How Many Miles To Babylon by Dorothy Davies

EXTRACT FOR
How Many Miles To Babylon

(Dorothy Davies)


In the Beginning

The first thing, always, to say to a wannabe writer is: it isn’t easy. It looks it, just throwing the words at the screen; see how they fall, arrange them into something resembling paragraphs, send it off and make a fortune.
Come with me; let’s see where we can go with this. If I repeat myself, it’s in an effort to ensure the message gets through. There are a lot of highly talented writers out there who are failing at the first fence through simple lack of application to the craft and/or a huge ego that says, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong and if I want to litter my work with OTT language and sex scenes, I will - see you at the Awards Ceremony.’ Somehow I don’t think so…

***

Writing is a craft that has to be learned.
This book is meant to show you the pitfalls and help you make your MS acceptable to the first real reader you have, outside of your beta readers, that is. (You can discount family who should never be allowed to read your work until it is in print. Because… they all say it’s wonderful when it often isn’t and you get inflated ideas of how good it is and become bitterly disappointed when the editor sends it back only part read. It happens…)
This advice is given by someone who has been writing all her life, been paid for it for the last 35 years and counting and who has been editing professionally for 20+ years.
I have a whole stack of anthologies to my name and you should be aware that one of them, Comes the Night, was selected for Best Horror 4 by Ellen Datlow. It doesn’t come better than that. I knew what I was looking for when it came to quality work to put into any anthology I edited. I made up my mind that Thirteen Press titles were to be the best and worked at getting the standards to the point when sales were guaranteed by the sheer quality of YOUR work. You benefited from that as well as Thirteen Press and Horrified Press who hold the imprint.
I’m not the sweet and sugary type, not going to tell people that with a few stories accepted they’re on their way to the big time, but equally I’m not the kind of editor who normally sends stories back without saying why. This upsets some people but that’s their ego getting in the way. They’re in the group who think they have nothing to learn when in fact all writers are learning all the time.
I’m asking you to accept this book as me trying to push you in the right direction to have acceptances instead of rejections, to feel good about the writing, to know you can make it.
If that’s all right with you, let’s get into the whole business of writing, shall we?

***

So… what’s the secret of success and how do you go about getting there?
The first thing is… accepting that writing is an apprenticeship that never ends. We all learn all the time, how to craft the story, create the characters, make every word count, write to tight word limits (stories and articles) find catchy/interesting/attention-grabbing titles, conjure scenarios that are believable (no logic slip-ups) have a story which holds the reader’s attention from beginning to end and all this done in a writing style that is entirely your own.
The second thing is… none of this comes in a hurry. No artist ever created a masterpiece first time they picked up a brush, no composer wrote a symphony first time out. It’s practice and more practice. My first efforts at writing were rejected. I tried writing something for a correspondence course and had it torn to pieces. I almost gave up but something made me keep right on writing. Slowly but surely the rejections changed to acceptances; a good many of my stories appeared in fanzines, unpaid, a limited audience but acceptances for all that. It made the difference; it was the impetus I needed to keep on writing. When I began it was all typed, I worked on a Brother portable on the kitchen table for ages. When I wore that out, I bought an Adler, a solid piece of equipment that would withstand a bomb blast, I’m sure it would and on that I wrote my first to-be-published YA novel.
It took eleven years for it to find a publisher. I’m telling you this is to emphasise that none of this comes in a hurry. After eleven years, umpteen retypes and a lot of abortive submissions to agents and publishers, an agent placed the book with Bodley Head. It was published - it sank like a stone. We’re going back before the age of the Internet so there was no marketing I could do. Bodley Head didn’t allocate money for publicity, advertisements and the like, so the poor little book slid into oblivion after all my efforts and all my years of trying.
Bodley Head, though, said they were happy with it and did I have another book? I did. I outlined it, another YA book, starting in 495 AD and ending in 1995 AD, every chapter separate, every one linked to the one before and the one after, the theme, First Love. They said it couldn’t be done. So I did it. It was accepted, a development fee was paid for me to alter this and revise that, which I did. And it was dropped.
Now comes something you need to think about when you’re writing. A book is never finished. I sent that novel to a critique agency and got back pages of advice on how to make it better.
A book was accepted by one of the Big Names in the business and a critique company found goodness knows how many ways I could make it better. They were right, in every way they were right. They saw things a critical editor should have seen but didn’t. The revised book ‘Forever’ is online. Details at the end of this book if you’re interested…
The third thing is… you must never stop thinking writing. When you’re reading, dissect the story, the grammar, the metaphors; the dialogue tags, ask yourself why the story is holding your attention, why haven’t you dropped the book in at the nearest charity shop or book exchange or deleted it from your Kindle or whatever? What’s making you read on? Criticise the story in your head; is it draggy here and there, could it have been paced better? (The ‘story arc’ theory comes in here.) Could the characters have been better delineated? Was the balance of narrative and dialogue about right? These days, when I write, I hear my daughter saying ‘don’t give me the description; I don’t care what colour dress she’s wearing, give me the story!’ This is valid in many instances; some writers do tend to rely overmuch on background and description. So, think writing. Observe people. How do they walk, how do they talk to one another, using their hands, or flicking their hair or playing with buttons, jewellery, keys, whatever? Be a people watcher. Listen to conversations, note how people speak to one another. Is the dialogue that natural in the book you’re reading/writing? People don’t speak formally to one another unless they’re perfect strangers and even then they’re likely to lapse into the occasional ‘haven’t’ rather than ‘have not.’ Formality is the death of many a story.
If you google Ray Bradbury, the greatest influence when I began writing and surely one of the finest horror/SF/fantasy writers of our time, you will find his lecture to young authors. It’s full of worthwhile advice. That link, along with others that might be of help to you, is at the end of this book.
Among the points he makes he says, read a short story every day and a poem every day. The reading is the important part. You need to read short stories to write short stories. It’s an art form in itself. Creating an entire scenario, background, characters and storyline in the limited space given by a short story is something you need to read to understand and then try for yourself.
If you can write good short stories, then you’re on your way to writing good novels. The one always leads to the other, says me anyway. It’s just that you get more space with a novel to expand your background, characters and storyline…
The poem helps you to think poetically. Sometimes metaphors can be a bit dull, reading poetry for its rhythm and sense can help you find the right words you need. I read John Drinkwater poems all the time, it’s where I find my titles (more on titles later) and where I lose myself in the wonderful rhythmic patterns he creates. I was also fortunate enough to have a poem sent to me every day by Ken L Jones, poet, writer and friend.
Now go find your stories and poems…


Storytelling

A radio programme on second-hand bookshops included the presenter discussing with a book shop owner the fact that people still came in to buy books by the old authors; Warwick Deeping was one he named. (I love his books.) "They want the old storytellers," he said and they do. Catherine Cookson, for example, sold millions, even though to all intents and purposes she was telling the same old story over and over. Because - each time it came out new and fresh. She was a story-teller, first and foremost.
I recently re-acquired a book I knew and loved in my teens. The question was; would it stand up to today's cynical reading? It turned out to be as compelling a read now as when I read it before. It bears out my theory. Agnes Sligh Turnbull has the ability (still) to make me turn the page, even though I knew what was to come.
My other favourite read-over-and-over-again authors are Howard Spring, who can evoke both Cornwall and characters in a way no one else has ever been able to do - for me, Nevil Shute who can get even non-technical me involved in aircraft, design and the flying thereof because of the stories he weaves around the facts; R F Delderfield whose large, complex books are crammed with characters which come alive even now, many years after his death, and every book by Ray Bradbury. When I tire of modern writers with their sharp sentences and glitzy settings, I go back to the old storytellers, the ones who could take their time and spin out a description and can still - even after many readings - make me weep over a death.
And yes, I have read every Warwick Deeping I could find.
Also on my ‘read countless times’ shelves are RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, H de Vere Stacpoole’s The Blue Lagoon, Peter S Beagle’s A Fine And Private Place and the entire works of Charles Dickens. Then there is the whole of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, plus The Stand and 11.22.63. He too is a master storyteller. The remainder of his books are in my Kindle.
Any books on writing will tell you how to write, (sort of, everyone has different ideas) how to set out a manuscript and how to present it properly for your publisher. Articles will tell you about grammar and characterisation, viewpoint and using flashback. These are all essential, but they can't tell you the one thing you need more than anything else - a story.
Before anything else then, consider your plotline. Does it demand the reader turn the pages to find out what is going to happen next? Is your background so vivid it leaps from the page - paints pictures for your reader? Did the story move you when you wrote it, or was it a cold clinical exercise of words on paper? If that’s the case, it’s likely they won't move your reader, either. While it’s true that the reader can’t tell the difference between a page laboured over and one written swiftly, they can tell the difference between a piece written with emotion and one without. If you don't care about your characters, why should your reader?
Find yourself a good strong storyline, one which says something to the world. Then care about your characters, care about them deeply and honestly, portray them and their background, to the best of your ability.
And then perhaps the old art of storytelling, one which comes from early campfires and men in caves to today's hi-tech wizardry, will be back in our lives.
Won't that be wonderful?
What I want to do is guide you through some of the maze that is storytelling, so you reach the centre and the prize without calling for help from the maze builders…

The builders of Babylon can’t help, this is a journey you have to make on your own but don’t worry; I’m here for a while, at least as long as you’re reading my book.


Short Stories

How to…

Let’s consider short stories first.
Many years ago – and I do mean many – I used to buy a magazine called John O’London’s and read it on the train commuting to and from the City of London, where I worked. They ran a competition, as most magazines do.
The prize winning story has never left me. I cannot remember the author or the title but the storyline…
A young boy is waiting for his father to return home from the war. His mother has told him many times that his father is a hero, he has decorations; he is a great man. The boy looks at pictures of ancient Romans with their laurels and thinks that’s how his father’s going to look when he comes. He is busy rushing around looking for a gift for this great man, this hero, when he sees his favourite china dog. In his rush to wrap it, he drops it and an ear is broken off. At that moment he hears his mother calling ‘Your father’s here!” He rushes to the window.… and sees an ordinary man in an ordinary overcoat looking up at him. He steps back, bitterly disappointed. The dream is crushed. The dog with only one ear would do after all.
Simple. Heartbreaking in many ways. I wondered many times if the story came from real life, it had that honest feel. Simply written, simply expressed. That story has stayed with me.
I edited an anthology called In The Darkness. One of the stories which came in had the same effect, it won’t leave me. Sadly for me, the author never responded to emails and requests to sign a contract, so I couldn’t use it. It makes no difference in some ways, I’ve read the story; I won’t forget it. I just wish I could have shared it with the world.
Ray Bradbury’s short stories live with me. The October Country is one of the finest collections of brooding poetic horror stories I have read. I know them all and love them all.
Will you write stories that live in people’s minds? It should be your aim, for no one wants to expend all that time, energy and inspiration on something that is immediately forgotten once the eyes have travelled over the page.
There’s a whole section coming up on creating vivid realistic characters, you’ll need to learn to do this to make your story outstanding - but they need a good story to live in. So, because some people find it hard to garner ideas, I’ve added an appendix of 75 story ideas as a small gift. Really, though, the best stories are the ones you find by watching, thinking, watching and dreaming. The main question always is ‘what if’, that’s the one that leads you into the by-ways of a story.
Short stories are a snapshot of life; a novel is the whole life. That’s a fairly simple way of describing the difference. Short stories can start at 6 words:-

How Many Miles To Babylon by Dorothy Davies

EXTRACT FOR
How Many Miles To Babylon

(Dorothy Davies)


In the Beginning

The first thing, always, to say to a wannabe writer is: it isn’t easy. It looks it, just throwing the words at the screen; see how they fall, arrange them into something resembling paragraphs, send it off and make a fortune.
Come with me; let’s see where we can go with this. If I repeat myself, it’s in an effort to ensure the message gets through. There are a lot of highly talented writers out there who are failing at the first fence through simple lack of application to the craft and/or a huge ego that says, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong and if I want to litter my work with OTT language and sex scenes, I will - see you at the Awards Ceremony.’ Somehow I don’t think so…

***

Writing is a craft that has to be learned.
This book is meant to show you the pitfalls and help you make your MS acceptable to the first real reader you have, outside of your beta readers, that is. (You can discount family who should never be allowed to read your work until it is in print. Because… they all say it’s wonderful when it often isn’t and you get inflated ideas of how good it is and become bitterly disappointed when the editor sends it back only part read. It happens…)
This advice is given by someone who has been writing all her life, been paid for it for the last 35 years and counting and who has been editing professionally for 20+ years.
I have a whole stack of anthologies to my name and you should be aware that one of them, Comes the Night, was selected for Best Horror 4 by Ellen Datlow. It doesn’t come better than that. I knew what I was looking for when it came to quality work to put into any anthology I edited. I made up my mind that Thirteen Press titles were to be the best and worked at getting the standards to the point when sales were guaranteed by the sheer quality of YOUR work. You benefited from that as well as Thirteen Press and Horrified Press who hold the imprint.
I’m not the sweet and sugary type, not going to tell people that with a few stories accepted they’re on their way to the big time, but equally I’m not the kind of editor who normally sends stories back without saying why. This upsets some people but that’s their ego getting in the way. They’re in the group who think they have nothing to learn when in fact all writers are learning all the time.
I’m asking you to accept this book as me trying to push you in the right direction to have acceptances instead of rejections, to feel good about the writing, to know you can make it.
If that’s all right with you, let’s get into the whole business of writing, shall we?

***

So… what’s the secret of success and how do you go about getting there?
The first thing is… accepting that writing is an apprenticeship that never ends. We all learn all the time, how to craft the story, create the characters, make every word count, write to tight word limits (stories and articles) find catchy/interesting/attention-grabbing titles, conjure scenarios that are believable (no logic slip-ups) have a story which holds the reader’s attention from beginning to end and all this done in a writing style that is entirely your own.
The second thing is… none of this comes in a hurry. No artist ever created a masterpiece first time they picked up a brush, no composer wrote a symphony first time out. It’s practice and more practice. My first efforts at writing were rejected. I tried writing something for a correspondence course and had it torn to pieces. I almost gave up but something made me keep right on writing. Slowly but surely the rejections changed to acceptances; a good many of my stories appeared in fanzines, unpaid, a limited audience but acceptances for all that. It made the difference; it was the impetus I needed to keep on writing. When I began it was all typed, I worked on a Brother portable on the kitchen table for ages. When I wore that out, I bought an Adler, a solid piece of equipment that would withstand a bomb blast, I’m sure it would and on that I wrote my first to-be-published YA novel.
It took eleven years for it to find a publisher. I’m telling you this is to emphasise that none of this comes in a hurry. After eleven years, umpteen retypes and a lot of abortive submissions to agents and publishers, an agent placed the book with Bodley Head. It was published - it sank like a stone. We’re going back before the age of the Internet so there was no marketing I could do. Bodley Head didn’t allocate money for publicity, advertisements and the like, so the poor little book slid into oblivion after all my efforts and all my years of trying.
Bodley Head, though, said they were happy with it and did I have another book? I did. I outlined it, another YA book, starting in 495 AD and ending in 1995 AD, every chapter separate, every one linked to the one before and the one after, the theme, First Love. They said it couldn’t be done. So I did it. It was accepted, a development fee was paid for me to alter this and revise that, which I did. And it was dropped.
Now comes something you need to think about when you’re writing. A book is never finished. I sent that novel to a critique agency and got back pages of advice on how to make it better.
A book was accepted by one of the Big Names in the business and a critique company found goodness knows how many ways I could make it better. They were right, in every way they were right. They saw things a critical editor should have seen but didn’t. The revised book ‘Forever’ is online. Details at the end of this book if you’re interested…
The third thing is… you must never stop thinking writing. When you’re reading, dissect the story, the grammar, the metaphors; the dialogue tags, ask yourself why the story is holding your attention, why haven’t you dropped the book in at the nearest charity shop or book exchange or deleted it from your Kindle or whatever? What’s making you read on? Criticise the story in your head; is it draggy here and there, could it have been paced better? (The ‘story arc’ theory comes in here.) Could the characters have been better delineated? Was the balance of narrative and dialogue about right? These days, when I write, I hear my daughter saying ‘don’t give me the description; I don’t care what colour dress she’s wearing, give me the story!’ This is valid in many instances; some writers do tend to rely overmuch on background and description. So, think writing. Observe people. How do they walk, how do they talk to one another, using their hands, or flicking their hair or playing with buttons, jewellery, keys, whatever? Be a people watcher. Listen to conversations, note how people speak to one another. Is the dialogue that natural in the book you’re reading/writing? People don’t speak formally to one another unless they’re perfect strangers and even then they’re likely to lapse into the occasional ‘haven’t’ rather than ‘have not.’ Formality is the death of many a story.
If you google Ray Bradbury, the greatest influence when I began writing and surely one of the finest horror/SF/fantasy writers of our time, you will find his lecture to young authors. It’s full of worthwhile advice. That link, along with others that might be of help to you, is at the end of this book.
Among the points he makes he says, read a short story every day and a poem every day. The reading is the important part. You need to read short stories to write short stories. It’s an art form in itself. Creating an entire scenario, background, characters and storyline in the limited space given by a short story is something you need to read to understand and then try for yourself.
If you can write good short stories, then you’re on your way to writing good novels. The one always leads to the other, says me anyway. It’s just that you get more space with a novel to expand your background, characters and storyline…
The poem helps you to think poetically. Sometimes metaphors can be a bit dull, reading poetry for its rhythm and sense can help you find the right words you need. I read John Drinkwater poems all the time, it’s where I find my titles (more on titles later) and where I lose myself in the wonderful rhythmic patterns he creates. I was also fortunate enough to have a poem sent to me every day by Ken L Jones, poet, writer and friend.
Now go find your stories and poems…


Storytelling

A radio programme on second-hand bookshops included the presenter discussing with a book shop owner the fact that people still came in to buy books by the old authors; Warwick Deeping was one he named. (I love his books.) "They want the old storytellers," he said and they do. Catherine Cookson, for example, sold millions, even though to all intents and purposes she was telling the same old story over and over. Because - each time it came out new and fresh. She was a story-teller, first and foremost.
I recently re-acquired a book I knew and loved in my teens. The question was; would it stand up to today's cynical reading? It turned out to be as compelling a read now as when I read it before. It bears out my theory. Agnes Sligh Turnbull has the ability (still) to make me turn the page, even though I knew what was to come.
My other favourite read-over-and-over-again authors are Howard Spring, who can evoke both Cornwall and characters in a way no one else has ever been able to do - for me, Nevil Shute who can get even non-technical me involved in aircraft, design and the flying thereof because of the stories he weaves around the facts; R F Delderfield whose large, complex books are crammed with characters which come alive even now, many years after his death, and every book by Ray Bradbury. When I tire of modern writers with their sharp sentences and glitzy settings, I go back to the old storytellers, the ones who could take their time and spin out a description and can still - even after many readings - make me weep over a death.
And yes, I have read every Warwick Deeping I could find.
Also on my ‘read countless times’ shelves are RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, H de Vere Stacpoole’s The Blue Lagoon, Peter S Beagle’s A Fine And Private Place and the entire works of Charles Dickens. Then there is the whole of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, plus The Stand and 11.22.63. He too is a master storyteller. The remainder of his books are in my Kindle.
Any books on writing will tell you how to write, (sort of, everyone has different ideas) how to set out a manuscript and how to present it properly for your publisher. Articles will tell you about grammar and characterisation, viewpoint and using flashback. These are all essential, but they can't tell you the one thing you need more than anything else - a story.
Before anything else then, consider your plotline. Does it demand the reader turn the pages to find out what is going to happen next? Is your background so vivid it leaps from the page - paints pictures for your reader? Did the story move you when you wrote it, or was it a cold clinical exercise of words on paper? If that’s the case, it’s likely they won't move your reader, either. While it’s true that the reader can’t tell the difference between a page laboured over and one written swiftly, they can tell the difference between a piece written with emotion and one without. If you don't care about your characters, why should your reader?
Find yourself a good strong storyline, one which says something to the world. Then care about your characters, care about them deeply and honestly, portray them and their background, to the best of your ability.
And then perhaps the old art of storytelling, one which comes from early campfires and men in caves to today's hi-tech wizardry, will be back in our lives.
Won't that be wonderful?
What I want to do is guide you through some of the maze that is storytelling, so you reach the centre and the prize without calling for help from the maze builders…

The builders of Babylon can’t help, this is a journey you have to make on your own but don’t worry; I’m here for a while, at least as long as you’re reading my book.


Short Stories

How to…

Let’s consider short stories first.
Many years ago – and I do mean many – I used to buy a magazine called John O’London’s and read it on the train commuting to and from the City of London, where I worked. They ran a competition, as most magazines do.
The prize winning story has never left me. I cannot remember the author or the title but the storyline…
A young boy is waiting for his father to return home from the war. His mother has told him many times that his father is a hero, he has decorations; he is a great man. The boy looks at pictures of ancient Romans with their laurels and thinks that’s how his father’s going to look when he comes. He is busy rushing around looking for a gift for this great man, this hero, when he sees his favourite china dog. In his rush to wrap it, he drops it and an ear is broken off. At that moment he hears his mother calling ‘Your father’s here!” He rushes to the window.… and sees an ordinary man in an ordinary overcoat looking up at him. He steps back, bitterly disappointed. The dream is crushed. The dog with only one ear would do after all.
Simple. Heartbreaking in many ways. I wondered many times if the story came from real life, it had that honest feel. Simply written, simply expressed. That story has stayed with me.
I edited an anthology called In The Darkness. One of the stories which came in had the same effect, it won’t leave me. Sadly for me, the author never responded to emails and requests to sign a contract, so I couldn’t use it. It makes no difference in some ways, I’ve read the story; I won’t forget it. I just wish I could have shared it with the world.
Ray Bradbury’s short stories live with me. The October Country is one of the finest collections of brooding poetic horror stories I have read. I know them all and love them all.
Will you write stories that live in people’s minds? It should be your aim, for no one wants to expend all that time, energy and inspiration on something that is immediately forgotten once the eyes have travelled over the page.
There’s a whole section coming up on creating vivid realistic characters, you’ll need to learn to do this to make your story outstanding - but they need a good story to live in. So, because some people find it hard to garner ideas, I’ve added an appendix of 75 story ideas as a small gift. Really, though, the best stories are the ones you find by watching, thinking, watching and dreaming. The main question always is ‘what if’, that’s the one that leads you into the by-ways of a story.
Short stories are a snapshot of life; a novel is the whole life. That’s a fairly simple way of describing the difference. Short stories can start at 6 words:-

EXTRACT FOR
How Many Miles To Babylon

(Dorothy Davies)


In the Beginning

The first thing, always, to say to a wannabe writer is: it isn’t easy. It looks it, just throwing the words at the screen; see how they fall, arrange them into something resembling paragraphs, send it off and make a fortune.
Come with me; let’s see where we can go with this. If I repeat myself, it’s in an effort to ensure the message gets through. There are a lot of highly talented writers out there who are failing at the first fence through simple lack of application to the craft and/or a huge ego that says, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong and if I want to litter my work with OTT language and sex scenes, I will - see you at the Awards Ceremony.’ Somehow I don’t think so…

***

Writing is a craft that has to be learned.
This book is meant to show you the pitfalls and help you make your MS acceptable to the first real reader you have, outside of your beta readers, that is. (You can discount family who should never be allowed to read your work until it is in print. Because… they all say it’s wonderful when it often isn’t and you get inflated ideas of how good it is and become bitterly disappointed when the editor sends it back only part read. It happens…)
This advice is given by someone who has been writing all her life, been paid for it for the last 35 years and counting and who has been editing professionally for 20+ years.
I have a whole stack of anthologies to my name and you should be aware that one of them, Comes the Night, was selected for Best Horror 4 by Ellen Datlow. It doesn’t come better than that. I knew what I was looking for when it came to quality work to put into any anthology I edited. I made up my mind that Thirteen Press titles were to be the best and worked at getting the standards to the point when sales were guaranteed by the sheer quality of YOUR work. You benefited from that as well as Thirteen Press and Horrified Press who hold the imprint.
I’m not the sweet and sugary type, not going to tell people that with a few stories accepted they’re on their way to the big time, but equally I’m not the kind of editor who normally sends stories back without saying why. This upsets some people but that’s their ego getting in the way. They’re in the group who think they have nothing to learn when in fact all writers are learning all the time.
I’m asking you to accept this book as me trying to push you in the right direction to have acceptances instead of rejections, to feel good about the writing, to know you can make it.
If that’s all right with you, let’s get into the whole business of writing, shall we?

***

So… what’s the secret of success and how do you go about getting there?
The first thing is… accepting that writing is an apprenticeship that never ends. We all learn all the time, how to craft the story, create the characters, make every word count, write to tight word limits (stories and articles) find catchy/interesting/attention-grabbing titles, conjure scenarios that are believable (no logic slip-ups) have a story which holds the reader’s attention from beginning to end and all this done in a writing style that is entirely your own.
The second thing is… none of this comes in a hurry. No artist ever created a masterpiece first time they picked up a brush, no composer wrote a symphony first time out. It’s practice and more practice. My first efforts at writing were rejected. I tried writing something for a correspondence course and had it torn to pieces. I almost gave up but something made me keep right on writing. Slowly but surely the rejections changed to acceptances; a good many of my stories appeared in fanzines, unpaid, a limited audience but acceptances for all that. It made the difference; it was the impetus I needed to keep on writing. When I began it was all typed, I worked on a Brother portable on the kitchen table for ages. When I wore that out, I bought an Adler, a solid piece of equipment that would withstand a bomb blast, I’m sure it would and on that I wrote my first to-be-published YA novel.
It took eleven years for it to find a publisher. I’m telling you this is to emphasise that none of this comes in a hurry. After eleven years, umpteen retypes and a lot of abortive submissions to agents and publishers, an agent placed the book with Bodley Head. It was published - it sank like a stone. We’re going back before the age of the Internet so there was no marketing I could do. Bodley Head didn’t allocate money for publicity, advertisements and the like, so the poor little book slid into oblivion after all my efforts and all my years of trying.
Bodley Head, though, said they were happy with it and did I have another book? I did. I outlined it, another YA book, starting in 495 AD and ending in 1995 AD, every chapter separate, every one linked to the one before and the one after, the theme, First Love. They said it couldn’t be done. So I did it. It was accepted, a development fee was paid for me to alter this and revise that, which I did. And it was dropped.
Now comes something you need to think about when you’re writing. A book is never finished. I sent that novel to a critique agency and got back pages of advice on how to make it better.
A book was accepted by one of the Big Names in the business and a critique company found goodness knows how many ways I could make it better. They were right, in every way they were right. They saw things a critical editor should have seen but didn’t. The revised book ‘Forever’ is online. Details at the end of this book if you’re interested…
The third thing is… you must never stop thinking writing. When you’re reading, dissect the story, the grammar, the metaphors; the dialogue tags, ask yourself why the story is holding your attention, why haven’t you dropped the book in at the nearest charity shop or book exchange or deleted it from your Kindle or whatever? What’s making you read on? Criticise the story in your head; is it draggy here and there, could it have been paced better? (The ‘story arc’ theory comes in here.) Could the characters have been better delineated? Was the balance of narrative and dialogue about right? These days, when I write, I hear my daughter saying ‘don’t give me the description; I don’t care what colour dress she’s wearing, give me the story!’ This is valid in many instances; some writers do tend to rely overmuch on background and description. So, think writing. Observe people. How do they walk, how do they talk to one another, using their hands, or flicking their hair or playing with buttons, jewellery, keys, whatever? Be a people watcher. Listen to conversations, note how people speak to one another. Is the dialogue that natural in the book you’re reading/writing? People don’t speak formally to one another unless they’re perfect strangers and even then they’re likely to lapse into the occasional ‘haven’t’ rather than ‘have not.’ Formality is the death of many a story.
If you google Ray Bradbury, the greatest influence when I began writing and surely one of the finest horror/SF/fantasy writers of our time, you will find his lecture to young authors. It’s full of worthwhile advice. That link, along with others that might be of help to you, is at the end of this book.
Among the points he makes he says, read a short story every day and a poem every day. The reading is the important part. You need to read short stories to write short stories. It’s an art form in itself. Creating an entire scenario, background, characters and storyline in the limited space given by a short story is something you need to read to understand and then try for yourself.
If you can write good short stories, then you’re on your way to writing good novels. The one always leads to the other, says me anyway. It’s just that you get more space with a novel to expand your background, characters and storyline…
The poem helps you to think poetically. Sometimes metaphors can be a bit dull, reading poetry for its rhythm and sense can help you find the right words you need. I read John Drinkwater poems all the time, it’s where I find my titles (more on titles later) and where I lose myself in the wonderful rhythmic patterns he creates. I was also fortunate enough to have a poem sent to me every day by Ken L Jones, poet, writer and friend.
Now go find your stories and poems…


Storytelling

A radio programme on second-hand bookshops included the presenter discussing with a book shop owner the fact that people still came in to buy books by the old authors; Warwick Deeping was one he named. (I love his books.) "They want the old storytellers," he said and they do. Catherine Cookson, for example, sold millions, even though to all intents and purposes she was telling the same old story over and over. Because - each time it came out new and fresh. She was a story-teller, first and foremost.
I recently re-acquired a book I knew and loved in my teens. The question was; would it stand up to today's cynical reading? It turned out to be as compelling a read now as when I read it before. It bears out my theory. Agnes Sligh Turnbull has the ability (still) to make me turn the page, even though I knew what was to come.
My other favourite read-over-and-over-again authors are Howard Spring, who can evoke both Cornwall and characters in a way no one else has ever been able to do - for me, Nevil Shute who can get even non-technical me involved in aircraft, design and the flying thereof because of the stories he weaves around the facts; R F Delderfield whose large, complex books are crammed with characters which come alive even now, many years after his death, and every book by Ray Bradbury. When I tire of modern writers with their sharp sentences and glitzy settings, I go back to the old storytellers, the ones who could take their time and spin out a description and can still - even after many readings - make me weep over a death.
And yes, I have read every Warwick Deeping I could find.
Also on my ‘read countless times’ shelves are RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, H de Vere Stacpoole’s The Blue Lagoon, Peter S Beagle’s A Fine And Private Place and the entire works of Charles Dickens. Then there is the whole of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, plus The Stand and 11.22.63. He too is a master storyteller. The remainder of his books are in my Kindle.
Any books on writing will tell you how to write, (sort of, everyone has different ideas) how to set out a manuscript and how to present it properly for your publisher. Articles will tell you about grammar and characterisation, viewpoint and using flashback. These are all essential, but they can't tell you the one thing you need more than anything else - a story.
Before anything else then, consider your plotline. Does it demand the reader turn the pages to find out what is going to happen next? Is your background so vivid it leaps from the page - paints pictures for your reader? Did the story move you when you wrote it, or was it a cold clinical exercise of words on paper? If that’s the case, it’s likely they won't move your reader, either. While it’s true that the reader can’t tell the difference between a page laboured over and one written swiftly, they can tell the difference between a piece written with emotion and one without. If you don't care about your characters, why should your reader?
Find yourself a good strong storyline, one which says something to the world. Then care about your characters, care about them deeply and honestly, portray them and their background, to the best of your ability.
And then perhaps the old art of storytelling, one which comes from early campfires and men in caves to today's hi-tech wizardry, will be back in our lives.
Won't that be wonderful?
What I want to do is guide you through some of the maze that is storytelling, so you reach the centre and the prize without calling for help from the maze builders…

The builders of Babylon can’t help, this is a journey you have to make on your own but don’t worry; I’m here for a while, at least as long as you’re reading my book.


Short Stories

How to…

Let’s consider short stories first.
Many years ago – and I do mean many – I used to buy a magazine called John O’London’s and read it on the train commuting to and from the City of London, where I worked. They ran a competition, as most magazines do.
The prize winning story has never left me. I cannot remember the author or the title but the storyline…
A young boy is waiting for his father to return home from the war. His mother has told him many times that his father is a hero, he has decorations; he is a great man. The boy looks at pictures of ancient Romans with their laurels and thinks that’s how his father’s going to look when he comes. He is busy rushing around looking for a gift for this great man, this hero, when he sees his favourite china dog. In his rush to wrap it, he drops it and an ear is broken off. At that moment he hears his mother calling ‘Your father’s here!” He rushes to the window.… and sees an ordinary man in an ordinary overcoat looking up at him. He steps back, bitterly disappointed. The dream is crushed. The dog with only one ear would do after all.
Simple. Heartbreaking in many ways. I wondered many times if the story came from real life, it had that honest feel. Simply written, simply expressed. That story has stayed with me.
I edited an anthology called In The Darkness. One of the stories which came in had the same effect, it won’t leave me. Sadly for me, the author never responded to emails and requests to sign a contract, so I couldn’t use it. It makes no difference in some ways, I’ve read the story; I won’t forget it. I just wish I could have shared it with the world.
Ray Bradbury’s short stories live with me. The October Country is one of the finest collections of brooding poetic horror stories I have read. I know them all and love them all.
Will you write stories that live in people’s minds? It should be your aim, for no one wants to expend all that time, energy and inspiration on something that is immediately forgotten once the eyes have travelled over the page.
There’s a whole section coming up on creating vivid realistic characters, you’ll need to learn to do this to make your story outstanding - but they need a good story to live in. So, because some people find it hard to garner ideas, I’ve added an appendix of 75 story ideas as a small gift. Really, though, the best stories are the ones you find by watching, thinking, watching and dreaming. The main question always is ‘what if’, that’s the one that leads you into the by-ways of a story.
Short stories are a snapshot of life; a novel is the whole life. That’s a fairly simple way of describing the difference. Short stories can start at 6 words:-