Advice for Writers by Danny King

Danny King
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The following is not set in stone. These are simply things that have worked for me so take what you will and ignore the rest. No one can or should tell you how to write, least of all me, but some of the below might help a little – DK.

READERSHIP

  • Try and decide what you’re writing and, most importantly, who you’re writing for. Publishers are notoriously cautious and unless they can see who’d want to buy your book they probably won’t touch it.
  • Tip: Younger readers are more likely to buy books (though not teens as they have no money). 20/30-somethings go to bookshops, 50/60-somethings go to libraries and most people in-between play golf or watch telly.
  • The most prolific book buyers are professional 20/30-something women. They account for something in the region of 70-80% of all book sales and the reason chick-lit is so massive.
  • Most appealing book as far as publishers are concerned: Glamorous Cosmo editor discovers a sexy secret about a top celeb and blackmails him into being her boyfriend for the big glamour Cosmo bash, but then it all goes wrong. Luckily, by this time, the celeb’s fallen in love with the Cosmo Editor and comes to her rescue in front of everyone. Ideally written by a current or former Cosmo Editor who has a celeb boyfriend. I’m pretty sure there’d be a queue of publishers fighting over that one.
  • 20/30-something males tend to read more newspapers than books, so books aimed at blokes don’t carry nearly as much weight or appeal for publishers and agents.
  • Least appealing book as far as publishers are concerned: Lonely man who’s worked in a biscuit factory all his life pushes his boss into the biscuit mixer and slaughters the rest of his colleagues after reading messages from the devil in the Hobnobs, then loses his virginity – as written by a lonely man who’s spent all his life working in a biscuit factory. Publisher don’t see this second sort of book as marketable because they think it’s just a bloke venting his spleen and 99 times out of 100 it usually is.
  • Almost everyone takes a book on holiday though, so a smartly aimed holiday-esque read/romp/romance to lose yourself in around the swimming pool is always a good bet.
  • As well as 70-80% of book buyers being women, most of the people who work in the creative side of publishing are women too (submissions editors etc). Try to get into the mindset of what they want to read and you’ll be doing yourself no end of favours.
  • Lastly, have a couple of sequels in mind and mention these when submitting your books to publishers/agents because publishers/agents love series and this could help swing their mind if they like your book. One-off books are the literary equivalent of Kung-Foo Fighting and other such one-hit wonder records and they’re hard to publish, because they’re hard to market, which means they’re harder to make a profit on. Which is the bottom line. A series, or a well-known author’s name, are what make people pick up books, which is why an author’s name is often bigger than the title of the book on the front cover – though not mine.

CHARACTERISATIONS

  •  I know this might sound like a pot calling a kettle black, but your characters don’t have to be out and out scumbags to be interesting. Mine are burglars and bank robbers and hitmen etc, but I always try and give them endearing qualities, a bit of morality or a soft side to help the reader sympathise with them.
  • If you try and write brash, arrogant, cocky and cool, it usually just comes out as wanky. Self-deprecating humour or observations are almost always more palatable than some guy pointing and sneering at everyone else.
  • Try and avoid referencing too many cool iconistic things. Some writers fill their books with pop songs in an attempt to come across as cool but it usual just sounds like the writer wants to be invited on Desert Island Discs to brag about his or her record collection. Same goes for fashion labels, movies, art, artists and brands etc.
  • Also, try not to bang on too much about drink, drugs, sex, fags and sex. These are easy crutches to reach for to shape a character, but they’re not substitutes for personality. Try writing about a guy who does none of these things and you’ll learn more about writing personality in a couple of days than you will in a month of Sundays writing about some hard-drinking, chain-smoking, womanising narc.
  • Find your voice and style. I wrote dozens of manuscripts (books, film scripts, poems and stories – most of which I thought were sliced bread at the time) before I found my style so don’t get frustrated if your first attempts aren’t well received.
  • Learning to write takes time and practice. You will improve with every poem, every story and every book. Despite what people say, it’s not a gift, it’s actually just 10 or 20 years of patience and practice. Your early work might get universally rejected by everyone but this is an important foundation you need to lay down. That said, you might hit the formula first time. Some people do, though I never did.
  • The more you write, the more your eyes will open up to how much there is to write about.
  • You characters don’t always have to be doing something. (eg. “I grabbed a beer,” “I walked down the street.” “I went to the supermarket” “I swivelled in my chair” etc). More interesting is usually what’s going on inside a person’s head. And it doesn’t have to be anything big. You can expand on anything. Here’s an example:-

“I turned on my computer and logged on. When my finger dipped into the hole to tap the little nub where the K used to be, I wondered what it was that I’d done that had offended the computer department so much that they’d stubbornly sat on my request for a new keyboard for almost four months while gleefully distributing brand spanking new IBMs to everyone within a six-desk radius of me. So Carl supported Spurs and I’d once expressed a vague affection for Arsenal? He couldn’t be sitting on my request purely because of that, could he? And what about Jill. Jill had taken something of dislike to me on my first day when I told her that joke about the guy in the wheel chair and the leaking colostomy bag. But that had been seven years ago. Surely no one could harbour a grudge over such a silly little thing for seven years? Even if her dad was in a wheelchair?”

  • The above is just an example and the first thing off the top of my head, but writing in the first person gives you licence to go off on all sorts of tangents and colour your story with as many thoughts and observations as you think you need to entertain your readers.
  • Everything has a story behind it. A single post-it note. A set of coasters. Your favourite pen. Your least favourite pen. A stain on the desk. A keyboard with a missing K. Absolutely anything. Just make it interesting and make your words physically enjoyable to read. As Frank Carson used to say “It’s the way I tell ’em!”
  • Avoid clichés. Not everyone from Bosnia/Northern Ireland will have seen their family killed in front of their eyes. Not every journalist will be a sleazy snoop who lives for the story. Not every politician will be having an affair. Not every ex-soldier will be haunted by an atrocity. Not every computer programmer is a girlfriendless nerd. Not every housewife is unhappy. Not every used car salesman is a crook.
  • Cruel and coarse humour is sometimes thought to be funnier, but good-natured humour has an infinite shelf life. It’s also much harder to do.
  • Give your characters a grounding in reality. Lots of my characters are based on people I know. Several from Burglar; Heather, Vince and Sid in Bank Robber, George, Craig, Adele in Hitman, pretty much everyone in Pornographer, and of course myself. I even wrote a character called Jeannie in School for Scumbags that’s based on my wife Jeannie (the character’s a real goody-goody-two-shoes) and she hated it, but then basing her on Jeannie just helped me visualise and write her better.
  • Making characters up from scratch is pretty hard, it’s much easier to use people you know and draw on conversations, experiences and episodes from their/your life, but don’t get too carried away because not everything Tom, Dick or Harry said down the pub 15 years ago will be of interest to people, unless that thing was itself interesting or in some way relevant to the story.

PLOTS

  • Beware of being too specific with your locations. Sometimes (not always) it’s best to leave them vague, kind of every-town, so that it could almost be set anywhere in Britain. This may give the book more appeal as your readers will automatically home in on familiar/similar locations and suddenly your book has a much greater appeal to the reader than a book set somewhere specific (and probably somewhere they’ve never heard of and can’t visualise). This is what I did with The Burglar Diaries and it’s why every reader I’ve met always thinks it’s set in their town.
  • Alternatively you could go the other way and make your book really specific. A blood stained thriller set in Dundee might not sell anywhere else but you might find a little publisher in Dundee who wants to take a risk and run off 500 copies for local bookshops.
  • That said, this is just something that works for me. Other writers like to take you on a tour of their locations so that you can almost smell the bricks – eg. Dan Brown, Ian Flemyng – but it’s something for you to think about. What works for you?
  • Same with physical descriptions. The more you try to shoe-horn the size and shape of a bloke down to the finest detail into your reader’s skull, the less they will identify with your characters unless, by some coincidence, they know someone who’s 6ft 2, always wears a blue boiler suit and a bowler hat, with green eyes, yellow hair, bad teeth, eczema and frogman flippers. Give a vague description by all means but this isn’t telly so concentrate on what telly can’t do very well and explore your character’s personality rather than his or her wardrobe.
  • Again, some writers, particularly literary writers like Sebastian Faulks, like to paint their characters down to the shirt buttons, so it’s horses for courses.

CLICHÉS TO AVOID

  • Almost everyone who wants to write a book almost always wants to write a book about travelling. I’ve lost count of the amount of people who think their six months in Thailand/India/America/Australia etc will be of interest to the book-buying public. It’s the literary equivalent of forcing your holiday photos on someone else and every up-and-coming writer’s trying to do it.
  • Then again, travel books can and do sell in their tens of thousands so you may well become hugely successful in this field. But a travel book is almost always everybody’s first attempt at writing a book so be aware of the odds against you.

WRITING

  • Map out your plot by all means but don’t stick too rigidly to this map if your story starts to take you in a different direction once you start writing. The stuff you come up with as you’re going along is almost always better than the stuff you originally map out. Have a general idea where each chapter is going and what’s going to happen in it but give your writing room to manoeuvre.
  • Over-mapping is really just an exercise in procrastination. Your best bet’s just sitting down and getting on with it.
  • Try setting yourself a daily limit (it doesn’t have to be daily, just per writing sitting). Set yourself a minimum and, more importantly, a maximum wordage for the day. Apparently Somerset Maugham used to write 600 words a day – never a word under or over. I myself try to write 1,000 words. Some times it’s possible and tempting to write more but more often than not when I’ve written 2,000/3,000 words in a single sitting, a lot of it will feel rushed and I’ll end up rewriting great chunks.
  • Concentrate on one sentence at a time when you’re actually writing the book. When planning, look at the book as a whole, but when you’re actually writing, just concentrate on the actual sentence you’re writing and try to make it interesting and enjoyable to read. Then when you’ve finished it, move on and write the next sentence. I know this sounds obvious but writing books is all in the detail. Someone once said that life’s a journey not a destination (I can’t remember who) and the same goes for books. Who cares if we find out the butler did it in the last chapter if we’ve had to slog our way through 250 mundane pages just to get to the one glorious moment when Sherlock Jones unmasks him?

WRITING TO PUBLISHERS AND AGENTS

  • Apply to both publishers and literary agents at the same time. I think I wrote to one publishers and one agency once a week (first thing Monday), then wrote to another publishers and literary agency the next Monday whether I’d heard a response or not, so that in the end I was waiting for a dozen rejection replies at any one time. Most I didn’t even hear back from, so don’t sit idle waiting for each response, forget about it and just keep stuffing the post box. Obviously this is quite pricey, what with photocopying and printing and all so if you’re able to send a few of these from work, all the better.
  •  Buy a book like The Writer’s Handbook 2010. It has all you need to know in there. I used to scribble in dates and such like in mine next to publishers & agents to keep a record of who I’d written to & when.
  •  Your letters: Your letters to publishers / agents should contain the following:
  • Covering letter
  • 1 page synopsis
  • First three chapters
  • Stamped SAE
  • COVERING LETTER: 

This is your hook, so keep it brief (1 page), punchy and grabs the publisher’s / agent’s attention immediately.
Mention your book, but don’t bang on about it, that’s what your synopsis is for. In your covering letter concentrate on it’s selling points. Suggest other authors whose styles are similar to yours. Don’t say you’re a unique one-off, the like of which has never been seen before, because they’ll probably come to a few conclusions as to why that should be. If your stuff is like (eg) Martina Cole, single out Martina Cole’s publishers and agent and make sure you mention this in your covering letter, not in an arrogant way or anything, but you can say you’ve been inspired by her, you’ve always been a fan and /or you’ve been favourable compared to her, that sort of flannel. It will help.
As I said, books are mainly bought by [mostly] female office working commuters, 20-40 years old, so bear this in mind when pitching your book (ie. “all my girlfriends who’ve read it think it’s great, because they say they were really able to empathise with the heroine etc” – or something like that).

  • 1 PAGE SYNOPSIS

This is basically the teaser blurb you get on the back cover of a book. It’s designed to make a shopper buy that book, and this serves exactly the same purpose. Here’s an example:
THE NO.1 ZOMBIE DETECTIVE AGENCY
The world has been taken over by zombie. Small pockets of humanity remain. Cities lay in ruins.
But none of this can stop Jake Trundle from solving the biggest case of his career because Jake Trundle is also a zombie. And somewhere deep within the recesses of his long dead brain flicker the embers of the last case he was working before the world turned to hell. Now Jake is compelled to work the case for all eternity, or at least until New Orleans falls down around his ears.
He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know how. And he doesn’t know much of anything when the smell of fresh meat is on the wind but he’s going to solve this case anyway. Even if it kills him all over again.
Jake Trundle is a zombie. But he was a detective first. And nothing can take that away from him.
Not even the death.

  • FIRST THREE CHAPTERS

Printed, double-spaced and NOT stapled, leave them loose leaf. This is so the publisher / agent can photocopy them if necessary. Same goes for your full manuscript if you’re asked to send it in.

  • STAMPED SAE

If you don’t include one of these, you might as well wrap your covering letter around a brick and throw it through their window.

  • Practice. Writing’s like anything else, you will improve with practice and the more you write, the more you’ll train your mind to see things to write about. Blowing my own trumpet here one last time, when I wrote my first book I couldn’t think what I was going to do for an encore. Spin on ten years and I’m just finishing my fourteenth and I have more ideas for future books than I know what to do with.
  • Enjoy it. At the end of the day the MOST important thing is that YOU enjoy the writing process. If you’re doing it to get published, famous and rich, there are easier ways (most involve waiting until The X-factor comes to town).

“Writing a book is hard.
Getting an agent is hard hard.
Getting it published is hard hard hard.
Getting people to buy it is hard hard hard hard.”

  • That’s basically the scale you need to bear in mind. Writing the book in the first place isn’t the hill you’ve got to get over to get to the promised land. It’s just a gentle slope on the way to the real slog. So make sure you are writing the book for yourself first and foremost. Because there’s a very good chance you will be its only reader. And if you’re not enjoying it then your book is doing the world more hard than good.

TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES
I should probably add that I wrote this some 8-10 years ago, but since Kindle and ebooks have come out things are fast changing. I think that the advent of the internet is much like the advent of cinema 100 years ago. Nobody’s quite sure how things will pan out. Many established figures are quick to dismiss it (as they did with cinema 100 years earlier) but reputations and careers will be made by this new media platform.
I don’t quite know how (otherwise I’d be doing it myself) but I know virgin territory when I see it.
Of course the problem with the internet will no longer be getting your work out there, it will be getting it seen. Or moreover, getting people to part with money to see it. So perhaps things haven’t changed all that much after all.

SCREENPLAYS
A fellow recently wrote to me asking about getting into the film industry as a writer of screenplays, so I had a think and gave him the following advice:
Breaking into the film industry? It’s incredibly difficult and from what I can tell there is no straightforward path. I think people kind of wash up into it like refugees from all directions. I myself am only on the fringes of it and am still at a loss to understand how so many people can say they work in the British film industry without actually making any films.
For my own part I got into it because I wrote books. These books then came to the attention of filmmakers (don’t ask me how, they just heard about them) and they then approached me about optioning the rights. This gave me the chance to ask if I could have first crack at writing the screenplays and eventually I got a film made, after some ten option contracts.
Obviously, this is a less traditional route and probably an even harder one than going straight into film, for the simple fact that breaking into two closed shops is harder than breaking into one. So…
Running: Being a runner on a film is a terrible job, low pay (some times no pay), and you stand around in the cold with a walkie talkie stopping pedestrians walking into shot when you’re filming on location or getting cups of coffee for people who don’t know how to say “thank you”. It’s really only something you can do when you’re young (not too many 40+ runners with families to support) but it puts you on the spot and lets you build up the most important thing while trying to break into the industry. Contacts.
It’s basically an internship into film, but I’m not 100% sure how you go about becoming a runner because I’ve never looked into it myself. But every runner I’ve ever met has always got a film script or CV in his pocket or is stepping up for his next job to become 3rd assistant director (then 2nd, then 1st, etc).
Another route would be the short movie and festivals route. Obviously it’s more expensive and a bit hit and miss because you need to make something good enough to get noticed (and ideally win an award or two).
Of course there are lots of people doing both, runners making short movies, but both endeavours are still basically about acquiring the same thing. Contacts.
Start making a list, every contact you acquire add them to it, even if they can’t help you in the short term because you never know. A screenwriter is nothing without contacts because unlike a novel, a screenplay needs other people to actually make it. And a lot of money. If you’ve got a lot of money yourself, you’ll have no problem making a movie. If you haven’t, you’ll need someone else to foot the bill. This is your biggest hurdle. Finding someone to part with the money to make your film.
So, and at the danger of repeating myself too many times here, it’s all about contacts. Work experience, running, writing to people, growing a thick skin, getting a job taking coats as the BAFTAs and then slipping your card into each pocket, etc. It’s miserably depressing but I genuinely don’t know how else people do it. In America everyone has a hub in Hollywood (although that creates it’s own problems because an entire city becomes populated with wannabe Quentin Tarantinos) but there’s not really the same opportunities here.
Write to Pinewood, ask them about opportunities. Some of the other big production spaces. Even if they can’t help you they might be able top point you in the right direction.
Screenplay: As for your actual screenplay, you will stand a MUCH better chance of getting something made if you write it keeping one eye on the budget. So:

  • Single (or at least minimal) locations – films of this nature will keep your costs way down because they keep expensive transportation costs down. Why do you think so many young and pretty actresses keep wandering into deserted farmhouses in the middle of the night?
  • Small cast – for obvious reasons. Less actors, less need to hire people. Also, it gives the actors you’ve got lots of screen time and if there’s one thing actors are greedy for, it’s screen time.
  • A bit of sex wouldn’t hurt – not porn, but just a good looking girl in there – depressing I know, but I’m not suggesting ways to make great movies, simply ways to get your foot in the door. And a little bit of sex appeal will always help you on your way.
  • International appeal – international sales are very important (USA in particular), so something that can transcend borders will really appeal. One of the biggest grossing films of the 1990s was Mr Bean the movie, but of course there’s hardly any dialogue in it so the film company can flog it to China as well as Australia that much easier than something very English and dialogue heavy. Obviously I’m not suggesting writing anything like Mr Bean (you can if you want), I’m just illustrating a point.

Possibly the best archetypal low budget movie would be George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Single location, limited cast, great universal idea (everyone fears death) and lots of groaning. He made it for peanuts and it launched his career.

Again, with advances in technology you can do even more there days. eg. Monsters. This was on a grander scale but the principles were the same. Single (or at least limited) location (it might not seem like it but it was – it was mostly one big jungle), small cast and a universal idea.

So get your thinking cap on and gear your thoughts in the same direction because it will help.

If you can write a movie starring two people in an empty room and write it well, it’ll do two things. 1. quite possibly get made. 2. demonstrate that you are a very fine writer. Oh, and 3. bring you to other people’s notice so that you get a shot at writing Batman 5.
Again, and I must underline this. The above advice is not set in stone. These are just my thoughts and observations based on my own experience, so take from them what you will and ignore the rest.

Good luck.

Danny King
www.dannykingbooks.com
SUMMARY
READERSHIP

  • Decide what you’re writing and who you’re writing for.
  • The most prolific book buyers are professional 20/30-something women. Commuters.
  • Most and least appealing book as far as publishers are concerned:
  • A lot of the people who work in publishing are women too (submissions editors etc).
  • Have a couple of sequels in mind

LETTERS
Apply to both publishers and literary agents at the same time.
Buy a book like The Writer’s Handbook 2011.
Your letters:

  • Covering letter
  • 1 page synopsis
  • First three chapters
  • Stamped SAE

STYLE

  • Find your voice and style.
  • Learning to write takes time and practice.
  • The more you write, the more your eyes will open up to how much there is to write about.

CONTENT

  • You characters don’t always have to be doing something. (eg. “I grabbed a beer,” “I walked down the street.”
  • Everything has a story behind it. As Frank Carson used to say “It’s the way I tell ’em.”
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Reading and writing have two different rhythms to them. Reread and edit (particularly swearing)
  • Cruel and coarse humour is sometimes thought to be funnier, but good-natured humour has an infinite shelf life.
  • Give your characters a grounding in reality.

Making characters up from scratch is pretty hard
PLOTS

  • Beware of being too specific with your locations.
  • Same with physical descriptions.

CLICHÉS TO AVOID

  • Travelling books. It’s the equivalent of forcing your holiday photos on someone else.

WRITING

  • Map out your plot by all means but don’t stick too rigidly to this map if better stuff occurs.
  • Over-mapping is really just an exercise in procrastination.
  • Try setting yourself a daily limit
  • Concentrate on one sentence at a time when you’re actually writing the book.
  • You will improve with practice.
  • Enjoy it for itself, not the anticipated riches and glory.

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