Have you considered writing in bed? I started doing it for the first time not long ago. Silly, because one of the most tempting points for this apartment for my husband and I was that I’d have my own office space, which has lately been collecting dust. We’re heading toward winter here in Australia, so leaping out of bed first thing has become a less than exhilarating prospect, and the situation isn’t helped at all by Tim making me coffee in bed every morning. So after a binge session of Married At First Sight left the laptop by my bed overnight, I woke up one morning and decided to put some words down before hitting the shower.
And WOW. Did I ever put words down! Yes, I’m almost finished the second book in the Crimson Lake series, so for me, I always write faster and harder toward the end. But by writing in bed first thing in the morning I’m putting down 2-3k per day, about half of them in that morning session. I have some theories about why writing in bed is so good. Allow me to speculate.
Of course, I there are downsides to writing in bed. You’re going to need snacks and coffee, and you will have crumbs between the sheets – there’s no avoiding it, crumbs and sheets love each other. I do not recommend that collaborative novels be written in bed, unless of course you’re one of those weird couples who collaborate on novels. The five women who make up Alice Campion might have a difficult time. But overall, a real winner, at least for me. Try it some time! Happy snuggling everybody!
Check me out on ABCNews24’s The Mix with my buddy Michael Robotham and James Valentine. We come on about halfway through the episode. Funny times! If these guys think I’m a ‘sick puppy’, they don’t know the half of it.
I’m 15.5k into my novel for this year, so I downed my tools and showed it around. I did this for no other reason than that I needed compliments, validation, a literary hug and push onward up the hill by a friendly hand. Sounds needy? It is. Deal with it.
Fifteen to twenty thousand words isn’t much for someone to read – it took Tim about twenty minutes, and my agent came back to me overnight. I wasn’t looking for a meticulous summation and reader’s report, and neither gave me that. Both said they felt compelled, hooked, and that’s all you really want out of the first little chunk of a novel. Both had cautionary advice about a couple of points. But I feel spurred on now. It’s a lonely and worrying business, this, and I feel like 100,000 words is too far to wander without knowing what I’m doing has any merit.
If you’re not writing crime fiction, the 15-20k mark might be an inappropriate time to stick your head up. At this point in most crime novels, however, you’ve got (should have) essential things in place for your validator to comment on. The case has been sketched out. The protagonist has been introduced. There had been a juicy catalyst on the first page to hook the tired, underpaid slush-pile scourer or one day, the wandering bookstore reader (hopefully). It’s also a good time for the validator to take a stab in the dark and tell you what they think’ll happen next (if they guess right, you should change it up). So 15-20k works for me for these reasons.
But how far is too far, and how far is not far enough to stop and get some much needed praise or criticism? It’s difficult to say. In the non-fiction world, editors will be able to tell you a book has no merit right off the bat, before you’ve written a single word, and you’ll go away with no writing time ‘wasted’ (although, no writing is ever wasted. See other posts for my opinion on that). In the fiction world, however, it’s near impossible to tell someone their idea is great or terrible if they haven’t written anything. I have writers tell me their ideas a lot, and some of them sound really whacked. But I never tell them their idea has no merit. I do this for three reasons; one, because it’s brave to tell someone (particularly a published author) your book idea to their face, and I don’t think I could ever bring myself to respond badly to someone’s face (I’m a coward). Two, because I’m not a publisher, and I don’t know what the hell publishers are going to take at any given time. And three, because a verbal explanation of a book idea over a couple of drinks is no way to judge a book. I’m thinking of The Great Gatsby. ‘Guy throws parties all the time because he wants his chick back. She turns up. There’s a car accident. Something about eggs.’
The only time sharing an idea with zero words written has worked for me, is when I told my brother about my idea for a novel about a kid who goes missing on a plane, and her mother has to both find the kid AND convince the passengers/flight attendants that there even was a kid in the first place. Turns out this not my stroke of genius at all, but a movie called ‘Flight Plan’, starring Jodie Foster. Godfuckingdamnit.
So ‘zero words written’ is too soon to get validation. But the end of the novel is too late, too, I think. Only because it would be a pretty self-assured badass who could go for a whole year (minimum) without telling or showing anyone anything about their work as it progresses. Maybe, by the end of it, this kind of grouch-pouch might have written the best thing since sliced bread. But I kind of feel like that’s sad and unnecessary, and the sort of thing those brooding cashmere-turtlenecked, mustachioed writers who are rude to the debuts at writer’s festivals might do. You can just hear them, can’t you. Eh! I don’t need validation! Validation is for little girls with self-esteem problems! Mmmmm, yairs! *discards cigarette with a flourish*
Don’t be an asshole. Don’t run the whole marathon without water, just because you can. You’re not a machine. Take a sip. It won’t kill you.
Who should you choose as your validator? I chose Tim and my agent, because they know how to criticize me gently without any bullshit. That should really be the guideline, if you ask me. Your mum shouldn’t be your validator. She’d let you go down the wrong path if it made you happy. Admit it.
Your validator should be someone who you know is tough enough to say ‘I hate this character/plot point’ if need be, but someone deep enough and caring enough to give you more detailed feedback if you ask for it/share their suggestions. They should also be someone you KNOW will not tear your work to shreds because they’re jealous of you, or because they think doing so will impress you with how much they know about the science of narrative, even if there’s nothing wrong with what you’ve written. Beware of other writers and editors. Someone who reads a lot of your genre, or is into the same stuff as you are, might be best.
So anyway, onward I go, with a little more spring in my step. Happy writing, everyone.
Here are some things I’ve done this week as a full-time author that people probably don’t know the job involves. I think there are two schools of thought on what I do – one involves swanning around at parties with other authors discussing Tolstoy and now and then pattering the keys. The other involves lying around on the couch all day drinking scotch, and now and then pattering the keys. In reality I do a whole lot of diverse stuff! (And now and then patter the keys.) Like this:
Here I am! I’m plodding happily along, putting in about a thousand words a session. I’d probably be at around this word count by this time of year anyway, but I have been held up a few times – by my own marriage, for one! – and by some editorial business. I’m at 11,000 words today on my own manuscript for the year (if you haven’t been following, I also do collaborations). I’ve been putting together detailed outlines and some mini-outlines for unmentionable projects that you’ll probably be able to guess anyway. The seductive whispers of other books have been plaguing me, as I’m only a tenth of the way in, and I could turn around without feeling so bad. I shun those voices! Be gone! You have no power here! Saucy, sexy books are a reality. Don’t give in to those sirens.
My, my, my, I certainly know what I don’t want to ever do for a living, and that’s organise weddings. Though I’m not an amazing sleeper, I’ve lost a considerable amount of sleep this month agonizing over everything that could go wrong in my wedding to the hilarious, handsome and decidedly hairy Tim Keen, fellow wordsmith extraordinaire. In the dark hours, I’ve imagined some pretty insane stuff, like ex-boyfriends/girlfriends turning up on the green and shouting that they’re still in love with me/him. The more extreme fantasies involved a relative shooting themselves in the middle of the dance floor. In daylight guessed that more likely, Tim and I were going to get something like a story frequently told about a wedding of a friend of a friend, who had a fat man with a beer walk right through the back of the ceremony wearing nothing but a pair of Speedos. While we did have our wedding in a public garden, and there were hangers-around with no idea of personal space, they tended to loiter during the photographs after the ceremony. We only had eyes for each other! Nawwwww alright I’ll stop now. Perfect, perfect day, anyway.
There are more editorial nightmares looming on the horizon, so I’m trying to trundle along on the book at a healthy pace. My crisis of confidence seems to be over – and I think that’s a mark of having thickly detailed characters who are intriguing (I hope, anyway!) in themselves/their pasts without necessarily having to rush here and there completing plot points to fill themselves out. If you’ve got a few deeply interesting people, worrying about plot is like worrying if three incredibly socially skilled strangers are going to get on with each other at dinner. They have the tools. They have the experience. They’ll make it work, even if they fumble around a bit first.
As a mark of good practice I’m attending a new boxing gym tonight, because James and my character, Harriet Blue, is a boxing enthusiast. I think it’s always good to write what you do, and do what you write – it’s a lesson I learned back in the day as a teenager, when I used to set all my books in New York. I’d never been to New York, and knew nothing about it. The books were garbage in the first sense because I was an overly emotional, melancholy teen with a bit of an over-infatuation with Anne Rice and Martin Scorsese, but in the second sense I think it didn’t help that I didn’t know what New York looked, felt and smelt like. I’ve boxed for a long time, and Harry boxes. It’s a chicken and egg thing. It’s time to get back to that, I think. Get some of the tension out so I/she can sleep.
As always, curious to know how you’re all going with your writing/submitting/editing. Keep your chins up, everyone. (No seriously it’s really bad posture looking down at your laptop. Sitting is the new smoking, for real).
Well, it’s hit. Or, if you’ve been following my canon metaphor, I’VE hit. I fired, and blurted out those first 5000 words joyously, and then paused to do some editing work on something which is due much sooner. Lo and behold, the editorial process has made me feel like an awful, untalented writer who’s going nowhere. My muse has died. I’m suffering inspirational asphyxiation. My magic feather has been seared to dust by the fires of indecision.
Well magic feathers, muses and convenient moments of inspiration are all bullshit, so don’t panic.
My experience of the editorial process from my publisher and the copywriting process from my editor is gentle. They pose questions rather than telling me straight out that there are flaws in the narrative. Is this too repetitive? Is this the best word here? They make sure to tell me when they love pieces of the work. But still, I feel emotionally ruined. I think it’s an ‘artistic person’ thing. I’ve seen the slightest criticisms take on the momentum of Mac trucks and lay even the most seasoned writers flat. If you think there are authors out there who don’t mind criticism, or ‘take it in their stride’, or ‘cherish’ it, seeing it as ‘an opportunity for improvement’, what you’re really seeing is DIRTY FILTHY BARE-FACED LIARS. The most proud of these amazing creatures will reserve their true hurt for the solitary late night hours, staring at the ceiling, imagining themselves responding to said criticism in witty cutting interviews on Sunrise. The slightly less proud (like me) will reserve their whining and sulking for their spouses. And everyone else will happily moan in public.
What’ll I do to snap myself out of this criticism-induced creative paralysis? Finish the edit. When the edit is done and all those awful little comment bubbles have gone away, I’ll pick myself up, dust myself off and continue on the new novel. If it’s not criticism and self-doubt, but instead a lack of ideas or a lack of what you think is ‘inspiration’ that’s got you stumped, go back through my blog posts to one of my first, called ‘Over the Wall’, where I deal with writer’s block.
So my word count is 5k or so, and my momentum has dropped to zero. Because I’ve got some experience at this game, I’m not worried, and I’m NOT thinking of writing something else. That’s the temptation trap for the newbie writer at this point – you think you’ve come to a halt this early because the idea isn’t strong enough. Don’t be the writer who had drawers full of unfinished projects. There will always be greener grass, and better ideas, just over there. Take what it is you like about the sexy new idea that’s trying to seduce you, and integrate it into the current project, or have the confidence in your own mental skills to know that idea won’t float away into the ether before you’re done with what you’re working on.
Back to the edit! *slumps dejectedly over desk* Urgh. Bleurgh. Gurgh. Someone kill me.
If you know someone who is always talking about writing a book, or you’re the one who’s always talking about it, the below set of answers and explanations is for you. The new year is coming. It’s your fucking time. So sit up, shut up, and listen up.
Question: Should I write that book?
Excuse: Because I might not finish it.
Explanation: Jesus Christ, dude. The idea that you shouldn’t write that book you’ve been thinking about writing because you might not finish it is total bullshit. You ever not started eating a gigantic chicken schnitzel because you thought you might not finish it? No. You have a go at a massive pub schnitzel because you’ve been thinking about it, and you’re hungry, and not finishing really doesn’t have any personal consequences for you. Now, I know there’s a difference – if you start and don’t finish a novel you’ll feel like a failure. People who hear about you giving up might think you’re a failure, too, which would be worse.
But you know what? Fear of failure permeates life. It’s what stops people from going for that promotion, asking that girl out, or taking up parkour. And there’s only one thing you get from abiding fear of failure: disappointment. You didn’t try, so you didn’t fail, but you’re left with the life-long wonder of what might have been. Is disappointment any different to failure? Not by much. So stop being such a fucking pussy and start that schnitzel. I mean book.
Question: Should I write that book?
Excuse: Because I don’t know how to plot.
Explanation: You don’t need to know how to plot to write a novel. I’m hearing all your past English teachers gasp in horror (even the dead ones). Well shut up, bitches. You really don’t need to be one of those people with thousands of little coloured Post-It notes and exercise books full of chicken scratch to be a writer. You can be a totally authentic writer without a beat-up leather sachel and a chip on your shoulder, too. You can actually just sit down at the computer and wing it. Granted, you might not get very far. You might have to stop constantly and get yourself out of dead ends you’ve written yourself into, and what you end up writing might be a too-long, wandering piece of crap (see below ‘Because what I write might be crap’). But what a great way to learn how to plot for your next novel, or to discover, in fact, that you are one of those writers who flies by the seat of their pants and writes brilliant shit. Fire out of the cannon. See where you land. If it’s right next to the cannon, in a heap, go back to the cannon and try again for fucksake.
Question: Should I write that book?
Excuse: Because I don’t have time.
Explanation: Lemme ask you something – are you actually dying? If you seriously are going to be dead in three months, then ok. You probably don’t have time. But are you trying to tell me that you don’t have a spare hour a week for the next ten years? Because even if that’s all you could seriously give it, you’d still get a novel done in that time. Don’t give me that ‘I’ve got kids’ crap. JK had kids. Oh! Oh! I’ve got two jobs? No. Not a valid excuse. Stephen King had two jobs when he was writing Carrie. Get up half an hour earlier than you are right now. Write in bed. Buy an ultra-soft keyboard so you can type and not wake your fourteen sleeping babies. Put off cleaning your shower. I don’t care. If you want time, you’ll make time.
Question: Should I write that book?
Excuse: Because what I write might be crap.
Verdict: Such bullshit.
Explanation: Most first books are crap. My first book was absolute garbage – an assortment of pre-teen drivel that I’m so glad no longer exists (I hope). In fact, my second and third books were probably also crap, but not as bad as the first. And that’s because, with every book I wrote, I learned something from the people who read them. Rather than crying in my room for three weeks because what I’d written turned out to be crap (there was probably a little of that, I’ll admit), I took the criticism and adjusted my process for the next work. Here’s the secret: The only way you can tell you’re any good is by having people read your actual stuff. The ACTUAL STUFF on ACTUAL PAPER. If you do not try, you will not improve. Hoping to try something and magically not be crap at it IS WHAT CHILDREN DO. Grow up, and have a fucking go.
Question: Should I write that book?
Excuse: Because I probably won’t get published.
Explanation: Maybe you’ll get published first time, right off the bat. If this happens, fuck you. You will get no respect from your fellow authors, (especially me). Because most authors have several dozen rejections under their belt. Your inspirational ‘journey to becoming an author’ article in the Herald will be terribly scant if you walk right into that club, Bub.
Maybe (more likely) you’ll submit your novel and then you’ll cower on the ground while every publisher in the country hurls rejection letters at you, until finally you pass out, completely buried in paper and self-loathing, like some fat hoarder the police won’t find until her corpse starts to smell. Maybe, like me, you’ll spend a decade writing books and sending them out and watching as the weeks and months roll by, your heart fluttering as now and then an email pops up with a publisher’s name on it, only to click it open, fingers shaking, and spot that terrible word ‘Unfortunately’ before you see anything else. Maybe you’ll keep a spreadsheet of all these publishers, and one by one you’ll cross them off, until it’s official – not a single publisher in the entire nation thinks your work is good enough for print (even those brand new one-person indie publishers who presumably know nothing about the business and are willing to take a chance on newbies. Nope, they think you’re shithouse, too). Maybe you’ll resentfully wander bookshops looking at the displays, exhausted by the rolling trends – boy wizards, vampires, bondage, vampire bondage, vampire wizards, wizard bondage, teenage girls fighting for their lives in mazes, on virtual battlegrounds, in space. Girls on trains, kicking hornets nests, missing, in love, lost, girls fucking everywhere. Maybe you’ll have to report to all your friends (because they won’t stop asking) that in fact you’ve given up on that book and your only hope is to write another. But you won’t bother confessing that you’re so downtrodden by this defeat that starting another book feels like going back into the ring with Rousey after she’s just put your nose through the back of your skull.
Well, you know what? See above, about being a fucking pussy. If you’re being rejected, it’s because you had something to submit. You wrote a fucking book. If no one likes your book, fuck them. If your friends are smug at your rejection, fuck them, too! Tell them that when their book gets submitted and is being considered for oh wait they haven’t written a book that’s right because they’re creative as shit.
Smile, and nod, and know how good it’s going to be when you write the book that makes it through (or edit the current one until it does). Think about the girls who gave you shit in high school trying to friend you on Facebook now because they saw you in the newspaper talking about your multi-book deal (this has been happening to me a bit lately, and it’s so incredibly awesome. They’re all ‘so proud’). Fuck those girls! Friendship status: DENIED, bitch.
Question: Should I write that book?
For the last four months, I’ve been writing two novels simultaneously. In case you’re wondering at the effects it’s had on me, (perhaps because you’d like to try it!), these are they:
This is in part because the second novel, the one I started in July, was planned that way (I’d like to get into details about this project but it’s secret for now, unfortunately). But it’s been such a help that the works are different – when I open the file for one I seem to take on the ‘persona’ required to write that book, and switch when I need to write the other (one is a very brave, fearless sort of writer woman who knows what she’s doing. The other is, well, me.) The lead characters are starkly different people – one an introspective, gentle man and the other a violent, unpredictable woman. Both are within the same genre, however, so as I’m living day to day picking up different crime-related facts and stories, I have the option to relate them to either text. I think writing in two different genres would be too much for me mentally.
And I think this is because the works are so different, I ‘take a break’ from one by writing the other, but always write, sometimes 2,500 words a day. Even when I’ve been down-and-out with writer’s fatigue, I have usually put words down on one or the other text, and the break has left me fresher for the return to the work that tuckered me out.
At all. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I think that the simplest explanation is that I’m in writer-hyper-drive. I have twice as many characters and twice as many plot holes, twice as many ‘next scenes’ and twice as many climaxes rushing at me, closer and closer all the time. I like to really think through the climax over and over, trying to work out what will happen in those final moments before writing it, sometimes beginning to plan it halfway through the book and sometimes, as in the case of Hades, not achieving that until the cursor is on the screen. I’m operating on about three hours sleep a night at the moment, and have been for a few weeks. I seem to be getting through it ok, but the afternoonies are a killer right now.
Which is something I’ve sort of stuck to. I’ve wandered off the plot for the second novel in its last quarter, but in a general sense I could not have done this without some tight plotting. I think the dread of having two unplotted novels on my desk would have intimidated me right out of the project.
On my whiteboard, I’ve kept a running tally of both books and ‘words to go before December’, which at the moment stands at 54,000. (Approximately 9,500 for the smaller project and the rest for the larger one). I’m sprinting toward the finish with the project that started in July, only because that seems to be what my gut wants to do. Watching the numbers throughout this experience has been both terrifying and encouraging. I’ve reported them to friends and relatives periodically, and I remember mentioning to my mother when I had 75,000 words to go, and telling my mother-in-law when I had 64,000 words to go. At times, when the words have only shifted by hundreds in a day, wiping them off and replacing them with my small efforts has felt awful.
Being someone who grew up making the best of what I had, I’ve splashed out in the last few months, and thank God I did. My partner and I have moved to an apartment where we have our own office space with a large window overlooking the water, where before now I have been a musical-chairs writer in libraries and cafes. I hooked a big old flat-screen TV monitor to my laptop and bought an external keyboard to eliminate neck and shoulder problems that have plagued me for months – and though I’ve always mocked people who use cork boards and PostIt notes (including my partner) – here I am, surrounded by those little yellow squares and colourful pins.
7. I don’t have time for uncertainty.
What a blessing that has been. As I’ve only really switched between books and not had long periods of non-writing, I haven’t had time to consider either of them away from the open screen and to wonder – as all artists do – ‘Is this complete garbage?’ From the feedback I’ve been getting from my publisher and agent, neither work seems to be garbage. But that’s beside the point. I haven’t really wondered that much if they are, and so have managed go months without feeling sad and frustrated by what I do. If only we were all too busy to have doubts. We’d only have to worry about how we’re going to deal with the inevitable end-of-project crash.
8. I may be risking everything.
I’ve left myself basically no room for error. And I suppose that’s the difficult thing about trying to do something like this on a deadline, if you’re considering it. There has been exactly no room for experimentation in either book, so I’ve had to drive the vehicle all the way there, perfectly, with no side streets or dead ends I’ll regret later. If my publishers were to come back now and say the either work needs major changes, the deadline of both, and thus, my future books, would be pushed well out. But you’ve got to risk it to get the biscuit, haven’t you? I’m at the point in my career when I need to take risks like this, and thus far they seem to be paying off. Fortune favours the bold, and all that, right?
I saw an awesome hashtag recently that was along the lines of ‘Do Not Ask the Author’ or ‘Insensitive Questions to the New Author’, and I had many to add. Of course, this is all in good fun – I’m not writing this in the white-hot rage of someone recently insulted. There are insensitive questions that apply to many situations, and the old list for the pregnant woman pops up a lot. Here are some of my favourites from across my writing career, and I’ll add in any good ones my author buddies come up with if they respond to my Facebook post about it. This might be a good resource for would-be interviewers, or loved ones of writers.
Because writers festivals are as difficult to get into as the popular girls’ slumber parties in early high school. I’m not a popular girl. I’m a writer – that should be evidence enough.
No. I’m not Harper Lee.
See response to question one. I actually had the extraordinary experience of having sixty or more people turn up for a book talk I did in Tamworth for my first novel, but in most cases, if you’re not a best-seller, no one will know who the hell you are during the release of your first, second and third books. They might turn up because they have nothing else to do, or they’re old and they want a night out with easy parking that’ll end in time for an inappropriately early dinner. But that’s about it.
In a goddamn bookstore, you twat.
Now you’re being insensitive to eBook writers.
No. I’m a crime fiction author. You’d know that, if you weren’t too busy thinking about how amazing you are to ask what kind of author I actually am. Also, your life is not the next Eat, Pray, Love. There was one Eat, Pray, Love and that’s quite enough of that to last a lifetime.
Because publishers pay for those adverts, and they’ll only do that for their big-fish authors. Posters on buses need to be brief and recognisable – they’re not designed to draw in first-time readers of an author but to show all-time readers of an author that their new book is out. Jodi Picoult and Lee Child are on the backs of buses, because people don’t see their names and say ‘Who?’
No. J. K. Rowling’s story is a one-in-a-billion Cinderella-style fantasy that happens to absolutely no one. But good on you for knowing another author’s name.
No, Mum. I’m not a washing machine technician. And writing is work.
You really are getting old, aren’t you.
No. There are many reasons why I will not. Because I’m a word-lover, I won’t be able to read your manuscript without marking it up. And because your manuscript is unpublished, it’ll likely need a lot of marking up. This basically constitutes an editing job, which takes forever, and should never be free.
Also, in all likelihood, I have no idea whether your book will be viable for publication or not. I can tell you it’s well written, an awesome concept, or that it’s very rich in good characters and plot (or all of those things!). But books with all of these features go absolutely nowhere in their attempts at getting published ALL THE TIME. The publishing industry is very, very complex, and I would hate for you to hang your chances on me liking your work, because in reality, me liking your work means zip.
Almost no writers live off writing. It’s not very lucrative, for the most part. Writers teach, mostly, or if they don’t have part-time employment, it’s because a very loving and giving partner is sponsoring them while they write.
Why don’t you go and do (other job perceived as being ‘where the money is’, usually training as a doctor or lawyer, or playing the stock market).
In fucking December! Jesus Christ I must have said this eight million times. Look at my blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts, where it’s mentioned. Look at my publishing page. Look at any article that has mentioned me over the last year. If someone asks me when my next book is out again I’m going to kill everyone in this room. SIT DOWN. NO ONE LEAVES. PUT YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM.
I read this speech for an event connected with the New South Wales Writers’ Centre at Berkelouw Books in Paddington on Thursday night. The assignment was to talk about the ‘problematic’ nature of your literary hero. It got a few laughs, so I thought I’d share it for all who couldn’t attend. Happy reading (and writing!) everybody.
Candice Fox here. Again. I wrote to you when I was sixteen to tell you how much I love your books, and to ask you if you’d read my manuscript. You never replied. Seriously? Do you have any idea who I am? It’s ok, I get it, you were 54 at the time. You were probably lacing your cupboards with mothballs, writing complaint letters to your local paper and rubbing balm on your corns. You’re old.
I wanted to get the first part of this letter, the part where I defy logic and burn you for not replying to my fan letter, out of the way up front. Because deep down in my heart I know it’s ridiculous to expect you to reply to every fan letter you receive, even though I myself receive at least one a week and reply to all of them, even the last one, which just said ‘I love you Bae’ over and over. And the one a couple of weeks ago that told me I had an inheritance waiting for me in Nigeria, I replied to that too. You probably get tens of thousands of fan letters. I shouldn’t be bitter. I only do it because I’m good at it.
My real plan in talking about your problematic nature, the Problems with You (Capital P, Capital Y), is to criticise in the way that I always criticise, with a tasty shit sandwich. I introduced my students to the concept of the shit sandwich a few weeks ago when I told them I’d be writing comments on their assignments that way. The bread in a shit sandwich consists of friendly and encouraging sentiments. The shit, is shit. Comments on their assignments went something like ‘This is a very well formatted document. Your writing is terrible, and you will never succeed. Give up now. I like your hair.’
Stephen, you are responsible for some of the most emotional reading moments of my young life. The Green Mile set me aflame with regret and injustice. In Shawshank, the bad guys got away, which is a wonderful and hopeful thing that I think a lot of writers stray away from, afraid they’ll somehow be challenging the Disney happy ending readers are supposed to love and expect. Misery made me sweat with tension, and there was not a moment during its reading when I knew if that captured writer was going to escape or if Annie was going to eat him like a piece of birthday cake.
But here comes the shit.
I think that, despite being a funny, practical and engaging book, On Writing contains plenty of ideas that are bad for young aspiring authors.
Firstly, you describe your unnaturally prolific output as a young writer. Aside from writing for various school-based publications, and starting a home-grown magazine with your brother, you also seem to have written and submitted enough stories to choke a small horse. You write:
By the time I was 14 the nail on my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with hand-written notes a little more encouraging than the advice to stop using staples and start using paper clips.
This troubles me for two reasons. In order to be considered a socially normal 14-year-old at present you need to not only succeed at school, but maintain a range of social media accounts with witty and topical content, be across the latest celebrity meth downspirals and keep up with Games of Thrones before some jerk ruins the whole thing for you online, not only what’s actually happening on the show but whether it’s ‘too rapey’ or ‘just rapey enough’. How many sheets of paper does it take create a downward weight strong enough to pull the standard steel nail out of a wall? I’m thinking more than five. You’re asking of the young writer too much.
You also mention that you were getting hand written notes from publishers by the time you were sixteen. The first time I submitted anything to a publisher, I was eighteen. I got a personally typed letter from a publisher asking me if I wanted to polish up and resubmit my trashy vampire novel (Twilight had just broken). I didn’t get another non-automated email from a publisher until I was twenty six. I have over two hundred rejection emails, which weigh exactly nothing, that read just like this:
Thank you for submitting your manuscript, (insert title here) to us here at, (insert publisher here). Unfortunately, after careful consideration, we have decided not to pursue the work. We wish you all the best with your writing.
See? Shit sandwich.
You recommend in your memoir that the young writer pursue their dream with a daily writing goal. You manage 2,000 to 2,500 a day, but for the amateur you suggest starting small. You write:
As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this low at first, to avoid disappointment. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.
Now in my brief and ludicrous foray into high school teaching, not once did I suggest the students get their books out of their bags without being assaulted by a thirty-strong collective sigh of both disdain and disgust at the suggestion. I once suggested to the class that they should number their page from one to ten, at which a young man at the back of the room cried ‘Oh my God!’ with all the astounded indignation of someone slapped with a fish.
Your success story is unreasonably Cinderella-esque. You describe making a dollar an hour shaking used syringes and body parts from blood stained sheets in a medical laundry and not being able to buy your infant daughter agony-saving ear medicine, when surprise surprise, the reprint rights to your first novel ever sell for four hundred thousand dollars. I’m on my forth novel and I’m still not important enough not to come to writer’s talks like the one I’m sitting at right now, and while I can afford ear medicine for my infant daughter, I don’t have one.
Don’t tell young writers that being a junky will liberate their creative spirit. You recall snorting so much cocaine in the eighties that your nose bled for days, and you were so high you don’t remember a minute of writing Cujo, which won the 1982 British Fantasy Award, was adapted into a successful film, and which has sold over 2.5 million copies world wide. I put it to you, Mr King, that you were creative and prolific despite your addiction. I know this, because I live in Kings Cross, in Sydney’s red-light district, and the most creative thing a junkie has ever said to me is ‘You think you’re better than me? You should go burn yourself alive!’ I couldn’t even return to this creative soul that I thought her use of the word ‘alive’ was unnecessary, as how could I perform the act if I were not alive, because by the time I had raised an indignant finger she’d already been arrested. Drugs are bad.
If I can have one final beef with you before I go, Stephen, it’s with this quote of yours I found among two hundred and thirty three of your sassy and sweary one-liners on Goodreads. You say:
There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you… He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic.
No, Stephen, no. You can’t blame a magical cigar-smoking bowling champion for some of the shit you’ve written, because no one wrote it but you. And don’t tell young writers that anyone’s responsible for their own writing but them – because when they finally do get published they need to be able to say it was their blood and sweat that got the manuscript written, submitted and accepted and not some dickhead in their basement. Your assertions about magic are wrong. The magic of writing is in being the kid in English class who gets their stuff read out all the time. The magic is in preferring books to members of your own family. The magic is in learning how to write, whether it’s by doing degrees or having your grandmother snap your head off every time you end a sentence with a preposition.
I still like your writing, Mr King, and I also like your hair. Look forward to hearing from you.