Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Sweet Smell Of Success

Early in my career I remember meeting the prolific and highly talented children’s writer, John Rowe Townsend. He asked me what I was working on at the time and I said, ‘Oh nothing really.’ He smiled sceptically. ‘Oh come on, Brian,’ he said. ‘We’re always working on something.’ He was right, of course.

I finished the third book in my fantasy trilogy last week and, despite my stated intention of taking a few weeks off, this morning at eight thirty I found myself sitting down at my computer and beginning work on my next Victorian ghost story. The fact is, I just can’t leave it alone. Or perhaps it would be more true to say that it won‘t leave me alone – whatever it is.

People sometimes ask how I got my first story published. That’s not the same question as, 'When did you first decide to be a writer?'. The decision to be a writer came very early on, when I was still at school. But the reality of getting something published happened when I was at university and it came about almost by accident.

I decided to go to Morocco during my Summer vacation. I was a bit na├»ve in those days and I wasn’t careful enough about what I ate and drank. Unsurprisingly therefore, I quickly became extremely ill. Soon I was too sick to leave my room. I was staying in an incredibly cheap pension and there was nothing to do except lie on my bed and watch a solitary cockroach climbing up the wall, falling off, climbing up again, falling off, climbing up again…

Foolishly, I had brought no books with me, but a previous guest had left behind a copy of a now-defunct magazine for young women called Honey. After a while, I picked the magazine up and began idly to leaf through its pages. Most of the articles had little or no appeal for me; but there was a short story and, out of boredom, I read this several times over the next few days - so many times, in fact, that there came a moment when I stopped thinking about it as a series of events happening to a number of characters. Instead, I saw it as pure structure.

It was a revelation, a bit like the moment near the end of the film The Matrix when Neo suddenly sees the agents who have been pursuing him throughout the movie, not as individuals but as lines of programming code. Like Neo, I was no longer deceived. I knew how the story worked and with that knowledge came the realisation that I could write something similar. I immediately vowed that if ever got back to England (and this didn’t seem a complete certainty at the time) then that was exactly what I would do.

Fortunately, I did make it back to England and after a couple of months recuperating I had a go at writing the story. I used a structure similar to the one I had observed in the magazine, though I added details of my own. For example, I based the villain of the story on my flat-mate’s girl-friend, whom I disliked intensely because whenever she came to our flat all she did was eat our food, mock me (perhaps justifiably) for my lack of fashion-sense, complain to my flat-mate that he never did anything interesting, and then go away again. Because I felt so strongly about her, that gave the story power. When it was finished, I sent my story off to Honey and a few weeks later the editor wrote back offering to buy it. Fame and fortune beckoned! (Or so I believed at the time.)

So here’s my question? Why was my first attempt at getting published such an unqualified success? You’ve probably worked it out already. But in case you haven’t, I’ll tell you. It was because I understood exactly what kind of story the magazine wanted. I had done the research. I hadn’t set out with that intention; illness and boredom had been the catalyst; nevertheless, I had studied the market as thoroughly as any would-be entrepreneur.

So when people ask me if I have any tips for aspiring authors I tell them this: read, read and then read some more. It’s the only foolproof way to find out what publishers are really looking for.

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