A Quick Word About Writing and Back-Up Plans…

Okay – this’ll be a quick one. And I may be doing a few things like this over the next few months (depending on time), even though I always have an innate distrust of writing advice on the Internet. But, I figure I’ve built up some experience over the years, there’s a few things I know – and I might as well try and pay some of this forward.

This came out of a few encounters I had at World Fantasy Con, that coalesced some thoughts I’ve had for a while. I may have tweeted about this before, but blog posts are a tad more permanent.

So – a quick bit of advice for Newbie Writers who are taking steps towards trying to get an Agent/Publisher. If you’re going the self-published route, more power to you – this is for people who are targeting traditional publishing. And it’s a pretty simple bit of advice:

Always have a back-up plan.

Seriously. That magnum opus you’ve been working on for years? The one that you’ve rewritten countless times, that you’ve sweated blood over, that you know could be massive if someone could just take a chance on it, the first volume in a gigantic series that will redefine fantasy/SF/horror/whatever… it could genuinely be as good as you think it is. But that doesn’t mean it’ll sell, or that an editor will say yes, or that it’ll get you an agent. The publishing world is weird and unpredictable in a whole lot of ways, it’s a huge number of people competing for a comparatively tiny number of publishing slots, and sometimes it can be down to timing. It can be down to taste. It can be down to “This is great, but I’m afraid we already have something like this on our list.” It can sometimes take years of waiting to get a decision on a book, and trust me, it’s not the best idea to spend that time either impatiently drumming your fingers or slaving away on book 2 of a series when you don’t know if book 1 is going to sell.

Publishing is a business. Yes, art and beauty and passion are strong parts of it, but it’s also a business. What agents and editors are looking for are collaborators – professional people who can be worked with. They’re not in the business of shepherding special delicate snowflakes on their way to their ultimate destiny – they want authors who can conceivably build a career, who’ll be able to produce time and again on a regular basis, who won’t flame out once they have delivered the one towering masterwork they’ve been slaving away on for the past ten years. And one of the best ways you can show that you’re the kind of person who can adapt, who’s thinking about the future and approaching publishing with the right mixture of passion and pragmatism, is by having an answer to the question: “So, what else are you working on?”

It doesn’t have to be brilliant. It doesn’t have to be mind-blowing. Just a loose, sketchy idea, a possibility for where you could go next, some unexplored territory you wouldn’t mind exploring once you’ve fully defeated the story-monster that’s currently clogging up your head. Have it there, waiting in the wings as a back-up plan, as something to work on when your current project goes out to agents or editors. You might not need it – you might be an instant smash-hit, all your dreams suddenly coming true. But, if things don’t go according to plan, and your big magnum opus ends up on the rocks, you might be grateful for having squirrelled away a few ideas on alternative directions.

Back-up plans. They’re a good idea. Trust me…

That Was The WFC That Was… (Belated Thoughts on World Fantasy Con 2013)

So, last weekend, a hefty chunk of SF/Fantasy publishing and fandom all descended upon Brighton for World Fantasy Con. It was big, it went on for five days, and it was the first con that my girlfriend and I had been to for eighteen months, which meant we were a little bit more tentative about it than you might expect.

The reasons? Well, 2012 was not an altogether good year for either of us, in a whole selection of ways, and it should tell you a lot that having a book turned down by a publisher was actually one of the easier problems I had to tackle. Personally and professionally, 2012 was a rough time, and various things happened that made me feel like the best thing to do was just retreat to the shadows, keep out of trouble, and keep my head down. World Fantasy Con struck me as a good time to return to the fold – originally I’d made enthusiastic plans (“I will have THREE NOVELS REWRITTEN and out being looked at by publishers by the time WFC arrives!”) that then became slightly less enthusiastic (“I will have TWO NOVELS REWRITTEN and out being looked at by publishers by the time WFC arrives!”) and then ultimately became realistic (“It’s okay if I actually don’t have any novels completely finished and ‘out there’ by the time WFC arrives.”)

Cons can end up slightly strange experiences when you’re not only part of fandom, and not only trying to get yourself ‘properly’ published, but also earning most of your money from working in SF/Fantasy-related publishing. I was nervous about dipping my toe back into these waters – when you’re insecure, it’s easy to get edgy about things, especially places like cons which can sometimes feel simultaneously welcoming and like the most clique-driven places you’ll find outside of an average American high school.

It didn’t help that WFC 2013 also managed a wide range of some of the worst con-related PR decisions I’ve seen, from accessibility problems, to absurdly punitive charges like the £75 charge for anyone who needed a replacement membership badge, and the £5 charges for the meeting-with-authors Kaffeeklatsch events (which, according to a Facebook post on the WFC group that mysteriously vanished a day later, were supposedly refunded after the con to those who had turned up – and if I’d known that, I might actually have gone to a couple of those events and not refused on principle). The general air of the pre-con publicity and statements were weirdly confrontational and didn’t give the impression that this was going to be anything other than an exceptionally weird and stressful time.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. World Fantasy Con may not have been an awe-inspiring experience that changed my life, and I did have a couple of emotional wobbles across the weekend (for reasons which are, to be honest, way too complicated and involved to go into), but it was a very enjoyable con which gave me the most important things about cons – new people to meet. It’s people who make cons (I should know this – I met the woman I’m currently head over heels in love with at a con), and the nicest thing about this con was not only being able to meet people I’d only previously encountered on Twitter, but also meeting people I hadn’t expected, sometimes in wonderfully surreal and drunken late-night encounters that’ll live with me for quite a while.

 Brighton Pier

Brighton itself was fascinating – a genuine old-school Victorian beach resort with plenty of faded decadence that was aided by a level of blustery wind along the seafront that nearly flattened me on several occasions. We ate out plenty, mainly in JB’s Diner, an American-style restaurant along the seafront that did an impressive burger, and also found some time to explore the bizarre and head-spinning pleasures of Brighton Pier, although we missed out on seeing the oddball magnificence of Brighton Pavillions simply from lack of time.

The WFC Comics Panel, including Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman...

The WFC Comics Panel, including Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman…

The con itself was huge, taking place across a bewildering number of levels on a layout that took a lot of getting used to, and as is traditional with cons, any aim at seeing the maximum number of panels soon flew out of the window in favour of a more improvisational approach. The panels I did see were, on the whole, very good indeed – interviews with writers like Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and Joe Hill, along with a talk about comics that did manage to go to some places that SF/Fantasy con panels don’t normally go. (I could start on about the general negative approach to comics from the World Fantasy ‘Board’, who govern what WFCs can do – that it would be easily possible to do a series of panels that would concentrate on the literary side of fantasy comics – but the fact that a Sandman issue won the World Fantasy Award best story in 1992 seems to have permanently scarred them, so that seems to be that…). The most interesting panel I managed was actually the Steampunk panel, which managed to be different from the usual run-of-the-mill con Steampunk panel by having Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter, the three men who actually invented Steampunk, where I found out that the Steampunk subgenre was actually kicked off thanks to an abortive series about reincarnations of King Arthur that fell through, leaving K.W. Jeter with a load of material about Victorian London and nothing to do with it…

There were also the parties. A cunning person could surf on free red wine from one publishing party to another, and there was lots of entertaining talk to be had. I met an awful lot of new people at the con – people I’ll hopefully be able to keep in touch with over Twitter – and some of the most fun moments were the least expected. Among many highlights, there was hanging out in the bar the first night with Charles Stross, the impromptu conversation about travelling across America I had with Kaaron Warren, winning a book thanks to my unexpected skill with a fairground crossbow, hearing an eye-opening late-night story from the splendid Max Edwards, as well as the encounter that myself, my girlfriend Emma and another friend had with a drunken Irish woman that was hilariously surreal simply thanks to the fact that it didn’t feel like it was ever going to end.

Nicest of all, I got to the end of the con and felt like I could actually let go of some of the stuff that had been bothering me for a while. One of the reasons I’d been troubled by the idea of cons is simply that they’re regular reminders that I’m not where I want to be, in terms of my writing, and that plenty of people are speeding ahead of me while I look like I’ve been standing still. I got an agent back in 2008, and it was in no way part of my ‘plan’ to be still trying to get myself published over five years later. But sometimes, things don’t go according to plan, and you can rail against that and complain and bitch and moan, or you can simply pick yourself up, continue onwards, and fail better. I haven’t always been good at doing that – letting go of the past – but thanks to WFC 2013, I felt like that goal was a little more achievable, like a little of the mess inside my head had been resolved.

I’m very good at feeling like I don’t quite fit in, even at places that are almost entirely populated by people who don’t feel like they quite fit in, but WFC 2013 was overall a good time for me. I know it wasn’t ideal for everyone – I certainly heard enough about organisational and communications snafus to make me thankful I wasn’t one of the amazing hard-working red-jacketed volunteers, several of which were good friends – but I came through it feeling better about myself, having had plenty of fun, and with a suitcase of new books, most of which I was able to pick up for free. And that can’t in any way be bad… I doubt that I’ll be making it to another WFC anytime soon, as the fact that it’s normally held in various areas of America basically makes it a no-go for now, but I’m glad I went, and I’ll do it again if I do get the chance.

(There’d only be one request if I ever go to another WFC – chairs. For the love of God, chairs. I realise it was principally a result of the hotel, but the only ‘lounge’ area for a con with upwards of 1500 people was a fairly small bar with limited seating. Many of the publishing parties took place in huge rooms with hardly any seating available, and by the fourth and fifth days, we were hi-jacking chairs wherever we could find them or sitting on the floor. A decently-sized chill-out area would have made a massive difference to the comfort level – and hopefully that’s something next year’s London-based Worldcon will be bearing in mind…)

Of course, in two weeks time, there’s the Leeds-based comic convention Thought Bubble, which I’m absurdly excited by, and which is likely to be a very different experience. I’ve been regularly impressed by Thought Bubble’s ability to evolve and grow as it’s become more popular, and it’s the friendly atmosphere – combined with this year’s awesome guest list – that has me looking forward to this with a giddy amount of enthusiasm…




New Lands

Always, if you can, start with a song.

Welcome to saxonbullock.com, version 2.0. Well, technically it’s probably closer to version 2.8 considering how many attempts it’s taken to get this redesign up, for a whole lot of varied reasons (plus, there’s still some polishing and sorting out that needs to happen in certain areas), but this is the new site – shiny, colourful, and full of exciting things (with more to be added on a regular basis). I’m going to be trying to blog a little more regularly now that the site actually looks the way I want it to, as well as doing some regular looks back at some articles and reviews from my illustrious-if-accidental career as a film journalist.

Of course, there is the fact that November is in danger of being a month of being insanely busy – in a couple of days, Emma and I are off to World Fantasy Con in Brighton, which will involve hanging out in a hotel, getting absurdly drunk and talking lots with various members of SF and Fantasy fandom and publishing. I’m feeling a little reticent about it, thanks to this being the first SF con I’ve been to for eighteen months since various events in 2012 gave my confidence a right kicking. Despite WFC apparently going out of its way to appear terribly serious and ridiculously unwelcoming (there’ve been various storms – most recently, the announcement that if you lose your con badge, it’ll cost you £75 to get a replacement (and if it happens again, you have to pay your registration again)), there’s going to be a wide variety of interesting people there, and I’m pretty sure I’ll have a healthy amount of fun.

And two and a bit weeks after that, there’s the Thought Bubble Comic Convention in Leeds, which has such an insane bounty of cool guests attending that I’m likely to spend most of the con in a state of bug-eyed wonder. Last year’s con was splendid – if this year’s gets close, it’ll be extravagantly good.

Inbetween this, I have a ton of work to do for my course, which so far is progressing in a fascinating if damn intense way. I have even, much to my shock, written a short story – and the crit/workshop session that gave me feedback on it has resulted in me going in a really interesting (if much darker) direction for the rewrite. University is continuing to be a wonderfully odd but hugely rewarding experience, and I genuinely feel like I’m learning stuff, and my writing already feels like it’s getting better.

I could tell you more – about the writing group I’m now part of, about my mad adventures in Star Wars roleplay games, and my attempt to somehow get my head around the idea of maybe doing a Creative Writing PhD at some point in the not-too-distant future. But right now, I’m just going to relax, and go with it. There’s lots to do in the next couple of days – but my website looks good, life is treating me well, and I’m sure I’ll have the chance to get everything sorted. Time to get myself in the rocket, strap myself in, and hit the button marked “Blast Off”….

Saturn 5 Launch

Fragments of Time (Creative Writing MA: Week One)

I don’t remember students being quite so young. Yes, I was that young once, but it’s still rather hard to believe. If you’re in your latter thirties and want to feel disorientatingly old, sign yourself up back to University and watch your brain turn somersaults. Last week was Fresher’s Week (or ‘Welcome Week’ as it was more officially referred to), and I spent a fair proportion of it trying not to think about how I was old enough to actually be a parent to most of the newly arrived students who were thronging around in a way that occasionally made me want to shout “For God’s sake, stop being so YOUNG!” like a crazy person. (My Dad was pretty much my age now when I went to University first time round. That’s certainly given me pause for thought.)

But thankfully, not all of it was spent consumed with going “Aaaarrrggghhhh!” at the concept of morality and time passing. It’s been a fairly action-packed first week, and the first day – last Monday – turned out really well. Honestly, I was kind of terrified before I went in – I’d been working towards this course for so long, and there’s a lot riding on getting this right, and there’s all sorts of issues connected with my writing confidence as well – but the day went well. A big meeting of the whole Arts, Languages and Cultures school was followed by the first official meeting of the Creative Writing MA, and while it was intimidating, it went well and also fired a ton of information at me. (I was also able to sort out the dates that I’m going to be submitting fiction in the first semester – dates that, considering I just decided to junk my original idea and start with something new – are thankfully far enough in the future to give me room for manouver.)

Then, there was a drinks reception where I once again discovered the socialising aid that is free red wine. I was soon talking nine-to-the-dozen to a lovely bunch of my fellow students, and the conversation continued into the Chinese meal that followed at the Red Chilli Restaurant just across the road from the University (where the food was pretty damn splendid), and afterwards there was an equally talk-filled session at a nearby bar. I even ended up having a pretty lengthy conversation with author (and course lecturer) Geoff Ryman about a dizzying number of subjects, and I came out of the whole day with my brain fizzing – both with alcohol, and with ideas, thoughts and writing approaches.

Since then, there’s been a lot of sorting out to be done – I’ve gotten myself a Student Union card (hellooooo student discount), a bus pass for this term, I’ve sorted out access to the University wi-fi, and gone to a relatively interesting lecture about coping with an MA as a part-time student. I also briefly visited the ‘Welcome Fair’ on Wednesday, the event where you can join up with any university society under the sun, and which felt like an even more intense version of a Comics convention, except where the stalls were all about Neuroscience, Board-Games, politics, religion and BEER. There was an excellent event on Friday at the Manchester Museum (which is also part of the University), where I got to hear a talk from one of the curators about their fantastic Egyptology department, and the whole week essentially left me with my brain spinning in a very positive way.

In certain ways, I’m wishing I could have gone somewhere like Manchester first time around. In other ways, I think it’s possible that wherever I’d gone to University first time round, it wouldn’t have been ideal – I was a naive late teenager who knew nothing about the world, and really needed to grow up. Sometimes, it takes a while to find your path. It took me a while, but I feel like I’ve found it now.

The real challenge begins from here onwards. I’ve already critted the first piece of work for my Fiction workshop (which officially kicks off tomorrow), and I’ve got an idea for what I’m going to be submitting that I need to hammer into something resembling a decent shape. I’ve even – shock! horror! – had an idea for a short story that I actually want to write. Balancing what I need to do with what I have to do (especially since I’ve got a trio of articles to complete over the next couple of weeks) may not be the easiest thing in the world, but it feels achievable.

For the last eighteen months or so, my life hasn’t been at its best. Lots of things have gone wrong, or not turned out how I’d hoped. My confidence took some major knocks as a result. But now, for the first time in a long while, I feel like I’m on the right path. And I think it’s going to be an interesting challenge finding out where it goes…


Chronicle of a Creative Writing Student Foretold…

I’m a University student again.  Today is the official ‘welcome’ day for the Creative Writing MA course at the University of Manchester, and I’m going to be there (from about 1.15pm onwards), listening to everything, and trying to tell myself that no, nobody’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say “You know, you’re really not meant to be here, are you?” Today is the first point where it’s really, seriously going to feel real, and it’d be an understatement to say I’m a bit nervous. The last eighteen months have been a strange and sometimes difficult period for me – things have gone wrong, or not gone the way that I’ve wanted them to, and one of the hardest realisations has been that I’ve been spending so much effort on the simple act of surviving and keeping myself financially afloat, and haven’t always been focussing enough on exactly why I’m trying to survive.

Confidence is not an easy thing to keep up, especially when relating to writing, but ultimately I know what I want, and what I want is to be better. Yes, I want to be published, but I’ve spent a big chunk of the last two years worrying too much about that, and about other people’s opinions of me, and there’s only so far that can get you before it becomes a millstone around your neck. The most important realisation to hit me for a while was a recent one, and it was this: Being a better writer is more important to me than being published. If I wanted the immediate hit of being published, I could chuck my first novel up on Amazon as an e-book tonight, if I wanted – but I don’t want to, because it isn’t good enough yet. And one of the main reasons I’m doing this course is that I want to be good enough, I want to have a sharper understanding of how fiction works, so that I don’t feel so much like I’m wandering into a very large and dark room with the tiniest torch known to man and hoping I can find my way through.

Feeling out-of-place isn’t an unfamiliar feeling for me. It’s my default operating mode, and some of that just isn’t going away – but this course is a big step for me. It’s the first time in years that I’ve deliberately taken a big step to shape the rest of my life. I want to make the most of it – especially since, one way or another, I’m paying for every penny of this course and it ain’t cheap. Part of my brain is panicking at the idea that I might screw this up, that throwing myself at a pretty heavy duty course that’s very focussed on contemporary fiction might just end up the equivalent of a slow-motion car-crash for me… but, frankly, I’ve always had a doomy and pessimistic side. And sometimes, you’ve just got to look your doomy and pessimistic side right in the eyes and tell it to shut the hell up and mind its own business.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Later on today, I’ll be meeting my tutors (who include Geoff Ryman, author of 253 and Was,  a fact that is going to cause me a certain degree of OH MY GOD THAT’S GEOFF RYMAN ARRRRRGGGHHHH), meeting everyone on the course, and then there’ll be drinks and a Chinese meal. I’ll finally be able to get my head around where this course will take me. It’ll start feeling real.

It’s a big step. But one that I’ve got to take.

Here goes…


Man of the Culture: RIP Iain Banks (1954-2013)

Iain Banks isn’t here anymore, and it doesn’t seem fair.

The death of ‘famous’ people – whether actors, writers, or just people I look up to – doesn’t always hit me that hard. It’s sad, of course, and sometimes it’s so out of nowhere that you barely get a chance to process it, but usually it’s cause for a little sadness and reflection, and also the chance to celebrate and remember what was great about them.

It doesn’t usually land like a punch in the stomach the way it did when Iain Banks announced that he had terminal cancer. I’ve spent most of the last two months hoping that whatever treatment he was receiving would work out, and that maybe he’d get more time than the ‘less than a year’ with which he’d been diagnosed, but instead it’s turned out that he got much less, and fate seems utterly fucking cruel today.

There are other people writing tributes – people like Neil Gaiman and Charles Stross – in a way that’s much better than anything I could express. I didn’t know Iain Banks. I never properly met him – I got a selection of books signed by him (including one that I accidentally got signed by him twice), and I was lucky enough to see him when he was Guest of Honour at a recent Eastercon. He’s a writer who wrote books that expanded my idea of what you can do in a novel, and who really made writing novels seem like something I wanted to do – he showed me that novels could be fiercely intelligent, experimental, wise and humane, but they could also be gigantic fun, full of invention and craziness and ferociously sarcastic spacecraft. It was one of those sad moments when it hit me that I hadn’t truly appreciated what Banks’s books had meant to me until I heard that he was dying – no more Culture novels, no more insane spaceship names, that a man I admired so much could just be brought to a sudden stop. One of the few things in this situation I’m grateful for is that there was a Guestbook set up online, where fans could leave messages, so I could write something to say exactly what his work had meant to me. I’m glad he got the chance to see how much his work had affected people, and I do think he’s an author who’ll last – people are going to be reading his books, both with the M and without, for a long time.

Below is what I wrote on Iain Banks’s online guest book. I don’t know if he got all the way through the many, many pages and read what I wrote, and I don’t care if he didn’t – it was important for me to write it, to put down in words what was churning around in my head at the time. And while I never know at times like this what’s appropriate and what isn’t, I want to just throw this open letter out there, like a message in a bottle, just to voice as clearly as I can how important Iain Banks was to me, and many, many others:

Written on 8th April 2013:

Dear Iain,

The covers. That was what first pulled me in – those black and white covers on the paperbacks of your first few ‘M-less’ books. In the world of mid-Eighties book design, they just leapt out and grabbed my attention. I can’t remember how I got to The Bridge – I think I’d heard that it was strange and interesting. I’d also heard of The Wasp Factory, but that sounded a little ‘extreme’ for me at the time (a gawky teenager growing up in Cornwall), so I went for The Bridge instead, just to see how it went.

I wasn’t quite expecting something quite so experimental and mind-expanding. The Bridge was one of those impossible to classify books that got into my head and wouldn’t go away – I was fascinated by the construction of it, the layers of reality, the way it flipped from fantasy to science fiction to everyday life and back again. I’d never read anything like it, and it made me want to read more.

So I did.

Ironically, despite having started with your most experimental book, it took me a few goes to get into your science fiction. Not the right age, not the right mind-set – I ricocheted off Consider Phlebas a couple of times. Then I tried Use of Weapons, and couldn’t get my head around the structure. But I didn’t give up, and I gave The Player of Games a try… and then suddenly, it all clicked.

I’ve loved and enjoyed all the books by you that I’ve read, but there are two that I simply can’t imagine my world without. Feersum Endjinn and Excession are my lodestones – they’re the standard I aspire to. I’m a fiction writer who’s been trying to get published since 2005, and while I haven’t made it that far yet, the aim to one day manage something that gets close to either of those books is one of the things that keeps me going. The weirdness and inventiveness that goes into those books – the pace and the world, the phonetic chapters and the mad spaceship names, the humour and the sheer humanity that are packed into those pages… that’s what I look for in science fiction. I don’t always find it. But in your books, I do.

Late last year, I was in a bit of a confidence spiral in both work and my writing, I hadn’t read for pleasure for a long time (I read a lot for work, and it’s easy for that kind of thing to invade all your free time), and almost all the books I tried simply didn’t make me want to read any further. And then, a bound proof of The Hydrogen Sonata turned up, and I tried it, and I was hooked, and I haven’t enjoyed a science fiction novel that much in a long time. It really gave me my faith back in the kind of things I look for in a novel, and what reading can give me, and the kind of books I want to be able to write.

I’ve never met you, not properly. I’ve seen you at signings (I’ve got signed copies of Inversions, Excession, Surface Detail, and Matter). I’ve seen you at Eastercon, and at other events (you actually read from my proof copy of Matter at a London University event back in around 2007/2008-ish). I wish I could have met you properly – because I’m grateful for all those times when I did get to hear you speak about writing with intelligence and humour. I wish I could have had the chance to just overcome my nonsensical bloody English neuroses and just shake you by the hand and thank you for writing books that have given me so much, and for giving me something to aspire to as a writer.

But this’ll have to do.

I hope you’re able to make the most of whatever time you have left.

And thank you. Thank you so much.



*  *  *

Rest in Peace, sir. And thanks for making my imagination a crazier, more adventurous place.




The Proud Highway II (The University Interview, and After)

So. The University interview happened.

It was intense – 25 minutes that seemed to pass in a shot. And by the time I came out… I genuinely didn’t know if I’d done well or not. I was running through everything in my brain (as is my habit), trying to convince myself that I’d said enough stuff that seemed to have gone down well that I must have gotten something right. But, a combination of the aftermath of a fair amount of stress and the sudden realisation of the fact that I might not get on the course (plus the fact that it was probably going to take two weeks to hear back) left me in a bit of a state. My brain flicked back into low confidence mode, and things seemed rather difficult right then.

I went home. I had lunch. I watched the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from S6 of the show. Then I checked my e-mail.

That was the point where I started saying “WHAT?!?” over and over, and I literally had to hand Emma my iPad in order to show what had happened, because I was too shocked to speak right then.

An unconditional offer. It had actually been sitting there for over an hour, and had been sent about half an hour after my interview ended. All that worrying didn’t need to happen. I’m on the course – for the next two years, from September 2013 to Summer 2015.

Of course, I’ve spent the afternoon in a state of shocked amazement, and a whole selection of lovely congratulations have come in from lots of people on Facebook and Twitter. Soon, I’ll have my head in gear and be able to fully appreciate what’s happened (and what I’ve got coming up in the next couple of years). For now, I’m incredibly grateful to my wonderful girlfriend Emma for suggesting this and nudging me in the direction of the course. And I’m exceedingly happy that I’ve got an exciting new direction to explore…

The Proud Highway (Jitters before a University Interview…)

Twenty one years ago. That’s the last time I experienced the strangeness that is a University interview. I can’t remember exactly how many I had – it’s either three or four, and all of them were odd in different ways. (My experience of Bradford – a seven-hour drive from Cornwall, only to find that the course I was interviewing for wasn’t exactly as the prospectus had advertised – is burnt into my brain, but for different reasons). For some reason, more out of habit than anything else, I still have the suit jacket I wore to that interview (complete with embarrassing post-Eighties shoulder-pads). One day, I really will give that thing away to charity.

Not today, though. Today I’m going for an interview at Manchester University, for a place on their MA course in Creative Writing. It’s an impressive course – I went to an open day last November, and that pretty much convinced me that this was something I need to do. I’m aiming to do the course part-time, for the next two years, as I’ve been thinking vaguely about the idea of doing some writing-related teaching for a while, and it’s time to actually do something about it.

Am I nervous? Of course I’m nervous. There’s plenty of confidence sloshing around inside my brain as well, but the nerves are jangling away, and they won’t stop until it’s all over and (aside from a bit of paperwork related to my application for funding) it’s out of my hands. I’m sure that once I sit down and start talking, everything’ll be fine – one thing I’ve never had is any problems talking about writing – and as long as I can give a good account of myself in the time that’s available, I’ll be happy.

The odd thing is that making this kind of deliberate choice isn’t something I’m used to. A big proportion of the big stuff that’s happened in my life – becoming a journalist, getting experience as a sub-editor, becoming a freelance manuscript reader, becoming a proofreader – were all down to simply being in the right place at the right time. People don’t always seem to believe me when I say that I stumbled into being a journalist by accident, but it’s true, and so it feels a bit odd to be in this situation and be wanting something as badly as this. Creative Writing teaching feels like something I can do – I just need help to get the occasional chaos in my brain pointing in the right direction. I’m hoping Manchester University is the right place to be doing this. And if it isn’t? Well, one thing I’ve learned over the years – no matter what happens, even if you don’t know it yet, there’s always a plan B…

Life During Wartime: Coping (and Not Coping) with Confidence Issues as a Writer

Five years ago, I got an agent.  It was a wonderful thing to happen, and wonderful in the way it almost happened by accident – a process I’d imagined was going to be long and laborious and probably go on for months ended up taking about forty-eight hours. Within about two weeks, my book was going out to publishers, and my life felt like it was accelerating in a wild, unpredictable direction. Maybe it was going to happen. Maybe I was actually going to get a book deal. My imagination rushed through all the possibilities, of finally getting to realise what I’d dreamed of. And, at the back of my head, there was a tiny note of caution, a little voice of insecurity that said: You know what? This is a bit fast. Things don’t normally go this quickly for you. I bet the next bit’s going to take longer than you’d like.

I hate that voice. I wish I could switch it off. Most of the time, despite the amount I listen to it, it’s wrong. 

Unfortunately, sometimes it isn’t.

As it turned out, life intervened. The book got turned down by one publisher, and then another, and the cycle pretty much repeated like that. It’s happened to plenty of authors before, and it’ll happen to me plenty of times to come, I’m sure. But on top of that, a few months later, my four-year marriage came to an amicable but pretty damn final end. I went from getting an agent and dreams of publication to having to pack all my belongings into a van, move to a brand new city (Manchester, which I’d only visited twice in my life, twelve years previously) and reboot my entire existence. 

A lot’s happened in the last five years. I’ve built myself up a modest freelance income as a proofreader of novels, alongside doing editorial reports and regular reviews for SFX magazine. I met someone new, fell in love, and now we’re living together. There’s a whole number of ways in which my life has immeasurably improved over the last five years. But it’s hard to get to this point in the year, and once again have to think: “Nope. Still not published yet.”

You have to have confidence. You have to believe that you’re going to make it, that no matter how long it takes you’re going to reach your goal. I’ve been working in publishing (in one form or another) for ten years now; I know how difficult it is, and how long it can take. I know all these things, but the fact of the matter is that it’s gotten a lot harder for me. My confidence has suffered a lot over the last couple of years, to the extent that I’m having to look myself in the mirror and say: “Yes. I have a problem.”

Because, I do. I’ve had a problem with my confidence all my life. It’s rather like having a very annoying alter-ego – as if Tyler Durden from Fight Club has turned up, and instead of leading me into a life of anarchic terrorism and bare-knuckle fighting, he’s simply made it his mission to make me feel as crappy about myself as is humanly possible. My confidence problems manifest in a variety of different ways, but they still have the power to cripple me, and lock me into a spiral of self-doubt and anxiety. There’ve been points where I’ve been really good at fighting back against this – but ultimately, a lot of that’s sometimes been dependant on outside sources, on life actually giving me reasons to feel positive about myself or my writing. And of course, life isn’t always in the mood to do that. The trick is not letting that stop you, but it isn’t a trick I’ve completely mastered. 

We’re all made of neuroses in different combinations, and the best way of summing up the entertainingly conflicted state of my mind is that on one hand, I desperately want to be accepted and appreciated for who I am – to fit in, and be part of the crowd; to be someone who’s valued and appreciated. On the other hand, I don’t want to have to change myself to fit in. Not in any way whatsoever. I want security, and life to be easy – but I’m immensely bored by routine. I want a sense of creative achievement, but I’m also looking for it by trying one of the hardest creative acts you can possibly do. I want to be a published writer – but I’m also trying to do it by writing big, complex, genre-mashing novels that require a tremendous amount of work. I want things to be easy, and I absolutely hate the idea of making things easy for myself. 

As someone with a lack of confidence, some of the feedback I got from my book being sent out did hurt, of course – but a lot of it was positive. I even ended up, for a few months, being seriously considered for publication by one imprint. Just being in a situation where I was able to take feedback I’d been given on a book and turn it into solutions, to figure out ways of streamlining the beast of a novel I’d written and make it work better… it was one of the most thrilling times in my life. I wrote like a maniac, and loved pretty much every minute of it. Problem-solving is one of the aspects of writing I really enjoy – that, and constructing worlds, plots and characters so they all fit together like a finely-tuned swiss clock.

It didn’t work in the end, and the book got rejected, but I kept the enthusiasm going. I told myself that I could get there, and get another book finished, and then another and another. I already had another idea that I wanted to work on, so I got going. A year, I wanted to aim for. Maybe eighteen months, tops. As long as it took less time than my first novel which, on and off, took me two years to properly do. I had my target, and I knew what I wanted to do.

That was November 2009.

Life gets in the way. It’s not supposed to, of course, but it does. Writing is a weird, difficult existance, and keeping my confidence going at the same time as trying to build up a genuine freelance career doing proofreading – something I only started getting experience at in back in 2008 – isn’t the easiest thing. The freelance life is all about momentum, any time spent away from work feels like time you *should* be spending on work, and it’s very hard to say “No” to a job if it’s offered, even if it suddenly means that week I was planning to get loads of writing done is suddenly going to mostly consist of proofreading. 

I’m learning as I go. It’s taken me a while to get into the right headspace, to stop trying to be other writers and just try and be myself; to say to myself “It’s okay not to write short stories if you don’t want to write short stories.” For some people, it’s a brilliant way of honing their craft. There’d probably be a lot of good reasons for me to write short stories. But ultimately, I don’t enjoy short stories, I don’t want to write short stories – and at a point when I’m still mainly writing for myself, I want to write the kind of things I’m actually going to enjoy.

That’s an important lesson. I thought I’d learned it, but the last couple of years proved me wrong. 

I’m not the fastest, most productive writer in the world. I write in splurges – mad bursts of activity over the course of a few weeks. I managed to get about half of an entire first-draft of a book written in the space of about six weeks last year – and then momentum ran out, work intervened, and my confidence subsided. I’m also trying to get myself into the habit of writing every day, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Especially when I’m busy, it simply isn’t always possible to fit it in – especially when I’m doing something as brain-intensive as proofreading. When you’ve had to spend six hours staring in detail at proofs of a novel, with maximum focus to spot any mistakes, very often the last thing you’ll want to do afterwards is immediately rush to the keyboard and start banging out words. 

And of course, that’s one of the many areas where the whispers begin. The nagging doubts. The sense that if I’m not desperate enough to write every single day, if I’m able to let confidence issues get to me, then I’m not like the writers I admire, and from there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to: Maybe I’m not meant to be a writer. Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe this has all been a waste of time, and nobody’s ever going to be interested in looking at the weird, sprawling, frothy SF/Fantasy adventures I’m trying to write. 

It’s completely ridiculous, of course. Yes, it helps if you write every day. (Plus, I suspect that if/when I finally get a publishing deal, motivation for writing most days ain’t going to be anywhere near as much of a problem…) But, contrary to some writing advice that floats around online occasionally annoying the living crap out of me, you don’t automatically drop out of the ‘being a writer’ club if you’re not able to write every day. It’s okay to take a while to find your voice. Being on Twitter can sometimes give the impression that a thousand tremendously exciting things are happening in publishing every single day, and there’ve been plenty of times in the last five years when it’s been rather demoralising watching other people outpace me – getting an agent, getting a book deal, getting their first book published, and then another, and then another…

It isn’t a race. It can sometimes feel like a race, but it isn’t a race. And I do feel like, slowly but surely, I’m starting to believe it. 

2012 was supposed to be ‘the year’. My second book took me just over two years to get into the shape I wanted it, but finally it was ready. It had been a long hard slog – I’d tried something ambitious, something with a lot more depth and emotion than my first book, and it took me a long time to get it right. I wanted to get this book as good as possible, to impress people with it, to make the crazy ideas in my head work for me, to throw them out into the world and make stuff happen. There’s a style of story that’s in my head, and I want to get it out there – whether it succeeds or fails, it’s my voice, the story that I want to tell, and that’s what I’d tried to do with my second novel. I was looking forward to going through the same process as I had back in 2008 (except this time, it’d go out to even more publishers, with even more chances of being accepted). Whether it rose or fell, it was going to give me something to be proud of, a real sense of achievement.

Instead, things went wrong. A selection of events over the summer basically took my confidence out into the street and gave it a damn good kicking. Oddly enough, the least of those events was my book getting turned down by the first publisher it got sent to – for various reasons I wasn’t immensely surprised (and was kind of relieved it had only been sent to one publisher – one important thing about novels being submitted is that you only ever really get one shot per book with a publisher, so you’ve got to make it count). I got some extensive feedback which smarted like hell for the first two hours, and then did bring into focus a lot of nebulous issues with the book I’d been struggling with. There were solutions. There were things I could do. But it was going to take time. 

And then, late last year, I also made a major breakthrough. Without spoiling anything, a large chunk of my second novel revolved around infidelity in a relationship, and the ultimate result of this was that the relationship broke up at the end of the story. I’d known my emotional baggage from the end of my marriage had played into this an awful lot, but I’d never really realised exactly how much until I was rewriting the opening half of the book (the section which, at that point, I thought needed the most work), and there were certain sections I just couldn’t get to work – the early scenes involving the relationship, before the infidelity becomes clear. I wanted the relationship to feel real, but also be empathetic, charming and believable, so that the revelation when it came would hit hard, and be truly upsetting. Trouble was, I couldn’t get the early scenes to feel right. I can always tell when a scene is working – there’s a music or a rhythm to the writing that gives it life and momentum. When that music isn’t there, it’s the most frustrating thing on Earth – the scene just sits there like a damp sponge, doing everything it’s supposed to but feeling utterly mechanical, getting the plot from point A to point B and nothing more. I was trying to figure out why this was, talking it through with my girlfriend, wanting to find the solution…

…when it hit me. And for at least a minute or so, I kind of wished it hadn’t. 

Solutions sometimes hurt. They’re great, because the problem’s solved, but sometimes they can expose mistakes, and leave you cursing yourself for being so blinkered. Novel-writing is such an intensive job, and it’s easy as hell to get distracted by the micro-detail while not noticing the problems at the macro-level. Story-elements can set like amber, to the extent that aspects of the plot can be there for draft after draft, and yet they don’t necessarily have a reason to be there. They’re just there, part of the architecture of the story, an ingredient that feels integral when actually it can be left out without affecting the recipe in the slightest – and in fact, the ingredient’s absence might be the key to the whole thing.

When this brainwave hit me, I realised that I didn’t want to write a story about infidelity. I didn’t want to write a relationship plotline that had an unhappy ending. I’m still proud of what I wrote – I tried something challenging and difficult, something that was emotionally gruelling and pushed me in different directions as a writer. I tried something that was more of a literary approach, something more intense, something that wasn’t the traditional way of doing things. I’d also worked through a lot of emotional baggage without realising it – sometimes, writing can be tremendous therapy, a cathartic experience. But sometimes, that kind of writing can topple over into self-indulgence. And sometimes, you’re ready to move on, even when the story isn’t. 

I didn’t want to go to that place again, in order to do the rewrite. I’d had enough. Yes, the choice was there to just walk away from the book, or to leave it for a few months, but then another solution occurred: take the infidelity out. Make it a happy ending. It meant re-engineering certain chunks of the plot… but then things started clicking together in my head. There were ways of figuring it out. I knew right then that, if I could do it, the resulting book would be much closer to the kind of book that I wanted to write – an emotional but satisfying adventure – something that went to some dark places, a story that was wild and crazy and unpredictable, going from daft and surreal to twisted and scary, but ultimately turning out okay in the end. My mind isn’t always the easiest place to be, and I’m sometimes more cynical and pessimistic than I want to be – but I’m also a sucker for a happy ending. 

In many ways, this is a good thing. There was a problem, and now there’s a solution. I’ve got a way forward. But, as I started to sort things out in my head, I got to grips with exactly how much of the book I was going to have to rewrite almost from scratch… and the doubts began. The nagging little fears. And the voice at the back of my head that said: You should have spotted this earlier. You’ve spent two years fumbling around trying to get this to work. Maybe this is another bit of proof that you’re not a writer. 

It’s insidious, the way these doubts can eat away at you. My insecurities have gotten so bad, I’ll occasionally find myself getting a little worked up and insecure at seeing someone else’s writing getting praised on Twitter. It isn’t just a childish (but sometimes inescapable) burst of jealousy – my brain somehow manages to interpret that kind of thing as: Nobody will ever say that about your work, and I end up bothered and weird, and once again feeling like instead of being a short distance from finishing my journey, I’ve gotten lost and am now just stumbling around on a featureless moor, hoping that whichever direction I randomly choose will be the right one. It’s frightening, and it’s difficult, and I wish there was an easy solution. But there isn’t. 

So. It’s the difficult road for me. 

I know I have a problem. My insecurity and confidence has stopped me doing a lot in my life, and it’s frequently prevented me from being able to appreciate what I have acheived, and the genuinely good things that have happened to me. But I’m not letting myself get away with it anymore. At the least, I feel like I’m fully aware of it right now – I’m getting better at recognising the signs when my brain is heading in an unhealth direction, and while I can’t quite stop it, I can ride it out. Of course, there aren’t any quick and easy fixes for this – it’s going to be a gradual process of setting myself acheivable goals, and not beating myself up over any potential missing of those targets. I’m going to have to take it slowly, step by step.  I already know what I want to do in 2013 – I’ve got a new novel to finish, and I want to get the rewrite done on my second novel, and I’m aiming to get them done by November, when my girlfriend and I will be heading to the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. I’m also applying to get onto an MA course in Creative Writing at Manchester University, and if that happens it’ll open up a whole series of interesting directions.

But I’m going to keep going. And no matter what that voice at the back of my head may whisper, I’m not going to let it win. Not anymore.

I’m going to have a good 2013.

And I hope you do too.


Super Hexagon (or, Curse You, Kieron Gillen)

Curse you, Kieron Gillen.

It’s not enough for you to be a brilliant comics writer and games journalist. It wasn’t enough for you to pull off one of the most impressive final issues of a mainstream superhero comics run that I’ve ever read – the wonderful, meta-textual Journey Into Mystery, starring a teenage reincarnation of Thor villain and trickster god Loki. It wasn’t enough for you to instill in me an intense desire to play the boardgame Risk Legacy, despite the fact that I’m very good at buying boardgames and then never playing them.

Oh, no. You also had to get me addicted to Super Hexagon.

There I was, casually reading through your excellent review of the gaming year over on Rock Paper Shotgun, and I read about the game Super Hexagon. It was probably the retro-looking graphics that appealed, and I was looking for something new and exciting to play on my iPad (having found that while indulging in my nostalgia for GTA: Vice City on the iPad was kinda fun, the iPad control system turns any car chase into virtual suicide). I looked on the App Store, and lo and behold – it was even on special offer. Only 69p. So I clicked ‘Buy’.

And that was pretty much it.

Super Hexagon is INSANE. It’s an incredibly simple game, and the look of it brings back memories of vector-graphic classic Tempest, except that your task as player is to steer a tiny triangle past the various obstacles that are speeding towards the centre of the screen. Hit one of them, and you’re dead. Simple, eh?

Er, no.

You see, Super Hexagon is fast. Seriously, headspinningly fast, and scored with a pulsing electro-dance beat just so you’re in no doubt exactly how fast it is. And it’s absurdly tricky. I’ve been playing it every day for a week, and I’ve finally got to a point where I can pretty regularly last for over 30 seconds per game – and this is on the easiest possible setting. The game begins with a notice saying ‘Headphones Recommended’, and I’m pretty sure this is so that if you’re playing it within earshot of anyone, they don’t end up driven mad by the cool female American voice intoning “Game Over” every five seconds. Because trust me – when you start playing, that’ll be about as long as you last.

It’s dizzying and thrilling in equal measure, relying on pattern recognition and very fast reflexes – you have to watch the entire screen as you play, and there are certain structures which still send me into a fatal tailspin the moment they appear. It’s the kind of game where even the slightest error will instantly kill you, but the sheer challenge of weaving through this adrenalised, perspective-shifting hailstorm of geometric shapes will keep you going. I’ve managed to last up to 45 seconds (on the very easiest setting), and I’m counting that as a major acheivement. There are other, harder levels – ‘Hexagoner’ and ‘Hexagonest’ – as well ones that you have to unlock which, frankly, I don’t even want to *think* about right now.

I’m sure I’ll recover from my addiction from this supercharged sugar rush at some point. I may even get to conquer one (or more) of the jaw-droppingly tricky levels of the game. But for now, the Super Hexagon icon sitting there on my iPad, daring me to ignore it, knowing that I’m going to fail.

Curse you, Kieron Gillen!

(I’m still gettting Young Avengers, though…)