When I’m not being a house husband or soon-to-be-bestselling author, I run a small acupuncture practice. It, too, is an enterprise that has yet to make me a fortune, even though I’ve been at it for fifteen years or more. Therefore, to supplement my immense-but-not-quite-fully-realised dreams of wealth, acclaim and power, I teach novel writing.
Inconceivably vast remunerative possibilities aside, I both love and hate the job.
I hate it because I don’t believe it’s possible for someone with little or no flair to learn how to do it. Acquiring techniques will never be enough for someone with no basic ability – no such thing as a melamine Ming vase, is there? So when the inevitable would-be-but-cannot-bes become apparent, I have to find ways of helping them. Within the confines of a plastic flower receptacle. Not easy. But as long as students feel they’re improving and as long as they enjoy the journey, then all is well.
There’s a lesson in this: writers should endeavour to be honestly self-appraising and yet it’s one thing we find impossible to do. We either think we’re dreadful when we’re not or we think we’re brilliant when we’re not. A bit like X Factor contestants.
Did I just say that on my own blog? Pass me that skewer. Yes, the one with the poisoned tip – I’ve got itchy eyeballs…
I also hate reading the novels as they develop in case they’re rubbish – because it’s my job to address such things. Actually, in the classes I teach with John Costello – a man whose artistic abilities are multifarious and monumental – we give honest, considered feedback and we do it in a very supportive atmosphere. In fact, we prevent rubbish novels from ever being written (agents and commissioning editors can thank me with a small donation through paypal or an offering of their firstborn).
I hate looking at a stack of manuscripts too. And don’t you dare suggest I’m the only person in the world who feels that way.
But, after term started last week with seventeen students on the register, I fell in love with teaching writing all over again. Just like I do every year. Seventeen individuals, no two the same. Seventeen people about to embark on a year of literary adventures that will push them to the limits of their ability and make them question everything they thought they knew about the craft. They’ll go beyond what they believed themselves capable of. It happens every year and it’s wonderful.
Another payoff is that in every class I’ve taught, we’ve struck gold with two or three people who have the skill; the desire to learn; the discipline to write; the bravery to edit and the great ideas it takes to complete and sell novels. I’ve no doubt some of them will go on to be published and have car accident careers just like mine!
Last Wednesday they told us a little about themselves and we got them started on their protagonists. Already I’m hearing ideas with great potential and characters with great scope. We’ll have comedy, romance, horror, thrillers, SF and much more over the next academic year and, after dreading it all summer, I suddenly can’t wait to see what they come up with.
So, yesterday I had an email from Liz de Jager, someone I’ve corresponded with for a few years but only met a few times. The email contained useful information of the kind that can assist those of the car-accident-career persuasion; people like me, for example.
I have nothing but my words to give in return. So here they are, Liz – a bit pants but what can you do?
Browne and Woolley were a pair
Of partners making underwear;
Their undergarments duly famed
As haute couture were aptly named.
They made vests to snugly fit
The genius or utter twit.
They made them too to tightly wrap
The chubby lass or skinny chap.
But work it out I cannot fully
Why they made them brown and woolly.
They made tights to cling to legs
The size of trees or wooden pegs.
Their tights would stay up very well
In turbulence or ten foot swell.
They made knickers of all kinds
To line all manner of behinds.
Knickers that could bare that brunt
And in the bargain, cover fronts.
But understand I cannot fully
A gusset that is brown and woolly.
The corsets they were famous for
Could well contain a civil war.
And such a garment, tightly laced
Would narrow down the widest waist.
Of bras that came in just one colour,
We used to think, “What could be duller?”
Now they are a fashion must
That hold up any size of bust.
But comfortable I am not fully
In sub-apparel brown and woolly
Be you large or be you small,
Be you short or be you tall,
Do not let your wardrobe lack
A Browne and Woolley starter pack.
In it you are sure to find
The nethertogs to blow your mind.
No more chills and no more sagging
With Browne and Woolley underlagging.
But comprehend I cannot fully
Those underpanters Browne and Woolley.
A post about teaching novel writing and how conflicted I am on the subject will follow soon…
I wish I was torn paper twirled by careless gusts in a roadside gutter at midnight
I would live and die there by the light of passing cars
Make me the shards of glass swept up outside pubs on Saturday mornings
or the hubcaps jettisoned on sharp corners that lie cracked and unseen in the weeds and long grass
I would not care then how long my moment lasted
nor ask for something better
nor expect to make a difference
nor crave someone’s fond memory
I would be a monument that time would erase
That would be enough
and so much truer a life than this
with its unrelenting march of thoughts and revised beliefs and pains and dissatisfactions and complexities
I wish I could have been a simple switch
flicked on an explosive device
and in my crater, one day, grass would grow or water collect when it rained
animals would drink there
without my taint on the surroundings
The current situation is this:
I have 3000 copies of MEAT and Garbage Man in a warehouse in north London.
These books will be pulped if I don’t take possession of them. I can either keep them in circulation using the current distributor or I can collect them and bring them home to a storage unit. Whatever happens, I won’t let them be destroyed – I’ll be investigating my options over the next few days. They could still stay ‘on the market’ if it doesn’t cost me too much money.
Incidentally, the print runs of MEAT and Garbage Man were 10,000 and 5,000 respectively. Beautiful Books did an unbelievable job of getting an unknown horror author’s titles to booksellers in such numbers.
Published material aside, I have the following in a padlocked steel box:
Four Horror/SF novels, a huge zeitgeisty Dark Fantasy (not urban. No vampires) with mythical and ecological themes and a YA thing (doesn’t everyone now?) which is almost ready to submit. About fifty short stories, most of which are, technically, reprints if I decided to collect them, and a couple of spare novellas. My unknown stories so outweigh my published work I sometimes wonder why I keep doing it.
It’s only my life. It’s only my life. It’s not really all that important.
On that note, I was amused (and sort of gooey inside) when a couple of friends got in touch to ask if I was having a nervous breakdown. They’d read the first couple of blog posts and thought my gallows humour was a bit ‘sincere’. It isn’t. Really. I’m fine.
*slips razor blade back into packet for the moment*
An American indie publisher is prepared to pay me 80% of E-book sales. I know the owner a little and he strikes me as entirely genuine so I’m giving that VERY serious thought. It would mean I don’t have to worry about cover art and editing and file conversions and whatever else it’ll take to do it.
I’m also looking into costs for quality cover art in case I do decide to go the e-route on my own – the good artists are expensive, be warned. I’ve been quoted from £160 – £750 so far. Self-publishing e-books would leave the print rights available, though it might make them less attractive to mainstream houses.
A couple of ‘traditional’ publishers are looking at my work right now and I have some interesting meetings to look forward to in the next couple of weeks. Far from being depressed by the demise of Beautiful Books, I almost feel there’s everything to play for.
But perhaps that’s a common emotion among those with nothing left to lose.
In 2007, after six or seven years of writing my little heart
out, I found a publisher for my sixth novel – MEAT.
I was overjoyed. Me and Bloody Books in bed together. The
result: a real novel. Solid, with a cover and pages and everything. On a book
shelf. IN A BOOKSHOP – lots of them, actually. And people were going to buy
this book. They were going to read it too. It isn’t pretty watching a man
spontaneously orgasm in public but I did it a lot back then. Then Stephen King
read the ARC and said very complimentary things about it. My publisher texted Mr.
King’s response to me and I nearly orgasmed to death on a remote Austrian
hillside. Fortunately, my wife was there and knew what to do – she’s medically
And so the romance of being a real writer began. I went on a
couple of national signing tours (took a lot of spare underwear) found myself
interviewed on radio and written about in newspapers and magazines.
That was when the shine began to wear off: giving talks to
audiences of three or five; turning up for signings only to be ignored by
everyone in the shop; having that creeping realisation that you ought to be
writing instead of swanning about like a celebrity when the truth is people
neither know nor care who you are.
I quickly came to understand that what makes you a writer is
the simple fact that you write.
Beautiful/Bloody Books took my second novel – after a
radical rewrite that turned the book into something I’d never intended. If I
hadn’t done the rewrite though (an extra 40,000 words plus changes to many of
the characters) I wouldn’t have got the deal. What choice was there? Garbage
Man wasn’t as successful as MEAT but I was still receiving royalties on both
books up until my last statement in January this year.
I submitted a third novel – what I’d hoped was classic
Eco-Horror – and BB didn’t want it. ‘We don’t see this as the next Joseph
D’Lacey novel’ they said. Oh.
So I wrote another book. And another. Two years later and I
find I still can’t sell anything except the odd short story or novella.
‘Ah,’ you say. ‘No offence, like, but maybe you’re rubbish
at it, mate.’
None taken, twat. But perhaps you’re right. Maybe I am
rubbish. And a smart writer will always keep this in mind. Partly because it
keeps the ego under control (I have a specially made cage for mine) and partly
because it cheers you up – after all, everyone knows it’s only the rubbish
books that get published!
‘Don’t ever try and write anything ‘good’. You won’t stand a
chance out there!’ That’s my advice to the novice these days.
Anyway. Long and short: I’ve risen. I’ve fallen.
What next? Do I go the traditional route again? Keep trying
to break down the commissioning editor’s door for little or no money? Or, now
that I have three and a half dedicated fans, do I self publish and make a
I guess time will tell.
A brief précis of my…er…career:
I’ve been writing ever since I was able; seriously for the last eleven years. I’ve written poetry, nonsense verse for kids, short fiction, novellas, comic scripts and novels.
I like the Horror, SF and Fantasy genres but I also write comedy sometimes. I’ve had three agents and, so far, none of them have sold any of my work. Everything I’ve had published was through my own reckless, ill-informed endeavour. That includes the novel MEAT which sold into five foreign territories and which Stephen King rather enjoyed – ‘Joseph D’Lacey rocks!’ he said.
Sadly the publisher of MEAT and Garbage Man, Beautiful Books, has gone out of business – which means I’ve gone out of business too.
Over the years I’ve placed thirty or forty short stories and a handful of novellas. I’ve sold three of my ten novels and at no time have I ever ‘made a living’ from writing.
So here I am: no adult fiction agent and no publisher in a publishing world that’s changing so fast no one knows what will happen next.
Why not join me as I blunder into the next phase of unplanned chaos that I’ve come to accept as my…ahem…job.