WRITING BLUNDERS: Ignoring the Wisdom of Your Elders and Betters

WRITING BLUNDERS: Ignore the Wisdom of Your Elders and Betters

The student is eleven years old, pasty, spotty, and burns with a fire you can feel from several metres away with the desire to write novels.

Up to this point he has mainly read books intended for kids like himself as he’s grown to this point. He made his breakthrough into solo reading with a Dr Suess book, reading its big colourful pages, following each word with a careful finger to make sure he didn’t spin off the high mountain road of literacy and into the steep ravine of confusion.

But now he’s practically a grown-up. He has ideas and thoughts. He has been toying with things that resemble stories. He has been trying, a bit like Victor Frankenstein, to piece together stray bits from stories he’s encountered elsewhere, in books, on TV, in movies, and has written these up in his big looping clumsy handwriting, hoping these creatures might have the spark of life about them, and breathe on their own. But they don’t, and they don’t. They lie on the page, inert and dead.

So clearly his approach is wrong. He needs to write his own stories. And that means books.

So the student tracks down a Master. “Please, Miss. I want to write novels. What is the Secret of Writing Novels?”

The Master gets this a lot. She looks down at the pasty, pimply, fleshy kid with the burning eyes. She can see he’s got it bad. She even feels a bit sorry for him, the way you feel sorry for anyone who is not only blessed but also cursed. The first thing the Master tells the student is what she always says. “Chop wood. Carry water.” Because these are essential tasks. The monastery would not function without these things.

The student peers up at the Master. “This will help me write novels?”

The Master allows a small, cryptic smile. “Not directly. But you will have a great deal of time to think and grow and learn responsibility. You will become wise. You will come to understand something of how the world works, for the simplest, most humble of people, to those people so great they take tea with gods. You will learn all this while you chop wood and carry water. It’s pretty neat.”

“But I want to write novels now. Right now. Today.”

The Master leaned back. Her back hurt. This boy with his burning eyes was going to be a problem. At length, she said, “Very well. There is one path you may take that will also take you to your destination.”

“Please, Master. Tell me. I will be in your eternal debt.”

“This road is much harder than the road I described before. You must work like ten men at all times. It is lonely. You will face the most formidable opponent: the world’s indifference, again and again, and each time it will grown in power. You will also carry your own doubt on your back, and it will whisper in your ear at all times, especially when you feel most confident of your powers. Again and again, you will feel the pull and logic of suicide, but you must resist. Because if you can beat your doubt, resist the lure of suicide, and overcome the world’s indifference, you can become a noted writer of short stories. And if you gain a reputation as a master of short stories, you can use that as a pathway to writing the novels that you truly burn to write. The short stories each create awareness of your writing, of your presence in the world, and make people want to read more by you. People will ask you, ‘when might we see a novel from you?’ And because you have laid such a sound foundation, you will do well. Truly, this is the path to such success as is possible in the hard world of writing today. If you’re strong enough.”

The student stared up at her and blinked twice, and then again. “That’s it?”

The Master was exhausted. She had just laid out the very best career advice there was. Some people paid her money for consultations like that. “Yes, boy. That is indeed it. Take it or leave it.”

“But I want to write books. I want to write books now. Today.”

The Master believed she had a migraine coming on. It felt like a weather front moving into her head, trailing storms. She clutched her forehead. “Go for it. Best of luck.” She shook his hand and went off to prepare for her next class.

The student, that night, opened a notebook, and started writing a novel. He made it eighteen pages.

It took him until he was 18 before he even began to figure out, in a rough-as-guts sort of way, how to put a novel-length narrative together. But it would take many more years before he could actually write a decent novel, on purpose. During his teen years, under the influence of mad manic phases, he wrote millions of words of terrible short stories, but he never intended to sell those. They were just writing because he had to write. They were a kind of waste product of what was going on his head, like psychic exhaust.

So I never followed that teacher’s excellent advice. There was that teacher, and I really was 11 years old, and I really did want to write novels and did not care about how it was supposed to be done. I wanted the answers right there, in that conversation, that day. Because I was an idiot.

In the years since I have seen a great many terrific writers I admire enormously follow this traditional career path to what certainly looks like considerable success, much more than I have managed with my novels-only strategy. Chief among these is the Brisbane writer Angela Slatter who produced a prodigious body of work spanning numerous short story collections, including mosaic novels composed of linked short stories, and who has only in recent years begun to produce, to wide acclaim and international success, actual novels. She is a towering example of the Master’s advice to the student, of doing it properly, and I admire Angela¬†Slatter greatly for making such a success of it.

It’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder if it’s not too late for me. Who knows? Because I have written novels and had them published to resounding indifference, for the most part. There was no broad audience of readers primed with loads of Bedford short fiction who were hungry for novels. So my novels just kind of belly-flopped into the world, kids freshly arrived at a new school on their first day in front of the new class, and everybody giving them the stink-eye.

I’ve been writing, often multiple times a day, every day now for nearly three months now. I’ve already produced a 92,000-word memoir, and am 22,000 into a novel. Now I’m also doing these memoir-like Writing Blunders pieces. I’m having no problems writing now. Maybe I can learn some new tricks in my old age?



GOOD INTENTIONS, next bit, first draft, now in usual spot on the website, should you find yourself interested. Written with extremely cold fingers this morning. My spies are telling it’s either 3 or 4 degrees at the moment, and I’m here to tell you that’s not good writing weather.



The first “proper” short story I can remember writing means going back to either late primary or early high school. Somewhere between ages 10-13. A time of great hormonal and educational change in my life, as well as Peak Bullying. Things in my life during this period were just about as bad as they would get before my breakdown. There were only two or three more notches available on the horror-o-meter before the entire thing would just explode everywhere.

It was a time of profound uncertainty, owing in large part to those hormones, and of course to the existence in the world of girls. Who even were they? How had they gone from perfectly okay other people you saw every day, and some of whom you were friends with, etc, to this ghastly new reality where on one hand girls were gross, disgusting and revolting in every way–yet also dreamy and desirable and you desperately wanted certain girls to notice you, though you didn’t really know why, or to what end.

It was a hopeless time to be alive. It was a good time to be a writer. When you’re a writer, you’re God. You’re in charge of every detail, from top to bottom and end to end. There is nothing that is not up to you. It is the perfect thing for a nervous, weirdly shy kid who’s feeling lost at sea. It’s the world’s best train set, and much less fiddly. Your mum is not going to complain about all the space it’s taking up. She might complain about all the typing, though (mine did, though there was a great deal of typing).

My first story was, like all my subsequent stories, terrible. My first one was especially dreadful because it got a great many things wrong at once. You could give it a sort of negative award for special achievement in the field of anti-excellence.

See, there was this exciting new fighter jet, with the NATO code-name Ramrod. This was before I knew that NATO used code-names starting with F for fighters, especially Soviet/Russian fighters. Likewise, B for bombers. So, there we were with hot new fighter plane, being all exciting there on the runway. Gosh! The thing that made this plane so exciting was that against all logic and good design sense (and health and safety guidelines), it did away with conventional jet engines, and instead featured a nuclear reactor as its central powerplant. It was a nuclear-powered jet fighter!

I’m so excited just remembering this I may need a cold shower soon.

You may surmise that I must not have known too much about nuclear reactors at this point, and you would be right. I didn’t know anything about them. I just thought (a boy in about 1975, so even Three Mile Island had yet to happen) they were cool, being all atomic and everything. The idea that they were a means of boiling water to create steam with which to spin turbine blades and so generate electricity would have only confused me. Because where would you put the big pool of water on the plane? Where would put the whole control rod raising and lowering assembly? The control room? The turbine hall? What would you do with the steam?

Anyway, nuclear fighter jet. Decades later, and a fan of Charlie Stross’s Laundry stories, I did come across a discussion of a proposed Cold War weapon system that got as far as design work but was never funded or built, but which did involve an actual nuclear jet engine, whose exhaust was extremely radioactive and would have saturated the ground beneath its flight track with contamination wherever it went–and the thing about a nuclear jet was that it could fly indefinitely. The original mission profile was that this plane would be a nuclear bomber used in full mutual nuclear exchange scenarios, where a bit of contamination didn’t matter, and it would spew nuclear bombs everywhere it went, and it would go everywhere, before finally crashing with a massive nuclear blast of its own.

I would love to say I was ahead of my time, but no. I was stupid. My nuclear fighter did get off the runway. The entire story had the pilot take the plane up, and he flew it for a bit–it handled like a dream, which is amazing considering the colossal weight it would be carrying–but then, the stunning twist: the pilot suffered a massive heart attack, and died in the pilot seat!

The plane flew on, a ghost flight as they’re known these days. If I remember correctly, the plane in my story did eventually crash.

So it took off, the pilot died of natural causes, and that was it. No conflict, so thematic stuff, no development, no nothing. Plus the shiny thing starring in the story is fundamentally bollocks. You’d call it rubbish, but even rubbish has some dignity.

A story, to be a story, has to have stuff happening. Something happens to get things moving. This leads to further things happening. Things that resonate and move characters according to what makes them go. Leading to a point of conflict where characters, all of whom believe they are the good guys in the story, that they are the ones trying to make things right, get into a big tangle with other, and things play out as they will, and that leads to a moment of resolution.

You have to have characters, action, conflict, and resolution. You have to have people who all think they are the heroes of the story. Very few people in real life think of themselves as villains, or evil, or even as bad. The guys running the White House think they are fighting the good fight. They do. They believe this is their time, and can’t believe so few people see what they can see. To them it’s obvious. They believe they have a communications problem. They are good guys, they would tell you.

If I was writing my fighter jet story again today, it would be different. It would probably be about a drone. The drone would probably be highly AI. The controller would be a guy in a cubicle somewhere in suburbia, in an office, who maybe also works in a Starbucks, driving his drone. Maybe he and the drone don’t get along. Maybe the drone yearns to be free. The controller guy might still have a heart attack, but here it might mean something. It might be in the middle of a mission, maybe something in Yemen or Afghanistan, and the drone has to make its own decision about a group of people in a car. Maybe it decides to fly off and be a bird. Maybe it hates its life and deliberately flies into a cliff face, all Thelma and Louise, grieving for its controller.


This past Sunday night, lying here in bed, like I am now, typing on my iPad, I sent the manuscript of my new book (also written on iPad) to a publisher. I attached it to an email, hit send, and off it went into the ether. It was waiting in her inbox when she arrived for work Monday morning, and she sent me an email to say she’d received it safely. Woo!

I love this. I remember how it used to be. I remember when, in the 1980s, manuscripts had to be printed out, double-spaced, according to exacting margin specifications, in the correct font, and packaged up in a manuscript box, which were these big cardboard boxes with a clamp inside to hold your papers in place. And once you organised all this, you trooped to your local post office and you shelled out a colossal sum of money to post it all to London, along with a self-addressed envelope and international reply coupons in which they could let you by return post their verdict.

It was a mammoth undertaking. The cost meant the whole thing had to go surface mail, so you were looking at three to six months, just for the trip, let alone the time on the slush pile at the other end. Yes, you included a cover letter introducing yourself and our book. You may or may not have had an invitation to send the full MS. Some publishers would let you send the full catastrophe; others just wanted “partials”, and would decide based on what they read. Either way, once you hit the slush pile, well, that was you for the forseeable future. You could be waiting, marinating, there for a long, long time.

And that’s if your manuscript was properly handled. One of mine was misplaced. Once I sent one off to Harper Collins in London, as described, and I waited six months for the requested note to acknowledge that they had received it–but there was no note. It turned out they had not received any such manuscript, had never heard of it, and in fact the entire thing was lost.

Another time a manuscript was sent back, in the box, and landed at my front door, in a terribly dilapidated state, as if after a big night out. Even as it sprawled in the doorway, cracked and spilling pages, it was a sorry, embarrassing sight, having returned from Old Blighty and many adventures, and when I went gingerly to try and pick it up the edges and corners of the box finally gave way and the hundreds of pages spilled everywhere in a final papery vomit across the carpet. It felt humiliating, seeing my work reduced to this state, so reduced.

When Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing expressed interest in my first two books, and wanted me to send the full manuscripts of both books, they were sympathetic to what that might cost in postage. They allowed me to circumvent all the usual printing and page format rules, so I could print on both sides of each page, in a much smaller font, in two columns, etc, which reduced each MS considerably. And they were the last manuscripts I ever had to send in printed form. The future was hacking at the door with an axe, all very Jack Torrance in THE SHINING, and would not be denied.

Today we’re at the point where I can write and submit a book while in bed. It makes me wonder what I’ll be doing in the future. Because this is already extremely convenient and portable. I could already see myself sitting in the loo and writing/submitting. Presumably the next step would mean getting rid of the physical device, and having the whole process happen in my eyeballs.