Tuesday, October 25, 2005

How I became a writer

Somebody asked me recently how I got into being a writer. Here was my reply...

I did lots of writing at school, but nothing of note nor merit. Rather than wste three years of my life at university, I decided to try journalism. I bluffed my way into a six-month high-pressure journalism diploma at what was then called ATI (now the Auckland University of Technology, apparently). From there I became a cadet with The Daily News in Taranaki, before going back to Auckalnd for 2.5 years on the Herald. By the end of 1989 I decided to emigrate, furstrated at being unable to get into the Herald's features department. Thanks to grandparent patriality, I got myself indefinite residency and work permission for the UK, arriving in January 1990. I haboured an ambition to write for Doctor Who, but the show was about to go on a brief hiatus...

Some magazine journalism and then I somehow became an assistant editor on the about-to-be launched Judge Dredd Megazine, despite having no experience of working in comics before. I'd read comics from an early age in NZ (mostly Marvels, cos they were in colour) but knew little about Dredd or 2000 AD. The next ten years remedied that, at least.

I was freelance editorial until April 1992, writing several excruciatingly bad stories for the Megazine. One at least had the distinction of stunning art by fellow expat Roger Langridge, but my fiction writing career was not off to an auspicious start. I then went on staff and finding time to write got harder and harder, as did finding the motivation - a nice salary offsets that gnawing hunger at the back of your soul, in my experience. I toyed with pitching some ideas to Virgin, who then had the Who licence and actually took submissions from nobodies with no experience and no agent. But lack of confidence and drive let me down, until Virgin came knocking. The Judge Dredd movie was definitely happening and Virgin was looking to expand its fiction empire, so they got a licence to publish original novel featuring the future lawman. What they needed was writers who knew Dredd.

I had no track record as a writer but I knew Dredd - I was in.

My first novel was The Savage Amusement, a shocking mess plotwise but chunk full of Dredd goodness. I used to get up at 5 in the morning, write for an hour on a manual typewriter while the wife was asleep, then make breakfast, go to work and edit the Megazine. At weekends I managed to squeeze into another couple of pages while the wife was out at singing rehearsals (she loves to sing, but can't make a career of it). TSA took me ten weeks - no rewrites, no corrections and no going backwards. Like a lot of first novels, it was all over the place, but I learned much from the experience. Happily, not many people read it and those that did were forgiving.

Even more happily for me, Virgin still hadn't found anymore Dredd authors and needed another book in a hurry. The result was Cursed Earth Asylum, a vast improvement plotwise (as far as I'm concerned you can never go wrong borrowing the plot of Zulu) and containing moments of genuinely creepy horror that made me wonder where they'd come off. Characters starting coming to life on the page and I felt like I was turning into a real writer.

My third Dredd novel, Silencer, was written for the money. This is a mistake. If you don't care about the story you're writing, don't expect your readers to either - and don't think you'll enjoy the experience of writing it. Purgatory, although one fleeting scene almost moved me to tears.

By 1995 getting up at five in the morning to write seemed less attractive, what with the Dredd movie, editing two fortnightlies, a monthly and five different specials. Somehow in the midst of that madness I also managed to write Who Killed Kennedy, after swallowing a lifetime of Who continuity in a month. Annoyingly, it's still my best Who novel, despite the ending being rather shit.

WKK benefitted enormously from my having gone on a three-day seminar about story structure for wannabe Hollywood screenwriters, run by a guy called Robert McKee. It opened my eyes to the classical three act structure, confirmed a lot of things I discovered myself through trial and error (and editing thousands of stories for the Megazine and later 2000 AD). If you ever get the chance and have the money, go on the McKee course. He has his detractors, but those three days did wonders for y writing...

AFter WKK I was fulltime on 2000 AD and simply didn't have the time or energy to pursue my own writing. The itch was there, but I was giving everything I had at the office. In the year 2000 the urge to write got too strong and I quit to go freelance. Happily, my wife promised to support us both financially if I didn't make money - an understanding partner with a decent paying job does wonders for taking the pressure off would-be writers, I highly recommend finding one, if you can. In fact I've made a decent living in the five years sicne going freelance - some years better, some years not.

In the last five years I've written 11 novels, 12 audio dramas, 20 issues of The Phantom comic, three non-fiction books, dozens and dozens of non-fiction articles, and a shitload of other stuff. Frequently, one job has led to another, or one editor has led to another. I've hustled for work, I've been turned down a lot and I've had days and weeks when pulling teeth was easier than writing. I've been lucky, but I've also been persistent.

I recognise my limitations, but that doesn't mean I'm content with them. I'm always trying to improve my writing, pushing myself to do better. At the same time, I'm a pragmatist. If I'm writing a novel where I have to sign away my copyright, waive my moral rights and won't ever a reprint fee or royalty, then that novel is only worth a limited amount of my time. hell, I'll be dead in 30 or 40 years, I don't want to be thinking I shouldn't have wasted an extra week polishing that Nightmare on Elm Street novel when I could have been doing something better, something that held out the hope of a royalty, something all of my own creation.

Grim reality: editors look for two things in a professional writer - writing and professionalism. Yes, all editors want brilliant, exhilarating, deathless prose. But they also want manuscripts that arrive on time, require as little editing as possible and they meet the basic specifications they stated (wordcount, plotline, whatever). In my experience, the professional journeyman often gets more work - and more regular work - than the genius.

The sad fact for me so far is I've made a decent living but I haven't written many stories featuring just my own characters. I've got a long list on credits but they're nearly all media tie-ins. There's no shame in that, but I also want to write my own shit as well as somebody else's.

To achieve that ambition, I've just started an MA in Screenwriting at Napier University in Edinburgh. I'm doing it part-time, so it'll take two years and fitting that in around my freelance work is proving problematic, but I'll find a way. I'll be 40 when I graduate and I've got a list of things I want to achieve in my 40s - writing a bestseller, getting my first original crime novel published, that sort of thing. Hell, Doctor Who's back on TV, I might even crack that nut one day.

So, that's the story thus far. A modicum of talent, a bit of luck and a lot of hard work.

Come to think of it, there's one thing people never mention about being a writer: there's a hell of a lot of typing involved. If you don't type with all ten fingers already, go on a secretarial course at nightschool. Trust me, the amount of time you'll save, it's worth that little bit of effort. I was lucky, my journalism tutors demanded we all be able to touch-type at 30 words per minute, so I was forced into acquiring that skill.

I am to write 4000 words a day and you don't tend to do that tapping at a keyboard like two hens in a farmyard fighting over the last piece of corn.

No comments: