The Challenge 2015

About this time last year, I set myself a challenge.

I had been talking with a writer friend of mine about what we considered our strengths and weaknesses and, as an upshot of that discussion, I ended up volunteering to do what was a rather daunting challenge: writing a poetry book, complete with illustrations, by November of last year.

The topic was the First World War and the challenge was to complete the book in time for the centenary celebrations.

As a result of this contest, Grey Skies and Broken Branches has been available to download on Kindle for just over half a year now and, to date, the reviews have been largely positive.

Which leads me to the topic of my latest post.

I have recently been overwhelmed by the great reviews and feedback for my first released short story, Dressed to Deceive, which won the Inkitt Fated Paradox Competition earlier this month. In fact, the reception for this rather dark and eery tale has been so large that my fan base has rapidly grown over the past few weeks with more people subscribing to my blog or newsletter, eager to find out what I am working on at the moment.

And yet, as the more astute of you may have noticed, I have been pretty absent from the blogosphere in the last couple of weeks. I haven’t been able to post as often as I’d like and my writing has somewhat grounded to a halt in recent days. The reason for this sudden stop is not, as some of you may already have ventured, writer’s block – on the contrary, my brain is positively teeming with ideas at the moment. No, the reason for the halt in my creative productivity is simply because I ran out of energy.

There you have it – I basically needed a holiday.

Now, in reaction to me saying this before, some of my more vocal writing friends decided to use the old, ‘you must write everyday if you want to be a good writer’ line. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of why this statement is flawed, but what I will do is put the act of writing in the context of a job. That is the goal, isn’t it? Everyone wants to be able to make a living out of their writing. And, as with all jobs, there are good points and bad points and every so often you need a holiday so…

Nick’s tip of the week: taking time out from writing is not necessarily a bad thing.

Just make sure that you have a plan for when you are going to start again and that you stick to it, just like you would when you go back to work after a holiday.

Now, the main event:

I have set myself another challenge, not too dissimilar from the one I set last year but with one key difference: it’s going to take place over a longer period of time.

This time I am challenging myself to write one crime short story every month for a year. The resulting twelve short stories will then be put together (along with Dressed to Deceive) to create my first collection of short stories and will be released online.

Beyond that, the rules are pretty fluid. If I wish, I can send these shorts off to magazines and webzines for publishing or I can release them for free online. As long as I have thirteen of them by August 2016, then I complete the challenge. However, I can’t simply edit a story and use that as one of the thirteen – although I can rework a story to use old characters or plots if I can justify it.

Will I be successful? If the last challenge is anything to go by I hope so. So, please keep up to date with the developments and feel free to hold my to account if I look like I’m not keeping to the challenge. Stay tuned for the latest stories that I’ll be entering into the challenge.

It’s going to be a fun year….

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How to Decide if a Bad Review is Worth Your Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about reviews lately. For a writer, reviews are extremely powerful things.

Get a great review from the right person and your confidence will soar and the readers will come flooding in.

Get a negative review from the wrong person and your ego will collapse and you may decide to never write another story ever again.

Notice how I said from the wrong person.

Getting a negative review is no bad thing; in fact it is something that I heartily encourage you to seek out. Sooner or later, no matter how good you are, someone will have something bad to say about your work – the longer it takes for you to reach the moment, the harder you will end up falling.

There will be some of you who may already have quite a hardened shell when it comes to negativity. Whether it is articles you have submitted to magazines, or hunting down a literary agent, you would have doubtlessly received one of those standardised rejection letters and felt that familiar pang of anxiety and sadness upon its arrival. A friend of mine maintains that he has received so many rejection letters in his time that he could quite happily redecorate his house with them, and yet he is a successful writer himself.

As for me, I have received enough rejections in my time to treat my work a fair amount of distance. Even when I sent in my entry to the Fated Paradox competition, I did so with no expectations of winning. That mind-set made it all the better when it started gaining great reviews.

I talked about responding to negative reviews a few posts back. Shortly after posting that blog, I found out that my story had won the competition and, barely twenty-four hours after the official announcement, I had received a fairly negative review of my winning story.

The irony was not lost on me.

But, having learnt to deal with negative feedback to enough of an extent to write a blog post about it, I set about employing my own rules:

  1. Take time and distance before replying.
  2. Even negative reviews deserve thanks.
  3. Don’t assume your reviewer is stupid.
  4. Make them feel like they have made a difference.

It was during the careful construction of this response that a thought occurred to me.

What do you do if you receive a negative review with no constructive feedback at all?

Unfortunately, this does happen and more often than we would like to think. Sometimes you read a review that is so negative that you can’t find anything positive out of the whole thing. Maybe the reader just hated the concept. Maybe they didn’t like you’re writing style. Maybe they hated your main character.

These are all things that readers may have problems with but are, unfortunately, things you can do very little about unless you are willing to completely rip apart your story and start again. If every review you received were like that then I would say fair enough. But if the majority of your reviews were positive (bar the odd negative review) completely dismantling your work for the sake of one reviewer would be a potential insult to all the other readers who liked it.

It is these reviews that you have to be very careful of and I would even go so far as saying that whether or not you want to engage with such review writers is entirely personal to each individual. That is not to say you shouldn’t thank them for taking the time to write a review – all reviewers have spent time commenting on your work so the least you can do is thank them for it. But engaging them with any comment that might elicit some sort of response is something that you have to decide for yourself.

Basically, you have to decide for yourself whether you are dealing with a genuine reviewer, who is just so angry or annoyed that they can’t even put into words what they thought was wrong with your work, or the reviewing equivalent of an internet troll. It is not always easy to spot one of these people. If you are anything like me, a negative review has the potential to leave you very flustered and therefore unable to distinguish between these two types of negative reviewer.

That being said, I have got a useful little diagram that helps me decide whether a review is worth me worrying about and I would like to share it with you today. Whilst this diagram doesn’t necessarily help distinguish between trolls and genuine reviewers, it does help me quickly identify which reviews I can gain something from.

The rules are simple, if it’s green, I can learn something. If it’s red, there’s no point taking it to heart.

Enjoy peeps.

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From Zero to Hero – Why You should Never Give Up on a Rejected Story.

I’d been struggling to find something to talk about in the last few weeks. My brain has essentially been turning into mush over the past twenty odd days after doing countless hours of overtime and the thought of having to sit down to write something was not particularly appealing.

Naturally, having won the Fated Paradox Contest, I was eager to talk about my latest story, Dressed to Deceive. But trying to find a suitable topic was the one thing that eluded me…

Being a story that is set around the Jack the Ripper murders, I could have talked about the similarities between the history and my story and given that the story itself is steeped with facts that may well be something I actually do in the near future. I could have talked about what I think makes it a readable story or what my process was for writing it, which are again all things I could potentially write about.

But today, I decided to do something a little different and tell you about what happened after I finished writing the story (or at least after I first pitched the story). This for anyone who ever got rejected…

Dressed to Deceive was written with a specific publication in mind. An editor, who I had previously dealt with when writing a Professor Moriarty story, was on the look out for writers to weave some tales about Jack the Ripper for his next anthology. When I heard about this, I leapt on the opportunity – my first ever publication had been a history article about the wider impact of Jack the Ripper and I had been looking for an excuse to reuse the knowledge I had gained from it.

I emailed the editor and, after a bit of back and forthing, I pitched a story that I thought he would find interesting and like me to take further. Barely a few hours later, the editor replied telling me to go for it and I set about writing the story.

The process of writing and editing it took me a few months or so – not my fastest time but, in fairness to myself, I was slightly hampered by a house move in the middle of it. Finally, I got it to the position where I was happy enough to send it in and, for the next few weeks, I watched my email like a hawk, waiting for the response.

I don’t think I need to tell you what the response ended up being.

It was one of those standardised rejection letters that all authors hate getting but understand why it needs to be done. You know the type, the one that basically lists what might have been the problem with your work but, because the same email has been sent out to everyone, there is no indication for which part might apply to you.

I was heart broken.

The editor had been so interested when I pitched the story and yet here it was, about to be consigned to the scrap pile. Was it just badly written? Was it just not as good as the others? Was the storyline similar to one written by a well-known author who had been chosen over me because their name is more familiar?

I think we can all agree that not knowing is most frustrating part of the whole rejection process.

A few months passed.

I moved on to other things. Dressed to Deceive was in the past and, having read over it, I could understand why it didn’t quite make the cut. Time had added perspective and all the little problems that were hidden from me before were now brutally apparent. I had made another couple of edit runs on it, but I still couldn’t bring myself to resubmit it anywhere. There is something about stories that we write for specific publications or anthologies – when they get rejected, we feel some sort of loyalty, despite having little reason to. We are reluctant to send it anywhere else as we’d feel we were somehow betraying the publication we wrote it for despite the fact they rejected the story first…

Silly really…

And then I saw the Fated Paradox competition – a contest to discover new crime writing.

I had a couple of candidates that I could submit, but none of them were finished yet and I wasn’t ready to have them shot at until I was in a position where I was happy with them to start with. But Dressed to Deceive was a finished and, more importantly, was a story that had already been rejected once. The thought began to grow in my mind –

This time I might actually be able to find out what is wrong with it.

So I submitted it and spent the next week working hard to build up awareness of the story and drive people to the hosting site to check it out. I watched as it slowly climbed the popularity ladder. The story needed to be in the top 10% to go through to the final reading and when it finally got there I plugged it even more to make sure it stayed there.

It wasn’t the most popular story, not by a long shot, but it ended up receiving the most highly rated reviews that, in itself, was enough to boost my confidence once again. The announcement that it had won was just the icing on the cake…

So there it is, the story of Dressed to Deceive and how it very nearly ended up filed away in a box file for all eternity.

There is a moral to this story.

One rejection is not the be all and end all.

If something gets knocked down, pick it up again. You’ve put time and effort into creating that story – better still, you’ve given it love and attention. Don’t just give up on it because it has had one knock back because you might just have an award winner on your hands…

Happy writing peeps.

If you fancy checking out Dressed to Deceive, it is available to read online for free here.

The Five Senses of Writing

During all the reviews I have been writing for Indie short stories in the past two weeks, I have been amazed by the complete blasting the visual part of my brain has taken. Some of the descriptions of people and places have been absolutely astounding and by rights I should become fully immersed in these stories.

But I’m not.

What is equally astounding is how these writers, who can freely demonstrate their ability to write brilliantly, chose to completely ignore certain parts of our daily experience as humans. The end result is, as much as I would love to be taken in by such stories, I find myself standing at the side lines like a casual observer reading from a history book. They feel as though they are stories that are happening to someone else…

Not to me…

Let me explain.

Writers frequently fall into the trap of only talking about what people see and their emotions. Occasionally they talk about what they hear but, for the most part, this is usually only when something important happens or during a dialogue interchange.

But, as humans, we experience the world in five senses and it is very easy for a writer to completely ignore the senses of taste, touch and smell. I have even had conversations with some of the writers of the stories I’ve reviewed and they are insistent that they couldn’t possibly write about these senses too much because it would take away from the story.

So hear is my advice.

Read Patrick Suskind’s Perfume.

If you are in anyway a writer, you need to read this book to understand how a thriller story can be written with the emphasis on sense other than sight or sound. It’s fantastically written – you’ll have a great time with it.

In the meantime, here is a little experiment to show you how five senses can be blended into a single passage and the impact these can have on a scene (just for any of you think I’ve completely lost it this time). Think of this as a writer’s version of the Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten.

What do you make of it?

The Experiment

Sight

I pushed open the door, emerging into a dark room lit by a small red light in the corner. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness. The two men inside jerked their heads towards me; the first breathing heavily, the second rubbing his jaw with his hand.

Sound

I pushed open the door, emerging into a dark room lit by a small red light in the corner. There was a faint scuffle and the grunting stopped as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The two men inside jerked their heads towards me; the first breathing heavily, the second rubbing his jaw with his hand.

Touch

My fingers grasped hold of the ice-cold doorknob and turned. I pushed open the door, emerging into a dark room lit by a small red light in the corner. There was a faint scuffle and the grunting stopped as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The two men inside jerked their heads towards me; the first breathing heavily, the second rubbing his jaw with his hand.

Taste

My fingers grasped hold of the ice-cold doorknob and turned. I pushed open the door, emerging into a dark room lit by a small red light in the corner. For a moment, I thought I could taste something bitter in my mouth but I quickly forgot about it as I heard a faint scuffle and the grunting finally stopped. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see two men with their heads jerked towards me; the first breathing heavily, the second rubbing his jaw with his hand.

Think you have a good idea of what just happened? Obviously something not particularly nice as far as the narrator is concerned. Maybe there’s been a fight or he’s walked in on some sort of meeting to hatch a conspiracy. 

Now for the kicker…

Smell

My fingers grasped hold of the ice-cold doorknob and turned. I pushed open the door, emerging into a dark room lit by a small red light in the corner. My nostrils were bombarded with the faint aroma of sweat and sperm and, for a moment, I thought I could taste something bitter in my mouth but I quickly forgot about it as I heard a faint scuffle in the darkness and the grunting finally stopped. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see two men with their heads jerked towards me; the first breathing heavily, the second rubbing his jaw with his hand.

And there you have it folks. One sense has the power to completely change the meaning of a scene. Remember to utilise all five in your writing!

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A Year of Blogging and A Special Announcement

Today is a special day for me for three reasons. Firstly, by the time this post gets posted I will be enjoying the wedding of a good work colleague of mine. Secondly, it is precisely a year since my first ever footstep into the blogging world.

In my mind there is no better way of celebrating a year in the blogosphere than by announcing the third reason why today is a special day (although really it happened a day or two ago, I just haven’t had a chance to blog yet).

Some of you may be aware that I recently entered my short story, Dressed to Deceive, into Inkitt’s Fated Paradox competition. It is my very great pleasure to announce that I won that I not only won that competition but I also managed to gather a great deal of five star reviews to boot. Needless to say I shall be enjoying the rest of this weekend and will probably be heroically sloshed by the time you read this, but I didn’t want to do that without thanking everyone who read, reviewed and voted for my story. I’m eternally grateful for the time and effort you took to read it and I hope to entertain you with more dark and grizzly tales in the near future.

Dressed to Deceive is still available to read for free here if you fancy having a look.

But for now, back to my main post.

As I said before it has been a year today since I posted my first blog. To start with, I was very apprehensive. I wasn’t sure what blogging could possibly offer me that ranting at my friends didn’t solve. I wanted to share my knowledge, but was there really ever going to be anyone reading?

As it turns out there were. And a year on, 50 odd posts later, much ranting and a slight revamp, I am glad to say that I am heartily enjoying sharing my experiences with those of you willing to listen.

I would like to thank each of you for joining me on this journey, whether it was for one post or many, I would like to offer my respect and gratitude to those of you who barely batted an eyelid when I decided to drop the mantle of ‘Creative Jack of All Trades’ and focus on just my crime writing (for the sake of this blog at least) and finally I would like to offer my most sincerest thanks to those who repeatedly read my work, comment on it and like it. It for all of you that I keep on blogging and I shall be forever grateful to you all.

To celebrate the passing of my first year on the blogosphere here are my top posts of the last twelve months that I thought you might enjoy. Thank you all for reading!

Advice and News Blogs

1. Marketing in the world of Creativity

2. The Challenge

3. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Reasons why Writers should Write More Reviews

4. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Reviewing Rules

5. Why Novel Writers Should Read Short Stories When Editing

Creative Blogs

1. The Trees

2. The Queues

3. Charge

4. Waiting for Heaven

5. Paranoid

Top Tips For Responding to Bad Reviews

As some of you know, I’ve been actively reading and reviewing a lot of indie short stories in the past few weeks and have previously discussed why I think writers need to be reviewing other people’s work more.

Today, I’m going to quickly chat about the other side of the coin – how to respond to a bad review.

We can all be magnanimous when we get a positive review. In fact, if any of us have a problem it is with finding different ways of saying…

‘Thanks for taking the time to review it. Yes, I know I’m brilliant…’

But responding to a negative review is a very dangerous thing and should be approached very carefully and, to help you do this, here are my top tips for commenting on a particularly bad review.

1. Take some time and distance before replying

I get it, you’re really annoyed. You have just had a scathing review and your blood has boiled. You’re ready to leap on in to protect your honour and the integrity of your work. And that is precisely why you shouldn’t do it.

Always remember, you put your work up for public scrutiny, not the reviewer. No one said that everyone had to like your work and, just because this person doesn’t, you don’t have licence to vent any anger on them. Leave the review alone, take some time out – go for a walk, have a sleep do whatever to kill a few hours and then return to the review when you are feeling less annoyed by it all.

No one likes being on the receiving end of an angry author tirade at the best of times, least of all when they have taken time out to review your work…

2. Even Negative Reviews Deserve Thanks

Even if it is the worst review anyone has ever given a writer, always make sure you thank them. As I said before, they have taken time out to review your work and, regardless of how horrible the review was, they still deserve to be treated like every other reviewer. If you start getting a reputation of only thanking the reviewers who leave good reviews, you may find that potential readers may turn away from you.

3. Don’t assume your reviewer is stupid

This one happens more often than you’d think. A writer has written a great piece of work and a reviewer doesn’t seem to get it and leaves a bad review. The writer then launches into an explanation about how they intended such and such but manages to do it in such a way that implies that the reviewer isn’t intelligent enough to know that..

That may be what you feel like doing, but don’t do it. It doesn’t help anyone. I have seen so many writers lose a lot of street cred for doing that to reviewer; I have even seen instances where the reviewer turned out to be a top university English Professor that (as a casual observer to the back and forthing of the comments) was painful to watch. I have even seen an instance where a writer tried to counter a reviewer comment by saying that she reads her story aloud because that is the only way to know if the sentence structure worked – what she didn’t expect was for the reviewer to go ahead and read the whole thing out loud and then report back. Unfortunately for her, by reading it back out loud the reviewer found that it made the sentence structure even worse…

The point is (no matter how clever you think you are) don’t assume that a reviewer is stupid because they didn’t get it. Once again, they have taken their time to give you a review – they don’t deserve to be treated like an idiot in return.

4. Make them feel like they’ve made a difference

A large amount of reviewers are genuinely trying to help. They are not saying things just to annoy you, they are responding to a piece of work that you have written.

I always like to think of reviewers this way…

If they have written a review and they obviously didn’t like it, we should be grateful that they not only got to the end of the work but also then gave time to write about it. Ultimately, they have had to suffer reading a work that they didn’t like and, despite this, they then put their experiences to paper. The least we can do as writers is to thank them by suggesting that we will be looking into the issues they raised for our next project (even if you have no intention of doing so). That one idea that the reviewer might have made a difference may be all they need to compel them to buy your next novel or story, even if they absolutely loathed the one they reviewed.

Always remember peeps, what you do in public all contributes to your marketing of the next project. If you alienate a reviewer over a bad review that is one person you can guarantee won’t read your next piece. If you treat them with professionalism and kindness even the biggest hater might be tempted to read stuff from you again…

Just a thought…

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Why Novel Writers Should Read Short Stories When Editing

Today I read a blog post about a writer who reads 365 short stories a year and it got me thinking about how short stories affect our writing. In the post, the author basically explains that, by reading one short story, a writer can effectively create a daily habit, which allows them to read a whole plot in a short period of time and, therefore, build up our own understanding of how to write fiction.

I’m not going to dispute this; the logic itself is completely right. If the best writers are the best readers then reading one short story a day will almost certainly have a greater impact on your ability to write than if you read one novel a week. In that week time period you would have experienced seven different writer’s styles and stories instead of the one you would get from the novel.

That being said, I think it goes a little deeper than that. As the writer of the post quite rightly says, a short story is not like the novel as you have a vastly shorter amount of time to get the story across. The plot has to be tight, the characters believable, the environment realistic – and all of this has to come across in a matter of a couple of thousand words at best.

And this is precisely why I think writers should be reading more short stories, not necessarily once a day all year round as suggested (although I can see the value of taking such a course) but at least once a day during the editing process for your novel.

As those of you who have been following my blog posts lately will know, I am a massive advocate for the editing process. As far as I’m concerned, too many authors skip the editing process or don’t give it its due care and attention in the belief that editing is the job of some publishing house stooge and has nothing to do with creativity. Editing is the most important part of writing and those who treat it with less devotion than they do to the story crafting part do so at their peril.

But why do I advocate reading more short stories when editing a novel? Surely if a novel is 70,000 words plus, there is little you can draw from reading short stories that will help you, right?

In a way that is true, but in a much bigger and more accurate way it isn’t. In my experience the act of editing is about three things: subtraction, transformation and addition. One of the first jobs of the editing writer is to be absolutely brutal with their work; carving out all of the unnecessary parts of the story that just slow everything down and doing away with all those awkward phrases that just make the whole thing read as a disjointed mess. Only after that can we start to transform and add to the phrases and passages that remain to make a coherent and flowing story.

Reading short stories is a great way to teach yourself how to do this. Short stories, by their very nature, are slim lined, trimmed and lacking excess weight. By reading them, we learn exactly how to make an engaging storyline with only a few words which means, when we return to our bulky novel, we can see precisely what we need to do to get rid of any extraneous bits.

Now I’m not suggesting that you should be as brutal with your prized novel as you would be with a short story – after all, if you remove all the fat from your novel you would eventually just end up with a short story which isn’t the purpose of the exercise. What I am saying is that reading short stories whilst you’re editing will get your mind in gear and will allow you to look beyond your work of art that you have just poured your soul into and spot the areas where we need to take a carving knife to it.

Everybody has a passage in their novel that they love to bits but we know isn’t really needed in the story. What reading short stories will teach you is how truly pointless that lovable passage is and encourage you to take the hard choice.

So when you next have a book to edit, try picking up one short story a you’re your novel will be that much better for it.

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