All the way down

 

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Street art in Richmond VA. Artist unknown, by me at least

Everything is a trope. Every idea you’ve had, every thought, has come before. The precise number of plots is debatable but all who have managed to get others to pay for their opinions agree: stories are finite. Only the telling varies. Yet there is no algorithm to tell us how to write the perfect story. We continue to devour tales that seem to us to be distinct and unique and precious. Experts, our brains scoff, what do they know?

It’s the same with tropes. We can identify them: there’s the Dead Lesbian and the English Villain (beloved of Hollywood); there’s Women in Refrigerators and Humans are the Real Monsters. There are so many that it becomes almost paralysing. You don’t want to be part of a trend, do you? You don’t want to perpetuate damaging myths or be victims of the witch-hunt of the week.

I try not to be racist. I try not to be sexist. So when I’m writing I try to have a diverse cast. I try to have characters of differing sexualities – not representations but living, breathing people – in significant roles. I do this because it represents the world we live in and the future I’d like to see (and I try to read diversely too). But it’s also a minefield. With so many tropes littering the path it seems impossible not to trip up somewhere.

Do I, for example, dare to have a BAME villain? Or a woman? Can my nastiest character be homosexual? What if I cause offence? The internet is a rage machine: do I want to be defending my work – my character – and do I have to be defended by racists and other people I detest?

Recently Lionel Shriver caused controversy by pointing out that all fiction is inherently fake. It’s a difficult argument: she’s right, of course: everything I do is a lie and part of the job description is to put myself in the head of someone I’m not. But there is a horrible arrogance in her position; that we shouldn’t care about the opinions of the people we’re representing (appropriating); that we can take at will without hearing their voices directly.

Now we have sensitivity readers to help us, and that’s good. We don’t know everything and we need help in picking up the slack. It’s been said that this will limit the issues we can address, but I see the opposite. I think the growth in awareness will give us – us being, I suppose, white western cisgender writers, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work the other way too – the confidence to address controversial issues and periods of history.

I am in favour of political correctness. I want to be challenged. I believe that it’s right to listen when someone tells us they’ve been offended. If nothing else these issues make us reassess our own prejudices; and, I hope, help us produce better work.

This is what I want to communicate here: being aware of all these issues makes our work better. You can rail against all these limitations or you can use them to build more rounded characters and plots. This is what I’m trying to do. If I realise that I’m falling into a trope-trap I will work harder to think of a more creative solution. The story will be richer as a result.

We still live in a massively ‘white’ world. If we want to write about other peoples and cultures then the least we can do is get it right.

The big board of truth

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I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.

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A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:

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I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.

Strata and substrata

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Tapestry from the Ramses Wissa Wassef Arts Centre, Cairo

My favourite technique for building a novel is to bang all ideas together and see which stick: which complement and cohere and which fracture and fall apart. Characters, plot-threads, locations: they’re all ideas. Some will naturally work together, some will fragment and mutate, and some will just fall to the floor to be swept to the Municipal Recycling Centre of the mind.

The problem is that some ideas seem to go together quite well, but to make them work within a story requires a whole new level of intrigue and opacity. Generally speaking, complex is good: a twist – that famous, legendary twist – requires a substrata to run through the novel that the reader doesn’t even know they’re mining as they progress: in other words, a hidden layer of complexity within the story. Without multiple threads the story is bland, unchallenging, the simplest of the simples.

I like simple. I write adventures dressed up in speculative clothing. Adventures are perhaps the simplest stories as they’re fundamentally linear: good guy gets into a series of scrapes, each one sending her further towards the final resolution. But even here we need the complexity of betrayal, of emotional turmoil, of the realisation that they couldn’t trust their masters. Without this you have dissatisfaction, a children’s story populated with cardboard cut-outs.

This is not meant as an insult children’s literature, by the way. Some is outstanding: I’d point at Terry Pratchett’s Carnegie Medal-winning The Amazing Morris and his Educated Rodents. It’s a ‘simple’ story, but it’s brilliantly told and – well – brilliant.

Anyway, I find I’m becoming more complex as I learn the craft of writing. I want layers. I want secrets. I want to weave a diverse cast together and keep myriad plates spinning.

But when do you know when you’ve got enough threads? How do you know when you’ve gone too far? If you just keep weaving string upon string together not only will you never have a whole completed tapestry but you’ll just confuse and bore the reader.

I have a new idea. I went to a free festival at the weekend and saw a sideshow that inspired me. I’ve rammed it against my primary work-in-progress (which at the moment exists only in my mind) and it created interesting shapes. But to make it work in story form, how much work do I need to do? Are the changes coherent? Does it make the novel into something else entirely?

At the moment I have no idea. One day I’ll learn how to do this writing thing properly.

On location

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The Carnac stones, Brittany

I have a problem. Actually I have many problems, but let’s keep the focus small, shall we? This particular problem is that I lack imagination. I struggle to write about places that I’ve never been.

I want to write a novel set in Brittany. I love its history, its myths and legends (which I don’t know enough about) and its position on the fringes. There’s just one problem: I’ve never been there.

I’m willing to bet that most novels are set either in a place that the writer knows well or a fantasy representation thereof. I hold as Exhibit A the writings of JRR Tolkien: what is the Shire but the idealised Black Country of his childhood? What is Mordor but the industrial ruin he saw it becoming? Donna Leon writes about Venice in a way that only a lover can.

Thus The Ballad of Lady Grace was set in an (unnamed) Norwich, where I was living at the time. Chivalry was set in Bradford, where I grew up. Oneiromancer was ostensibly set in London, but really it’s every inner city I’ve ever known, seen on television or read about. Only Night Shift was set in a place I’d never been – Antarctica – and even there the ‘location’ was the cold, not the landscape. I’ve been cold many times.

Maybe fantasy or sci-fi are easier because we can take our favourite elements, our favourite geographies, and build a world from the pieces. But I want to write about a real place, or at least a place based on a real land. I want it to taste right.

You might be saying ‘well, can’t Google give you location? Can’t Street View give you everything you need?’ And the internet is a wonderful, transformative tool. But location is a lot more than just geography and architecture. It’s about the way the air tastes. It’s the way the mist lingers in the valleys, and the way the sun finally burns it away. It’s the humidity, and the birdsong, and the berries in the hedgerow. It’s whether dogshit is picked up or left to rot in the long grass. It’s the buzz of insects, the looks of the villagers; it’s holloways or causeways. It’s claustrophobia or agoraphobia or hydrophobia or sunstroke.

It’s also how it changes in different conditions, in different seasons, in different streets.

This is why I’m considering moving my Brittanic adventures to Devon, where I can smell the tall hedges and the narrow lanes and feel the waves crashing against undercut stacks. Except that I’m sick of the southern-British bias in writing. I’m a northerner at heart; why not write about the Pennine hills?

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Because Plot. Because I’ve been shaping story around the politics of (real and imagined) Brittany. Crowbarring it into Devon might work, but a Yorkshire secessionist league – whilst obviously something for us all to dream of – is currently stretching suspension of disbelief a little far.

There is another possibility, and that’s that I’m subconsciously using all this uncertainty to allow me to delay the actual writing of the damn novel. Really what I need to do is get the hell on with it; make my decision and stick with it.

But location is more than a backdrop. It’s a character, an ever-present – an ever-presence, even. A change in location can mark a change in mood, in intensity. Location matters. Give it the respect it deserves and the whole novel will be the better for it.

Doll’s house

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This seriously disturbing ‘doll’s house’ is the work of Giai-Miniet. There’s more here, if you’re interested

I was going to write today about plotting and the difficulties thereof. But last night I realised that’s not what I’m struggling with. Plot is all about people, about what they do and what they cause to happen. I’m more concerned with the architecture: with giving my cast a place to inhabit, to interact with and to burn to the ground.

I’ve been struggling with making my ideas work. I have my protagonists – it’s a sequel to Oneiromancer – so that’s done. I have my location (contemporary Brittany). I have an idea of what drives the story and where I want it to end up. But I can’t get down and actually write the damn thing because I don’t have my backdrop: I don’t know what drives the as-yet-uncreated minor characters or villain(s); I don’t know what’s happened before my characters got on stage.

A good book is all about the creatures who inhabit its pages. No-one (these days) starts with reams of backstory. It must start in the middle, after the ball’s been rolled and as the pins are tremble at its approach. The die has been cast but the score is obscured.

But the author needs to know what that score is. I need to have built my doll’s house, to know the position of every wall, every piece of furniture (for a good solid chair is very handy for beating down any giant mutant rats that may sneak in), every hidden passageway. Then my characters can move in and – hopefully – burn the beds, rip off the wallpaper, dig into the cellar and maybe hack into next-door’s wifi.

But (most of) the walls will remain. My world. My political machinations. The bits that will only be revealed to my cast as they explore: the skeletons that’ll be exhumed; the maids to lust after; the cows that give blood instead of milk. The cast will change their world as they walk (run, career, hurtle) through it. But I need to know the nature of the diorama they’ve just been cast into.

A good plot allows your characters to pull down the world into which they’re been scattered. But the world has to have been there first.

Museless

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How I imagine my Muse

At the moment I am trying to get down to a new novel and it’s not happening. I am stuck before I’ve begun. The words are not coming.

In previous novels I’ve toyed with ideas, worked out the feel of a novel, found a place to aim for – and then waited until the opening scene in mind. Then I wrote it, and the scene after, and the scene after that, until I had a story. Very linear, very much finding my way as I went (although not without forward planning: notes were kept as I went along, thoughts thunked, futures sketched).

Now that strategy’s not working. I’m trying to write two new novels and I’m just not able to get down to either. This is possibly down to the lack of strong liquor or hard drugs necessary to unblock my imagination-gland. More likely it’s that – thought I have the feel and know strong story-elements in both – I don’t have enough of a big picture. My worlds aren’t vivid enough. Something within the story lacks coherence.

My answer? To go back to my spreadsheets. Every novel has its accompanying batch of spreadsheets. From character ideas, random notes and finally a scene-by-scene breakdown, spreadsheets is where it’s at. I’ve already got a very broad ‘Act One, Act Two, Act Three’ sheet. My next task is to do a more detailed chapter-by-chapter run through that will almost certainly be ignored when the writing actually begins in earnest.

I’ve always resisted the division into the world into ‘planners’ and ‘free-wheelers’ (I refuse to use the word ‘pantsers’ as it’s so ugly). It’s never that clear cut. No-one – surely – writes a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of a whole novel. And no-one can produce a (good) novel without looking forwards and making a note or two for a future scene. Some characters might just come straight from the subconscious fully-formed, but at least a modicum of work is needed before pen strikes paper.

Like most people I lie somewhere within the spectrum: a linear writer who makes notes and addresses issues sporadically as he progresses. So why am I planning more now? Well it’s partly because I don’t know where to begin. I have three – rather samey – starting-points in mind, representing each character/group. This obviously won’t make a good story.

Writing is work. My muse is washed-up, alcoholic on a park bench in a piss-wet hippy-skirt with earrings twisted painfully in her dreads. Maybe the gods of inspiration will drop a fiver in her hat and she’ll return, nourished, clean and ready to swing for the fences. But at the moment I’m on my own.

Different challenges require different responses. I have problems, but if I want to call myself a writer I have to work through them, because work is a strategy. Sometimes the best answer is to sit and think, to scribble, to cross out, to keep on pushing until something happens and the rose finally unfurls.

So it’s back to the spreadsheets with me.

Dead Lesbian

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As Katy Perry once didn’t sing, ‘I killed a girl and I liked it.’ I know how she doesn’t feel; I’ve killed a lesbian at the end of Oneiromancer, and now I’m afraid I’m part of the Dead Lesbian Syndrome narrative.

For those what haven’t come across DLS (AKA ‘bury your gays’), it’s well summed-up here:

“Often…gay characters just aren’t allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple, often the one who was more aggressive in pursuing a relationship, thus “perverting” the other one, has to die at the end.”

I wrote the novel before I was aware of DLS and, at the time, thought it was justified artistically and dramatically. Now I worry. I also worry that my worries are driven by fear of being accused of unconscious homophobia as much as they are of being unconsciously homophobic, which is taking ‘I don’t like myself’-ness to a whole new level.

The problem is that I don’t know what to do about it. I feel trapped. To change my manuscript to remove the death seems like pandering. Emotionally, the novel needs that death at that point. For reasons of pathos, and because it’s well mortared into the plot. I still think the death is justified. And yet I read things like:

“Taking the route of killing off yet another gay character teaches us that gay people are expendable and not worth keeping around. It’s a plot device that needs to be examined by every creative person who writes for TV, film or any other medium. It matters how LGBT characters are handled in the media. Representation matters.”

View at Medium.com

and I don’t want to be someone who perpetuates damaging myths, memes or moralities. All writing is political. Oneiromancer is my most political novel so far, but killing lesbians is not part of my agenda. I care about the messages I communicate, consciously or not.

So I worry. I worry about what it says about me and I worry about what the reaction will be. I worry that I’m worrying too much. I’m not going to change my manuscript at this point; I’m going to wait for an agent/editor/publisher – or public opinion – to tell me what to do.

This is my alibi. At least if I can show that I was aware of what was going on and that I agonised over it I can hide behind the ‘but I meant well, Officer’ defence. But this cisgender white male is worried that won’t stand up in court.

The nasty scene

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I’m at The Nasty Scene.

I’ve been dreading this. The most controversial scene in my novel; never have I written something I’m so uncertain about. It’s grown to occupy a special place in my canon – a watershed, a step forwards in maturity, confidence and self-assertion. But also sadistic, according to one beta-reader, and a moment that more than one person said would make them stop reading any further.

So what’s a boy to do? I’ve already chopped and changed and dragged it from its original home – about a third of the way through the novel to just past the half. In doing so I’ve had to seriously rewrite adjacent scenes and – with great reluctance – sacrifice a scene I rather liked. I’m also engaged with making the nasty scene better in itself: tackling errors of point-of-view and language.

But is it fundamentally unsaveable? Surely it’s possible to rewrite it so the outcome, story-wise, is the same without the vicious extremes. Of course it is; just because it’s become an idée fixe doesn’t mean I can’t shift my paradigm and dig a way round the obstacle.

But I wrote the scene like this for a reason. It’s supposed to be unpleasant. It’s supposed to be upsetting, to be a moment of visceral horror. It’s meant to be nasty. A key moment in the plot (although, being truly honest to myself, right now it’s hard to remember quite why it’s so important). It happens because of Reasons and causes Consequences. That’s what plot’s all about, right?

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I guess the question I’m asking is this: how far is too far?

I know the answer to this: you’ve gone too far when the scene you’ve written detracts from the novel as a whole; when it’s out-of-step, a lurch to the side, pornography-in-Beatrix-Potter-style unsettlement.

But this is not the only unpleasant scene in Oneiromancer. It’s not a children’s novel. It has death and blood and pain (and hope too; it’s not relentlessly grim, I promise) and to pull punches would be to write a different story. I can’t take out a scene just because it offends the sensibilities of a few.

It’s a question of balance. Unfortunately I don’t have the experience (yet) to know where my pivot is.

You can read a bit more about this here, if you’re in any way interested.

Problem child

No news. The wait goes on. I’ve heard that it’s a good sign, to have to wait: rejections are easy and come quickly, but acceptance requires time and second opinions and consideration of the future. So I go on hoping, holding off on any more submissions until I get a yea or a nay. Maybe I should be sending stuff out regardless, but I’ve got plenty of other stuff to do; not like I’m here sitting on my hands. I’m still working, if only for my own sanity. Working is good and satisfying and will all be worthwhile when the dust’s cleared. The best way to sell a book is to write another. It’s the back-catalogue that generates the interest as much as the current work.

So: Australis. Or, as it’s increasingly becoming known, The Bastard. The Problem Child. The Ugly Sister.

I wrote this back-to-back with Night Shift and, when I completed the first draft back in November 2012 I was sure it was the better story. At the time I could see the holes in NS and felt like I’d anticipated them in Australis. I had a good, coherent story with an atmosphere of heavy intrigue and set in a world that held together, was logical and true.

Since then NS has got better and better, and whilst I’ve rewritten Australis many times since, the changes have been mainly cosmetic: improving the words, the characterisations and the flow. What I’ve never really got to grips with are the problems of the plot. The plain fact that, reading it again now, it’s actually not that good.

I think this reflects the fact that I wasn’t quite sure what novel I was trying to write. Whereas NS was always a psychological thriller (even if I didn’t realise that at the time) Australis was an attempt at a locked-room mystery and a police procedural. Two books I never set out to write, mashed together.

A few weeks ago I said I was editing with a scythe and a hand-grenade. That’s because I’ve finally got my critical faculties together – and maybe because enough time has passed for me to see the work as it is – and now I know that the only way to save this novel is to rip it apart and take the underlying thread of Story and re-stitch the rest of the book around that.

 It’s hard to admit that work you yourself have produced isn’t very good. Especially when the there’s really nothing wrong with the words: they create the image you were after, they’re technically correct. Just dull and unbelonging. That’s my biggest sin. Far worse than being bad, I’ve written something dull.

 In my defense, the words I wrote seem fully at home for the police procedural I was steering close to. And therein was the problem; although I was never truly happy with what I was doing, I was allowing myself to be consoled with thoughts like ‘well, there are sections like this in Donna Leon and Henning Mankell’.

But I’m not giving up. Australis has a place; I still want it and need it. Not just because of stubbornness or because or its place in my world but because it’s gonna be a good story. Got me an intellectual puzzle, something to unpick.

So it’s back to the beginning. Thinking properly for once – seeing clearly. I’ve tried to work out what the essence of the story is, which characters I like and which need changing. I’ve added a new antagonist and rebooted the female lead. The changes are actually quite small – differing emphases, I suppose, rather than regenesis.

But changes snowball. A new character added early on will change everything they come into contact with; a new suspect, a new motive, a new location: one idea leads to two more further down the river. Droughts and floods and diversions all the way to the sea.

At the moment the plot is running the same as it did before. But I’m rapidly approaching the point at which the stream will fork. And then everything will change. It’s like doing a crossword backwards: you have all the solutions, now you have to work out precisely what the questions were in the first place.

It’s fun. You should try it.

The second rule

The second rule’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If you want to be a writer you’ve got to read.

You can study reading. You can read books on how to read books, and (I guess) many writing courses will give you lists of things to watch out for: characterisation, plot, dialogue… all the elements that, when blended together, make Literature. But I’m not too sure about this. More than anything else, reading should be a pleasure. And I think it’s just as useful to absorb these messages subconsciously as it is to learn by dissecting the text. I guess I think there’s room for both. It’s almost certainly been good for my writing to read books on pacing and character. They might not have told me anything I didn’t instinctively know, but it’s a benefit to have knowledge moved from the subconscious to the conscious.

But reading is, and should always remain, a delight. The wonderful thing is that every time to pick up a book you’re going to learn something new, whether you want to or not. Maybe it’s only ‘how not to do it’, but even in books you hate you’re going to learn a little more about the world – or at least one select part of it.

Most instruction courses on writing and literature will point you towards the classics. Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Dickens, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky – the heavy hitters. I can see why they do it (they’re widely available and aren’t too esoteric for the masses – and, of course, they’re good) but this always puts me off. I know, I know, it’s my loss, but – whisper it quietly – I don’t want to read these. I know I should. And one day I will, I promise. But my point to you is that’s not only the greats that can help you. You can learn about writing from a Mills & Boon; after all, they rely on proven plots and have an established structure. And they’re short, so you can read a few quickly, then move on to something else.

Of course you should read the classics. But you should also read – well, everything else. If you’re a genre writer you need to read within your genre, that’s a given. It’s always helpful to know conventions, ‘the rules’, if only so you can play with them, break them good and hard if your story calls for it. It’s also massively helpful to read beyond your bounds. I mean, everybody should read as much as possible anyway because reading makes you a more rounded human being, more open and receptive. And there’s little better than sitting holding your partner whilst you both read. True fact.

So range wildly with your selections. Make your library your first stop every time you leave the house. Surround yourself with words and slowly they’ll fill you up, become part of your glorious shining soul. The presence of books in your life is the greatest gift you can give yourself, your children – even your friends and enemies.

And do your best to include non-fiction in your diet. You can do your readers no bigger favour than to know a lot about the world. This is obviously true for historical fiction, where the slightest anachronism can ruin the flow. It’s equally true for fantasy and science-fiction. Terry Pratchett once said that when you construct a city you need to start by knowing where the water goes in and how the waste goes out. You can’t invent a tribe without some understanding of power-structures at whatever level of development they’ve reached.

And none of this should feel like work. What greater pleasure can there be but to understand the world a little better? And always, always, you’ll be encountering new ways of thinking that might inspire your writing. I’ve talked before about how I’ve been influenced by real-world history. An awareness of popular science – and of possible trends – is also hugely helpful. Even if you dismiss what you’ve read – even if you disagree vehemently and want to give the author a good slap – it can drive you to write a sharp riposte, a counterblast.

It almost goes without saying that memoirs, biographies and travelogues – any narrative non-fiction, really – can also be incredibly useful. These (should) provide real-life examples of notable characters, places and times – or, if nothing else, ways of thinking.

The thing is that once you start writing – or at least after you’ve been doing it for a while – you’ll start to notice more in the books you read. Maybe it’s a case of becoming a little more discerning. You’ll get more out of the shape of the dialogue, the rhythms, the pace. Sentence length, that’s something to watch out for, especially as it influences that nebulous, barely definable thing they call ‘style’. These things will seep into your skin and slowly transform the way you produce your material. And it takes no effort. The wonderful thing – almost miraculous – is that all the things you’ve learnt will come out in your own voice, not as the people you’ve been reading. The brain is a very clever thing – far smarter than I am, at least.

So go! Journey into strange lands and travel through time. Stride across galaxies or into the hearts of lovers. Live vicariously, feel pain and joy and anger and deep, deep passion. Push yourself always onwards, and remember – you’re not wasting time. Never that. You’re merely rehearsing your craft.

The second rule lets you soar.