Friday 28 July 2017

My path to the published page...

Twenty years ago having recently turned thirty I signed up for an evening class in creative writing. I went once a week for a ninety minute session on a Wednesday night. The whole thing lasted maybe twelve or so weeks.

Google Earth has found the place for me.

The lessons were in a portacabin in the car park. They ran through January, February and March. I never took my coat off. The structure marked with the arrow in the next shot may well be where they were held, but given the intervening twenty years ... probably not.

Anyway. The teacher was a lady called Ann Palmer and she covered a wide range of basics. All the useful stuff such as point of view, head hopping, info dumping, description, getting to the point etc as well as practical matters such as casing your market.

After the course finished I was inspired. I went away a wrote a bad fantasy book. Then I started writing a lot of fantasy short stories. A few years after that I wrote an OK fantasy book. Wrote a bunch more fantasy shorts, and a then after a few more years I wrote Prince of Thorns.

I discovered Ann Palmer on the internet recently and listened to a podcast interview. She mentioned that she had had a guy in one of her classes that spent the whole time doodling, filling sheets of paper. It was, apparently, the only way he could concentrate on what she was saying.

It set her to thinking about the connection between imagination and imagery, and after some years researching the psychology of the thing she went on to write a book about visualization, imagery and imagination.

I was the doodler. I doodled my way through every meeting, lecture and presentation I've ever attended. It's nice that we both set each other writing books. Though given that I'm incapable of forming mental imagery, it's also rather ironic!

In real life (as Lemony Snicket teaches us) stories have no beginning and no end. I didn't one day out of the blue decide to go to an evening class in creative writing.

In nursery school (age 3ish) I told the other children a story about a crocodile in the toilet and they were too afraid to use it.

When I was in primary school I used to write stories for class. I have a vivid memory of one teacher being very impressed with a story of mine and telling me to read it to the class. I refused, leading to a long stand-off. I guess even then I was firmly in the writers' camp rather than the performers' camp.

In 1977 I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons. Before long I was writing dungeons for my friends to adventure in.

 Image result for men and magic

In 1985 I picked up a flier for a fantasy play-by-mail game. I started playing and after I finished my first degree I worked as one of the games masters for the game. There were five or six of us and we worked in a dilapidated office above a garage in the red light district in Southampton.

On the day I arrived a car full of men pulled alongside me in the street and asked if I could sell them heroin. There were prostitutes on all the street corners and some of the houses literally had red lights in the windows.

I wrote replies (turns) to the players in my area, building parts of an interactive fantasy story involving a thousand or more people.

I kept doing this in my spare time for a decade and made tens of thousands of pounds (at a terrible hourly rate). This was the first time I was paid for writing fiction.

In 2001 I moved to America (tripling my salary! scientists are paid shit in the UK) and no longer had time to keep my area of Saturnalia going. To scratch my creative itch I joined some online writing groups and started writing short stories, then wrote that 2nd book I mentioned. Then around 2003 I started writing Prince of Thorns.

I sold my first short story in 2004.

My first book was published in 2011.

I sold my millionth book in 2015.


  1. I really enjoyed this story of your writing origins. I first stumbled across you in a Yahoo group many years ago, though I never contributed myself since I didn't feel ready at that point (I was still writing my first book). I love that you were so into D&D, as I was as well. Makes me think you might enjoy my homage novel to D&D, The Shard, though I know you don't have much reading time these days.

  2. This is an awesome thing to share Mark. I too, must doodle. Just checked my notepad I'd doodled during the latest Grim Tidings Podcast. There were flames, a skull, and a scythe with a few hearts sprinkled in around them in the edges around my notes. Since I was listening to Rob Matheny, Phillip Overby, Laura Hughes, Dyrk Ashton, and Phil Tucker this makes perfect sense to me.LOL! Your teacher was definitely onto something there. There may yet be hope me as well. ��

  3. I picked up Prince of Fools recently on my monthly Audible subscription. Enjoyed it a lot. A lot a lot. So much so that I had to buy extra Audible credits to buy the next two books; first time I've ever done that. Great story, great characters, but much more importantly: great character development, great world development, great plot development. I don't think I've ever read a trilogy that got better and better the further you went in. And maintained the quality of writing, the pace, the ideas, the intrigue. And I've read a _lot_ in the genre.

    At the weekend I bought Prince of Thorns (in physical form). I did think about buying all three books then and there, but thought 'naw, that's just silly". Fast forward to Sunday evening having read all the way through in basically one sitting. I'm not sure I've had this much pure self-indulgent pleasure since I was seven. Large bag of crisps, couch, rain outside + great book = win.

    Of course, now it’s Sunday evening and the book store is closed and 30 miles away. So I just started again and read all the way through. Again. Fantastic. What a great book. I can’t wait to read on. But there’s also that slight hesitance, the same way one eats all the ice-cream around the Flake in a 99, a feeling of something so good that you want to both draw it out and horse it down at the same time.

    F*ck it. I think I’ll take the afternoon off and go to the book store. I could just get it on Kindle, but again, it’s so good that I really want that pleasure of a physical book in my hands.

    Hats off man. I had a quick check and I reckon I’ve read at least 40 of the top 50 in any list of fantasy writers on the web. For me, there’s Gene Wolfe, then a handful of others (Gaiman, Pullman, Wynne Jones, Clarke, Lieber, maybe Lynch) and then everyone else. You’re in that second tier. Neil Gaiman writes a lovely, light graceful story that is very much a _story_. It draws you along like a pretty girl’s smile. It doesn’t bludgeon you into submission like George god-please-let-it-be-over-soon Martin’s mace. Your writing reminds me of that light, flowing, unforced touch. Albeit a few shades darker. Oh and, look, I’m sorry about Gene Wolfe getting a whole tier to himself but there you are. At least you’re not down in the hot polloi with Sanderson, Rothfuss, et al.

  4. Mark... I feel shame.

    For the two decades that I have been reading / writing (never completing) fantasy I have been searching for a writer I can truly say I am a fan of. GRRM, JRT, the Tad-man etc. While all fantastic writers I would grow so weary of their excellent descriptive writings. I myself have struggled with putting in far too much detail because that's just the way I thought it was supposed to be done. Half way through Prince of Thorns I came to understand the truth of prose and how it brings you so much closer to the story and indeed the writer himself. I began to incorporate prose and it has made me a much better writer because of it.

    Back to why I feel shame is the fact that it took me till just this year to find your work and I just can't put it down.

    Another lesson I have learned is to not fear writing about dark things, I used to get a lot of strange looks from my teachers and even meetings with my parents because of the dark stories I would write. I had one teacher that stood out though and encouraged my work and I wrote some of my best stuff that year. She said there would be no hamlet if Shakespeare had been afraid of dealing with such themes. Most would see the death and despair in my stories and that is all, however I always saw beauty in suffering. It's what brings out the purest form of our humanity. But alas I was raised in a Protestant home as the son of a preacher and so I was forced to push that out of my writing and it has suffered from it since. Now the Prince of Thorns has taught me that the steely grip of a simple briar patch has the ability to transform a young Prince into one of the most dynamic, unpredictable, and enjoyable characters I have ever read and for that I salute you sir.

    I feel driven now to finally complete my first (bad) book, to push my characters through the briar patches of life and see their scars/strengths both mental and physical that form from the horrors of yesterday. Now it's time to write.

  5. That's very inspiring. And it's helpful to be reminded that it can take time to build a writing career. D&D is great. My sons (now grown) introduced me to D&D years ago - a fantastic way to use imagination and create stories.

  6. Nice guy. Good books. Enough said.