Is your fiction just fiction, or is it based in truth?

Truth

It’s fun reading some of the questions that come in from this site, usually from writers starting off: maybe they have a rough idea of the novel or screenplay they want to write. Maybe they’re halfway through and for whatever reason something is not quite sticking. I’m really sorry I don’t reply to them all individually, but I’m grateful for these messages. Not least of all because it’s useful to see where people are struggling, and what universal problems people have.

On more than one occasion now I’ve been asked about the overall importance of the story. That is to say, whether a story should always be speaking some higher truth. And with that, a few times now, I’ve been asked if the fictional stories I write talk about things I really believe in. Whether or not there is a higher, ethical message contained in the story. Or some simple propaganda that I’d like to release into the world.

Am I using my trashy thrillers to convey some “higher truths”? Well, you know, I think it’s important not to overthink this kind of thing. To say your story either has to be a didactic sermon in disguise or that it has to run a mile from that, is a false dichotomy.

Yes, many of the things I write are things I believe in and would stand by. They have to be based in some part around the way I feel humans think and act – rightly or wrongly – because I’m trying to create a world for the reader. It’s hard to do that if you don’t believe in some of the premise in the first place.

But if every character was a mere mouthpiece for my views, biases and perspectives, that would not be an interesting story. Everyone in the story would be a cardboard cutout, with no “life” or independent action. When I’m fleshing my story out, the choices and words that they come up with should be a delight and surprise for me too. That’s how I know it’s working.

A book where I’m in total conscious control, and I’m trying to dictate every specific detail, where it all has to confirm to my narrow view of the world? Well, I wouldn’t want to read that book. And if I wouldn’t want to read it, why would anybody else?

Why I don’t keep notes on my story ideas

If you don’t keep a notepad by your side at all times, are you even a proper writer? Well, I don’t, so maybe I’m not.

It’s a romantic image though isn’t it? A writer, with a notepad by his or her bedside, ready for when they get a sudden surge of inspiration in the night that they just have to get down.

Don’t get me wrong, I used to have a notepad like this. But honestly, most of the stuff I wrote was nonsense. When you’re half-asleep, something which sounds like genius to you is clearly utter gumph when you wake up in the morning. We’ve all had it: “What on earth was that supposed to mean?” I’ve done this more times that I care to admit.

And you see, there’s a bigger problem for me when it comes to keeping notes. Once you’ve had an idea, and it just stays in your head, it either stays or goes. It has to earn its place. But when you make a note of everything, you’ve already committed to having an idea forensically looked at. You’ve already decided that you have to give it some dedicated time, even if you just dismiss it later.

Stephen King famously called a notebook a repository for bad ideas, and sadly I agree with him.

But what about you? Do you cling onto your notebook with a passion? Would it be tough to pry it from your cold dead hands?

Whatever works, I guess!

Writing drama for radio

This might be a medium for you, or it might not be. I’ve been working in the radio business for my whole career pretty much, so this resonates with me. Either way, I thought this short film by the BBC Radio Drama North Team might be of interest, especially if you’ve ever wanted to try out writing for radio drama. It’s a really exciting medium.

Some ways to avoid procrastination

do it - procrastination conceptHappy New Year! Blimey, 2021? I’m still of the opinion that 2020 is in the far-flung future, so goodness knows how I’m going to get my head around that fact we’re now well into the 2020s.

Yes, it’s the New Year, and so it’s time to start writing that novel you’ve been forming in your head all year. But ask yourself this – and then answer it honestly – do you think that procrastination will hold you back? Is it a worry about it not being perfect, about the circumstances in which you write not being exactly what you’d like? How can you get over this mentality and embrace the writing, so that 2021 is the year of your next fantastic piece of work?

Well, you know I don’t like writing rules, but I’m always full of suggestions. And here’s a few. Maybe they’ll help you in terms of mindset?

  • Don’t let procrastination hold you back. Just refuse to give in to it. Force yourself through those difficult parts. Don’t give up the second it gets a little tricky. If what’s coming out is garbage, well, just keep writing anyway. A voice in your head will say: “Stop, this is crap. You’ll only have to go back and delete it anyway.” Ignore it. Keep writing. Don’t overthink. Don’t really think at all. After a while it won’t be a laboured, mechanical thing. The words will flow again. And as I’ve mentioned before, while what you’re writing might feel like crap as you’re doing it, after you’ve finished, taken a break, and maybe gone back to have a look the next day, you’ll be surprised how good some of what you wrote was. Seriously; this is often when you’ll write some of your best work. I know that sounds nuts, but it’s true. Don’t fear that unwillingness to write. Just push through it. And know that what comes out the other end might be really special.
  • Set some easily achievable goals. Just simple things. Finish that scene today. Close out that chapter. Even if what you’re writing is far-from perfect, just set the goal and deliver. Keep moving forward.
  • Use incentives. Silly things work well. You’re totally gonna eat that chocolate bar. But only after you finish this chapter.
  • Take away distractions. Easier said than done in some situations, with family, etc. I know it can be tough. But if you can, try and put aside everything else you need to do that day. Just for an hour. You’ll thank yourself for it if you can.
  • Set deadlines. You’re going to write one chapter/scene/500 words every day this week. Even if it’s all crap. So the week-long deadline is 7 chapters/scenes/3,500 words. That’s the baseline. Can you beat it? Gamification can work here.

Once you start to work like this, it can be addictive as well as productive. You’ll get to know how good it feels to tick off these lists. Yes, you might not want to start the work, but the spark that will get you off and keep you going, is knowing how good it feels to finish want you wanted to achieve that day. To tick that thing off the list. Get it done, and then enjoy the rest of your day.

So it’s 2021. Get started. Then keep at it. And good luck. You got this.

Have a merry little Christmas

Just wanted to share with you a short film I was in.

A little quirky, but festive. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

Building a world in your book

5C92BC89-929B-4996-AC80-38B9D05D586FJust a short one from me: a few people reading my August post brought up my use of the phrase “building a world” (or whatever I said) when crafting the theme of a story. How do you do this in a believable way, that audiences buy into and so forth.

Well, that’s a huge topic, one I’m certainly not qualified to go into depth on, but here’s a few observations I have on the matter. Maybe you have some better ideas. If so, I’d love to hear them.

I think for many writers, world-building is something that happens naturally. Especially if you’re writing something set today. And there’s not too much worry about something set in the past – even long past. If we know the date, and we know the location, we’ll have a rough idea of what things were like then. You can write away without too much stress. The challenge is for stories set in the future, a parallel universe, or a total fantasy setting. And the hardest challenge as I see it is one of exposition.

If you’re a fantasy or Science fiction writer, you’ll be all-too-keenly aware that you will have to build a world to set your story in. This won’t be a world that your audience will know innately, so you will have to explain it.

The real challenge with this, is to be able to still write in a contemporaneous fashion. That is to say, how do you explain all this without exhaustive and boring exposition? How to you tell your audience what they need to know with brevity and ease, so you can get right on with telling your story?

Any time spent pausing to explain the intricate – if necessary – details about the world you’re creating, can slow your story down and take people out of the plot. I don’t have any specific tips to deal with this, except to say that I would only recommend explaining things in as sparse a way as possible, and to do so only at the exact point it’s needed. Don’t start every scene or chapter explaining the location you’re now in, and why it’s different and how everything works. Just start it like you would anything else, and as an important element crops up, give us the detail then: briefly, and simply. Don’t let “good grammar” get in the way. Single word sentences might work? Just paint the picture in broad strokes. Your audience’s minds will fill all the blanks. Ask yourself: “Do they really need to know everything I’ve just written here? And do they need to know it now?”

Anything about the world you’re creating that isn’t an absolutely necessary could probably be left out. That way, you’re allowing your readers to fill the void all by themselves, which can be much more satisfying.

But yeah, it’s tricky, regardless!

Using a pen name

878F7035-4FE2-46E7-9AF1-CF51D18D4E58When you write books – if you write books – do you use a pen name?

I’ve got to admit, it’s something I hadn’t even thought of, until last year. I had the privilege of speaking to a highly successful literary agent. I haven’t asked her permission to identify her, and frankly it doesn’t matter for the purposes of what I’m writing here. Suffice to say she represents some of the biggest names in fiction, It was a fascinating discussion, and her advice has been really helpful for me.

But one area she highlighted to me was about using a pen name, and whether or not you should. Her advice to me was I should. Despite the back-catalogue of work I have.

If you’ve got a fun, interesting name, why not stick with what you have?

That’s the problem for me. Andy Jones is pretty boring. And while I’ve been writing books for years, there’s a much more successful (and I’d argue, more talented) chap with exactly the same name. Now don’t get me wrong: in many respects, that’s an advantage. I’m sure many copies of my books have been purchased by people who thought I was the “other” Andy Jones. Hopefully some of them enjoyed what they were reading that it didn’t matter, and they even were then inclined to try some of my others. I had a lovely email about two years ago from someone who bought my book Everything in Seven Stories thinking it was by the other Andy Jones. But they loved it, and started looking into my back-catalogue and ended up buying a couple other pieces by me, including Succession of Power. Win.

Though is it really a win? It sort of feels like cheating to me.

And this agent’s insight into how an author’s name can affect who chooses to buy a book (and who doesn’t), really turned things on their head for me.

She told me some things that might be of interest to you. They were to me, and it’s why for my new book, I used My new pen name. And I’m sticking with it from now on. It’s a decision I have not made lightly. But I’ve made it.

Firstly, she said I should keep the name simple. Is it easy to say the name? Is it easy to spell? Are you going to be easy to search for?

Secondly, is it uncommon and therefore interesting? This question might contradict the first, but think about it this way: Is there a name that’s simple, but no one else in the literary world is using?

Thirdly, is it nice to say? Is it maybe alliterative, or pleasant in some other way? Is the first name just initials, or something that doesn’t directly indicate whether the author is a man or woman? Apparently that’s advantageous too.

And finally, is the surname one of the first six letters of the alphabet? A, B, C, D, E, or F? Why does this matter? Well, when you’re browsing in a bookstore (or even online), you might be doing so alphabetically, if you’re not just browsing the “top sellers” lists. So, for example, let’s say you’re in a bookstore, browsing along the romantic fiction section. The books are going to be listed in alphabetical order, by the author’s surname. You’ll look at the As, the Bs, the C’s and the D’s happily. But you’ll start to get bored by the Es, and the Fs will often be the last ones you look at before moving on. Believe it or not, this “retail truth” as been tested by publishers and booksellers.

Do you need a pen name? Absolutely not. Should you consider one? Maybe. Just maybe.

NEW BOOK: Back in the Shadows

It’s done. My new book is here. I wrote it back in 2019, but it’s been up and down with a literary agent and publisher for quite a while before I decided to just release it myself. I want it “out there” far more than I want any sort of deal right now, so that will all have to wait, if it happens at all.

But yes, here it is, my new novel, Back in the Shadows.

You might notice that it’s not my name on the top. Well, that’s still me. I’ll write more about this at a later date, but I’ve had some really valuable advice from the above-mentioned literary agent, regarding the reasons people pick pen-names and the sort of name to consider. I took one that ticked many of these boxes, and I’m actually quite happy with it. It’ll separate it from the rest of my previous work, but Drew David is what I’ll be using for new novels.

I had the idea for this story as I started writing Succession of Power, and it’s just stuck with me for some time. In a strange way, it’s ended up being one of the most personal pieces I’ve ever written on some level. Again I’m sure I’ll explore that point at a later date.

Anyway, it’s yet another labour of love, so I hope you’ll enjoy it. You can see more at my store here, or if you’d rather dive straight into Amazon, the US site is stocking it, as is the UK site – and most of the others around the world, in both paperback and ebook form.

Enjoy!

Andy

The value of theme

close-up-of-eyeglasses-on-book-336407It’s not always an obvious question to answer, particularly if you’re new to novel-writing: What’s the theme of the book? Yes, you have a story, of course. That’s probably been the big thing you’ve been concentrating on. But how much time have you spent thinking about theme?

I’ve described theme in the past as the answer to a follow-up question: Firstly, someone asks you what your novel is about. You answer. That’s usually the plot. But the follow-up question is “Yeah, but what is it REALLY about?” The answer to that question is theme.

I don’t want to offer any advice that stifles your creativity. Especially in the first draft phase of writing a novel. That’s the delicate moment, when you just want to let the words flow. Get it out there, on paper (or more typically these days, on screen). Don’t try and overthink anything. There’s a strong chance – if you’re any good – that you want to tell this story for a reason, and maybe it’s best that you don’t overthink it at first.

As you write, the world you’re creating will start to form. And as you put your protagonist and other characters through their paces, that world will take shape and before more real, more tangible.

Once it’s clear you can see your characters and the world you’ve built around them – possibly after you’ve written that first draft – I reckon it’s worth thinking THEN what the theme is. What were you REALLY thinking as you were writing? It can involve a lot of soul-searching. Difficult questions about yourself might need to be asked. What were you trying to say, underneath it all? And – if you dare ask – why?

I would suggest that upon making a discovery in this area, the worst thing you can do is go back into your subsequent drafts and start shoehorning more indications of the theme in your work. Audiences are smarter than you think. They’ll pick it up. You don’t need to signpost. And if they don’t pick it up, they’re not the sort of audience who care much about it anyway, so don’t worry.

So sure, go back into your second, third, forth drafts. Tighten up. Think about theme, and where it needs to be more effectively demonstrated. Be creative. But please, try to dial it back. Make it subtle.

The difference now as you re-work the book is that you know a theme is there. And knowing what the theme is can help inform your best creative decisions and as you re-draft and re-write and finalise your work, you can seriously elevate the quality of what you’re creating.

The best novels all have solid, thought-provoking themes. But I personally think for contemporary work, it’s crucial not to be too heavy-handed. No one wants the theme to be too didactic and on-the-nose. Don’t clobber your reader over the head with it.

And seriously, don’t think about this stuff too much. Especially in the early stages. Just fire up that laptop or whatever, get out there, and write something amazing. Good luck!

Self-publish or traditional?

book-printing-communication-font-font-composing-room-37413There will always be people who look down their noses at self-publishing. And that attitude can be perfectly understandable. I think most people would prefer the validation that comes from getting a publisher in a traditional way. If a publisher has picked novel to produce – out of the tens of thousands out there – it’s a way of saying your work has some merit. Readers like the traditional route too. Someone has acted as a gatekeeper in advance, and already selected the wheat from the chaff, and curated what they think to be the best work out there.

But just because you can’t get a traditional publisher, it doesn’t mean that your work is bad. The sheer amount of manuscripts and submissions publishers get every year means that a whole lot of solid wheat gets thrown out with that chaff. It’s impossible to preserve everything that’s good. And how do we even define “good” in the first place? But that’s probably a question for another day.

Most people would like the validation that comes with getting a publisher in the traditional way, but given the competition, that is far from easy. And before the modern self-publishing revolution, the ratio of what’s written to what’s chosen by publishers meant that thousands of stories and ideas were left in a drawer, never to see the light of day. There’s something quite sad about that. I wonder how many real gems were lost among the garbage?

Yes, the old way of doing things meant that some great stuff would never be published. And back in the 80s, 90s, etc., self-publishing was a very expensive business. There were no real ebook models, and print-on-demand was just a twinkle in its creator’s eye. The only way to self-publish, was to get a load of copies printed yourself, with huge risk and upfront cost.

But, to steal the title of a Bob Dylan song, The Times They Are A-Changin’. And overall, for the better. Easy self-publishing using ebooks or print-on-demand services means it’s never been easier – or cheaper – to get your work out there, regardless of what the “gatekeepers” of the publishing world make of it.

Also, if you do it yourself and your work is really popular, (it’ll be for sale in many of the same outlets the “traditional” stuff is sold in), there’s every chance you could get noticed and picked up by a traditional publisher anyway! But of course, that means there’s also a hell of drivel out there now too. And competition has never been higher. But on balance, this is a good thing, and it means something positive for us all.

It means that while everyone has always had a voice, everyone now also has a platform. On balance, I think that’s a good thing.