Mark,

    Every once in a while I forget that I write because I love putting words on paper (electronic paper anyway), and not because I need the validation of an acceptance letter. Every once in a while I read a new author whose prose change my views on writing and make me believe that what flows from my fingers is drivel unfit for publication.

    Prince of Thorns did this for me; you bastard. ;)

    Invariably, 'a small touch of optimism' will find its way back into my mind, and my writing will improve from the experience. I haven't gotten there yet, but I only just read your book. I'll write again tonight as I try to do every night. I will resist my novel's desire to transform into something too much like yours, and eventually my voice will reassert itself, changed slightly by the masterwork you've produced. Prince of Thorns will become part of my journey to be a better writer.

    Thank you for the blog post and the book. I eagerly await book two, and the repetition of despair's transformation into hope.


  5. Great read Mark I have to agree with all the comments here and I can`t wait to get a hold of your book Prince of Thorns next week when I go to town as it sounds like a great read

    I enjoy reading and writing poems
    keep writing and I hope to see more of your books in the shops

  6. Mark, this in itself is a great piece of writing. It is a hard road we walk down as parents at the best of times. I always worry when I get wrapped in a book, all else falls away and time spent in the book and in the writing of it somehow seems more real. Someone once sent me a poem from a daughter to her mother talking of how she envied the look her mother gave to the piece of paper on which she worked. And we learn so many lessons about ourselves as we write. I hope that Prince of Thorns brings strength to all your family.

  7. You know, I can't put it off anymore. I'm going to get Prince of Thorns for my kindle at the end of this month. The more I hear about this book the more I want to read it.

  8. Incredibly emotional piece and great advice

  9. Great advice, incredibly moving story. But I think you're selling yourself short in one way. You are an amazingly gifted writer. You're analytical and precise and the precision with which you use emotion to carry the reader along is not just a happy accident. You're that good. The lucky ones here are your readers. I'm hoping, selfishly, that you publish many more books and become obscenely rich. When's the TV show coming?!?

  10. Brilliant blog piece, Mark, and so so true. The world seems to be filled with writers! Every Waterstone's signing I did, I had at least half of the amount of customers being 'mid-novel'. Many of them described themselves in that awful vapid term 'aspiring writer', regardless of mainstream success or not, I always say, "don't aspire, inspire". If you want to write then write, there is no aspiring.

    So many of the great things that happen in life happen through an uncanny set of circumstances one could never predict or repeat again. Luck does play a big part. I had my own brief lucky opportunity with Pan Macmillan back in 2004, but regrettably fluffed my opportunity. The classic case of 'choking' when something big comes along. But, once I stopped deriding myself and got a grip, it did teach me this - that luck and opportunities are damn rare, so never look a gift horse in the mouth or any other cavity, just go for it! But, I will also say this, that luck without talent is meaningless. Yes you may have been lucky and may have enjoyed a rare set of circumstances when the planets aligned for you, BUT, if you and your work weren't incredibly talented too, then none of that would have paid off. You are a great writer, Mark, so luck or no luck you totally deserve to be where you are, and I for one am genuinely thrilled for you. Well done!

    As for your lovely daughter and the losing of friends, well, those friends were simply not worth keeping, so no loss there, and your daughter is utterly gorgeous, a ray of sunshine comes to mind. She clearly enjoys life and at the end of the day, that ultimately is what we all want and hope for, to simply enjoy life regardless of the obstacles and difficulties we may have. Life is damn hard, yes, but life is also precious and sweet, a lesson we could all do with remembering. Cheers mate.

  11. I have a seven year old boy with Asperger's Syndrome and possibly P.D.A. I struggle to write but have finally managed to get two books on Kindle.
    They have sold, not very well, but if I was a Spitfire pilot I would be an ace!
    I put most of this down to all the times we have tweeted on twitter. You come across as a top bloke and I wish you all the best with everything you write.
    P.S my son really could do with another Wheel Mouse story.

  12. I am so happy that I read this. It is exactly what I needed to hear