Well, we just about got through yesterday with our sanity intact. I ended up delivering my passage at the Nine Lessons and Carols then having to almost literally drop the mike to get Tom home for his bedtime. Today I’ve actually had a day off, and haven’t known quite what to do with myself. Caroline, of course, is still a blur.
Today’s blog is something I’ve been preparing for a while. I asked a large number of my writer friends and colleagues to tell me about the worst moments of their writing lives. I thought this might make other writers, particularly new ones, feel a bit better about their own situations, knowing that these guys have been through tough times and come out the other side. Of course, in a lot of cases, and this is something several of the respondents have pointed out to me, the worst thing that’s happened to a particular writer is a story that can’t be told in public, because other people are implicated, some of them innocent, some of them people one might want to work for again. Even this collection of third or fourth worse things will make your toes curl.
‘The only concern I have about writing this is how honest I should be. The worst thing, I think, that has (so far) happened to me as a writer was on what was, more or less, my first gig. It was a good gig. At the age of twenty-four, I suddenly found myself commissioned to write a feature film for one of the major UK film producers and distributors. I’d pitched it quite casually and they leapt on it straight away, and it felt like all of my dreams had come true and that the future would be set fair and full of glamour: I was going to get paid, for one thing. So with joy in my heart and an overwhelming sense of optimism, I started developing it. I’d only been doing so for a few days when it became clear that the company in question had suddenly realised that this was basically my first professional job, that I’d written absolutely nothing of note before (apart from an unproduced radio play about a talking mongoose). Based on this, they decided to sack me with immediate effect, take my idea and give it to someone else. This was absolutely shattering. Though, of course, I was fervently assured that it was nothing personal nor anything to do with my glaringly obvious and abject lack of talent. However, my agent, being very clever, had made sure that I’d already been contracted to write a first draft of the script, and that the company in question would have to pay me for said draft even if they were to boot me off. So, reluctantly, I was allowed to proceed with the writing, since they might as well get something for their money. And that was really the worst part – grinding out a script of an idea that I was very fond of, in the sure and certain knowledge that I was basically going to get fired no matter what, even if I ended up writing Citizen Kane or Ghostbusters. I handed it in, having convinced myself that it was actually pretty good and that they might actually change their minds, and they sacked me. One of the execs at the film company left her copy of the script in the women’s changing rooms at Marks & Spencer, Oxford Street, and I was phoned up by Marks & Spencer, Oxford Street, asking what they should do with it. Today, I would make a witty and memorable reply. Then, I said nothing, because I had basically just lost all confidence in myself as a writer and user of words. This total lack of confidence lasted a number of years, during which I developed a deep-seated terror of ever working in film or television again. Unfortunately for the viewing public in general, and Doctor Who fans in particular, I overcame at least part of that terror; however, some of it’s still there, like the ghost of a broken rib or a recurrent haemorrhoid. I guess I could look at the positives of the whole experience – that it toughened me up, taught me to handle rejection, how to approach the business in a dispassionate way – but it was basically a pain in the arse and I wouldn’t mind if it had never happened at all. It also happened just before Christmas and just after my girlfriend had left me. So that was crap too.’ Peter Harness.
(Peter’s new series, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, will be broadcast on BBC1 in the New Year.)
‘My Worst Thing, by far, was a Granada sitcom called The House of Windsor, about life among the staff of Buckingham Palace. It was nothing to do with me, nothing. But the man who created it went off to another job before production even began, all the scripts fell thorough, the producer was a mate, so I said I’d help… What a mistake. Worst of all, it was transmitted like Drop the Dead Donkey, not live exactly, but shot and broadcast within the same week so the script could be topical. Topical! It had occurred to no one that the Royal Family is rarely topical. Most weeks, they don’t actually do anything. Okay, we did coincide with that week when Princess Diana rescued a homeless man from drowning in a fountain, but that just proved real life was madder than anything we could ever invent! (I think I then made up a joke about Prince Edward going for a tramp in the woods. I’m sorry. I really am sorry.) So we were trapped – shoot on a Friday, transmit on a Sunday, and repeat. For six weeks. So the cast would see their bad reviews, and walk into rehearsals the next day, literally bristling with fear and anger as they picked up their next terrible script! I had to go into rehearsals, all day long, and sit there as they ripped the script apart – quite rightly, ‘cos they were rubbish – then go home and rewrite till 4 or 5 in the morning (and I mean write an entirely new script from scratch), then go back to rehearsals at 10am, and have the new rubbish script ripped apart all over again. Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night, until the final script would be issued on Thursday night. A final script of rubbish. Absolute rubbish. I’d never written a sitcom and never wanted to, but to go into that rehearsal room with a big, powerful, unhappy cast took a lot of nerve – I actually discovered I was made of steel, as all the other writers fled, leaving me alone with two lovely, sweet but inexperienced script editors. Oh it was like stepping into a furnace. I’d have to defend the scripts to the actors, in order be professional, while agreeing with every criticism. And actors, trapped inside rubbish, can be savage! Leslie Phillips actually did something I thought actors didn’t really do – he stared at me with utter contempt and threw the script over his shoulder. And to repeat, HE WAS RIGHT! The first review in the Observer said “Russell T Davies takes his jokes from the 1973 Fleetway Book of Fun.” Again, right! After that, I decided I couldn’t use my own name on this bollocks, and I invented the name Leo Vaughn. Years later, I’d see repeat fees for Leo Vaughn going unpaid, because the show had been sold to Uganda, but I never claimed them. Dirty money! I learnt nothing from that job, nothing. Except never do a mate a favour. And also, in fairness, that Warren Clarke was a truly lovely man, because he handled the entire disaster with an enormous humour. I was so sorry when he passed away recently; my only good memory of a terrible time. (Though I maintain that Ep.5, in which Margaret Courtenay’s lady-in-waiting told a story about being trapped in the cellar of Buckingham Palace with Rock Hudson actually bordered on funny, once or twice.)’ Russell T. Davies.
(Russell’s three related TV series, Cucumber, Banana and Tofu, will be broadcast on Channel 4, E4 and 4oD in the New Year.)
‘My worst writing moment — well, I could talk about the time, early in my career, when I wasn’t in the habit of reflexively saving and I lost the final 17 pages of the end of the novel I was writing and had to try and recreate them. I’m convinced what I came up with the second time around was far inferior to that first burst of brilliance. But instead I’m going to talk about my very first reading at a World Science Fiction convention. This falls under the heading — be careful what you wish for. So, I’m a fairly new writer, and I’m very excited to get my very own reading one evening at the convention. I was foolish and young and didn’t know that getting a reading at the dinner hour is not exactly a plum slot. Rather like 10:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. But I didn’t know this so I turn up at the appointed hour in the indicated room. About ten minutes after my reading was about to start no one had shown up and I was preparing to leave. Then in walks an actual breathing, ambulatory human. He seemed startled to see me, and I burbled about how “I’m happy to read or we could just go to the bar and I’ll buy you a drink and we can talk.” He held up a hand to stop my babbling, and said, “Uh, I was just looking for someplace to sleep.” Fortunately the whole thing struck me as wonderfully absurd so I laughed and told him I’d shut the door quietly so he wouldn’t be disturbed. As I left he was arranging chairs into a sort of bed configuration. It’s such a challenge to actually get published that sometimes writers forget that having one book published doesn’t mean you’ve arrived. My advice to new writers is wait until you have a few books on the stands before you ask for that reading. Then you won’t find yourself gently turning out the light for an exhausted fan.’ Melinda Snodgrass.
(Melinda’s Edge books are now being published in the UK by Titan.)
‘The one worst thing? Easy. That was the time a (non-writing) director on a project secretly wrote his own unsolicited draft while I was still working on mine, and pushed it through to get me removed – which they did. That was the worst. No, wait, that wasn’t the worst – there was the time I found out I was no longer working on a project when I saw the news announcement about someone else writing it (that has actually happened three times). That was the worst. Hold on, actually, there was the pitch meeting where the exec called us in for a chat, then told us that our pitch would never work, and that he didn’t like Severance and was glad he’d rejected that too, wasting a day of our time just to say no. That was definitely the worst. Well, apart from the time I was asked to write a movie outline, which I sent in, got no reply, and then saw an almost identical movie released a year later by the same company. That has to be the worst, surely. Although, now I think about it, there were also the multiple job losses, firings, rejections, demands for free work, getting kicked off my own passion project, people taking credit for my work, pitching for jobs and never hearing back, being accused of right wing bias and liberal handwringing for the same TV episode I wrote, the disastrous phone pitch to an LA studio which lost me a potentially massive job, the financially difficult months and years when I never knew where the next job was coming from, the online attacks when people took exception to a storyline, seeing my low budget movie pop up on YouTube constantly and getting told I’m part of “Hollywood’s” outdated system and so I should change how movies are distributed (sure, I’ll just do that then, single-handedly)… Yeah. They were the worst. If, of course, you don’t include the constant, gutwrenching anxiety – worry about work, money, story, career, illness, death, everything. Thinking up worst-case scenarios for a living seems to bring out terrible things in my subconscious. That is definitely the worst thing. Until the next one. Having said all that, I wouldn’t – and couldn’t – do anything else. This is the only thing I’m good at (and I have no employable skills or qualifications). Can anyone lend me £5?’ James Moran.
‘The worst thing that has happened to me as a writer? A few years ago a major online retailer that shall not be named (but whose name may invoke images of Wonder Woman, cough, cough) decided to start shipping a book of mine a month early, which naturally triggered the other major retailers doing the same, because they didn’t want to miss out. But the eBook sales didn’t start a month early, because they didn’t have the files. So suddenly my inbox exploded with people calling me a greedy bitch and worse (much, much worse), since I had clearly orchestrated an early book release sans eBooks just to drive up profits. Which, um. Doesn’t actually make any sense. It got so bad that I had to have my PA start filtering my email, and I didn’t sleep for like three days. Not fun.’ Seanan McGuire.
(‘My latest book is The Winter Long, book eight in the adventures of October Daye, which started with Rosemary and Rue. I like them a lot. So do some other people, hence the series going on for this long. Check them out!‘)
‘In the fall of 2006 I attended an advanced screening of Happy Feet, the George Miller (Mad Max, Road Warrior, Babe: Pig in the City) animated film about singing, dancing penguins who believe in a penguin god and are starving to death because of overfishing. What surprised me most about it was its themes, which were, as anyone who has actually seen it can attest, a bit heavy handed and quite far to the left – even to someone as liberal about the environment as myself. Though several avenues of review presented themselves, I thought it would be funny to write my review with a mock anger, taking a position far to the right, rattling some cages but trying, at the end of the day, to be funny. The result was disastrous. While many of my longtime readers got the joke, the review managed to garner national attention. It was linked to by a number of blogs – both liberal and conservative – and even managed to convince Fox News (which had previously held such little regard for the film that they sent the mother of one of their anchors to see it and had her literally phone her review in) to reassess it and cover the film in regards to its themes of atheism and left wing tree hugging. Daily Kos, one of the internet’s chief repositories of liberal thought at the time, went so far as to make a post forbidding any further posts linking to my piece as they felt the several already in existence were more than enough. For two-and-a-half months, day in and day out, I received e-mails about the piece – half praising me for my bravery standing in the face of liberal Hollywood, the other half condemning me for being a “jack boot wearing, goose stepping, Fox watching, brown shirt”. End quote. By then, the piece had been read untold millions of times and I was, for a brief moment, famed as both a champion and a villain. But it was all a joke. A gag. In truth I’m incredibly moderate – almost a perfect centrist. But I saw two paths before me. I could press on forward, taking the blow on the chin, writing from then on with sincerity but losing the loyalty of my newfound supporters while maintaining the animosity of those that hated me. Or I could take up the sword and shield for the right and fill the void (at the time) of published voices reviewing films for conservatives – which could have been remarkably lucrative. I chose the former, and never again wrote another review that caused such a stir or was as widely read. But I got to keep my soul. And that was the important part. To this day friends still give me penguins for Christmas and occasionally slip copies of Happy Feet onto my DVD shelf, anxiously awaiting the snarky phone call they expect will follow. And I do as I always do, grumbling just a bit under my breath, remembering that it just really wasn’t a very good movie.’ C. Robert Cargill.
(Cargill’s novel Dreams and Shadows is in all good bookshops now.)
‘We talk a lot about how important the first line in a novel is. You labour over it, agonizing over getting the tone just exactly right. With my second novel, Glamour in Glass, I got my author copies, and giddily opened the book, as you do. And then a giant stream of curses began. The first line was missing. Missing. We never figured out how it happened, since the last time my editor and I looked at it, the sentence was there. It was in the ARC. It was in the page proofs, but somehow, that sentence got omitted before it went to press. What I learned from this was that you can turn almost any failure into a feature. I blogged about it, and offered a quiz where you could guess famous novels by their second lines. I offered to hand write the missing line into copies, temporary tattoos, t-shirts, aprons… And people wound up buying the hardback so they could have the “collector’s edition”. It was devastating in the moment, but once I took time to breathe – after all the cursing – I realized that the story was still intact, and that was the thing that really mattered. It’s made me a lot calmer about my deathless prose in general. And improved my stamina with cursing.’ Mary Robinette Kowal.
(Mary’s latest book is her Glamourist Histories series is Valour and Vanity, out now.)
‘Sometimes I pine for the old days when being a writer meant using a typewriter. A simple device, with no distractions: no video output; no games; no links to social media. Just a great big chunk of metal and plastic that sat there and did its one job well. There were downsides to using a typewriter of course. For instance, there was no option to cut and paste sections of dialogue. And typos meant either a dab-and-blow application of Tipp-Ex or a rewrite of the page (because most times you were typing three copies at once, through two sheets of carbon paper, and Tipp-Ex was sometimes impractical for the carbon copies). Rewriting a page or two because of errors was annoying enough, but there was one time I had to do a full rewrite of a seventy page radio script. The script had looked so good sitting there on my desk, bound and ready for me to deliver it to the BBC the next day, deadline day. It looked good right up to the point my younger brother decided to knock my cup of coffee over it. The script was saturated. Those pages that didn’t finish up with a coffee watermark across them nonetheless reeked of the stuff. This was late evening, and it soon dawned on me that I was going to have to rewrite The Entire Thing. This was my first experience of working through the night, travelling through the dark and into the dawn of morning. I remember several cucumber sandwiches and mugs of (very carefully handled) coffee. The script was rewritten, and I took it to Broadcasting House in Queen Margaret Drive in the rush hour. I felt good. When I returned home around 11am I felt awful, and hit the sack. And I think of that each and every time I catch myself thinking “typewriters were fun”. Andrew Smith.
(Andrew’s latest audio Doctor Who adventure for Big Finish is ‘Domain of the Voord’.)
‘I was having a meeting about my first ever radio play. The director held up a copy of the script. “Finally,” she said, “bit long. Cut it by a third.” I was puzzled as I thought I’d got the word count right, but duly spent a few days chopping a third of it out and then sent it back in. The script editor emailed me. Turns out the director liked her scripts in 10pt. I’d used 12pt. My script had been the right length after all, so could I put it all back in?’ James Goss.
(James’ latest Doctor Who novel is the Twelfth Doctor adventure The Blood Cell.)
‘One of my most successful comedy shows, Adventures in Mating, only exists because I couldn’t get it done on time. It’s a live stage show inspired by Choose Your Own Adventure novels but it’s a couple on a horrible first date. It’s basically an audience interactive romantic comedy and if the audience doesn’t vote carefully the main characters might die. I wrote the show in 2005 and since then it’s been performed thousands of times in the United States, the UK, and I think it’s still running in Bulgaria. But it only exists because I was running behind on getting it done. Because there were so many audience choices there were an insane number of different contained scenes. Normally I would wait until a show was entirely done to email it to the cast, but they were desperate to start memorizing their lines so I started emailing them each individual scene. With only three scenes to go and days before the first show, my computer decided the process needed more drama and died suddenly. I borrowed a computer from my girlfriend (now wife), emailed the cast and asked them to please send me back the script so I could see how it should end, and it still gives me heart palpitations when I think about it.’ Joseph Scrimshaw.
(‘If you’re interested in reading Adventures in Mating, it’s on my site with a bunch of other comedy shows.’)
‘Ever wondered why my first novel came out in 2002, when I’d been publishing short stories since 1986? Well, it wasn’t because I wasn’t trying to write and sell novels! But writing a fully articulated novel is very different from tackling a short story, and I’m a bone-headed, stubborn, slow learner who had to make his own mistakes. Roger Zelazny once said that anyone can become a novelist: they just have to write a million words of shit first to learn their art. In my case, make that two million. Around 1990-93 I was working on that eventually turned out to be my first publishable novel manuscript. (With a full-time job keeping me busy I could only write about one every three years.) In 1993 I submitted it to a young, dynamic, go-getting editor at Millennium in London, and … she liked it! Excitement ensues. So does a deal with a well-known heavyweight literary agent. And then disillusion set, on multiple levels. First, there were issues with the book contract I was offered. It’s normal for publishers to play hardball with newbie authors, and for agents to push back on the terms they’re offered: but in this case the combination of a sluggish contracts office and an agent with a whole bunch of senior clients who were higher priorities than I made everything stall for about a year. Second and worse, I got an edit letter. Now, it’s normal for editors to request changes to a novel. But there’s a qualitative difference between asking for changes and asking for a whole different book. At first I wasn’t sure I was reading the edit letter right: but I asked some friends—all working novelists—for a sanity check, and they agreed. To comply with the edits I’d basically have to throw away the entire manuscript and write a new novel: a novel of a fundamentally different character from the sort of fiction I was trying to create. (I’d handed her an early draft of Scratch Monkey—but she was looking for a generic space opera.) Over about nine months, negotiations broke down. In the end, my agent couldn’t get any concessions on the contract terms. My editor wasn’t willing to go with a radically-redrafted version of the novel I’d originally submitted and I wasn’t willing to stop being Charles Stross and try being Peter Hamilton. It was a three-way clusterfuck, and the outcome was an epic failure to launch: a withdrawn contract offer and me being dumped by my agent. Nobody, I think, came out of it looking good, and it really hurt at the time. But … I mentioned writing a million words of shit along the way to learning to be a novelist. Scratch Monkey was something of a false dawn. The next two novels I tried to write just didn’t work properly. It wasn’t until about six years later that I finally figured out what I was supposed to be doing and began consistently writing actual novel-length stories as opposed to novel-shaped-things, one of which just happened to have all the right parts. If my editor and agent and I had closed a deal to publish Scratch Monkey in 1994, it’d have been received as a first novel with first novel flaws—and I would have been unable to deliver a publishable follow-up within deadline. My career would have crashed and burned before it got fully under way. So: I had one major setback followed by another six or seven years of learning-by-doing. But the result was that what was published as my first novel, Singularity Sky, really wasn’t—and when I got my big break (new agent, new publisher, new manuscript) I knew what to do with it. Final note: Scratch Monkey was eventually published by NESFA Press in 2011: completeists can find it here.’ Charles Stross.
(Charles’ latest SF novel is Neptune’s Brood. He’s got a ton of stuff coming out in 2015.)
‘Like many first-time novelists, I felt sure that the publication of my first book, The Ragwitch, would change my life. It would be an immediate success and I could give up my day job and settle down to a writing life of ease and luxury, publishing a new book once a year or so. However, while The Ragwitch did achieve modest critical acclaim it did not set the world on fire, and made very little money. So the day job continued, and through many nights and Sunday afternoons over the next eighteen months I wrote another book thinking that surely this next one would be my breakthrough book. It was in a way, but not in the right direction, because publishers universally rejected it, and it has never been published. Then my first book went out of print. As one of my best friends said, “I guess you’re just a one book wonder . . . and not much of one at that”. I could have easily given up then, after five years of writing at night and on weekends, with my first novel making no real mark and my second novel never even making it into the hands of readers. But I’m glad I didn’t, because every new book gives you another chance, another spin on the big wheel of luck – and my next book was Sabriel.’ Garth Nix.
(Garth’s latest novel, Book 4 of The Old Kingdom, is Clariel.)
‘I think there’s only a single “worst moment” that I can identify as yet, on the basis that many of the traditional writer woes are surely still ahead of me. My worst moment therefore takes place before I got into print and lasts for 15 years. I went the long way round to get into publishing, sending the sample chapters off, year in, year out, and then knuckling down to the next book when the rejections came in months later. After enough goes on that particular merry-go-round, I think I started to go a little crazy. I began submitting under pseudonyms because I thought my name was the problem. I began to submit in different fonts in case that was it. I went to signings and asked David Gemmell and Tom Holt the impossible question of “What do I have to do?” because eventually you do start to believe there’s some magical formula, some Masonic handshake unique to publishing, and if you just knew it, then all the doors would open.’ –Adrian Tchaikovsky.
(Adrian’s new fantasy novel, Guns of the Dawn, is out in February, when he’ll be doing a signing at London’s Forbidden Planet.)
‘It’s okay, I told myself, at 2am one night when I was chasing a mouse around a solicitors’ chambers in Bloomsbury with a riding crop – my life should include an episode like this. I was living in a solicitors chambers because I was a property guardian. I was a property guardian because I couldn’t afford to pay normal rents. I couldn’t afford to pay rent because in 2010, after seven years supporting myself by my writing I had found myself, agentless and out of contract – in the middle of a recession. I’ll have to draw a veil over exactly why that happened. But I can be candid about how much it sucked. My worst moment was not a moment. It was three years. I was privileged – there were safety nets. A small legacy, and a loving and fairly well off family. But it turns out even easy-setting, poverty-with-stabilisers is grindingly, humiliatingly miserable. It stole time, energy, life itself from what I wanted to be doing: living in London, writing stories. It chased me from one temporary shelter to another – four times in 2012 alone. My shoes let the rain in. Depression came and went and remorselessly came back. Slowly, slowly, I kept on writing a little book about children caught up in a war with invisible aliens, evacuated to Mars from a frozen Earth, a story whose bones I’d had in my head since I was nine years old… When it was all over – when I could buy new shoes and, at long last, even a new flat, and when Mars Evacuees was heading to the shops – people told me they’d noticed me plodding along, and they were impressed. They thought I was dogged, or determined, or brave. I’m not sure such praise ever feels like it fits. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, one more word on the page – because I had no choice. I had tried everything else I could think of, and failed. Writing didn’t seem to be working for me – but it was the only thing that had ever worked at all. But I’d always dreamed of being a full time writer. When living the dream is the only option, at least you know you must have had the right dream. I still think I was right about the mice in the solicitors chambers. I wouldn’t change them for the world. Sophia McDougall.
(Sophia’s YA SF novel, Mars Evacuees, is still selling truckloads.)
‘The worst thing that happened to me as a writer was not being able to write. Or being stopped from writing. Desperately needing to write and… what was I saying? Last summer, as the deadline closed for the manuscript of Ecko Endgame, the weather grew stiflingly hot. The office grew incredibly busy. The child grew very demanding (they do that, damn them). The weekends got taken up by other things, one after another. And every time I sat down and said to myself, “right, now we get this sorted!” something else came up, and something else came up, and something else came up. And the words, well, didn’t. There is a huge sense of frustration to not being able to write. A roar that builds in your chest and craves release, a fury like battering at a door that won’t let you free. And as that deadline gets closer and you have neither the words nor the time to find them, the sense of helplessness is too big to describe. Certainly, you wouldn’t have been able to write it down.’ Danie Ware.
(‘Ecko Endgame is the third and final book in the Ecko sequence from Titan Books. You can find out all about Ecko himself, his liking for flamethrowers and bad language, and just why he thinks life is a VR, on my blog.’)
‘Lots of moments in writing cause me despair. Most often it’s the frustration of trying to get a project to happen at all, or wrestling with my own limitations to make a thing halfway decent. But these things can be overcome. The true horrors come when something’s already finished, and you read/hear/watch it back, and then you realise flaws and mistakes when it’s too late to do anything about them. It’s bad enough to realise these for yourself; it’s worse when someone else points them out. One of my Doctor Who audios, ‘Phobos’, was set on the eponymous Martian moon. I did some background reading before I started, noting its irregular shape and pock-marked surface. I wrote the play, it came out… and then someone pointed out that parts of the play simply didn’t make sense, given Phobos’ size. I checked and yes, I’d somehow missed the fact that it’s so tiny you could walk around it in an afternoon. It’s one thing to not notice plot holes or inconsistent characterisation, but for an SF writer to fail on a basic bit of research like that was just embarrassing, and made me feel like a useless hack.’ Eddie Robson.
(‘On 18th December both series of my BBC Radio sitcom, Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully were released in one CD boxset. I’d hoped we’d get a third series, but sadly not: that wasn’t one of my best days either.’ Check out Eddie’s blog.)
‘My first publisher went bankrupt the week my first book came out, owing me money … and scuppering any chance for promotion or a reprint, which was galling since the book still managed to sell out quickly (unlike all their other publications) and anything it earned just got sucked into the void of their debts. I’ve worked for magazines that suddenly went under, owing me money … though, as a freelance, I’ve always recognised that it’s much worse for those on staff since I can usually traipse off and find something else to do. I’ve had to set books in progress aside for years because other stuff got in the way, though most of those have finally got finished and come out. But I think the worst thing is the accumulation of wasted time … fruitless meetings, pitches that have been urgently required but gone nowhere, general sitting about waiting for other people to do their jobs, and the endless potential for putting off actual work by getting distracted (thank you so much, internet). I accept that this is as much my fault as circumstances beyond my control, but I am still keenly aware of all those hours and days and years that have wandered away unnoticed when I ought to have been writing.’ Kim Newman.
(Kim’s latest novel is An English Ghost Story.)
‘I’ve been fortunate not to have too many bad moments as a writer, but the one that qualifies is the one where a publisher I was working with decided to try to lowball me on a contract, in part to see how I would respond. How I responded: by pulling the project and walking away. It was a learning experience for everyone, but mostly them.’ John Scalzi.
(John’s new book is Lock In.)
‘The worst thing that happened to me as a writer started out as the best thing – after several years of publishing in various smaller venues, I sold a two-book deal to Harper Collins. I thought I had finally hit the big time – my editor took me out for a lobster and champagne dinner, the first book, a collection of linked short stories, sold through its advance in foreign sales, the positive reviews started flowing in, and I launched into writing my first novel. I was on top of the writerly moon. That was where it all went wrong. Neil Gaiman wrote this once, and I wish I’d read it before I started writing that novel: “The worst thing in writing something for someone else, and I’ve found this several times over the years, especially in movies, is where you talk to an editor or an executive and you think that you’re talking about the same thing. Then you go away and do what you thought you were talking about and hand it in and find that you were quite wrong, and while you were describing (say) a romantic comedy with ghosts in they were buying a scary ghost story with perhaps some love in, and nobody is happy and the project is doomed.” I had contracted to write a South Asian threesome novel; what I wrote was a mainstream literary novel about a poly threesome, linked to the characters from my previous book, and very similar in tone. It turned out that what my editor actually wanted was, I think, a chick lit romance with brown people and lots of sexy cheating. I’m honestly not sure, still, what exactly she wanted – all I know is that after six months of drafting and six months going back and forth through four serious revisions, we finally gave up. We realized we were never going to get to the same page on this book, and we agreed to cancel my first novel. I cried for days. The whole experience almost broke me as a writer. That was in 2005 – almost ten years later, I still haven’t published a novel. I went into a long, depressive funk after that book was cancelled; I didn’t write much of anything for a year, and even when I started writing again, I was full of hesitations, fits and starts. But slowly, I started writing again, publishing again. First short stories, then, last year, a novella, The Stars Change, that was nominated for a variety of awards. Now I have a new agent who is really excited about my work, and I’m blazing my way through writing a new SF novel, that I hope will be the first in a series. It’s a huge change in career direction; I’m still anxious, but also very happy. I think as a young writer, I expected publishing to be a straightforward climb, working your way steadily up to the top. Instead, it’s more like climbing an icy mountain, with pitfalls and crevasses and falling right off. Sometimes, you’ve chosen the wrong path entirely, and the only way forward is to turn around and go back. But the words, the stories, are there, still waiting for you. So you catch your breath, sink your piton into the ice, choose your new course, and start climbing again.’ Mary Anne Mohanraj.
I hope you find those stories as touching as I did. We all go through it. So will you, if you’re a writer, and you’ll come out the other side. In the comments, I’d love to hear your own stories of similar moments. I’d like to thank all my respondents, and commend their fiction to you. Cheers.