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How to Write and Get Published?

I've been writing since I was sixteen- poetry first, then plays, prose, film scripts, novels, and non-fiction. I've had books published by top US and UK houses such as Penguin, Harper Collins, Picador and Hachette. I've won writing awards such as the Somerset Maugham and the William Hill sports book of the year (for something I hardly even thought was a sportsbook when I was writing it). This book, Angry White Pyjamas later went on to be voted by 5000 booksellers as the best sportsbook of the last 25 years. I've had several agents both in the UK and the US and I've published eight non-fiction titles and one novel- with a non-fiction work- White Mountain- coming out next year with Orion. I've sold a script to Miramax on a pitch and a film based on Amin Maalouf's Ports Of Call for which I wrote the first script is being filmed this year. I still write poetry. So I've been around the block. This section of the site is all about providing you with real information gleaned over 15 years involvement with professional writing and publishing.



Are you a pessimistic writer?


E.M.Forster wrote that one must be an optimist in life but a pessimist in writing. By this he meant that life and art are different and that art, in order to be taken ‘seriously’, needs to reflect the age we live in- which he concluded, rightly, was pessimistic. Though he would have loved to end his books with a happy marriage he felt he couldn’t, that a sense of dissonance was truer to life. 

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about Idries Shah’s observation that all societies have a negative current, of varying strength, made up of superficiality, pessimism and laziness. Different cultures have differing ratios and levels of each. But here we are concerned with pessimism. But just what do we mean by pessimism? As Shah also commented, “A pessimist may just be an optimist with more information.” In other words, the straightforward definition of a pessimist as someone who sees faults, the negative aspects of a thing, the downside- is not really very useful.

But in his excellent book The Perfumed Scorpion, derived from University lectures he gave in the 1970s, Shah mentions the idea that pessimism – as a useful concept – means the clumping together of ideas, views, beliefs that do not need to be packaged up. It’s ‘pessimistic’ because the world is far more magical, unusual and diverse than any simplifying ‘clump’ can make it. Writers seem dull when they unload such a conventional package- though we may not be aware of the source of that dullness. Pessimism, then, is taking a cluster of ideas on board, a sort of picture of how the world works in which certain other ideas ‘fit’ or don’t. Any new idea you come across is not assessed for its truth or usefulness, merely whether it fits the picture or not. You see it everywhere: the way politics, fashion, food tastes, film tastes all seem to coalesce into a ‘type’. But behind that there is the more damaging pessimism of being operated by a picture you don’t even notice is there. ‘Pointless progressivism’ could be such a dogma, or ‘we’re all the same’ another. Procustes was famous for cutting off the legs of those that didn’t fit the ‘one size fits all’ bed. In another fable a hawk is trimmed of its beak and talons and is told: ‘now you look more like a pigeon’…these traditional messages are there to guard against pessimism- which is, in reality, holding ideas simply because they ‘go’ with other ideas.

Maybe there is a reason why ideas cluster. There is an odd parallel with genetics: certain genes are 'stickier' than others. What this means practically is that if you want to breed high yield/hardy barley you'll find it impossible beyind a certain point (otherwise we'd see cornfields in alaska presumably). Hardiness is 'sticky' with low yield, high yield goes with fragility. These kind of multiple gene clusters make it hard to make real frankenstein foods- which is surely a good thing- but it also shows there is a 'natural' proclivity for clustering in things that want to survive. In one sense a world view, political outlook, theory has a life of its own. By analogy, a compelling myth, picture or narrative has sticky memes within it to help it survive. It thrives by us repeating it, finding it attractive- but the cost is we very easily and naturally imbibe a whole cluster of ideas that distort reality and encourage wrong action. The US/UK involvement in Iraq is an example of this.

Back to writing. It’s very easy to fall into a conventional viewpoint- especially if you actually believe in large parts of it. In one book I wrote I was lambasted- more or less rightly- for narrating the book from a ‘boilerplate green’ perspective. Now I do think we should live in a sustainable way and I do think we shouldn’t pollute resources that are used by everyone. However that means I must actively try and identify the incongruities, humour, bits that don’t fit with this perspective in the material I am dealing with. This is allied with, but different from, trying to avoid cliche and a conventional viewpoint. Life is never ‘this or that’- and neither should writing fall for the easy clustering of ideas.



bulk counts

Look at any page of writing and isolate the common words, the 'thes', 'ifs', 'buts', 'ands' and 'maybes'. How many of these words seem crucial to the sense of the piece? How many facts or examples anchor the writing? You may be surprised to find that an awful lot of very ordinary 'support words' are needed to unload one apercu or interesting idea or piece of narrative. Richard Feynman famously observed that there is 'plenty of room at the bottom'- meaning that we can easily minaturise machines if we operate at the atomic level. He suggested that if we store information at the atomic level you could easily put an encyclopedia on the head of a pin. Because of the vast number of atoms which make up the molecules in even a tiny thing such as a living cell we should not be surprised at how much complex information it can contain. What is surprising is the comparative simplicity of the atoms and molecules compared to the cell. By analogy a book has huge numbers of 'atomic' words, building blocks that are very simple in themselves when compared to the complexity of the book. Its easy to be daunted by the book until you work out just how much of it is just scaffolding....Be that as it may, for writers the heartening news is that any piece of writing contains a lot of bulk, roughage, standard support 'ware'. It is this you must blast out when you start writing- not all the fine ideas you are having trouble pinning down. Susan Sontag was famous for going over her essays and tweaking the ideas, improving them on each round. Edmund White commented that her raw material was never impressive- but she was good at levelling up whatever she wrote.

You can start writing even when you are only half informed, or have only half an idea- just get those 2000 words down (I believe a professional writer should aim at 2000 unimproved words a day- 1000 if you have a full time day job). There is nothing more heartening than bulk. Later you can experiment with endless improvement. Just get started!


Master writing tip #1

A story consists of a platform, which is the initial conditions (people, place, relationships, time) and the unpacking of the platform: reusing, as cleverly and interestingly as possible, the various elements of the platform or their direct descendants. Bloody hell, even I can't quite make that out! Example: two men on a bus= bad platform. Two men on a bus, one hasn't paid for his ticket and the conductor is coming= slightly better platform. Two men on a bus, one ticket between them and the conductor is coming= a tad better too. So you get the picture: the platform is your pandoras box, your dressing up cupboard, your chest of goodies that you can mix and match to the reader's delight. The later on in a story you introduce a new element the more you stretch the platform out and into the unpacking of the platform. This is usually bad and makes the story read like a series of 'and then I did X, and then I did Y'. It doesn't matter how interesting each element is, without the glue of unpacking and reusing of what has come before the audience will lose interest.The chiefdelight in hearing a story is the clever reuse of something glimpsed earlier. Think of Piggy's specs in Lord of the Flies, the Ring in the Hobbit, and every gagg structure used by Charlie Chaplin. Unpacking and reusing elements of the platform are how we 'understand' the basic materials of the story. A 'three act' structure is nothing sacred- it's just this: the platform, elements of the platform going wrong, the same elements going right. The five act structure is more pleasing because we get an extra go at the elements with the 'false victory' that happens in the middle (Act 1=platform, Act 2=bad stuff happens, Act3=false victory, Act4=all hell breaks loose, Act5=a climactic struggle leading to final victory or utter defeat).

Interesting platforms lead to interesting stories. Forget what you can drag in later. If it 'aint in the platform get a new one. Hated notions such as the 'hi concept' movie have something right here. A high concept platform is probably a fruitful one, other things being equal. If you can repeat the platform to someone without embarrassment it is probably a good start. If the platform seems to DEMAND explanation (like the marvellous 'hundred year old man who leapt out of a window') then you are onto something.

The tip: create platforms that seem to demand further explanation.



make more art

“Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

andy warhol


information for storytellers

The bigger the character the cornier the story you can get away with.


more on novel writing methods


Make it very simple. Make the base idea impregnable. Look at it as the capstone of a pyramid and writing the  novel as descending the pyramid, building it in reverse so to speak; as you descend what is above becomes set in stone. You absolutely don't want to be making small changes that have huge effects on structure at a late stage: you want your structure nailed early on and set in stone. In every decision chose the simpler and stronger of each option. Keep making it simpler. Life complicates- it needs a simplifying shove at each stage. OK, so much for general comments, what follows is my method for novel writing, more or less. I have to say it works for me- maybe it will work for you too.

1.   Get a good location that gives you a buzz. This is absolutely the single most important decision the novelist can make. NOT character, NOT story but LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION that’s what calls the shots and sets up the key parameters of story and character. Of course a character and a location may suggest themselves at the same time, but never lose sight of the need to nail down the location soundly. There’s a reason why Hardy country still exists.

      The exception-  there always is one at least- is when the location gives you a character who can travel. A series character perhaps.

2.   Get a good story/situation that gives you a buzz. A story/situation is simply something interesting or potentially interesting in your chosen location. This is your PLATFORM. This Platform forms the storehouse for the novel- which serves to unpack what is implict in the platform. Example: location- Florida swamps, platform- a deserted house where a drug smuggler has told his straight brother to recover some hidden money. You can see the possibilities. Half or more of the battle is in having a good platform. Give up if yours isn't. start again.

3.   Get good character names. With the right names the right characters will follow. Model characters that don’t ‘live’ on someone you know. Be shameless in copying. Use opposites to generate life: a bodybuilder who is studying Balzac, a policeman who loves bonsai trees. Exagerate their main characteristic. Easier to tone down exxageration than to 'tone up' a dull character. 

4.   Flesh out some dramatic scenes. Make sure you include a disgusting scene, a very funny scene and a scene that sends a chill down your spine- for whatever reason. Just thinking in this way should get you generating ideas.

      Never explain why someone falls in love, or is obsessed by something- they just are. we always accept it when someone tells us they have fallen in love- with the most absurd things/people. 

5.   Make a list of scenes that broadly connect. Keep reusing stuff from the platform in an inventive way. WE love to see earlier material pop up again and affect the story. Toy Story is a great example of this. Don't worry too much about making it all watertight at this stage.

6.   Refer to the card system outlined in my previous post on novel writing.

7.   Start first draft

8.   Finish and print first draft

9.   Read first draft and make notes on it

10.                 make a list of bits that need doing

11.                 Do the easiest or the one that most attracts first. This is KEY. If you attack hardest first you’ll lose momentum and give up. The secret is to GAIN momentum by knocking off the easy stuff first.

12.                 Work through list gaining momentum

13.                 Write new list for the next day

14.                 When list is done print off whole book

15.                 Read and mark up print off

16.                 Make new list etc

17.                 Continue until satisfied

18.                 Send book to key readers

19.                 Read their notes

20.                 Make a new list etc

21.                 Continue until satisfied.



novel writing equipment

You can write a book any old way you like but a system helps when things look blank and scary. Over the years I have very slowly evolved mine to one that works, mostly. I use big 6x9 cards, smaller 6x4s (rough measurements in inches here), yellow legal pads (usually A4 but sometimes if I'm lucky old foolscap size ones)- these must have a red margin line not blue- I'm picky! I have a little notebook for word count and odd ideas that occur when I walking about. When I have an idea I sometimes just start writing on to the computer. After a day or so I'll either ditch it or if I am sure this is what I want to do I'll rough out some stuff on the legal pad. Being pretty wasteful with the paper at this stage. Then I gradually note ideas down onto the smaller cards. If I can get a stack of more than 40 I know I've got something. These I then shuffle into some kind of order- and that will suggest more cards. Of, I forgot, the A2 yellow paper map! I get a big piece of yellow A2 and draw a map of the story- because what I write usually has a journey of some kind a map is always useful. I add stuff and rub stuff out- I use a 2B pencil here. Gradually I get a pretty good map going, with people and little houses and trees drawn on it for added time wasting potential - but also to keep the momentum going. I then take stuff off the map onto the small cards and then vice versa, building up both resources, increasing the reality feel of the whole project. Then I go back to the legal pad and write a chapter list and see if I can make one that seems to make sense. Sometimes it's enough to just have the stack of cards all numbered next to me. When I need to write a new chapter or chapterette I use a big 6x9 card to expand the small card (which will just have a quick direction on it); I then on the big card pile on all I need to give me courage to start on that chapter. I also use the bigcards for each character, adding info as I go. The whole point of this is to always have something to do, following my favourite writing dictat: "always keep going even if it means moving sideways like a crab".


dialogue tip

When writing dialogue in a story or novel think about the way the talkers connect in a REAL way. Talking only rarely allows of a real connection (so rare that in real life the result is often silence). So even if the talking or the scene demonstrates lack of connection it's good to show the lower level on which there IS connection- this could be hostility or desire for attention (in fact it's always worth looking at a scene and asking yourself - who's looking for attention, who's giving it here, is there an attention battle going on). Melville is good at connecting his characters through the way they may touch each other physically. Updike is good at finding the level of connection that surrounds otherwise banal dialogue. If you can look for that connection you'll bring interactions between characters to life- because you will be depicting life and not some jaunty back and forth exchange of ideas.


only question the novelist need ask

There is only one question a novelist need ask himself:

What do I want?

Not: what does the editor want, what does the reader want, what does the public want, what does the critic want, what does my mother want, what does my best friend want?

Of course it is possible to write with all or any of the above questions in mind but you'll find when the going gets tough your mind will begin to skate unless you pull up and say to yourself- screw all the rest- what do I want to write here? It's the only way to break though the topsoil into the clay beneath. And clay is the stuff real people are moulded from.


building fictional characters #2

The question you want to be able answer about a potential character is: can I run with this? You can build up a character full of quirks and contradictions and then find he or she just doesn't move of their own accord- you're always having to cattleprod them from scene to scene. You know you're in this pickle when the thought of writing new scenes seems like a drag (or a bigger drag than usual). You want a character with LEGS which carry them around gaily and happily or even grumpily but at least carry them. So you need to keep trying on characteristics that seem to chime in with the name and character's context, seem to mix into a potent cocktail that moves. For example I spent a long time building this character X who was supposed to be an expert on the jungle, knew about plants, etc etc...but it was all a bit static. No legs. Then I had a mid-morning coffee break insight that X was tough. That was it. I had my legs. I like writing about toughness and now I had my chance. So, it is likely that the key driving characteristic may be somthing simple that appeals to YOU, gets YOU a bit excited- or excited enough to want to write about it. One must always ignore what is 'good' or 'acceptable to the audience' at this stage- it's all about charging your own generative powers with whatever fuel they need.