Writing is a long, hard slog. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to get good at it, and it takes even more time and even more work to get someone to recognise that you’re any good at it.
I read that in a post this evening on Nicola Vincent-Abnett’s blog which reminded me of something from my misspent yoof, so I’m going to put down a teeny tiny tale of how I had my early attempts to be a writer was popped at an early age, but please read her blog post first.
My very first Saturday job was working in a rare/second hand/antiquarian bookshop in Littleborough and I was there from age 15 to around 18 and loved it. To walk through a building stacked with huge piles of books, shelves groaning under the weight of paper and the smell… aaaah the smell of napalm in the morning may be one thing but the smell of thousands of secondhand books is truly the thing to love. I would mainly carry boxes of books around for the owner and help him with cleaning or sorting out for bookfairs and was paid about £5 for a days work along with a few paperback sci-fi books from his old stock. The stuff I was paid with was mainly in a second building that customers wouldn’t normally be allowed in, it was for his stock or for traders and there was a small corner of one room which was filled with old Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and other pulp writers. I would grab a few and try to read as much as possible before the next weeks collection. I would be filling my mind with the vivid golden era pulp nonsense that much of todays sci-fi has lost in its attempt to be an all serious genre with its posh, no sillyness rules and it’s far too clinical nature. I think its one of the reasons I still read some 40k fiction these days (in between reading Hunter S Thompson and HP Lovecraft) because a lot of it with its ideas of genetically engineered supermen in spaceships that are huge floating cities in space and all encompassing evil aliens is the stuff that EE ‘Doc’ Smith would
churn out write.
At one time I was studying my English A-Levels under the delusion that it would help my attempt to break into the film industry by being able to work with scripts better… hmmm. Mainly it taught me that babies make ‘biological noises’ when growing up and that the English language we all know and adore is a bastard language made from the raping, pillaging and invasions of the Danish, Dutch, French, Normans and other assorted Europeans out for a good time in the early 700’s. As part of my course we had to write some form of creative writing and it seemed natural that I write some form of pulp.
It was an obvious story, I know it now. Spaceship turns up in a busy park, hideously strange being gets out, army turns up (sounds like I’d watched the day the earth stood still too many times) and the big twist at the end is that its a spaceship from Earth and the pilot is a man. The story was supposed to be written from the POV of an alien (I think I gave them three eyes and tentacles in the final description just to round out the BEM element). So its a hack story, I was young and still trying to flex my writing muscles and as an attempt to get some form of creative feedback from someone other that my teachers and classmates I gave a copy to someone who came into the bookshop every Tuesday to have lunch with the owner, a Mr Trevor Hoyle. Trevor wrote sci-fi, he had written an episode of Blakes 7 (Ultraworld), several B7 novels, a series of alternative dimension books called Q and a smattering of other books so he was established. He was a curly haired, mustachioed shortish guy who would shuffle in but to me he was an item of awe mainly because he was connected with Blakes 7 and he once told me a story about how he met Philip K Dick and there was snuff all over a table. So I got a copy of the story printed off and gave it to Trevor for assessing and nervously waited.
To say I was shot down in flames would be an understatement.
Its easy to excuse it, that I was young, that I was new to all this and I had yet to find my own writing style but his comments pointed out it was all very cliché, that it was badly done and just basically said that everyone could write but not everyone should write. Sheeeeeeet… how do you counter that?
To this day I do not resent Trevor for his criticism, in many ways he helped me by making me face criticism at an early age and the maturity to deal with it rather than throw a hissy fit but I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t shown him. Would I have become some form of hack writer? Would I have practiced and practiced until I became the greatest pulp sci-fi schlock writer ever? Could I have been one of the people scribing one of the Horus Heresy books? No effing way as I was far too dedicated to getting into film making but by ditching writing early on I tried to focus more on story telling through other means, which was one way I enjoyed animation and film making at college so much. I own many of Trevor’s books and have enjoyed reading them. Many are signed to me and I remember enjoying a radio play that was on BBC4 (I think) that Trevor wrote and was set in the hospital that I could see from my bedroom while growing up. Ultraworld is one of the more bizarre and experiential episodes of Blakes 7 that was made and was only let down by the budget restrictions at the time. He is a good writer which is probably what made the letter he wrote me harder to digest. It sat under my bed in a place that most boys of my age would have kept porn magazines, but this one came with it’s own brand of shame burning a hole in my psyche.
The core point I’ve taken from Nicola’s blog is something I’ve tried to tell myself many times, never give up, but to this day I’ve never been able to put words to paper in any kind of story format because at the back of my head I have this teeny tiny Northern Kurt Vonnegut lookalike telling me I was crap.