Friday, 3 November 2017

These things I have learned

Don't get any big ideas

So, two months ago I self-published my debut novel, Drawn To The Deep End. That followed ten months of hawking it around agents and publishers, which in turn followed nearly a year of editing and five years of writing.

At the time of writing this, that novel has sold two dozen copies. Subtract the copies bought by family and close friends and you can probably halve that number. Subtract those bought by former colleagues and schoolmates who are curious, and you can probably reduce that number to zero.

So what have I learned from the whole, painful process?

  • If, like me, you take five years to write 80,000 words of novel, you've been prevaricating and, as Harold Bishop once said, prevarication is the enemy of achievement. I know it can be hard to find the time, but make time. There will always be other things to do, so prioritise. Writers write, right?
  • Don't edit alone. Yes, do the first and second pass edits yourself but then you need to bring other people in. Not only will they spot things you don't, they're also not biased about your precious words and will have no issue with ripping up that para you think is the best thing since sliced bread (but really isn't).
  • Target your submissions. There are only so many publishers that accept unagented works... so focus on agents. And revise. If your novel is a space-opera, don't waste the time of agents looking for historical fiction. And if the agency has more than one agent, take the time to read their profiles online, and then pick the one (i.e. don't carpet-bomb them all) whose interests align closest with what you've written.
  • Be realistic when you get feedback. It's easy to be flattered by phrases like "whilst your story stood out" or "whilst this shows promise", but they still begin with a "whilst" get-out clause; you're still being rejected, as in that other phrase "I'm afraid this isn't for me". Realise that agents receive untold submissions and there's a good chance that the response you get will incorporate some boilerplate text.
  • And now something specific to my attempted submissions: if you write a novel about a grief-ridden 30-something slacker who wants to die but can't kill himself, so instead sets off on a destructive path of increasingly erratic and reprehensible behaviour, surrounded by unlikeable characters, all doing unpleasant things, you might have to accept that this novel is not widely marketable and will not be for most people. And that most people includes agents and publishers.
  • When you self-publish a novel and it sells two dozen copies in its first seven weeks, don't get too excited. That's your family, friends, and social media acquaintances being polite and/or curious. You can't give up the day job just yet...

What did I miss?

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Another publication, of a very different sort

A nine-year old article of mine has made its way, lightly edited, into a new and frankly astounding, heavyweight coffee table book about the band The Wedding Present, entitled Sometimes These Words Just Don't Have To Be Said by Richard Houghton and David Gedge. I'm on pp333-334.

My contribution is a bit journalistic if I'm honest, being a gig review for a blog rather than something I wrote with more generic publication in mind. I might have edited it a bit differently too, but I can't quibble about that. All in all, I'm quite chuffed about this, being a huge fan of the band.

If you're a fan too, you can buy Sometimes These Words Just Don't Have To Be Said from the band's Scopitones website. It's not a cheap book, but then it is a monumental slab of hardback. I'd buy it, even it I wasn't in it.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Drawn To The Deep End

So, a novel that I've been working at, on and off, for seven years is finally available for public consumption. Yes, seven years. More than five writing it, in fits and starts. A year of editing and reviews. Nearly a year trying to find an agent and/or publisher. You might infer from my failure to do the latter that the novel isn't very good, and you're entitled to your opinion. I think it's alright. Not very marketable, perhaps, and a bit downbeat for some, but alright, nonetheless. You'll have to buy it and make your own mind up. Here are the links you'll need for that:



If you like the book, it'd be lovely if you could leave a nice review on Amazon or Goodreads, or wherever you write your reviews. Feel free to blog or tweet about it, if you like.

If you don't like it, well, silence is golden, eh? Or better yet, come on over to this blog or Twitter and let me know off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush ;)

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The end is nigh

I gave myself a deadline for finding an agent and/or publisher for Drawn To The Deep End that has seen me submit to 36 different organisations of one sort or the other since last Christmas.

That deadline expired today. Here's the state of play for those 36 submissions; in this context "Live" just means "haven't responded and don't publish a timescale for responding". So notionally live but, in reality, elapsed. Dead, if you prefer.

So the work on producing a self-published version starts tomorrow...

Thursday, 13 July 2017

If you're not ready for rejection, you're not ready to submit...

...has become a personal motto this year. I am so ready for rejection, I can even share it with you.

I get lots of nice feedback, usually along the lines of "it stood out but...". There's always a but. What follows that seems most often to be a variation on either "this isn't quite right for our list" or "this isn't something we feel we could get behind" and that is, of course, all fine. Other feedback seems to suggest that my work is not commercial enough, and that the story in question doesn't make the reader care passionately enough. Not so fine.

A common thing to say to struggling writers in submission purgatory is "well, Carrie was rejected 30 times before things took off for Stephen King" and that's true. The accepted response to such well-meaning platitudes is to nod and force a smile. The real response should be to point out that most struggling writers are not Stephen King (and whatever you think of him, he undeniably knows how to craft a page-turner), and that the publishing landscape has changed immeasurably since the early '70s. But on we go, regardless: nod and smile.

Since the 19th of December last year, I have so far made 36 submissions of which 58% have been rejected and 31% have elapsed, that is to say the "if your haven't heard from within n weeks you're not going to" category. A precious 11% - four submissions - can still be considered "live" but only because those agents don't have a "haven't heard" category...

But onwards - I gave myself a timescale for Drawn To The Deep End, and have a self-publication fallback plan if that timescale elapses without success. And for the novella in progress, working title Nudge (a title which will change, by the way), I have novella competitions that I want to enter.

Better get writing then.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Song Books - a recommendation

I have nothing new to post about my own writing, but I am very happy to recommend having a listen to this: my good friend and supremely talented writer, Deborah Arnander, talking about short stories on the radio. With bonus Velvet Underground and Nico content! Here you go:

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

A definite trend is emerging...

...and it's downwards.

I know I gave myself until September to find an agent and/or publisher, but self-publishing Drawn To The Deep End is starting to look inevitable.

And in other news, my submission to the Escalator programme was also knocked back.

Onwards though, right?

Monday, 19 December 2016

Just to mark the date...

...I am submitting Drawn To The Deep End to publishers of interest. Or, if this was Twitter, #AmSubmitting.

I'm trying to do things properly, by which I mean traditionally. I'm also being realistic in acknowledging how hard it is to find not only a publisher but, more importantly, the right publisher. At the same time, I want to see Peter Potter's Deep End world make it into print, so I'm giving myself a deadline of nine months to find that publisher. If nothing promising is happening within that time, I'll bite the bullet and self-publish DTTDE (subtext for any publishers reading this - why not get in first?)

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Does an author have a social responsibility?

Long term readers of this blog may know that I have a novel-length manuscript permanently "on the go". It's provisionally entitled Drawn To The Deep End, and tells the tale of a 30-something wage slave who cannot forgive himself for the part he played in his fiancée's suicide three years earlier. His life spirals downwards under a succession of blows, until he ultimately attempts (but is unable) to take his own life.

Now I've workshopped a lot of this story to death, if you'll pardon the pun, and many of my critique group have had an issue with the ending. I've always defended the story by saying that the protagonist has come to view death as redemption, and that was usually that. I put it down to my group-mates not wanting my (anti-) hero to die.

But this week, after an especially full-on but focused session (just three of us - thanks you, KC and DA) another issue was raised. Did I need to think about the message I was putting out there, into the wider world? Okay, it's unlikely that the book, whenever the manuscript becomes a book, will ever be read by that many people. But even if it's only read by one person, was I comfortable with putting out the message that death, and especially suicide, can be redemption? What if one person who's feeling suicidal reads my book, takes that message away, and acts on it? How would I feel?

So, the bigger question: do authors have a social, ethical responsibility for the message, as well as the content, of what they release to the reading world? I'm starting to think they do. And if they do, when does that outrank the story? Could I, with a clear conscience, release my story with it's current ending if I took the Eastenders approach, and put something at the end of the book along the lines of "if you've been affected by the issues in Peter's story, please call this number of visit that website." Is that enough? Or is that a cop-out?

What do you think?

By the way, if you are feeling affected by Peter's story, why not give the Samaritans a call on 116 123 (UK & ROI) or visit them at Thanks.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Higson. Charlie Higson.

Shaken, not stirred. Charlie Higson signs.
I went to see Charlie Higson last week, not in any comedy setting but as an author, talking about the process by which he came to be entrusted by the Fleming estate with the Young Bond novels. The event formed part of the Noirwich Crime Writing festival (the name of which sits somewhere on the punning scale but I can't decide if it's at the 'genius' end or the 'cringe-worthy'). The event coincided with Charlie's donation of archive materials to the host university.

Charlie came across as a thoroughly good bloke, affable, insightful and funny. For people of a certain age in the audience, like me, he even squeezed in a Fast Show catchphrase (though not from one of this characters)... which was nice.

He's a criminally under-rated author in my view, the success of his YA fiction (he writes the zombie-pocalypse series The Enemy too) overshadowing the excellence of his adult fiction. If you don't believe me, take a peak at King of the Ants and Happy Now.

Anyway, I jotted a (very) few notes of the things Charlie had to say; here are those observations.

  • Talking about Bond, Higson described the spy's dream lifestyle, not in terms of the guns/girls/fast cars cliché but by saying (paraphrase alert) he's not married, he doesn't have children, he lives largely in hotels, he eats largely in restaurants and he goes off doing exciting things. Charlie alluded to the appeal of Bond's lifestyle in part relating to not being tied down with a wife and children again later in the evening.
  • Charlie name-checked author Jim Thompson as a favourite, and influence, mentioning The Killer Inside Me and Pop.1280 in particular, suggesting the latter could be his favourite book.
  • When asked about studying how fiction is written in general, and crime fiction in particular, and how the donation of his archive to the university might support that, Charlie joked, "These days you can study anything, can't you?"
  • When discussing the merit of YA fiction, Charlie recounted how Martin Amis, when asked if he (Amis) would ever write YA, had replied, "Only if I had brain damage."
  • Charlie also mentioned Anthony Horowitz, whose Alex Rider books are often understandably considered alongside the Young Bond series. Charlie explained how Horowitz had once confided that he'd named his protagonist Rider after Honeychile Rider in Dr No, and that he considered Alex Rider to be Bond's illegitimate grandson.

Another, more general observation is how much time Charlie made for everyone in the book signing queue. Nobody was rushed, everyone seemed to have as much time as they needed talking with him. Respect also to the guy ahead of me in the queue who had some Higsons 12" vinyl (this, I think) for signing - Charlie duly obliged. Also of interest were the samples of Charlie's work in the foyer that would be going into the archive, including early drafts of the first Young Bond book, Silverfin, complete with extensive editorial notes. Proof, if proof were needed, of the value of a good editor and trusted, objective feedback, something I've blogged a bit about before.

All in all, this was a terrific evening. There was lots more of interest that I didn't note down, but the whole shebang was filmed, so maybe it'll appear online sometime. I'll keep my eyes open and, if it does, I'll post a link here. In the meantime, go and read some of Charlie's fiction, both adult and YA - you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

My children need wine!

I self-published my first title, Dark Steps in August 2011. Since then, I have sold some books. Here's a graph to prove it.

You'll note that I have removed the scale from the Y-axis, but essentially this equates to just over 300 sales across five titles. In the same time period, I have given away, completely free, over 9,000 copies through various channels, nearly all Amazon Kindle Select promotions.

Giving books away for free is fine, I guess, and, barring miracles, writing is never going to enable me to give up the day job. That's fine, I accept that. Fortunately, that's not why I write. But, you know, <plug class="shameless">if you wanted to buy a book sometime, well, that would be fine too...</plug>

Footnote: wondering where the title of this post comes from? Wonder no more. And yes, Euro Itchy & Scratchy Land is a perfect metaphor for sales of my books.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Attention, creative writing class-mates...

Because lots of you will have sat in creative writing classes, and some of you will have taught them too...

A Letter to My Creative-Writing Class

Friday, 5 February 2016

Something new

Whilst I let the first edit of the novel-length work "rest" for a while, I've started something new. A short story, no less (and certainly no more). At present, it begins thus:

I've never lost a coin toss. I know how that sounds. But if I'm going to record this at all, I'd better be completely honest from the outset, and qualify that: I've never lost a coin toss by chance.
     There was that one time you see. I was captain of the school second eleven football team. Nine games into the season we were unbeaten, and I'd naturally won all nine coin tosses. Before our tenth match Mr Smith, the reluctant geography teacher whose sole purpose as our coach was to ferry us around the county in the lesser of the school's two minibuses, concluded his usual pre-match pep talk ("Go and win boys!") with a question: did I know what the odds were of winning nine coin tosses in a row? His Irish accent softened the question, and his mouth was smiling, but his eyes weren't.
     "No sir," I replied.
     "One in five hundred and twelve," he said. "Long odds, that."
     I don't think I said much in return, possibly I tried to laugh about it as I ran on to the pitch to catch up with my team-mates. And of course I lost that day's toss, just - it was surprisingly hard to remember, counter-intuitive even, to nudge heads but call tails. As I trudged back out of the centre circle, I risked a glance at Mr Smith - he was staring directly at me, and no part of his face was smiling.

I'm three and a half thousand words in now, and the story has bitten me. It has traction, I think (hope). What do you think?

Monday, 18 January 2016

Whoop-de-doo, tarantula town

 Whoop-dee-do, employees. Everyone who's found true love may leave early today.

So, hooray for me, I finally finished the first draft of my novel-length work. Note how I still can't call it my novel. It's a manuscript, until it's published, and it just happens to be novel length (just - only 78k words). But anyway, whatever you want to call it, the first draft is finally finished. This ought to be cause for some celebration. After all, I've been working on the damn thing, off and on (increasingly off, decreasingly on) since June 2010. And don't get me wrong, I did celebrate a little, in my own way. I didn't punch the air, or crack open a bottle of anything, but I did have a quiet moment and a wry smile. Success! And yes, I am fully aware of how much work there still is to do, with editing and rewrites, filling logic and plot holes, all that good stuff. But success all the same.

So why the ironic post title? And why the "sad man" image, above? (Both explained by watching this.) It's this. My fictional (anti-)hero and I, well, we've been hanging out together, on paper and in my head, for five and a half years. I know him better than I know most of my work colleagues. He feels like a friend, albeit a messed-up friend with a whole host of problems. And since there won't be a sequel, that's it - that's his story told.

I won't be so crass as to say I'm in mourning, but I do feel some small sense of loss. I'm not writing the novel(-length work) any more. The fun part is over, and that huge emotional and intellectual investment, paid out over years, is suddenly gone. And I'm feeling it. Anyone else have the same problem?

I guess the obvious way to fill the void is to start on the next project but I can't, not whole-heartedly, until all the edits and re-writes of this one are done. In the meantime ... is there a "seven stages of grief for writers" out there, somewhere?

Friday, 15 January 2016

Learn from the greats ...

The writer Stephen King. Photograph: Steve Schofield (commissioned by The Guardian)... or, since I am editing and have nothing new or finished to blog about, let me instead direct you to a recent(ish) article from The Guardian entitled Ten things I learned about writing from Stephen King. To me, "thing" seven is the crunch.

Still here? Go on, scat!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Christmas gift idea? Book tokens!

When I was a kid, one of the greatest presents you could get was a book token. Okay, it might not look much, a little slip of paper (then) in a scratty envelope - not much to unwrap there, or play with straight away. But the possibilities... and the choice... and the anticipation...

And the hours I spent in the narrow (even for a kid) aisles of the sadly now-defunct Albion Bookshop, with a book token carefully folded in my pocket... golden moments, those.

I was reminded of all this when I saw an ad for National Book Tokens this morning, which centred around this:

I count around fifteen references there, how about you?

Anyway, while you're thinking about that, if you're stuck for last-minute Christmas gift ideas, especially for kids, don't just buy them chocolate or an iTunes giftcard. Buy them a book token. They might not all thank you for it - you risk your own moment of "I hate Uncle Jamie" - but you're giving the gift of possibilities, choice, anticipation... and books. What could be finer?

Monday, 2 November 2015

Theory and practice of editing

The inestimable Andrew Collins's recent rediscovery of his own article on The New Yorker brought this to my attention, this being Wolcott Gibbs's "Theory and Practice" from 1937. It's aimed at journalists generally, and those working on TNY in particular, but there's something here for us all, and especially me as I'm currently editing the first draft of a novel-length manuscript. On that basis, I reproduce it here for you now, verbatim.

The Theory And Practive Of Editing by Wolcott Gibbs

THE AVERAGE CONTRIBUTOR TO THIS MAGAZINE IS SEMI-LITERATE; that is, he is ornate to no purpose, rull of senseless and elegant variations, and can be relied on to use three sentences where a word would do. It is impossible to lay down any exact and complete formula for bringing order out of this underbrush, but there are a few general rules.

  1. Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page, recently, I found eleven modifying the verb "said": "He said morosely, violently, eloquently," and so on. Editorial theory should probably be that a writer who can't make his context indicate the way his character is talking ought to be in another line of work. Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chancy might be able to do it, but he is dead.
  2. Word "said" is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting "grunted," "snorted," etc., are waste motion, and offend the pure in heart.
  3. Our writers are full of cliches, just as old barns are full of bats. There is obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a cliche undoubtedly is one, and had better be removed.
  4. Funny names belong to the past, or to whatever is left of Judge magazine. Any character called Mrs. Middlebottom or Joe Zilch should be summarily changed to something else. This goes for animals, towns, the names of imaginary books and many other things.
  5. Our employer, Mr. Ross, has a prejudice against having too many sentences begin with "and" or "but." He claims that they are conjunctions and should not be used purely for literary effect. Or at least only very judiciously.
  6. See our Mr.Weekes on the use of such words as "little," "vague," "confused," "faintly," "all mixed up," etc., etc. The point is that the average New Yorker writer, unfortunately influenced by Mr. Thurber, has come to believe that the ideal New Yorker piece is about a vague, little man helplessly confused by a menacing and complicated civilization. Whenever this note is not the whole point of the piece (and it far too often is) it should be regarded with suspicion.
  7. The repetition of exposition in quotes went out with the Stanley Steamer:
    Marion gave me a pain in the neck.
    "You give me a pain in the neck, Marion," I said.
    This turns up more often than you'd expect.
  8. Another of Mr. Ross's theories is that a reader picking up a magazine called The New Yorker automatically supposes that any story in it takes place in New York. If it doesn't, if it's about Columbus, Ohio, the lead should say so. "When George Adams was sixteen, he began to worry about the girls he saw every day on the streets of Columbus" or something of the kind. More graceful preferably.
  9. Also, since our contributions are signed at the end, the author's sex should be established at once if there is any reasonable doubt. It is distressing to read a piece all the way through under the impression that the "I" in it is a man and then find a woman's signature at the end. Also, of course, the other way round.
  10. To quote Mr. Ross again, "Nobody gives a damn about a writer or his problems except another writer." Pieces about authors, reporters poets, etc., are to be discouraged in principle. Whenever possible the protagonist should be arbitrarily transplanted to another line of business. When the reference is incidental and unnecessary, it should come out.
  11. This magazine is on the whole liberal about expletives. The only test I know of is whether or not they are really essential to the author's effect. "Son of a bitch," "bastard" and many others can be used whenever it is the editor's judgment that that is the only possible remark under the circumstances. When they are gratuitous, when the writer is just trying to sound tough to no especial purpose, they come out.
  12. In the transcription of dialect, don't let the boys and girls misspell words just for a fake Bowery effect. There is no point, for instance, in "trubble," or "sed."
  13. Mr.Weekes said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn't believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. "A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel." Sometimes they're necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr.Weekes suffers and quite rightly.
  14. I suffer myself very seriously from writers who divide quotes for some kind of ladies club rhythm. "I am going," he said, "downtown" is a horror, and unless a quote is pretty long I think it ought to stay on one side of the verb. Anyway, it ought to be divided logically, where there would be pause or something in the sentence.
  15. Mr.Weekes has got a long list of banned words beginning with "gadget." Ask him. It's not actually a ban, there being circumstances when they're necessary, but good words to avoid.
  16. I would be delighted to go over the list of writers, explaining the peculiarities of each as they have appeared to me in more than ten years of exasperation on both sides.
  17. Editing on manuscript should be done with a black pencil, decisively.
  18. I almost forgot indirection, which probably maddens Mr. Ross more than anything else in the world. He objects, that is, to important objects, or places or people, being dragged into things in a secretive and underhanded manner. If, for instance, a Profile has never told where a man lives, Ross protests against a sentence saying "His Vermont house is full of valuable paintings." Should say "He had a house in Vermont and it is full, etc." Rather weird point, but it will come up from time to time.
  19. Drunkenness and adultery present problems. As far as I can tell, writers must not be allowed to imply that they admire either of these things, or have enjoyed them personally, although they are legitimate enough when pointing a moral or adorning a sufficiently grim story. They are nothing to be light-hearted about. " The New Yorker cannot endorse adultery." Harold Ross vs. Sally Benson. Don't bother about this one. In the end it is a matter between Mr. Ross and his God. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is definitely out as humor, and dubious, in any case.
  20. The more "as a matter of facts," "howevers," "for instances," etc., you can cut out, the nearer you are to the Kingdom of Heaven.
  21. It has always seemed irritating to me when a story is written in the first person, but the narrator hasn't got the same name as the author. For instance, a story beginning: "George," my father said to me one morning; and signed at the end Horace Mclntyre always baffles me. However, as far as I know this point has never been ruled upon officially, and should just be queried.
  22. Editors are really the people who should put initial letters and white spaces in copy to indicate breaks in thought or action. Because of overwork or inertia or something, this has been done largely by the proof room, which has a tendency to put them in for purposes of makeup rather than sense. It should revert to the editors.
  23. For some reason our writers (especially Mr. Leonard Q. Ross) have a tendency to distrust even moderately long quotes and break them up arbitrarily and on the whole idiotically with editorial interpolations. "Mr. Kaplan felt that he and the cosmos were coterminus" or some such will frequently appear in the middle of a conversation for no other reason than that the author is afraid the reader's mind is wandering. Sometimes this is necessary, most often it isn't.
  24. Writers also have an affection for the tricky or vaguely cosmic last line. "Suddenly Mr. Holtzman felt tired" has appeared on far too many pieces in the last ten years. It is always a good idea to consider whether the last sentence of a piece is legitimate and necessary, or whether it is just an author showing off.
  25. On the whole, we are hostile to puns.
  26. How many of these changes can be made in copy depends, of course, to a large extent on the writer being edited. By going over the list, I can give a general idea of how much nonsense each artist will stand for.
  27. Among other things, The New Yorker is often accused of a patronizing attitude. Our authors are especially fond of referring to all foreigners as "little" and writing about them, as Mr. Maxwell says, as if they were mantel ornaments. It is very important to keep the amused and Godlike tone out of pieces.
  28. It has been one of Mr. Ross's long struggles to raise the tone of our contributors' surroundings, at least on paper. References to the gay Bohemian life in Greenwich Village and other low surroundings should be cut whenever possible. Nor should writers be permitted to boast about having their telephones cut off, or not being able to pay their bills, or getting their meals at the delicatessen, or any of the things which strike many writers as quaint and lovable.
  29. Some of our writers are inclined to be a little arrogant about their knowledge of the French language. Probably best to put them back into English if there is a common English equivalent.
  30. So far as possible make the pieces grammatical, but if you don't the copy room will, which is a comfort. Fowler's English Usage is our reference book. But don't be precious about it.
  31. Try to preserve an author's style if he is an author and has a style. Try to make dialogue sound like talk, not writing.

Footnote: if you're looking for a good, modern and free style guide for the English language, you could do a lot worse than The Guardian's.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Fight Club 4 Kids

You'll have seen this already, because you're savvy and hipsterish, neither adjectives that could be applied to me. But it bears repetition, featuring, as it does, a terrific author ripping the proverbial out of one of my favourite books. Of course, he's allowed to - he wrote it.

Here you go. You're welcome.