Why so many writers want to be in a band

Stephen King had the Rock Bottom Remainders with its roster of bestselling authors, Ken Follett still plays in Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, and whenever I’ve had a Skype conversation with another writer there’s always a damn guitar in the background.

Writers wanna be rock stars*.

I had a great seat for a Squeeze** gig at the Royal Albert Hall the other night (courtesy of publicist and gentleman Mark McGinlay). I was so close to the stage I was able to offer some constructive criticism as they played…


I love watching bands play. Not necessarily the lead singer, but the rest of the group as they interact, keep the beat and, most crucially, stay in the moment.

You might think that writers want to be in a band for that sense of camaraderie, and, yes, there may be some truth in that. But they don’t want to join a band to meet people! Especially people they might be forced to share a tour bus with. Yikes. No. If they want to meet people they can invent their own and keep them on the page where they can torture them like the control freaks they truly are. Writers wants to be in a band for very a different reason.

Writers secretly envy musicians.

Musicians dare not do the thing that most writers do as habit: every thirty-seven seconds a writer will look up from their keyboard and stare out of the window while wondering if it’s time for another cup of tea and a chocolate hobnob.

Squeeze played for two hours straight, and the musicians closest to me — the drummer, percussionist and bassist — never missed a beat. They were relaxed, smiling at one another, having a great time, but they never once forgot that they were playing before over four thousand paying punters at the Albert Hall and any mistake would be laid bare to eight thousand eyes staring at them.

If only we writers could sustain our concentration for that long.

So, today, when you’re writing, make your hero Yolanda Charles, bass player. She was the musician playing closest to me and she never lost concentration once. She was always in the moment. She never even contemplated leaving the moment. She kept the moment in its place. And she knew that the moment was a living, breathing thing that had to be constantly fed or it would leap up and push her off the stage.

Happy writing – now get back to work… and concentrate!

Oh, and if you love rock and roll (with a light touch of time travel) I just wrote a novel that you might like.

And if you want to support our work on the podcast, we now have a Patreon. Do please support us and we can keep this crazy train rolling.

*Sportsmen want to be in bands too, but that’s because they’ve spent so much of their lives getting up at the crack of dawn to run/swim/drive in circles that they’re boring and don’t have any real friends and are looking for a sense of belonging… but that’s a rant for a future newsletter. 

**And if you don’t know who Squeeze are, you’re in for a treat: catchy songs with the most sublime lyrics that are able to summon up characters, places and tell stories in a way that many novelists struggle to evoke in ninety-thousand words. Listen and learn. The use of tenses in Up The Junction is a masterclass in how to break the rules and make it work…

 

 

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The Death of a Goldfish (or, how to let go of that novel you’ve just written)

There comes a time when a writer must release their book into the big, bad world for people to read, praise, critique and ponder (or tell you how they would have written a different ending*).

You’ve lived with this book for some time. At least a year, if not longer. You’ve come to love the characters, their surprising quirks, their voices, and how they overcame seemingly impossible odds to find themselves at the end of the story a better and more complete person. Much like yourself, because we all know the writers are the real heroes, right?

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. None of them are. And the temptation is to continue to tinker, but the seasoned writer knows that sooner or later, like Queen Elsa of the ice kingdom Arendelle, they just have to let it go.

I’ve heard some writers compare finishing a book to the passing of a loved one, but that’s probably a tad insensitive. I’ve certainly experienced mournful feelings as I realise that I won’t get to spend time with these characters, but it’s nothing like proper grief, it’s more like… the death of a minor pet. Maybe a goldfish. Yeah, you’re sad for a bit, but then you realise the garden centre has loads more finny friends in their tanks.

So the key is you have to be brave enough to bury your goldfish.

Put that on a meme and see how far it gets…

Anyhoo, this is a long-winded way of telling you that I have finally “let go” of the novel I wrote with the Majesty of Motivation, Mr. Mark Desvaux! This is culmination of a fairly intense year of The Bestseller Experiment, the weekly podcast where we discover what makes a bestselling novel while trying to write, publish and market one in just a year.

I won’t lie to you, there were times when I thought this would be a complete and utter car crash, but here we are, with what I reckon is a really fun, page-turning adventure with characters you’ll love! Here are some amazing quotes…

 

 

So CLICK HERE to grab your copy now.

And in the meantime… I’m feeding another couple of goldfish.

 

 

*Yes, this happened to me recently… Two years after said book was released. ‘You’re a bit late, mate,’ I told him.

 

Four days to go!

And in today’s daily podcast we talk reviews and launch teams. We’re basically begging at this point: please buy our book (BACK TO REALITY, out Monday October 16th!!), and please give us a review… any review… stopping random people in the street counts as a review at this point.

This is longer than most of the other mini-episodes. Mostly we repeat ourselves as the mania increases, we give a big shout out to our amazing launch team, I namecheck a couple of author friends, Kit Cox and Graeme Williams, and then I get a little ranty at the end about mailing lists. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN NOW

Five days to go!

In the third of our daily mini-episodes in the run-up to publication of Back to Reality (out on October 16th!) we look at Beta readers and reviews and how to cope with feedback.

You can definitely hear the mania beginning to set in with this episode. We recorded all of these on one night last week, and it was around the third episode that our banter became babble… but there’s some great stuff here. Our beta group on Facebook has been incredible: they have forensic attention to detail and they’re wonderfully supportive, which we really need as we careen towards our publication date (DID I MENTION THAT IT’S OUT ON OCTOBER 16TH???).

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN NOW…

A big, ballsy declaration (don’t be chicken)

Howdy, this month’s chicken centrefold is Giz. Say hello to Giz…

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Visitors are always welcome to the writing room…

We’ve learned quite a few things on the Bestseller Experiment podcast, but the one lesson that’s really chimed with me is the importance of a deadline. And not only a deadline, but a big, public bastard declaration of a deadline that you can’t go back on without making yourself look a complete pillock and suffering big heapings of public shame when you don’t meet it.

It focuses the mind of a writer, forces you to make difficult decisions, doesn’t give you much time for self-doubt, and increases productivity. Just have a look at Brandon Sanderson’s website: he has little progression bars for each of his projects right there on the homepage, and I’m sure this plays a big part in maintaining his incredibly prolific output. Deadlines can be terrifying, but after a year of writing for the podcast I can tell you they bloody work. I still haven’t decided when I’ll make my next stupid declaration. Maybe by the end of this newsletter…? Who knows?

During the meanwhilst, our novel has been through an edit, another rewrite, and is currently with our copy editor. She’s currently getting forensic on its ass, and we look forward to getting a document riddled with notes pointing out our poor grammar, punctuation and identifying massive plot holes.

It’s also with a couple of advance readers. Just a handful at first, then we’ll take on their feedback and widen it out to others. The truth is, we don’t have much time, so if they come back with ‘It stinks, rewrite the whole thing and set it in 12th century Mongolia,’ then we’re kind of screwed. Fortunately, so far we’ve had ‘This isn’t what I expected, but I’m really enjoying it,’ comments (it really is unlike anything I’ve written before).

We’ve also had our first meeting with our cover designer, which was incredibly exciting and promises to be the most enjoyable part of the experiment if for no other reason than it’s our chance to torture a fellow creative. There will be some kind of cover reveal in the next month or so. Follow us on the Twitters, Facebook and Instagram to be the first to know.

I’ve also gone back to look at a couple of projects that I put aside in order to concentrate on the Bestseller Experiment. The first is a middle-grade science fiction adventure novel. I finished the first draft of this almost exactly a year ago, and I’m happy to say that it stands up to scrutiny pretty well. I’m giving it a light polish before sending it to my agent. My hope is that this will get picked up by a children’s publisher and be the first in a bestselling series, leading to big budget movies, action figures and inordinately expensive Lego kits.

The other project… Well, maybe it’s time for a big, stupid, ballsy, public declaration of a deadline? This project started as a book in 2008, then became a TV pilot script, then went back to being a book again, then was reduced to a treatment for another version of a TV show. It was an idea in search of a format and was in danger of being completely abandoned, but whenever I went back to it I knew that it had such rich potential. Another big lesson learned from the Bestseller Experiment is that a good series can be hugely successful. And it occurred to me that this project didn’t need to be just one book and it didn’t need to be restricted by TV and film budgets. It could be a series set in a single precinct, much like Robert Rankin’s Brentford, or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld where anything could happen. A kind of Midsomer Murders with magic, with a roster of characters and situations that will allow me to write about pretty much any theme I want to. It’s current working title is The Woodville Project after the school where I grew up (my parents were the school caretakers and I had the run of the fields and adventure playground… it was bloody brilliant).

So, my big, stupid, ballsy, public declaration is that I will write and self-publish three Woodville novellas in 2018. The first one in, pfft, I dunno… shall we say April? Fine, that’s a deal. Here we go!

Shit, what have I done?
Till next time!

Mark

PS. Of course this could all be scuppered by a really good film or TV deal coming along. I reserve the right to sell-out to Hollywood.

PPS. What’s your declaration? I promise not to tell anyone, but I will hold you to it. Life is short, what are you waiting for…? Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day…

PPS. Subscriber to my newsletter get this news first, so why not sign-up now? It’s Mailchimp, so no selling to spammers.

 

I haven’t written for three days!

If you follow the Bestseller Experiment podcast you might have noticed that we recently finished our first draft. This is always a cause for celebration, even if the draft is a big old mess (which it is) and will need a ton of work (which it will). Simply finishing something is an achievement.

I celebrated by getting a summer cold, and diving straight into rewrites of a TV pilot script. This was huge fun, as this was the script that had been give such a kicking a while ago, but I had spent the time since working on solutions that I couldn’t wait to try out.

The other reason for the hurry is that I’m moving house. The Stay family is leaving the suburbs and heading to the country… Well, maybe not the country, but it’s next to a farm, and for a boy born in the city that counts as the countryside. All this means lots of packing (so many books!), and a break in my usual routine, which means I haven’t written anything other than emails to utility companies in three days.

I’m a ‘write every day’ guy. If I don’t write anything during the working day, I get twitchy. So much so, that I just snuck out of bed in the middle of the night to sit among the boxes and compose this blog…

… and that feels good, even though it’s not the full dose of happiness that I get from a bit of creative writing. But I am reassured by the response we got from Sarah Pinborough on the podcast when we asked her if she wrote every day. ‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s bollocks.’ She went on to clarify that even though she might not actually be writing her latest work in progress, she’s always thinking about it. Well, I’ve been doing lots of thinking, and I’m allowing myself to call that work, even if it’s just for a few days.
The other thought that keeps me going is that when we move I will finally have a writing room. I hate to use the phrase ‘man-cave’, due to all the icky connotations, but it will almost certainly be the very definition of male writer mid-life crisis decor: film posters, books, Lego, and I might even succumb to the lure of vinyl LPs again… Lordy, what have I become…?

In the meantime, keep writing, my friends. I love hearing about your work and news (my friend Graeme Williams just had some amazing news!) and it’ll keep me going till I see you on the other side once I’ve unpacked…

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Ever felt worthless as a writer? You’re not alone.

Up till Tuesday night this week, I was invincible.

I had spent the weekend polishing a TV spec script that was going to be my calling card. It was, without a doubt, the best thing I had ever written. I had spent maybe a year and bit slowly bringing it to life, researching the historical background, building the characters and the world, and it had already been through two beta-readers, who had given me excellent notes and were very positive, and it was ready to go out.

But I wanted one more opinion before I did that, just to be sure, and so I sent it to another writer friend for his opinion.

His notes were like a punch to the gut.

He found problems with the protagonist, the tone, the antagonists, and the ending.

And the worst thing is, he was right.

This is where my old friend self-doubt made an appearance. How could I have been so blind to the script’s flaws? Worse still, how could I have been so supremely confident that it was ready, when it clearly wasn’t even close? I’ve been doing this for long enough that I should know this, surely? I really did not know if I had the judgement to continue with writing. If I couldn’t see my own flaws, then how could I even possibly think about a career as a writer? I was useless. Hopeless. Worthless.

The notes arrived via email late at night, and I barely slept after that, constantly turning dead-end rewrite ideas over in my head.

By the morning, however, almost all of that doubt had gone. I had formulated some ideas for a rewrite and this time it was going to be awesome.

I’m hoping that this sequence of events is familiar to other writers.

I’ve gone through various incarnations of it ever since I started writing at school. I spoke about this on the podcast recently, noting that coping with tough feedback can be a bit like going through the stages of grief. Not to denigrate the overwhelming intensity of losing a loved one, but we writers can be melodramatic, and it cannot be denied that the similarities are pretty remarkable:

First comes denial: They’re wrong! How dare they misinterpret my genius!

Then anger: Fuck ’em!  Look at these shitty notes: he contradicts himself three times, so why should I listen to him?

Bargaining: Maybe I should email them, pointing out the stuff they missed, which will help them see just how brilliant the story really is?

Depression: I’m utterly worthless, a total fraud and I should never put pen to paper ever again.

Acceptance: Ah, y’know what? Maybe they had a point? Let’s get to work.

Earlier that evening I had been messaging a writer friend who was going through the same thing, and I think that’s possibly what exacerbated things this time for me. I was telling my friend to keep his chin-up, you’ll get through this, you’ve been published, people love your books, you’re awesome… And all the while I was thinking how lucky I was to have put those days behind me.

What a doofus I was.

It never goes away.

I think good writers are able to hold conflicting thoughts in their heads. It’s the only way you can have characters with opposing views convincingly have at each other on the page. The trouble with this skill is you can be all too empathetic when people criticise your work. My inclination is to immediately agree with them; yeah, you’re right, it’s crap isn’t it?

I looked back at the notes that my friend had sent me. There was so much positive stuff in there. He loved the pace, the characters (mostly), the period, the maguffin, he said it was huge fun, unusual and really visual. Why was I only seeing this now? My eyes had somehow glazed over this and chose to focus on the shit.

I’m not posting this for ‘Aw, hun’ hugs, I just want other writers to know that if you’re going through this rollercoaster, you’re not alone.

And once you start to recognise the stages, it becomes easier to manage them, move through them more rapidly, find yourself working on solutions, and thanking your lucky stars that someone cared enough to help you make your work better.

So here I go with another rewrite. And this time, it really will be the dog’s bollocks.

 

 

Hope this wasn’t too depressing. Normal service will resume shortly. But if you think you know a writer/creative who might benefit from this post, then please do share… or give them a hug… or tea and biscuits usually does the job!

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Robot Artwork by Paul Catling. Photo of Mark Stay by http://www.mpsv.co.uk Both used with kind permission. All rights reserved.

Did you know Harold Pinter wrote a pantomime starring Michael Caine…?

Well, of course he didn’t…

But this was the premise for a sketch that I filmed with some old friends a couple of years ago. Friends that I was writing comedy sketches with back when I was a teenager. The way I remember it is we would meet in the drama hall after school, writing, improvising and laughing for about two hours non-stop. And by laugh, I mean breathless, bent-over-in-agony, pounding the floor, thinking you’re going to die, convulsing in spasms laughter. I have not laughed so hard since.

As a teenage boy there was a kind of comedy arms race among my peers: we were always trying to be the fastest and the funniest, and a few of us tried to get it down on paper, then on its feet, thinking we were going to be the next Monty Python…

Well, of course, we were not…

But it was the first writing I did with an audience in mind, and we’ve since all gone on to do cool, creative things: Jeremy is now a documentary filmmaker, Dom is an incredible musician and award-winning filmmaker, Paul works in West End theatre, and I write words and sometimes get paid for them. There’s a moment in Jerry Seinfeld’s documentary Comedian where he recalls the same thing. His friends at school were as funny as he was, if not funnier. The difference is, he pursued it as a career and didn’t allow the formalities of life — getting a job, behaving like an adult in polite company etc. — slowly beat it out of him. It’s a sobering thought that I’ll never be as funny as I was when I was a kid, confirmed perhaps by the sketch we filmed when we all reunited again for Paul’s fortieth birthday…

Yes, that’s me on the right as Michael Caine (as Widow Twankey), with Paul on the left (Aladdin), in a sketch written by Dom and filmed by Jeremy. There’s an alternative universe where we’re begrudgingly reuniting for a stadium tour, we’re all millionaires and we all hate each other… I wouldn’t want to live there, but it might be worth a short visit.

My son is fourteen, my daughter seventeen, and they’re both quick wits and make me laugh every single day, and I regularly plead with them not to let life beat that humour out of them.

Cling on to the funny, folks.

Christ knows, over the next few years I suspect we will need a good laugh more than ever before.

Just say No, kids! My Writing Diary, Ten Years On: Monday 8th – Wednesday 10th January, 2007

Thanks to my Odeon Limitless card, I’ve seen more movies than ever before in the last twelve months, but I still haven’t got around to seeing this…

And there’s a very specific reason for that. I just can’t bring myself to see it. To do so would be like revisiting a very bad toothache. Let’s go back to my diary entries for ten years ago today, when I had a meeting with Dean Fisher, who was producing Waiting For Eddie, which I hoped would be my debut film (it wasn’t)

 

Monday 8th January, 2007

Dean asked if I was interested in another project he’s developing. It’s called ‘The Office Christmas Party’, and comes from a party witnessed by his brother. So far it’s just a series of ‘It really happened’ events. There’s no story or even a rough outline, but in some ways that’s best if it gives me more of a free reign. Anyway, I’ll look at what he’s got and see if it’s do-able.

Tuesday 9th January, 2007

I read the notes for Dean’s ‘Office Christmas Party’ idea… Yikes. There’s really nothing to work with. It’s basically what happens when you give people a free bar and too much coke. The concept is a good one, but I’d have to start from scratch and I have a nagging doubt that Dean doesn’t have the money to pay me for that.

Wednesday 10th January, 2007

Agreed with Dean to put together a two-page treatment for his April deadline…

The more observant of you might be asking, ‘What the hell? You clearly didn’t like the idea, so why are you writing a treatment for it?’ Indeed, and you’d be right to be confused. But I was inexperienced, eager to please a producer who was developing another project of mine, and I had the writer’s hubris to think that I could mould this idea into a personal statement. How wrong was I? Well, let’s say this led to a further three and a half years of working on a film that would never happen. Three and half years! I know this because I looked it up in my diary…

 

Wednesday 8th September, 2010

Dean called yesterday and I think I’ve finally laid the ghost of The Christmas Office Party to rest. I simply told him I’d run cold on the idea. He was disappointed, but seemed resigned to it.

You’ll note the slight title change there (because we didn’t anyone thinking it was anything to do with Ricky Gervais’s The Office… how times have changed). It’s not a question of the time taken, or not being paid – I’ve worked longer and for less on other projects – but the difference here is I was completely wrong for the project. I didn’t believe in it, I didn’t like the tone they wanted, nor had I any experience in writing a raucous comedy, but I still said yes. It was an interesting concept, and I thought it could get made, and when you’re an un-produced screenwriter, all you really want in life is to get something  made.

The lesson I had yet to learn is the most powerful thing a writer can do is say No.

Seriously, try it.

Saying no means you can move and find something new and follow your passions. Saying no means you still have all the power. Saying no means they might even consider paying you for the project.

Saying yes means you’re suddenly obliged to deliver writing, for little or no money, and with no end in sight.

This isn’t to disparage Dean as a producer. Like all indie producers, he’s building a slate and simply doesn’t have the money to pay writers for endless drafts. The mistake was all mine, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, it was with very mixed feelings when I first saw the trailer for ‘The Office Christmas Party’. It was a good idea, and Dean had beaten Hollywood to it by ten years… he just needed the right writer. Trouble is, it wasn’t me.