I recorded a few rambling thoughts about writers and their mental health on World Mental Health Day…
Hello folks, I’m recording this on World Mental Health Day, and this is something we talk a lot about on the Bestseller Experiment podcast, which is writers’ mental health, which is fragile at the best of times. And I honestly don’t really have any answers for you or anything like that. If you’re having serious problems then talk to a professional. Call The Samaritans, that sort of thing. But I can talk about it from my own perspective. And what’s helped me in the past because the thing is, it doesn’t really go away. It never really stops.
If you achieve any kind of success, you get different kinds of stresses. Certainly, if you’re starting out, it’s stressful because you might have a job and a family and all sorts of of things clamouring for your attention, making it difficult for you to write. And then there’s where you do get something published, either self published or hybrid traditionally. And it goes out there… (exhales)
And it can be… Not many people talk about this. It can be a bit of an anti climax, frankly. Because you’ve got to write the next one and the one after that. And it never really stops. And then… I get this all the time, which is you see other people doing well and you think, Why isn’t that me? What did they do to get that thing?
I’m sure people look at me and say, how come that flabby pasty git got a film or a book deal or whatever… But this is it, y’know, we’re all in it together. We are. I saw a thing the other day on a writers’ group I’m on where a couple of writers sort of turned each other. It’s heartbreaking to see that because we need to support each other.
I mean, if there is any big piece of advice for writers, I’d say find other writers. Find other writers because they understand you better than anyone else. I know a lot of people… Writers who, y’know, their family, frankly, don’t understand what they do, why they do it. So find other writers, find another group. I mean, we’ve got the Bestseller Experiment. We have a lovely group on Facebook.
We’ve got the Bestseller Academy, a lovely bunch of people there. We all… There is a very positive attitude there. We do lift each other up and console each other… (distant train horn) When our trains are late, that kind of thing. Seek out other writers. Seek me out if you want to drop me a line. I’ll do what I can do, but I’m not a doctor. Not a professional. Anyway, there was a point to all this… Well… Mental Health Awareness Day or whatever it is. We’re all aware that there are big mental problems. We talk about them more, which is a good thing. Perseverance is a thing. If you want the answer to how come that big pasty flabby git got so much of this, or that, or the other… it is perseverance.
I mean, I started writing seriously just before my daughter was born. She’s 21, nearly 22. And the number of times I could have stopped. Number times I could have given up. Number of times I could’ve said, nah, this is not for me. I’m not getting the success that I, y’know… this soon. Or not getting the success I want. But I love the writing. I think that’s the key for me.
I enjoy the process. I won’t pretend it’s always easy. Sometimes it’s really, really difficult. Sometimes there are days you need a break. Like today. Not doing any writing. Going for a walk, which I haven’t done for ages. Absolutely ages.
See this is a bit of a ramble. But anyway… Find other writers. Persevere. Keep at it. Take a break if you need one. But as Mr D says on our podcast, you know, the one guaranteed way to fail is to give up and… It’s understand in the face of: you publish a book, 25 people buy it. You get a stinky review. No one sees your movie. Now one reads your book. You’d be forgiven for giving up.
And if that makes you happy, then maybe that’s the way to go. But if, like me, you’re compelled to write, then you kind of have to. One of the first guests we had in the podcast was Joe Abercrombie, and he gave the best advice. He said that the longer you dance naked it in the rain, the more likely you are to be struck by lightning. And that is the best summation because it’s a crazy thing to do what we do.
It’s irrational, sometimes. It doesn’t make sense. Makes no financial sense.
But every now and then… Zap. It works. Anyway, like I said, this is a bit of a ramble while I’m rambling. I hope that helps. But happy writing. Keep writing. If you’re enjoying it. If it’s making you miserable, maybe it’s time to stop. But if you’re enjoying it, with all the rough and tumble that comes with it, keep writing. Happy writing.
How many point-of-view characters is too many for your story? I was watching the Indiana Jones movies and it got me thinking… and helped me with the next draft of my novel.
Hello, folks. I’ve been rewatching these beauties. Three brilliant films and a fourth one… Actually, to be fair, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t as bad as you might remember. Certainly when I was rewatching it today, I really enjoyed the first half and began to wonder if I’d been too harsh on it when it came out. Then in the second half it all started to unravel and the ending really was just not satisfying. And of course, with my writer hat on — not a Fedora — I started to wonder why. Now, first of all, let me make it clear: this is not going to be a hatchet job on screenwriter David Koepp. A man I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for the Bestseller Experiment Podcast. I’ll put a link to that episode in the description below (here’s the link). He is a genuinely delightful chap whose skill as a storyteller is beyond dispute.
Also, film production can be a crazy time, especially with a big franchise movie with colossal expectations. I don’t envy anyone having to work under those kind of time constraints and those levels of expectations and scrutiny. And we simply cannot know what was asked of a writer while in production. Screenwriters are not the authors of a the movie. There are only one voice among many trying to tell a story, and with so many cooks it’s no wonder that sometimes the soup ends up with the sheep’s eyeballs in it. Also, also… I’m rereading the first draft of my next novel and guess what? I’m making exactly the same mistake. Only I have the luxury of time to recognise it and fix it. So what’s the problem with this and many other stories? Before we go on: just a warning that there will be spoilers not only for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but all the Indiana Jones movies so far. And if you’re watching this in the future and wondering why I’m not talking about the fifth movie, that’s because it’s still in production.
So what exactly is the problem of Crystal Skull? People have pointed the finger at the Nuking the Fridge sequence, the monkeys in the Amazon, indeed that whole chase sequence has a CG gloss to it that when contrasted with truck chase in the first film lacks any sense of verisimilitude or stakes. But the Indy sequels have always had visual effects and SFX that look iffy. I mean, think of the airship/biplane sequence in The Last Crusade, or the action sequences that are a bit silly like the flying inflatable life raft in Temple of Doom. And I don’t have a problem with inter-dimensional aliens.
They’re no more outlandish than the other maguffins in the series, so I don’t think it’s anything to do with those things.
There came a moment at the end of the film when there’s all sort of stuff whizzing around and things are collapsing and John Williams is bringing everything to a resounding crescendo.
And I know I should be thrilled. But… I’m bored. And our heroes are standing there watching things whizz around them and not really doing very much. And then they run. We have a succession of resolution story beats that are meant to have some kind of emotional resonance. So Oxley coming to his sense, Mutt accepting Indy as his father, Mac’s death, Spalko getting the knowledge she craves and paying the price for it.
And Marion and Indy tying the knot. So, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 threads there. That’s a lot even for a two hour movie. The previous three films all had fairly simple story arcs. In Raiders, Indy had to learn to understand the power of the Ark. At the beginning, he’s dismissing it as superstitious nonsense. By the end he’s screaming at Marion to keep her eyes shut, and that saves both their lives. By the way, ignore all that Big Bang Theory nonsense about Indy not having any influence on the outcome of the story.
It completely misses the point. The film isn’t about finding the Ark, it’s about a grave robber rediscovering his faith.
So, in Temple of Doom, Indy has to learn that the artefacts he obtains have a greater value than being stuck in a Museum. “Fortune and glory kid.” And in the Last Crusade, it’s a story of father/son reconciliation. Simple. In Crystal Skull… You get the father/son thing again. Indy and Marion again. Oxley, the old mentor. Mac, the friend who turns traitor, something about cherishing knowledge at the end…
There’s so much being thrown at the viewer, that they don’t know what to latch on to and so disengaged with the story. There are so many threads to wrap up, but none of them are done satisfactorily. So the problem with Crystal Skull is too many characters… Okay, that’s reductive. They’re have been many stories that have oodles of characters and do just fine. Look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s why it needed a 15 endings to wrap everything up as satisfactory– satifact– satisfactorally… I can’t even say it! People make jokes about it, but if any of those endings had been missing, the very same armchair critics would be complaining about that. Also, that epic trilogy had plenty of room for those characters to develop. Imagine cramming all of that into 2 hours. As an aside, I’ve been reading Joe Abercormbie’s new trilogy. And I’m halfway through and this series has about six point of view characters, but already I can tell that Joe is giving himself, and them, the room he needs to tell their stories properly. The more point of view characters you have, the bigger your story is going to be.
But you know, with some stories you just need to take one character on a journey of change. There’s no shame in keeping it simple. Done well, it can be the best thing ever. And as I said, I’ve made the same mistake on the first draft of my next Woodville book. I’ve been so seduced by the excitement of bringing in new characters that I’ve been ignoring my regulars.
It’s a really easy trap to fall into. A new character brings energy to a story. It’s great story fuel, and you can keep the reader and viewer engaged. But if that character isn’t given the room to grow in the story, then it becomes noise and fury amounting to not very much, actually. So, one of my next jobs on the next draft is to focus in on the most compelling threads. Two or three at most and make sure they have the most satisfying arcs and resolutions. A doddle. What could possibly go wrong? Stay tuned for more updates as I plunge into this edit. During the meanwhilst, happy writing!
How long did The Crow Folk take to develop? A lot longer than you might think. In this second part of the highlights of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, I talk about false starts, rewrites, junking old versions, nearly self-publishing, and how some notes from my agent changed my mind.
Hello, folks, welcome to the second part of the highlights from the episode of the Bestseller experiment, we talked about all about this thing.
And in this one, we talk about the development of the book, how long it’s been swishing around in my mind, versions that I got rid of, how it was nearly self published. And we feature notes from my editor. All of this in about eight, nine minutes. It’s jam packed. So do please enjoy…
That’s really what I wanted to ask as well. Mark, a bit about this come up a lot, actually. And people are very curious about how the book was developed. And and Mike Revell, thanks for your question. Mike, he said, I’d love to know more about your writing process for the book. Now, if I’m if I’m not mistaken, this book was written with the two hundred word a day challenge, wasn’t it?
No, that’s book two.
That’s book two.
Yes, yes. Way ahead.
Yeah. But this this was well, the thing is, I had as I said, I had entire drafts of scripts and novels dating back over 10 years and I just got sick of rewriting the same thing over and over again.
So I got rid of it all.
You just what you just chucked it all away?
You just said, well, it’s filed away.
Yeah, very little of those… The village is the same, the name of the village, some of the magical background, but essentially most of it’s gone. Did you actually go through a process as you as you were archiving those notes of saying, what am I going to keep from this? Or was it just..
Yes, yeah. But you kind of think, OK, what’s evergreen? What’s what’s going to… What’s the good stuff? And there wasn’t a lot of it, although one of…The story might come back for book four or five if I get there, you know, because that there’s something about that story that I do want to come back to. But it will be told from Faye’s point of view, not the creature’s point of view. So because I was going for kind of a Swamp Thing vibe with with the original and it just didn’t work. And anyway, so so I had I had all these old drafts and pretty much all of it was jettisoned.
So interesting. And so how did you how did you kind of go through the process from initial notes to outline and draft? Mike asks.
Well, it was because it’s the first in a series, I kind of saw it as a bit of a superhero origin story. Faye finds magic, learns how to use it against a terrible foe, her first real test as a character. And I spent a little time making sure I had the main characters right. I kind of discovered where I wanted her to be by the end of the book, and I did pretty much jump into it. So it wasn’t… I didn’t outline very much. I’d outlined The End of Magic heavily, as you know, Back to Reality. We outlined heavily because we were working together. This was this was much lighter. Now, I was… I’ve been prepping this all afternoon, so I did try and find notes and it’s been quite hard to find where I made the switch. I basically started this in December 2018. That was the point where I think I jettisoned all the other stuff, looking at the different old Scrivener files, you know, so and that draft, that, that first draft I found is pretty similar to what’s been published. And also the other thing is I had planned to self publish, inspired by our own Ian W Sainsbury, friend of the podcast, award winning author. I was going to do a quick release, three novellas, Boom, boom, boom, because and I think what helped was mentally, I was thinking, okay, these are going to be short about forty five, fifty thousand words, so just jump in and have fun. And I did. I had loads of fun.
So that was, that was the thinking behind that one.
It’s just. Yeah.
Go for it.
And how many words in the book One? you remember how it turned out.
There’s a little story behind that. And Rhoda asks a question later on about how… Because I got to about forty five in the end it ended up at about sixty five. So still quite short.
But actually Rhoda asks she says, I heard the book started out as a novella and ended up being a full book. Is that right.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
So how did you go about extending it.
Good question. And I did dig out my notes. I’ve got my email from Ed. So let me let me read you…
Ed being your agent, correct?
Ed Wilson, the lovely Ed Wilson. And this is great. So I and I said to him up front, I want to self publish this, but have a look at it and see what you think. And I got his email. He said nothing too major, but all ties into my big point. Why is this book only forty five thousand words? Woodville is completely effing brilliant. And he has, bless him, starred out out the “uck” there. He says tonally, tonally spot on.
Just in case it ever got read out on a podcast.
He’s always thinking ahead.
Yes, he’s a smart man, is Ed.
Yeah, he says tonally spot on, perfectly realised, structured and paced, deliciously readable. This is cozy fantasy. The genre mash up we didn’t know we needed the characters zing off the page. You develop a real emotional connection in such a short space of time. I was in pieces at the end, you bastard, which is great.
He’s just written the blurb right there.
And we’ve talked about the praise sandwich on here before. You know how you give criticism. You start with this is good. You know, there’s a but coming thundering over the horizon. OK, so he says but there is sooooooo… I think there’s seven O’s in that so and it’s all in caps. So that’s more you can do because you’ve limited the work and you don’t have time to properly establish the setting before you get stuck into the plot. We need to see more normal village life, more Dad’s Army war preparations, more vicars and oversized veg and tongue in cheek Archer’s style village politics before the talking pumpkins appear, or rather before the villagers see the talking pumpkins. The way you’ve written it, we have the big reveal and the fantastical events go above ground within the first third of the book. And in a book this length that’s too soon, you’re giving up too easy and losing the fundamental tension of what is and isn’t real. Who is and isn’t barmy. When you have more twists and turns, more tension around who and what Faye, Charlotte and Mrs Teach … Those are the witches… Are. You can keep structure and tone the same. Fundamentally, that doesn’t have to change. Just add more tension, intrigue, spooky goings on. Sow seeds for future books. And then once you’ve established the series, you can do pretty much what you want. This first book is vital to establish the series. You’ve got to properly establish it. Book one is too important to have it dismissed as just a novella. So this was great. And I had a manuscript from him marked up all the way through with notes all the way through. So that was my jumping off point to answer Rhoda’s question. It was, you know, the the tension, the questions. I was kind of giving it all away too quickly and just dig a little deeper as a result.
So I’ve got a I’ve got to say, you know, that is the reason why you try and get an agent, because so many people think so many think agents are just, you know, you give given the book and then they go and flog it. You know, they go off and they have a beer or a glass of wine with with their connections. And then they try and sell the book over lunch. But people don’t realize that good agents are your best friends and your best, you know, constructive critics as well. And it sounds like, Ed, at that point in the journey really gave you the crossroads to say, look, these are all the things you can do without. I mean, if somebody is self publishing without an agent, for example they wouldn’t have known where to go at that point. They may have just put it out as a forty five thousand word self published and missed out on what potentially could have been the most incredible ride of their life. So that’s absolutely fantastic. And what a great insight as well to hear that stage of the journey at that point. Absolutely brilliant.
Thank you, folks. Really hope you enjoyed that. All sorts of fun stuff coming up in future episodes, including how I worked with historical language. Writing a book without any swear words. That’s a first for me. I’m comparing my different publishing experiences. So that’s know working in crowd funding and self publishing and traditional publishing, looking at how those all work and all sorts of other good fun stuff. So do please subscribe and I’ll see you next time.
What are the odds, eh? I answer our wonderful listener questions on choosing and developing ideas, working with agents and editors, writing non-sweary period dialogue, and I compare my experiences in traditional publishing, indie publishing, crowdfunding and now with Simon & Schuster… Have a listen here: https://bestsellerexperiment.com/ep303-mark-stay-and-the-crow-folk/
And here’s a quick look behind the scenes before we started recording…
Or, How I Learned to Write Without a Massive Outline
For as long as I’ve written, I’ve loved a good outline. It comes from my screenwriting where outlines are something of a necessity when dealing with agents, producers, directors, etc. They like to know what they’re getting for their money upfront and it’s not unusual for the writer to put together some kind of pitch, synopsis or beat-by-beat outline ahead of actually writing the thing.
Since the Great Bollocking I’ve had two novels published, Back to Reality and The End of Magic, both heavily outlined and people seem to like them. But… both were well in progress when Ben gave us an earful, so I figured what the hell, I should just finish what I started with them.
I listen back to our old podcasts fairly regularly. Not out of any vanity, but I really do believe we got tons of amazing evergreen advice from some of the best authors in the business and it would be daft to ignore them. One thing that became clear is there’s no single method of writing a novel. Lots of writers love to outline, plenty of them are pantsers (writing by the seat of their pants… a term I had not heard before starting the podcast), many do a little of both. There’s no definite, step-right-this-way-to-success system. You have to figure out what works for you and build on that.
I was happy outlining, but I’ve prided myself on never writing anything the same way twice. Every time I start a project, it’s a little different and I learn something new. I figured it was time for a big change, so why not try and pants a full-length story?
But what about that fear of getting lost? Of getting halfway through a story and not knowing where to go next?
It was another podcast that had a nugget of advice that unlocked it for me. I’m a big fan of Scriptnotes, a podcast for screenwriters (and things that are interesting to screenwriters). In it, screenwriters John August (Big Fish) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) discuss craft and the industry, and I find it invaluable. Last summer (2019) they released an episode featuring just Craig who gave a talk that he’s given to screenwriters at festivals over the years.
It’s a brilliant episode, crammed with terrific advice. It’s behind a paywall now, but you can read a transcript of the full episode here.
The advice that stuck out for me was this…
“If you can write the story of your character as they grow from thinking “this” to “the opposite of this”… you will never ask what should happen next ever again.”
A little lightbulb went off in my head. It was the same question I would ask myself while writing an outline anyway, so why not apply it to the blank page of a fresh draft? Would it be any different? Would it be any better?
I’ve been using and adapting this method for one screenplay (written on spec, no outline necessary) and one-and-a-bit novels and I’m loving it. I’ll start with a one-page outline, but with a bigger focus on character and theme. Who is this character? How will they change, and what’s stopping them from doing it? With those two polar opposites in mind, I rough out a very basic story and then start writing. It can be hard at first as you test the water. When I get stuck, I put the laptop aside and start scribbling in a notebook with Mazin’s advice in mind: What’s what the worst thing that can happen? What will stop this character from getting what they want? How will they overcome it?
If I can’t figure it out right away, I might stop writing altogether and get on with my day. More often than not I’ll have a solution come out of the blue while I’m washing dishes, in which case I dry my hands and email myself the note ready for the next day.
It’s working so far. The screenplay has a director and producer attached and looks like it’s a goer, and the one and a bit novels…? I’m hoping to have some good news about them soon.
I’m not saying this is going to work for everyone, but I’m enjoying living on the edge. If you’re a big outliner, why not give it a go? All you’ve got to lose is your word count…
I can only do this in the USA… Unbound have the UK rights and I have no visibility on sales other than the twice yearly statements.
I’m going to stick with Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.
I’ll be counting both Kindle and Paperback sales.
Here’s week ten!
Blessed be fantasy author Michael R Miller, for it is he who broke my duck, popped my sales cherry, rang my bell, and gave me water after the longest drought. In other words, Michael was kind enough to include my book in his latest newsletter and got me a dozen or sales this week…
This was part of a week-long 99c/99p promotion, so these aren’t massively profitable sales, but they have got the momentum going again which is half the battle. I did ask Unbound, my UK publisher, to drop the price to 99p for the same period. They dropped it to 92p for about three days and then put it back to £1.87. I’m sure there’s some solid gold logic to this, but for the moment it escapes me.
To combat this I started a KDP campaign focusing solely on winning back that search result and I’m delighted top announce that after a week I am in fact… still fourth… But I swear that just a few days ago I was second! Really! I think this is an ongoing battle that may never end, but it has got me a few sales…
I think I’ll keep this campaign simmering away on the background as it might prove to be more profitable over time.
I also dipped back into David Gaughran’s excellent book Strangers to Superfans to get some inspiration, and I realised it was time to give The End of Magic’s blurb a bit of a refresh. For this I went to the wonderful BXP Group* on Facebook for their feedback and I was not disappointed. Their advice was considered and incredibly helpful.
*For those who don’t know, the BXP Group is a closed group exclusive to Chart Topper patrons of the Bestseller Experiment podcast. It’s a small group of really engaged writers who are now getting deals, bestsellers and awards and they really are the nicest, smartest bunch of people you’ll meet online.
Here’s the new blurb…
… and I’m still getting feedback from the group, so there will be further tweaks. Again, I think this is something that will need constant attention.
Another bit of good news is that I finally got a new customer review on Amazon USA…
That takes my total to 7 reviews with an average of 4.6/5. I still need more, so if you’re in the US and have enjoyed the book, do please leave a few words. It makes all the difference to the book’s visibility.
I’ve just finished with a client on a writing project and now have a slot available on my writing services schedule. If you’re looking for feedback on your novel or screenplay, or maybe you just need a second opinion on that submission letter that you’re sending to agents, I offer all kinds of services for writers at all stages in their careers. There are more details here.
We’ve had two cracking – a very different – episodes of the Bestseller Experiment recently. First up is a report from The Romantic Novelists’ Association conference in Leeds where I spoke to Rhoda Baxter, Nicola Cornick and Sheila Crighton (aka Annie O’Neil) about all sorts of love including instalust, passionate blur and the scale of hotness. And it was great to finally meet Rhoda Baxter (aka Jeevani Charika), who also proved the Lego image above! Listen to the podcast here.
This week’s podcast features John McGhie, an investigative journalist who has worked for the BBC, Channel 4 News and the Observer. John and I met on Whitstable beach at the peak of the football world cup at what felt like a brief moment of optimism in an otherwise politically depressing 2018. We cheer ourselves up by talking about the historical atrocities chronicled in John’s excellent new book White Highlands! No, really, it’s a fascinating episode and we cover writing historical fiction in some detail. Listen here.
And if you want to know more, the documentary that inspired John’s book can be seen here…
And third is this interview with Tim Clare on the Death of 1000 Cuts podcast. This is especially fun as Tim laughs at most of my jokes, I drop some truth bombs about marketing and publishing, and then a fire alarm goes off during the interview and Tim keeps it in. You can listen on iTunes here, or the thingy below…