How not to be a writer (part 1)

The copy-edits of Guardians of Paradise are now back with my editor and first draft has commenced on Bringer of Light.

Thinking about how I start novels got me thinking about how I came to write them for a living. Or rather, why it took me so long to become a professional writer. That put me in confessional mood, so I thought I’d get out some dirty linen and give it a good airing, by way of a warning to others.

I’ve always told stories. My first recorded attempt was immortalised on a C60 tape (remember those?) and consisted of me, aged five and a half, relating a lost Star Trek episode revolving around (if I remember rightly) a giant fire extinguisher. The die was cast.

Unfortunately, I went about becoming a professional teller – or rather writer, as that works better for me – of stories in entirely the wrong way. Looking back, I realise that I made three major mistakes.

The first was not actually writing. Or rather, not writing enough. This partly came from a grotesque vanity: why should I bother to write stuff no one wants to read? The answer to that is, of course, because every writer needs to write (approximately) a million words of unreadable crap before they come up with something good enough that people might pay to read it.

I did actively look for excuses to write: when I was 13 my history teacher said we could write up the Glencoe massacre as a story. It took me the whole weekend, and I got an A minus. (The minus might have been because it was rather long.)  At college, I edited the SF Soc’s magazine; and wrote most of it, badly. I even committed that cringe-worthy classic, the story about fantasy characters not realising that – gasp – they are actually characters in somebody else’s game. Worse, I submitted this travesty to White Dwarf, thus getting my first story rejection.

Ah yes, gaming. The thing was, writing stories for potential publication required me to polish my prose then spend money on postage, wait for ages, and all for what? Rejection. Writing games allowed me to indulge in sloppy prose whilst giving me a guaranteed audience who provided instant gratification (for my megalomania … bwah ha ha). And I was getting my friends to help me tell my stories. Everyone wins!

I don’t regret the time and effort I put into writing and running table-top and free-form role-playing games throughout my twenties. I had fun, and I did learn a few lessons about plotting, and about just how much shit you can heap upon your hapless characters before they rebel. But I’m pretty sure that if I’d devoted myself to writing fiction, as opposed to playing it, I would have started getting paid for my stories a lot sooner.

Next time: the other two mistakes.

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