The truth about writing.

my desk 2017My wife says I should blog more, particularly about writing. She pointed out that I’m just approaching the end of my first year as an author and folk might be interested to know a) how this change of career came about, b) how I went from writing no books at all to writing three in fairly short order, and c) is this something anyone can do?

I just stood on my chair to take a photo of my desk so that you can see what a book in progress looks like. On the left is my  appallingly-drawn map of a small region on an alien planet. My notebook is there too, full of semi-coherent ideas for book four, many contradicting each other. I also have notes on my phone and voice recordings. Some of the voice recordings make very little sense to me if I don’t transcribe the idea fairly swiftly. To the right of the macbook is the essential ingredient of any morning at my desk: coffee. That’s a double-walled cafetière that holds three large mug-fulls. Not just any coffee, mind. A local blend, freshly ground by the machine in my kitchen. Not just any mug, either. My youngest daughter won it in a raffle when she was eight and—when I discovered the china was the perfect thickness to enhance the consumption of black coffee—we came to a financial arrangement whereby ownership was transferred to me. This kind of thing is important.

So, to business.

a) How did I luck into becoming an author? This is one of those questions that can be answered in three words or three thousand. The three-word answer is I started writing.  Trite, but true. I won’t bore you with the three-thousand word answer. Here’s a short version. The World Walker didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve written before. Mostly pop songs, with the occasional foray into scripts. When I was twenty-one, I sent some comedy sketches to various TV production companies and ended up with one running gag being filmed by Hale and Pace. Did this lead to a glittering career hobnobbing with show-biz types? No. Around the same time, I was offered a job in a band about to spend the winter cruising the Caribbean. Well, what would you have done?

I worked as a musician for almost all of the next twenty-five years, briefly trying stockbroking along the way. Don’t ask. I also did about three and a half years on the UK stand-up comedy circuit. During this time, I was still writing, just not in a single-minded, disciplined way. About ten years ago, I co-wrote Unbelievable, a six-part radio series, on spec with a friend (John Ward) and sent it to the BBC. They liked it. This seemed good at first, until we realised it was the same kind of like you have when you like a nice cup of tea. In other words, no special affection really. You could take it or leave it. They left it. I know we should have thrown all our energy into marketing it, because it was a strong idea (supernatural comedy) and, with the right kind of support, might have got a lot further than it did. But I have a character trait that’s quite common among unshaven, creative types. Once I’ve finished a project, I want to start another, not do anything with the one I’ve just completed. (And John’s almost as bad.) Creatively, that’s the only way to be. Business-wise, that’s completely arse-about-face. Once a project is finished, that’s when the real work starts. Marketing, promotion, emails, post, phone-calls, agents, publishers, production companies. Just writing that last sentence made me feel tired.

When I decided to write a novel (mostly to stop my friend Murray McDonald nagging me), I still did it all wrong. I did the writing bit right(ish), and the clues as to how I managed to complete a 100,000+ word book are above: I started writing and I wrote in a single-minded, disciplined way. Because I’ve written before, my critical faculties were switched on before I started, and I managed to avoid some of the more common mistakes of the first-time novelist. Not all of them, though. Dear God, no. But there was a strong enough central premise and I found myself writing to find out exactly how it would all turn out. Then it was out into the big wide world, with my only expenses my time and a shiny cover from the talented Hristo Kovatliev. The rest was down to you – the readers, and you pretty much did the marketing for me. Somehow, you must have known how crap I was at marketing. If it wasn’t for the reviews, the book would have been dead in the water. (Please review books on Amazon, particular by new authors, self-published and small presses – it helps level the playing field. I read every review. My favourite was headlined Entertaining Rubbish. I told Mrs S that—if I were to set up a company to ‘publish’ my books, that would be its name. She wants to exercise her veto on that decision.)

b) The first book’s the hardest. Once you’ve proven to yourself that you can finish a novel-length piece of writing, you feel a little more confident about trying to repeat it. Since people were buying The World Walker and leaving reviews, I was able to set more time aside for book two. And book three. Now it’s my living. That’s the first time I’ve admitted that in print. It feels weirdly scary, bonkers and amazing at the same time. Urk.

c) Can anyone do it? Given the time, the drive, the ideas and a commitment to constantly trying to improve, yes. Why not? If you can finish a novel, that’s an achievement in itself. If people want to read it, great! If they don’t like it, they will certainly let you know. Then you can try again – and if you’re writing ebooks, it’s easy enough to change your pen-name and start over. Some people say it takes a million words to get the hang of this writing malarkey. Sounds like a figure plucked out of the air, but I understand the reasoning behind it. You’re going to improve if you keep working at it. It’s like Jack Nicklaus famously said: “The more I practise, the luckier I get.” I’m still practising so I can get lucky. That came out all wrong. You know what I mean.

And remember, if readers like what you’re writing, they will definitely let you know, and—take it from me—that’s in my top ten most satisfying experiences in life. I’d tell you the other nine, but, hey, children might be reading this.

It’s been an incredible twelve months. Thanks for being part of it.

PS I’m British. I wrote that last sentence and thought it sounded a bit much. I stared at it for five minutes, deleted it, wrote it again, stared at it for another five minutes then left it. Now I’m writing this in an attempt to be self-effacing. Silly arse.

 

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22 thoughts on “The truth about writing.

  1. World Walker was an accidental gem of a find. Loved it. Highly entertaining, eclectic mix of humour, horror, SF, magic, and more. Difficult to characterise and compare, very different. I share and enjoy the writer’s affinity with Stephen King. Recommended! Looking forward to the rest. Kindle and self-publishing made all this possible. Go Kindle! (review left on Amazon)

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    1. Thanks, David! I wouldn’t be writing novels of it wasn’t for the Kindle platform offered by Amazon, so, naturally, I’m a fan. It’s allowed me to find a readership…amazing. Thank you for reading, and thanks for the encouragement. Ian.

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      1. I’m actually published on Amazon Kindle but for a technical guide rather than fiction. I have a fiction story inside me related to my work so watch this space … 🙂

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  2. And vice versa for me 🙂 Don’t know if scrivener is what you use but I find it very useful for publishing. Just started unmaking engine (love the title). Harvey comes across as Indiana right away, love it 🙂

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  3. Please, please, please – Don’t do a fourth book in the World Walker series!!! I like your writing too much to have my “like” be squashed by a clunky 4th book. I will begin the 17th year today, and have been wonderfully entertained by the first two in the series, but I have been painfully abused by the slow (and sometimes very fast) decent into mush of other writers with whom I have been enamored. A trilogy is plenty! Then start something new, maybe even in the same vein – but unattached to the first three. I’m just sayin’…

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    1. Thanks, Dennis, what a backhanded way to pay a compliment! I’m delighted you’ve enjoyed the books so far and, believe me, I know precisely what you mean about the descent into mush. There’s one trilogy in particular where the first book was so good, I was salivating at the prospect of a second and third, only to feel completely deflated when I read them. The fourth book in TWW will close the series. Books three and four started life as one idea which turned out to be too big for just one book. So, although there will be one more book, it’s actually the other part of book three. It’ll make more sense when you’ve finished The Seventeenth Year, I promise. Let me know how you get on with it, and I hope I can confound your expectations with the final book. After which, it will be time for a new story.

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  4. Ah … should’ve read this blog first before commenting on t’other. To borrow from above “Urk”.
    Good to hear this won’t be a ‘Goodkind’ decending debacle. One query, the musical theme is obviously personal to you so just wondering about the nanotech/sciency (technical term) bits. Is that part of your skill set or all research?
    Off to download book 3 now and get out of the bath (too much info … I totally get it) as my family will be wanting Sunday lunch and after 2.5 hours in now rapidly chilling water, which took me from 23% to close of book 2, I feel it’s the right thing to do.

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    1. Ha! That was a beautiful bit of synchronicity. Just hit rply to your first comment and this popped up (you’ll understand when you read it). Please pass on my apologies to your family for the late lunch, but I’m thrilled (in a non-weird way) that you spent so long in the bath! I feel I’ve truly arrived as an author now.

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    2. ….and on the subject of nanotechnology, it’s just research and speculation. Story, character and themes always grab me as a reader, rather than hard science. My speculations will certainly occasionally miss the mark because of my lack of a technological background. This infuriates a very small minority of readers, for which I am genuinely sorry. Stories seem to take on a momentum and a direction of their own, and, primarily, I let myself be led by that. Good example – the ending of Chris Nolan’s Interstellar, or Kubrick’s 2001 – I loved both, and both endings were dictated more by story, character and themes than by strict adherence to current science. It’s why my books are in the metaphysical and visionary sub-genre 😉

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  5. I started The World Walker about a week ago and I’m currently 40% into The Seventeenth Year – urk!! Please tell me you have a date, that’s very, very close, for the final installment. I’m in the agonising position of never wanting the story to end, but needing to find out what happens. What else can I say – I love it.
    I’ve read a LOT of books – since I could first take six at a time from the library each visit – and the best are the ones that create a world that you just fully immerse into, with the perfect mix of reality & fantasy. Like the story master Stephen King – sometimes I don’t really like his subject, but his storytelling pulls me in until I’m immersed. Reading this series has been the same experience – although I loved the subject from the start as well!
    Fantastic. Amazing. Congratulations Ian.
    I’m from England too, so most of the above seems too much, but I’ve had a glass of wine so I can let it out.

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    1. Thanks, Rachel. Urk indeed! I’ll take a comparison to Stephen King any day, although I don’t feel I deserve it…yet. (Now that’s proper British reserve.) book four will, I hope be with you by the summer. Can’t be any more definite, as this one is taking longer to beat into shape. There’s a lot going on, and I’ve known how it all ends for a long time now. I have to get it right, don’t I? I’ll try not to keep you waiting too long. No George RR Martin gaps between books.

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  6. I just finished the 3rd WW book last night – I NEED more! I’ve never contacted an author before but loved all 3 books so much just wanted to tell you really. Especially as you are a newly published author – fab stuff! I’d love a book dedicated to Sym – he’s an awesome character! Roll on Summer for book 4.

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    1. Thanks! I’m honoured to be the first author you’ve ever contacted. Book four is really taking shape now – and it evolved in a surprising way as I wrote it (which happened on the first three, so you’d think I’d be used to it by now)…watch this space for news of the launch date 🙂

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  7. Amazon have just introduced prime reading and as a free download I read World Walker book 1.Well it’s a week later and I finished The seventeenth year last night! I haven’t binged this much since A song of Ice and fire.I just wanted to thank you for some proper page turning entertainment.I have never contacted an author,or any entertainer of any description before but after reading that these are your first novels and that you wrote all 3 books in a year I am astounded! I can really see the improvement in the way you reveal twists and turns and I’m really looking forward to book 4.I’ve read Stephen king since I was a boy and think you have his knack for writing well realised and likeable (and thoroughly dislikeable​) characters.Please keep up the good work an thanks again.Mick.

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    1. Wow – thanks, Mick, it’s comments like this that give me a boost as I near the end of writing book four! Really looking forward to getting it out there. as it’s been an intense few months. Thanks for your kind words about my writing. The characters certainly exist concretely in my mind – they seem as present as anyone in the ‘real’ world when I’m writing. I also binged on GRRM and think it’s his knack of portraying very real, very different characters that keeps me coming back. So I try very hard to make sure my characters feel like living, breathing personalities before I let them loose. Hope you enjoy book four. All the best, Ian.

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  8. Left a review (first time ever) for The Seventeenth Year on Amazon last night around midnight. 3 books in as many days! I am a speed reader but found myself slowing down a bit to take in your great story. Much better than just skimming it. Don’t watch TV or listen to music very often. I’m a true KU bookworm. Books are my bit of escapism. Best bit so far? The clown scene at the beginning of book 2. Not into horror or violence usually (tend to skip those bits) but as the clown left the scene through the monitor I found myself laughing out loud. For that alone this series has been well worth the time.

    Just had the email about book 4 and assuming it is also available on KU, I will be placing my pre-order as soon as you release the link. Oh, and I’ve even shared my comments on FB, another first for me. That and the inside track on how NZ beat US in the America’s Cup. Now that’s what it takes…..looking at things from a completely different angle. Just like you ‘Mr Sainsbury’.

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=11882559

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    1. Hi Rossa – thanks for the comment and the review. I’m always particularly excited when my book is the subject of someone’s first ever review. It’s an honour! Thanks for sharing on FB too. Much of my success so far has come from word of mouth, so you’re now officially part of my marketing division. Loved the America’s Cup story 🙂

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  9. I don’t know how you managed it, whether Amazon has changed something, or you are just clever with Amazon code, but The Unnamed Way is the first of the hundreds of Kindle books that I’ve read that actually allowed me to leave a review (you’ll like it) without leaving the book and going to Amazon. Since I’m currently writing some Kindle books, and trying fiction for the first time (I’ve managed to write a lot of non-fiction books – they are easy), I’d love to know how you managed that particular bit of magic…?

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    1. Hi John, don’t worry, your comment came through! Thanks for the kind words. I have no secret skills to speak of. As far as I know, code is just something I have to put up with every winter. Perhaps Amazon has changed something. Thanks for the great review. I love the way you think writing non-fiction is easy! Not something I’ve tried, but I suspect you may be downplaying the process somewhat.

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