How I learned to write
So how did I learn to write?
Well, like any craft or artistic skill, you never really stopped learning – so a more apt title should be ‘My adventures with the written word before I publish my first novel’. Or something equally as catchy.
Back in my wispy teenage years, as the aspiring novelist in me was just beginning to surface, I came across a quote from the great Stephen King. He said on how to become a skilled writer – “read a lot, write a lot”. Its incredibly simple but effective advice that has stuck with me ever since. Its all in the repetition, the practice, the mistakes and the insights they provide.
I don’t recall there ever being a moment when I decided I wanted to write, I just found my head filling with stories I was compelled to write down, but I seriously started making concerted efforts to write in my middle teenage years. The first extended work I can remember was a King inspired piece of horror fiction about a man who losses both his legs in a horrific car accident. He subsequently has a horrific breakdown whilst trying to cope with the trauma, cue terribly written scenes of madness, of apparitions appearing to him in his bath water, and a brutally murdered care assistant. It was terrible but it was something at least. It was 50,000 words that proved to my inner sceptic that I could actually write a novel someday! I was young and stupid enough to think publishers would love it and promptly sent it here there and everywhere. Cue piles of rejection letters that were surprisingly polite in hindsight.
It was a start, and from there I wrote, wrote, wrote.
With intentions to gain as much experience with the written word as possible, I delved into various forms of writing just for the fun of it. I spent some time working for an online magazine as a freelance music journalist, reviewing the latest heavy metal releases and writing features on iconic bands. Particularly memorable was my feature Reign in Controversy, a look at the history of the metal band Slayer and the many contentious events they have been involved with through the years. I was paid £5 for the piece and it was great to see some of my words published online and in digital mags.
However I never really settled into that journalistic way of life. I wasn’t fond of the rules, the guidelines, the definitive word counts, the day job nature of it all – it quickly begin to feel like a chore and another job working for the man.
So I went back to writing for myself and exploring another love – film. For some reason I felt I could be a bona-fide screenwriter / director in the mode of Mr. Cronenberg or Mr. Tarantino, despite having no previous experience with film-making or screen writing at all!. How hard can it be right? 1 page = 1 minute of film (a rough rule of thumb) so all I need is 90 pages and I’d be done! I’ll work out that directing lark later! So I wrote two features and sent them off to various funding boards.
The first was a horror film that revolved around two gothic lesbians who owned a second hand thrift shop and, of coarse, summoned the devil by way of a Ouija board. If memory serves I think the devil himself got one of them pregnant and drama unfolded from there. It was called Deofol (Latin for devil), and at the time, as a 19/20 year old, this seemed the coolest thing in the world! I sent it to various places and never got any response.
My second feature revolved around a young boy growing up in a high rise council estate tower block. His father was long gone and his mother was a prostitute. He would listen to copious amounts of heavy metal music, constantly play truant from school and shop lift, and eventually began picking off some of his mothers customers. Again, I though this was an inspired and gritty British film classic in the making and promptly sent to off to BFI for funding. This application demanded a full breakdown of budget and costs that I would need for the project, so I seemingly plucked a grand total of £100,000 out of the air and sent it off.
A few months later I was sent a polite rejection package which included comments on the script itself. It was the first time I had ever had a piece of writing so comprehensively dissected, and it made for chastening reading. Apparently it was too gory, too violent and seemed to place the protagonists horrific behaviour squarely at the door of heavy metal music! Needless to say they wouldn’t be giving this kid of 22 years old £100,000 to waste.
So where do you go after such a harsh rejection?
Obviously you write a pilot for a TV sitcom and send it to the BBC!
It was called Housemates and revolved around a pair of kooky and opposing guys who rented two rooms in a shared student house. One was an OCD, fussy and pedantic type – the other was a fancy dress wearing, pot smoking, layabout. Hilarity would ensue obviously! I had grand plans wherein at the start of each weeks episode a new tenant would rent the remaining spare room in the house, only to be flee the pair and their strange existence at the end of each half hour laugh riot. A new victim moves in and promptly moves out again in every episode. I though this was inspired as each episode would essentially have new characters entering this bizarre little world – the BBC didn’t agree and I was rejected once again.
So I gave up writing scripts after that, realising no-one was going to fund these crazy projects of mine regardless of how good my writing may have been.
My second full length novel was born – The Mid-life Crisis of Chris Smith. It was the tale, told via a personal diary of the title character, of a mans spiral into madness as loneliness and tedium takes hold during his 40s. It was enjoyable and easy to write as I would complete exactly one diary entry per day to mirror the life of this fictional man. It was a fictional diary taking place in real time that even borrowed names and locations from my real working life. After a year of writing this got sent everywhere – to agents and publishers alike – and was destined to be my breakthrough.
In hindsight the big lesson here was drafting! See I was sending out the first draft – unedited and unchecked. It was spell-checked so it would be fine I though! More rejection letters – more disappointment. Lesson learned the hard way – A Man Who Can See…went though 7 drafts and an external proofread before publishing. It was a shame because I liked, and still like, the story and the idea and may one day, revisit and re-write it.
And so the journey continues.
Upon being made redundant, and to fight the mind numbing boredom of months of job seeking, I started a graphic novel. Armed with Photoshop and my own artistic and writing skills, I set about crafting 8-Bit Adventures. A crazy action adventure that revolved around a mysterious 8-bit computer bought online, that dragged our protagonist into a dangerous pixellated world once turned on. Cue 6 moths worth of sketching, drawing, writing, inking.
Cue me having to return to work with the project half finished. I drastically underestimated the sheer amount of work I was undertaking and the book sits half finished on my hard drive – a dreadful shame and something I will resolve to finish when my lifestyle permits.
So that – along with countless short stories, a few half finished novels, and a few years completely diverted into fronting a metal band (writing music and lyrics instead) – bring me to A Man Who Can See The Future. A title that literally erupted out of my mind over the coarse of 6 days – and was then edited, re-written and proofread into shape over the coarse of 9 months!
Writing has been a constant factor of my life since I was young, and all of the above represent lessons learned and skills developed, all of which I hope will serve me well for a prosperous writing career.