Tag Archives: writing

Spotting the hidden message

Someone one said they were a huge fan of the Narnia books until they realised they were Christian allegory, and then they felt cheated. I’ve never found a theme or message so intrusive that it blocks my enjoyment of the story, and in this case – John Scalzi’s “Collapsing Empire” trilogy”, I have come to realise that I completely missed the really, really obvious real-life parallel that can be drawn to the books’ plot.

In this excellent set of books, the Interdependency is a group of systems occupied by humans that have been deliberately set up to rely on one another for survival. Only one of the systems actually has a planet for people to live on – the others are comprised of space habitats, or are built into the surface of rocky airless moons. The reliance on one another for trade, for the essentials of life is supposed to be a means of preventing war between the systems, but is eventually revealed to be a simple power grab by a small group of families who set themselves up with trade monopolies and become the “Noble Houses”.

The plot is that the method of travel between the systems – the Flow – suddenly begins to break down. Travel and trade between the systems is threatened, and the new, unexpected leader (called Emperox) of the Interdependency has to try and find a way to preserve as many lives as possible. Can they move everyone to the one planet, where the air won’t run out, or the mechanics fail? Of course, it’s not that simple. Cardenia, the Emperox, is under attack from the moment she takes the throne. Other people want her power, and even when presented with the evidence that the end is coming, they are more concerned with preserving their wealth, their way of life, than they are with saving humanity. The people aren’t important, or at least, not as important as them having their position at the top of society preserved for a long as possible.

You can see from the picture that my two paperbacks are a bit ratty, but the truth is I have listened to all three books on audio many times. They’re read by Wil Wheaton, and he does a terrific job, as usual. But each time I have listened and been outraged by the short-sightedness of the Noble Houses, irritated by the posturing and maneuvering, the blatant self-interest that fritters away the time the Interdependency has to respond to this crisis.

And this time, listening to the first two books on the SkyTrain into work, I finally got it.

This is us. We’re barrelling towards that 1.5C temperature increase that we were warned about a decade ago. The sea waters are ALREADY rising. My own country now has a wildfire season, and it’s getting earlier and more devastating each year. This year we’ve managed to make the New York air unbreathable, which might actually make some people pay attention. We’re not going to destroy the planet with our industrial emissions, our plastic pollution, or deforestation, or other resource depletion. We’ll just make it uninhabitable for humans. Even the best case scenario suggests that we’ll have radical changes to our way of life. The idea of clean water coming out of taps for our convenience? I’m betting before long there’ll be rationing, or more likely a subscription service. You’ll have to watch ads before you fill your kettle.

Anyway, John Scalzi has written a brilliant trilogy that points out the stupidity and self-interest of humans, who will fight for money even as they acknowledge that money will mean less than nothing at the end of civilisation.

It’s been twenty five years…

I’ve told my story many times on this blog. When my eldest kid was born, it was the obvious and sensible choice for me to give up work and become a househusband, while Mrs Dim continued to protect the Free World through the medium of military Human Resources management. From my point of view, I was going to become a rich and famous author while at the same time raising my child. And looking after the dog.

Me, my eldest child, and Sydney, the Prince of Dogness. He also held an honourary rank of Pilot Officer in the RAF.

I had read a great deal about writing, and I knew even overnight success doesn’t happen overnight. I knew there would be a long slog, a lot of rejections, some real dark nights of the soul, and THEN there would be accolades and movie deals. But I was prepared for the long haul. I was willing to work at this for…oh, three or four months?

They say life is what happens while we are making plans, but I’ll admit that plan making has never been my forte. That is, making a plan is easy. Closing the gap between what it says on the plan and what happens in real life? That’s the rub. I wanted to be a novelist. I had been an avid reader for years. But the stuff I wrote, the long-form novel fodder? It was SOOOOOO boring. I bored myself, and they were my ideas. Over those first few years, I tried three or four different ideas, starting out each time with enthusiasm, but then realising each one had the same failures. They were, basically, rubbish. Despite what you may have heard, that’s a bad trait in a publishing career

Time passed, and I got better at being a dad, and a little better at managing the house. I didn’t get better at being a novelist, but I did expand the number of different things I tried writing. I liked short stories. I sucked at making feature articles. Screenplays were too complicated, and required a next level amount of connections that I could never hope to get. (People will tell you that’s not true, or if it is, it’s true for any writing. I can only speak from my experience. I could sell short stories and magazine articles – not many, and not for a fortune, but I could and I did. I had no agent, and little history to show, but I sold them. Screenplays? I would have had to climb a mountain to find someone to talk to me about finding someone to help me find an agent to sell the thing.)

But in the meantime, quietly and insidiously, there were the plays.

I wrote a play for the theatre group I joined, at Mrs Dim’s prompting. They needed a script for a competition, since few groups entered the “We wrote this play” section, and it would be an automatic win. But that year, 3 other groups brought their own plays. We won anyway, because the adjudicator was impressed with my homage to Pirandelllo. So was I, because I’d never heard of him.

Then Steve and David asked me to join them in the Panto-writing exploit they had going, for the Milton Keynes Amateur Operatic Society. They offered actual money, so I couldn’t say no.

Our first co-authored show was a sell-out. As was the next, and the next. And Steve bundled our scripts and sent them off to this new online publisher for consideration. Lazy Bee Scripts took them all, and asked if we had more, so I sent over my award-winning play, plus a few others I had trotted out in case I could win another award. They got accepted too.

I still wanted to write novels. I still wanted fame and fortune, and especially the fortune part, but it turns out, I’m a playwright.

And now it’s twenty five years since I gave up on the Civil Service and tried making words my business. I’m still not rich, and I’m not famous, though that urge is slowly fading. Covid did quite a number on the Community Theatre scene that buys most of my material, and though things are picking up again, part of me wonders if my playwriting days have peaked. I hope not.

These days I carry my cat when I go walking, not a kid. I think I still have a way to go before my kids are carrying me, but you never know. I’m still trying to write new things, but my actual output has slowed tremendously.

I guess the point of this post, aside from just the “Oh my god, twenty five years? Are you kidding me?”ness of it all, is that writers are presented pretty much one path to success. The novel is the goal, the golden ticket that will carry you out of obscurity and into the bright lights. Sure, you could go be a journalist, or a screenwriter, but that’s not the “real” thing, somehow. But look, I fell into playwriting by being willing to give anything a try. It hasn’t made me rich, but it has given me a neat little side-income for stuff that I feel I would have been trying to write anyway. I’ve also picked up scriptreading work for my publisher, and it’s great to see the absolute tide of new work that comes in, somehow always new and different.

If you’re starting out as a writer, or maybe just looking around to see what being a writer is like, then for god’s sake, don’t think about where you might be in twenty five years. That’s lunacy. But try all the other stuff, whether you think it’s “proper” writing or not. You’ll only lose a little bit of time on your novel, and you may find that something else carries you away in a direction you weren’t expecting.

My Writing Corner

This picture is from the year 2000. I’m 27, nearly 28, and sitting at a desk that I made myself, to my own design. When my father-in-law saw it for the first time, his only comment was “Why doesn’t it fall down?”

I had been a full-time writer (alright, full-time dad and part time writer) for almost two years, and I still wasn’t rich. I had tried writing columns, articles, features, short stories and novels. I had taken a correspondence course (that’s like an online course, kids, but without the internet…). I had written a couple of pieces for “Tathan” the magazine published by the RAF station on which we lived. I’d had a couple of features written about me by parenting magazines, but only one had used a feature I had written myself. The RAF families’ magazine “Corridors” had liked my article submission so much, they offered me the job of editor.*

But I was reading a writing magazine that regularly featured professional, full time, SUCCESSFUL authors and they all had their special writing routine and their special writing corners. Me making my desk was my way of saying “This is my special place where I can make magic!”

Amazingly, it didn’t make writing easier, but it did achieve a few important points.

  1. There was enough space for everything. I had a raised section for the printer and the scanner (two different things back then). I had my stereo off to one side (because the computer couldn’t store all my music back then either!). It was a corner desk, so the long back of the CRT monitor went into the corner.
  2. It was MY desk. It wasn’t a repurposed table, or something someone else had even designed. It was designed and built by me for me to write on. So, sitting at it, I felt writing was essential. Didn’t mean I didn’t ALSO play a lot of Tomb Raider, of course.
  3. It was away by itself in a spare room (a luxury, I know). That meant it was a place I could go to write. Yes, baby Laurel had her playmat in the corner, and would often take naps beside me as I worked, but when you need to feel that your work is important ans a real thing, having somewhere particular to go and do it was a useful thing.

Well, time passed and the family grew, so spare rooms became a thing of the past. My monster of a desk survived one move, but not two, and by the time were were living at RAF Halton, my desk was in a corner of the dining room, and it was composed of several bits of off-the-peg furniture.

You can see it’s still the days of the CRT monitor, and that’s a VHS machine that the printer is balanced on. My scanner is still a separate thing too, and it slides out on a handy shelf, much like the keyboard. I’ve ditched the stereo at last, because now my computer can easily play the cds that I have in that neat rack (only some of them are games discs…).

Most of the books on the shelves are about writing. A couple are short story collections that my work features in. There’s obviously a lot less space, and since I’m still trying to be a writer while editing the magazine and running the household, I’m attempting to keep organised – look at all the ink on the huge calendar there – but it’s an uphill struggle against my true chaotic nature. There were days here when I longed for the time I had a study of my own.

Two moves later, and I DID have a study of my own again. We were out of the RAF life and living like civilians in Bournemouth, in a crazy house we couldn’t really afford, but loved to bits. It had a study built over the top of the garage, but they’d forgotten to use any kind of insulation, so it was always colder than the rest of the house by several degrees. We did set up a desk and the desktop computer there, but I was surprised to discover that I didn’t often go there. I had an Acer Aspire laptop that was pretty much faster and better than our desktop of the day. The study was upstairs and cold, but the breakfast table was just off our tiny kitchen. It had the toaster and the kettle in it, so coffee was only ever a couple of steps away. I would cycle the kids to school, then stroll back in, click on the laptop and the kettle and settle down.

Obviously, this isn’t me, this is Mrs Dim showing the kids how to carve pumpkins. But that’s our breakfast table at The Wonkey House, and behind her you can see my old laptop. I sat at that table and wrote a LOT of short plays, sketches and a couple of pantomimes. It wasn’t a private space, it wasn’t festooned with writing literature or reference books, and I never had it to myself for more than a few hours at a time, but I got a lot done there, and I remember it with great fondness.

These days, the number of children in the house is generally trending downward, and we’ve had a study since we moved in. Of course, I have a regular day job now, and the urge to come home and sit at the computer is definitely muted. I have my days off when I can push the cat out of the typing chair and sit down, but sometimes I don’t.

We’re back to a desk I designed and made, though I did that by buying two Ikea drawer units and placing a big piece of plywood over the top. My keyboard and mouse are wireless now, my scanner and printer are one thing, and it’s also wireless. I have two screen that are flat as pancakes, and there’s room to prop my laptop on the desk too, if I want information overload. But Mrs Dim works from home a few days a week now, so I can’t always be sure I’ll be the only one in need of a desk. That’s why I’ve typed this whole post on my laptop in the living room.

In twenty three years of writing, I’ve learned that having your own writing space is great, but not essential. I wrote some of my first plays on that monster of a blue desk in Wales, but I wrote others on that breakfast table in Bournemouth, and some on a Chromebook on my lap in an Ice Rink while Middle Kid played Ringette. Some of the latest writing I’ve done has been in the break room at the library, on my lunchbreak.

I was always jealous of those professionals being profiled in the writing magazine, and I wanted fame and fortune so that my writing day could look like theirs – a little light writing after breakfast, a stroll with the dogs, jotting down some more words in my favourite coffee place, then dinner with the family and a couple more hours of writing in my oak-paneled study before bed. It still sounds nice, but like many people, I found the pandemic years realigned my sense of what I need versus what I want. I write less these days, and sometimes I wonder if I will ever complete a play or story again. If I do, then that’s great, I’d love that. But if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.

*Yes, the magazine of the RAF Families organisation I belonged to was called “Corridors”, because the organisation’s HQ was a place called “Corridors House”. We rebranded soon after as “Airwaves” and renamed the magazine in kind. The magazine published thousands of copies every quarter and they went out to all the RAF bases worldwide. It was, despite my best efforts, a very dull read.

That was 2022

About a month ago I had an idea to write a round up of the year. I think maybe the reason I didn’t, was that there isn’t a great list of successes and achievements. No matter how many times I try to revise my expectations, or review what I count as “success”, there’s still an insistence that I must produce new work every year, and by produce I mean “finish and publish”. This only applies to plays, of course, because I’ve given up on the notion of the e-books being anything but a way of storing information about my prop-building exploits.

But it’s the year end, and Spotify have sent out emails showing you what you listened to. Authors will be reviewing their favourite books of the year, there’ll be “Best Movies of 2022” articles everywhere, video games reviews and so on. All in all, it’s a strong incentive to look at our own achievements and put things in “pro” or “con” columns.

Mrs Dim said the other day that she’d found a note that said our word for 2022 was “Optimism”. You have to remember that, back at the start of this year, we had no idea how she would be affected by her stroke long term. There was no projected date for a return to work. There was a faint chance I could move up to a full-time position, but that turned out to be too long a shot to pull off. So we’ve spent the year being optimistic. We managed to buy the apartment, allowing the elder two Weasels to move out and still live within their means. Fluctuating interest rates have made that harder, but now we know Mrs Dim has the chance to return to work in January, our income may rise a little to offset that again.

My brother came through his health scare with some terrific new scars, but a working heart. My mum and dad have got through the worst (hopefully) of the UK winter, despite a Conservative government actively trying to kill off large sections of the population.

We went to Seattle and showed off Derek to an actual DOCTOR. If I ever need to smile, I just watch the video of Derek trundling around. He only got motorised this last summer! That seems incredible to me. I’m resigned to the fact that most of his renovation work won’t be completed by Fan Expo in Feb, but he MIGHT be talking…

Anyway, we were optimistic right up to Christmas Day. We had gather the kids together for a nice lunch and to open presents, when I got a resurgence of what I had thought was a grumbling appendix. When it hadn’t stopped grumbling after a few hours, we went into Emergency, and they finally determined it was a kidney stone. I came out with some medication, the advice to pee through a strainer, and someone else’s cold, which I then passed on to Mrs Dim.

None of this has made the last week of 2022 any more optimistic, but I don’t think it’s knocked us down either. I made it into work today, and I won’t need to come back until next Tuesday if I don’t feel up to it. Mrs Dim has a similar timeline before her trial return to work period starts, and it’s a graduated return too.

We’re aiming for “Stabilisation” next year. Mrs Dim finding her footing in work again, Tiny Weasel doing the same in her job at the library. The elder two weasels are wrestling with work and college still, and I obviously have health issues to work out. And Daleks to renovate.

Maybe we don’t have a laundry list of accomplishments for the year, but maybe we don’t need one. Maybe we can just stand on the mountaintop and appreciate the view before we start the next climb.

Writer’s Block

I was going to title this post “Writer’s block – myth or not?” but I didn’t. Here’s why:

A lot of writers who blog, or Tweet, or whatever address the issue of writer’s block at some point. Some say it doesn’t exist, that to write – to really write – just takes the application of bum to seat and fingers to keyboard. It’s a job, they say, and writing every day like it’s a real job will carry you through the days when you just don’t, you know feel it.

Other people say “No, that’s not what I’m talking about. I want to write, I really need to, and I am sat here ready to go, and the WORDS WON’T COME!” It’s a genuine blockage, something preventing the flow of words that is normally, if not effortless, then at least easy.

So that brings me round to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: People are different. We KNOW people are different, but we still determinedly lump together people who share one aspect of their lives, or their personalities, or their medical diagnoses, and we treat them all the same.

Writing. I’ve been a published writer for over twenty years. I’ve earned actual money from the stuff I write. Now, I don’t make my entire living from writing, so maybe you can discount me that way, but I don’t think so. I’ve written fiction and non-fiction and sold both. I’ve done magazine articles and short stories. I’ve done novels. I’ve certainly done plays. But what I’ve written over the last three years could be fitted on a pack of cigarettes without removing the government-mandated warning pictures. And yeah, some of that is because of regular life – remodeling the house, buying an apartment, Mrs Dim’s medical condition, the trip to England… There are always going to be interruptions. But I’m saying for the record here that there has been plenty of time for me to write, and I haven’t done it.

Is that Writer’s Block? Maybe for me. It’s not the first time I haven’t had ideas fighting to get onto paper, though it is the longest. I’ve had ideas during that time, obviously, and some of them got noted down in various places, but nothing developed beyond that scribbled note:

“And then my husband got fat”

“Small, Good Wolves need not apply”

“Famous Last Words”

“The Gardener of Crystal Palace”

Last week I was shuffling through a bunch of old files. One of them was an outline of a play I started to write. It was called the “Not Bertie Wooster” Play, because I had listened to the complete Jeeves and Wooster series on audio, and the style of Bertie’s speech was burned into my brain. I had a lot of fun, writing the outline using Bertie’s eclectic terms of affection and disbelief, and was building up quite a Wodehousian plot. Naturally, I ran out of steam about a third of the way through, but that was five pages. Five pages of outline. Since I didn’t have any other writing work on, I thought it would be easier to try writing out the script from this outline, rather than trying to write something new (or, actually, finish the outline first!)

That was a week ago, and I am pages into the script and haven’t caught up to the end of the outline yet. Writing this is fun , it’s not difficult, and I’m not worried about running out of outline because it feels like this is one of those plays where the characters will take up the story and run with it if I let them.

I haven’t “broken” a writer’s block. I haven’t found a method that will work for other people, or even for me the next time around. Everyone is different. But for now, I have rediscovered my own joy in writing, and it may well carry me through to the end of this script.

If YOU are suffering from Writer’s Block, or some similar condition that is preventing you doing your own creative thing, then firstly, I believe you. No one can tell you that block does not exist. It’s YOURS.

Secondly, because everyone is different, there are a million different pieces of advice out there that claim to break your block. None of them is going to be right every time for every person. But because there are so many, and hey, aren’t you desperate? Then you can try as many as you like until you find one that works for now.

Writing plays and writing Great Art

For Sale: Baby Shoes, never worn” as performed by Kilmuckridge Drama Group

I’ve been writing play scripts for more than twenty years now, and I still can’t shake one stupid idea: Plays ought to be Great Art. Plays are SUPPOSED to be something cerebral, majestic, inspiring (and, if at all possible, inaccessible by ordinary, dull people.)

We all know what I mean. We read Shakespeare at school, and if you’re old enough, they didn’t bother trying to make it relevant, or understandable. They harped on the structure of the lines, the bloody iambic pentameter, the alliteration, the symbolism, the classical references (and I still can’t remember who Phoebus was, or why he had a car in Shakespeare’s day, let alone Tarquin and his ravishing strides.) The implication always was “Of course you don’t understand this, you mewling, puking toads, this is ART! It was penned by a genius, who wrote all of this in a few weeks, even though it will take us a term to tear down one or two scenes.”

And then we get to more recent playwrights, like Pinter or Beckett. Again, the majority of the time we are pressed to believe that this is not meant to be fun, not meant to be accessible. If it’s on the stage, it should be ART and that’s all there is to it.


Except when I was young, I went to pantomimes. Huge, bright, explosions of slapstick. Verbal somersaults, jokes fired off at machine gun pace, raucous musical numbers and the audience positively begged to throw their hearts and souls into taking part. This was clearly not ART because I was crying with laughter and thrilled to my very centre.

SMP Dramatics performs “Watch this space”.

When I sat down to write a play script of my own, I couldn’t shake the need for it to be ART. Though I based it on my own experiences, I threw in great and dramatic speeches about the nature of life, of creation, of the uncertainties of self-determination. I blurred the lines between imagination and reality and got thoroughly invested in my own bullshit. I still like that play, by the way, but part of me will always run and hide when I read or see it.

“Work in Progress” by the RAF St Athan Theatre Club

It took a long time for me to accept that what I really enjoyed was writing silly comedy stuff. I mean, I knew I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think I was really allowed to put it out there as publishable. It’s not Great Art. I still wanted to write a play that would make the critics search their souls for the perfect review, wanted one that would stun audiences into silence, awed, reverent silence. But why? Is it better to have a stunned audience, or one that’s helpless with laughter, and will think of the show in days to come because their ribs are still aching? I’ve made it to forty nine, and I don’t think I have discovered any shocking fundamental truths about the universe that need writing down, other than “If everybody was nicer, the world wouldn’t be such a bad place”, although the cynic in me wants to write “If everyone was nicer, some bastard would take advantage of them.”

It seems a bit rich to be pontificating on what’s the right thing to write when I haven’t completed a writing project in two years, but then again Shakespeare hasn’t produced anything new in the last four hundred, and he’s bound to have a bunch of stuff performed next year. I think my point, if I had one, was that I’ll probably write more comedy when the muse strikes, and give up forever on the idea of the Great Work. Because, really, what’s so Great about it if it doesn’t make someone smile?

I’m not a cabinet maker

A Mason Bee hatching box I made for my wife.

The illustration above shows that I’m no cabinet maker. I’m slapdash at measuring, hopeless with mitre joints, mortice and tenon, or even worse, bloody dovetail joints. I am not skilled, despite a desperate desire to do a good job, and many years of sawing, planing, gluing, and drilling. It’s not that I haven’t put in time and effort, it’s that I haven’t LEARNED anything.

But you know what? That’s ok, because the stuff I am making is not for sale. It’s not going to be gracing anyone’s dining room, holding their precious heirloom china. When I make a box, it’s because we need a box to put something in, like hatching bees, or nesting birds or juggling equipment. Because I’m aware of my shortcomings in this area, I don’t expect much of my woodwork. If someone points to the barbeque box and says “Hey, this thing isn’t quite straight, and the door doesn’t close!” I’d be all “Yeah, you got that right. And look, it’s not properly weatherproof either.”

Why am I telling you about my inadequacies as a woodworker? Well, it’s an analogy (as well as being true). I spend a lot of time being a proofreader, and that’s something I’ve had to learn to switch off when reading social media. People post on social media (mostly) to get a thought or two off their brains. Pointing at flawed spelling or punctuation is meaningless point-scoring. I know I’m often fumble-fingered when trying to type on a stupid tiny phone keyboard. So, yeah, social media gets a pass. Like my barbeque box, right? It’s not for sale, it’s not polished, it’s not FOR anything, except holding my gas cylinder and supporting the barbeque.

But say you want to be a published writer. Say that’s your aim, your ambition. THEN, I think it’s reasonable for you to take the trouble over your work. Learn how to make dovetails, as it were. Because you ARE selling your work. You are standing up and saying “This is good, this is worth your time.” And if you want me to invest my time, then I think I’m worth proper punctuation, thanks.

Yes, you can point to a dozen or more award-winning novels who play fast and loose with rules of punctuation and grammar and maybe even spelling. And maybe you can find more than a dozen people who say they actually enjoyed reading those novels, and maybe some of them are telling the truth. If those authors are honest (and I don’t know which ones you’re thinking of, by the way), then they have chosen to discard those rules for a reason, for a specific effect. (In the novels I’m thinking of, the effect was to make the whole experience of reading more unpleasant, but that was ok because the stories were rubbish, the characters unlikeable, and the resolutions deeply unsatisfying.)

Let me be specific, and give you an example that turns up quite frequently in the works I proofread:


We all read that the same, didn’t we? It’s the word the Beatles sang in “She loves you”. It’s a lazy agreement, lacking formality. It’s an exhalation, or a shout of joy. Now look at this:


Language is flexible, so you could make that three-letter word rhyme with “pea” and “sea”, or with “hay” and “day”. It’s the second one that I default to, reading it as a medieval agreement:

“Yea, verily my Lord, ’tis true.”

Why does this matter? Isn’t language evolving? That’s certainly what people say over and over when challenged over mistakes in grammar or spelling. And maybe it is, but “yea” is ALREADY A WORD. So when I read this:

Pete slumped back, defeated. “Yea.” he whispered.

Pete is saying a medieval word, which doesn’t match his character or his attitude. It’s wrong, it doesn’t fit, it throws the reader out of the moment into a little heap of “huh?”

If you want to be a writer, make an effort to learn the nuts and bolts (or tools and joints) of your chosen craft. Make sure that, if you’re leaving the nails exposed on your cabinet, it’s because you intended to.

Project 150 – it’s all gone horribly wrong.

So, less than three months ago, I mentioned that I was setting my goal low so I could keep on track. I recounted the story of the blogger who introduced his grand plan with a fanfare and vanished without trace. January and February were a breeze, with me accumulating enough of a word count to put me a month ahead.

Chapter one and two rolled out just fine – as long as you keep the maxim “Write the first draft for yourself” in mind. This was not great literature, but even refined, reworked and rewritten, it’s never going to be that.

But then March arrived and the shutters came down. It’s been a busy time for many weird and regular reasons (birthdays, pandemic, day job, driving lessons and building a new patio), and every time I grabbed five minutes to try and push up the word count total, I realised I wasn’t sure what came next in the story. As a life-long pantser, I’m used to working without a plan. I used Rachel Aaron’s advice and planned each scene I was going to be writing before kicking off, and I thought I had a general outline in mind, but I actually hadn’t worked through the whole story.

Let me explain: I hate it when characters do something stupid or out of character to move the plot along. I have a main character called Eddie, and he wants to A: rid his city of zombies and B: Keep the folks who have gathered around him alive. To make Eddie’s life harder, a convoy of military types have come into the city to resupply. Eddie wants them to join his band and help with the rebuild, but he’s worried they will just take over. The guy in charge of the convoy is tiring of the hit and run life, and Eddie’s fenced kingdom is just the safe compound he’s been looking for.

And so, chapter three is the time to start all the maneuvering, right? Except, I find I have no idea what happens next. I mean, sure Eddie and his friends have retreated to their secondary safe zone, so the convoy can’t target them, or threaten them. That’s good. The convoy are likely to find the kingdom and move in, and Eddie isn’t going to risk an armed confrontation to try and re-take the place. I set up a nice Chekhov’s gun situation with a zombie trap that allows Eddie to get hundreds of zombies off the streets and contained. If he was the right kind of protagonist, it would be some kind of poetic for him to use that stored army of undead to over-run the convoy.

But he wouldn’t. Eddie hates zombies, and wants to be rid of them. he doesn’t want ANYONE else turned into a zombie, even if they’re bad guys. And the convoy people aren’t exactly bad guys, they’re just living a different post-apocalyptic lifestyle.

So I’m two chapters in and I have written myself into a corner. Nothing’s going to change in the current situation unless Eddie acts out of character, or the convoy does something that doesn’t make sense, like abandon the kingdom, or ignore it completely.

Despite having hit my word count targets for the first three months, I have to throw everything out, and sit down and plot the whole thing. And this time, do it right. Good job I’ve finished building the patio.

5 reasons I didn’t make it.

Stop me if you’ve heard this already.

I’ve been writing with intent to earn since 1998. Been dreaming of being an author for another two decades before that. I have written and published something like ten e-books, over eighty plays, several short stories and some non-fiction articles. I’ve written a couple of screenplays that have gone nowhere, and I’m still not rich or famous.

July sixth 1975

To be clear, I do comparatively well from my play writing. When there’s not a global pandemic shutting down every public gathering, I get a monthly payment for my scripts that’s very nice, especially considering there’s no heavy lifting involved. Some even won awards, like this nice medal.


But no matter what, I’m not topping the bestseller charts with my books. Look:

Amazon top 100

All the way up to number 73! Inside the top 100 of a very, very narrow category! Anyway, my point here is not just to whine about not being an NYT bestseller, but to explain why I’m not. I mean, sure, there are LOTS of reasons, but here are the top 5 I can think of. You can add more in the comments if you would like to be hurtful.

1. Writing is rewriting.

Stephen King says the first draft is you telling yourself the story*. That’s all well and good, but you should get to the end, then (after going and doing something else for a while) go back and look at the story you’ve got. You should maybe think about theme, and how to emphasize it. Look at the characters you have, and see if there are any you’re hanging on to for sentimental reasons. Do they all serve the story? Look at the different scenes you have. Are THEY all important? Is there one there that you don’t need, but you just think it’s funny? Is that a problem?

See, rewriting can be hard. people say “Stick your draft away for a few months and it reads like someone else wrote it.” and that’s good advice, because they’re right. But the big test is whether you can take that story you built, word by word, and break it down, then reassemble it as a different version. I can’t. Even when I have had brilliant people like Lucy V Hay showing me the parts that need fixing, I can’t do the work. I’ve done it with plays – rewriting, restructuring, changing the endings. But not short stories or novels. So what I end up with is a first draft. Maybe proofread, maybe spellchecked, but not fundamentally different to the first version that fell out of my head, and I think people can tell that.

2. Bang the drum.

Nobody thinks to themselves “I love selling things! I think I’ll write a novel!” And no one says “Hey, I’m a novellist, but my favourite part is doing the publicity!” If you’ve chosen to devote huge chunks of your time to sitting alone, building imaginary worlds and people out of words, then you are unlikely to be the kind of outgoing gladhander who can sell product to everyone.

And yet, if you want to jump from writer to published author, you have to learn to sell yourself and your book. Even if you think you’re going to get an agent and get picked up by the Big Six and they’ll do the publicity, you have to sell yourself to that agent. You have to believe your work is good, believe you have more in you, and you have to be able to communicate that belief to someone who’s never met you.

I once rang a publisher when I had finished a first draft of a novel. I don’t know what I was thinking, but the poor guy actually answered the phone. I told him I’d just written a book, and he asked me to describe it. Right then I knew that I wasn’t going to make it. I stuttered and stammered and I credit that unknown phone-answerer with tremendous kindness. I don’t remember him sneering at me (as he should), nor slamming down the phone in disgust (also warranted.) He taught me a valuable lesson, which is that you have to have a pitch at your fingertips, and you have to make your story sound good. I did not.

3. Pick a lane.

This is maybe a little more controversial, but I think it applies to us enthusiastic amateurs. I mentioned I have ten e-books out there, but only two are novels. One’s a zombie novel, the other a vaguely YA book about a musician. I have four collections of short stories. One is Sci-Fi, two are coffee-break stories (warm, minor-twist endings, no bloodshed or graphic stuff), and one is… other stuff. I have a book of poetry. I have a non-fiction book about my family’s first year emigrating to Canada, and three non-fiction books about my hobby of building prop helmets. The point is, if you like one of my books, there’s no guarantee you’re going to like any of the others. And if I wanted to approach a regular publisher or agent, I could show them my dazzling sales stats (“Look! This month there were three sales! Three! In the same month!”), but would have to acknowledge that they are spread out amongst different genres. No big, pre-built audience waiting there for my next zombie novel.

When people talk about e-publishing, they often mention having a tail. Publish two or three books before you expect to pick up a serious readership. They may be right, but I bet it helps if you stick within your genre. I have a couple of friends who have written sequential books – Rick Wayne and Lisa Cohen, for example. Their earlier books were written on faith, and their readership grew as the series progressed. The clamour that people made on social media for the next book interested new readers. Don’t be a butterfly author.

4. Maintain your platform.

Everyone knows that authors these days have to have a social media presence, but that’s getting harder and harder to define. Let’s start with where I went wrong: I loved G+, built up a group of friends there, and gradually slid off the public face of G+ into more private group areas. It was more fun for me, but less useful for selling my books. I have a Twitter presence, but find I’m resistant to the Twitter style of trumpet blowing – posting pictures of your book cover fourteen times a day with pull quotes from other people saying how much they loved the book. Worse are the ones that try to give a sample of the book’s dialogue without running out of characters. Still, that’s more than I do. I can’t publicise my books on social media without deprecating them, even though I have devoted a lot of time to each one, and they’re sooooo cheap! But I don’t have a plan, I don’t have a schedule, and I lurk on Twitter rather than dividing my time more usefully amongst other sites too, like Goodreads, and Instagram and whatever else the kids are into these days. Somewhere online, there’s a group of people to whom your book will appeal. Finding them can be a big challenge, or maybe even a part time job. But if you choose not to do it, like me, then you can’t complain about book sales. Well, you CAN, but no one will listen.

5. Don’t drop the ball.

So, you write your novel. You re-write your novel. You get it edited (always a good plan). You maybe re-write it one more time. Then you go out to sell it. Maybe it sells, maybe it doesn’t. You sit down to write novel number two. The thing is, don’t completely abandon your first novel, especially if you’re self publishing. It may feel like last week’s laundry, but there will always be people out there who haven’t heard about it. People join and leave social media sites all the time. If you’re maintaining your platform, your number of new followers (or whatever) should be rising, and those new people need to know about your first efforts as well as your latest blockbuster. Yes, there’s a balance between ‘I didn’t know you’d written that!” and “Dear god, are you STILL banging on about that old thing?”, but you can find that balance. Look at what others do. Work out your own strategy for new versus old. It may be that, like Seanan Mcguire or Delilah S Dawson, you’ll want to split your genres out under different names, but whatever you decide, remember to cheer for your early efforts too. Any one of them could be the way a new reader finds their way to you.

So, Dim, does all this negativity mean you’re done with writing e-books?

I don’t know. The pandemic hasn’t been good for my confidence, or my creativity, like a lot of people. And there’s that stupid feedback loop, where I don’t make any money from e-books, so I don’t invest any time in them, but they’re not going to sell if I don’t invest the time (see three of the points above) and right now I should have time but I still can’t muster time and energy to do all the things I have to, let alone the things I think I want to.

Well, that got dark quickly. Are you still writing plays?

Yes. Sllllloooooooooooowwwwwllllllyyyyy. But yes. And tomorrow I may laugh again, because me and my writing partners at TLC Creative are still working on The Hound of Music.




*He says other stuff too, I expect, like “Pass the potatoes.” and “Who elected this clown?”, but I thought I should stick with the relevant stuff.

Talking a good game

My next book

Publicity is a tricky thing. A lot of social media is people carefully trying to sell you their stuff, without looking like they’re trying to sell you anything at all. Influencers call this “your brand”, or your “author platform”, and some people are better at it than others, like most things in life.

My own experience with selling my stuff (ie, plays, ebooks and whatnot) online is that I am not good at talking myself up. I like the things I have written, am often quite proud of them, but it just doesn’t feel right to shout “My stuff is great! Buy it!” without at least adding “Of course, you may disagree, and there’s lots of other great stuff out there which may suit your needs better, I would perfectly understand if you want some time to compare and contrast and make an informed decision…”

This is NOT a great advertising strategy.

The trouble is, if you’re going to build a brand online, you need to be consistent. If you’re going to be consistent, you have two choices. The first is to invent the person you’re going to be, and stick rigidly to that persona whenever you post ANYTHING AT ALL. The second is to be yourself, and admit that sometimes that might not be great for everybody. This is why we see actors or authors get slammed for having political opinions online. We think we want to get to know the real person, but often there are doors we don’t want opened, or illusions we want to keep intact.

Part of who I am is the self-deprecating, anxious, uncertain person who feels it’s wrong to brashly boast of your brilliance. Certainly you won’t find me quoting reviews of my stuff on Twitter where I refer to myself in the third person (I have seen authors do this, and it looks weird.)

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying, when I finally got “Even More Cosplay Disasters” fixed for the third time and published for the second time, I was all out of enthusiasm for doing any publicity at all. I’d done a little for the first publication, and luckily it had fallen flat, because the book had NOT been properly published, and anyone who bought it would only have been able to download the cover.

I thought I might try and interest the local papers, but writing a press release is really just talking about yourself in the third person again, so instead I wrote directly to the reporter for the local paper (Janis Cleugh of the Tri City News) and asked if she might be interested in the story of a playwright who builds strange helmets and props with his daughter. She was, and she came round to interview me and my Eldest Weasel, as well as taking a very nice picture. She was kind enough to mention the books, as well as being very thorough in her questioning (best of all, she didn’t ask “Why the hell do you bother with all this tosh?”, which is Mrs Dim’s favourite question.)

Here’s the online copy of the article:


Sales of the books have not gone through the roof, so as an advertising stunt, it hasn’t achieved its aim. On the other hand, I did take a positive step towards marketing, and it was a different one to the ones I’ve done before. We got a nice picture out of it, if nothing else, and the article seems to have spurred Eldest Weasel on to fixing up Derek the Dalek for the next Fan Expo.