Monday, 16 June 2014

Three Questions

Recently, the very kind and immensely sympathetic Irene of Irene’s Book Oasis ( asked me three interesting questions.  Answering them proved a voyage of self-discovery.

1. Why did you start writing?

One day (it was in 1974) I heard myself say to a class of boys in a school in Hackney where I was Head of English: “Some of you are writing better stories than I ever could.”

Then I thought “How do you know that’s true?  You’ve never even tried since you left school.”  The thought stayed with me: that I was teaching other people how to write better and better stories but never trying to write any of my own…

Shortly after that another classroom situation occurred that had a really significant effect on my decision to try one day to write stories for children full-time.  I describe it in my blog: “Was that true?”  That year I wrote half a dozen stories for children, sent them to Penguin and they published them. 

Life was simpler in those days…
So why did I start writing again after a gap of almost forty years?  Well there’s nothing like narrowly surviving a murder attempt to concentrate the mind.  I describe that incident in my blog: “Don’t Leave Things Too Late”  I could easily have died that night without ever having started what I hoped – and still hope – will be the major work I leave behind.

2. What is the hardest thing about writing?
Doing it well, I suppose.  In the 1970s I lit the blue touch paper without really knowing what I was doing…

Predictably the firework fizzled out; but that initial success gave me the confidence to work at the craft of writing for the ensuing 30 years, mainly by developing the talents of dozens of promising young writers.
Finding the time and strength of purpose can also be hard.  My job as the Head of a big coeducational comprehensive school in the most stressful social services area in the country took 70+ hours a week for over fourteen years, and every ounce of creative energy I possessed.

After that comes patience and self-belief...  I was 69 before I found the time to write again; but then, quite suddenly, I had all the time in the world.  I wrote for 8-10 hours a day, 7 days a week (give or take the odd day) for 3½ years.  I didn’t put the first 4 books in my “Myrddin’s Heir” series into the kindle store until I had polished and re-polished them, and tried them out on friends and family until I was reasonably sure they were as good as I could make them.  I published all four at once on May 1st 2013.   I have revised them at least twice since.  That’s just one of the enormous advantages of self-publishing: you can upgrade text and covers and have the latest version available within 12 hours.


But without doubt the hardest thing of all is promoting what you have written.  By and large you have to find your readers and engage with them: because as sure as a really sure thing they won’t find you on their own, no matter how good you are.  I’ve been told I need to spend at least half my time on marketing/promotion to have any hope of building a sizeable reader-base.  It isn’t enough to be a great writer; you have to be a great salesperson as well.

 Book 5 came out in April 2014…

Subsequent books in the series are likely to appear once a year.  At that rate it will take another 15 years to finish the story of “Myrddin’s Heir”; by which time, I will be 87.

3. What kind of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Learn from Ted Hughes: throw caution to the winds and write, write, write; after which, put what you have written aside for at least a week and then edit, edit, edit.  Be ruthless in cutting out anything that is superfluous to the primary task: to drive the story on as powerfully and as meaningfully as you can.

Read, read, read: decide on the genre that calls to you, find the best examples of writing in that genre and analyse it to determine why it’s good.  Learn the CRAFT of writing: the effective use of punctuation, variation in the length of sentences, the blending of effective descriptive detail with realistic dialogue…

Whatever your choice of genre, make your readers laugh, and make them cry.

Avoid the continuous present like the plague, except when one of your characters is recounting a story and it’s realistic to write: “So I give her my steely glare and raise my voice a bit – you know – and I says:  ‘WHAT did you just say to me?’ and she goes ‘YOU heard…’  Cheeky cow…!”

Avoid subordinate clauses beginning with ‘as…’: it is almost invariably better to put a full stop and let that clause have its own sentence.  It’s distressing how many writers have an ‘as…’ clause in the first sentence, and another six of them on page 1.

Send me a chunk of whatever you’ve written ( ) and I’ll give you my honest opinion and constructive advice, which you can profit from or ignore – entirely up to you.

I’ve worked with aspiring writers for almost half a century…