The first and really only thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a writer. I loved books—loved the language that swept across the page, the worlds authors took me to and the revelations they unfurled. If I *had to dedicate my life to a single vocation, then this was it. I was awed by the flexibility and utility of words, the fluidity and the rhythm of a well-wrought passage, the way a perfect stranger could paint pictures in my head and – even more incredibly – place me in the minds and hearts of other people. Books were such a salve and such a pleasure to me as a boy, I could think of no nobler pursuit than to create more for future generations.
‘Wanting’ is not the same as being or doing, of course. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t actually write—not unless a teacher set me the task. It’s dumb, I know. I mean… why on earth not? Well, as I’ve said elsewhere, writing is hard. Too hard for the ineffectual lump that kid-Dion used to be. I had a bazillion ideas buzzing around but, like dreams, they stayed locked in my head. Fleeting thoughts are far easier than full-on creation. They are perfect in possibility: unformed, unfixed to the page, and unmarred by the judgement of others.
I was simultaneously too lazy and too exhausted to fulfil my potential
My English teachers pushed me in their feedback, assured me that authors had to effectively write the same book several times over before it would be ready for publication, and that came as something of a shock. I was already twisting myself up creatively, trying to get drawings, models, and essays perfect first time round, so the idea of going through the process again and again was horrifying. This led me to the unhealthy (and frankly stupid) habit of pulling late nights at the last minute, turning in solid enough (but never top tier) school work. I was simultaneously too lazy and too exhausted to achieve my potential.
There have been times I’ve wished to God I could go back and shake the little eejit up a bit – tell the kid that giving himself the time to re-read, to re-think, and re-draft his work would make for much better grades, and that it’s waaaaay easier to improve a rough draft which actually exists than to produce something perfect from scratch. Ah, well. We live and learn. (It just takes some of us a bit longer than others.) With writing, I had three solid pushes before the inertia started to shift – career opportunities I might have capitalised on had I been more ambitious, more focused, and fundamentally more confident:
Imagine spending time at a proper big publisher with full access
The first of these was a week of Work Experience at Victor Gollancz in 1991. What a dream! Imagine spending time at a proper big publisher with full access to all the departments, able to see every part of the process, ask any question – but… my mind was a blank back then, swallowed up with survival in an insane world where everyone knew the rules but me. I was excruciatingly shy, miles away from home, and more than a little overwhelmed by the city. So what did the little country mouse do? He kept to his corner, did the filing (and whatever other small tasks VG could scratch up for me), and then he went home at the end of the week, none the wiser.
The second came in the form of **Peter James, a local author who bought his meat from my step-dad. We were very different people, Steve and I. He was pragmatic and thick-skinned; I was imaginative and all-too tender. Anyway, he got chatting to Peter one day and told him about the bookworm in his house. Peter (bless him) invited me over to talk about writing, offer me some tips and even some feedback if I’d show him my work. That got me writing in a hurry, but only enough for the present need – a prologue, a chapter. He was gracious and kind, and I’m sure he would have been a great mentor if I had only continued to write and to maintain contact. As it was, I got stuck fairly quick, gave up the ghost, and quietly withdrew.
We worked up a story and a script for a movie
The third opportunity came through a new friendship in sixth-form college. Phil Hobden, a veritable force of nature who wanted nothing more than to make films. I gave him some feedback on a script of his, rewrote a few bits to tighten up the dialogue, make it more convincing. Before I knew it, we became a writing partnership. Together we worked up a story and script for an indie movie called Brighton Born, Brighton Dead – which I remember being pretty proud of at the time. We also started work on an idea called Live Wire – a psychological thriller which centred around some hokum with a severed head and a telephone line. Neither got filmed, but a Star Trek spec script got us all the way out to LA, pitching DS9 plots to René Echevarria.
No work came out of it, but I felt okay about that. I mean, really… what did we expect? To b,e snatched from obscurity and thrust into stardom? Hah! Maybe that happens to some people, but people work for decades before finding success. Most never make it. Me? Well, an awful lot had changed in my life since we’d punted the script out there. I was starting to feel a certain pressure of expectation from Phil for future projects, and I began to resent it. I’d hooked up with Clover at uni by now, and the two relationships – the two life paths ahead of me – felt incompatible. I chose love, and I’ve never regretted it. The spec nature of the script proved one thing to me: that writing was a viable option. I actually had something to offer creatively, and that was something to warm myself on in the coming years.
During a long boring summer I started writing This Twisted Earth
I didn’t start writing regularly again until I joined Geek Syndicate, but Clover never stopped. She’s an examplar for what I should have been doing all these years before and since. She lacked confidence to pursue writing as a career, but she still wrote novels, longhand, for the sheer pleasure of creation. Still does, though she’s never shared them – not even with me – and certainly never tried to get them published. This blew my tiny mind. She encouraged me to give it a go, knowing how bogged down I got, self-editing as I typed. And so, during a long, boring summer as an ice-cream man, I started writing This Twisted Earth. Wrote a good chunk of it too, in a lovely golden notebook, before I got stuck, decided I could NEVER be a writer, and binned the damned thing.
Yeah, it’s weird for me to see this cover too – to know that This Twisted Earth did emerge eventually. Not as the sprawling novel I’d imagined, and not in my own words, but it does exist, and there’s more on the way in one form or another. It’s come to me in waves, writing – each one washing me farther up the beach, closer to what you might call success. Or at least solidity. Pipe-dreams are worthless without effort and focus. Phil pushed me, drove me to produce, but I still had to find that within myself – to write because I wanted to. Because I couldn’t imagine not writing. The creative urge never left me, but I wasn’t there yet. As detailed elsewhere, I began podcasting and reviewing instead. ***Flash fiction came next, thanks to Mr Sloman, and then editing entered my life.
I’ve felt the itch again: to show the world what I could do in the spotlight
That role become a core identity and has since become my business. As I look back though, I have to own that in some ways my editing career has been a substitute for writing. Helping other people perfect their work gives me huge satisfaction on a great many levels, but in some ways it still feels like I’m taking the easy way out. The heaviest lifting – that raw agony and triumphant act of creation – keeps being done by somebody else. Criticism is simple by comparison. In some ways I’m a fool for worrying about this. I have a good flow of work, helping the next generation of writers make their mark. It satisfies to a degree. But the more editing work I’ve got under my belt, the more I’ve felt the itch again: to show the world what I could do if it were me in the spotlight.
I have had a couple of longish stories published by Burdizzo Books in Beneath the Leaves and Welcome to a Town Called Hell. There’s writing in each that I’m damned proud of, but neither anthology found much of an audience, nor put me on anyone’s radar. That validation is something that I need, I think – to be sought out on the strength of my writing. Wanting’s not enough, of course. It never has been. It’ll only happen if I get my head down to work at the wordface, creating and refining, writing and submitting. It’s simple physics. Things don’t just happen. I’ve been cheering Clover on all along, demystifying the industry as I’ve learned more about it, encouraging her to expand her ambitions. She’s stepped up now and is looking for an agent. It’s about time I start stepping up myself.
Next goals are to get more stories written and submitted, then hit Nanowrimo running
I recently started the First Fears summer course, hosted by Alex Davis. It’s been interesting and fun, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it develops. One thing that’s struck me though is that nothing (yet) has been revelatory. I can’t claim to know it all – not by a long chalk – but it’s all been familiar stuff so far, things I already have a good grip on. That builds a certain confidence, as do the appreciative responses I’ve had to my writing in the feedback sessions. So yeah—I’m doing this for real. The next goals are to get more stories written and submitted to various publishers, then hit Nanorimo running with a Twisted Earth novella.
I remain an editor, but I am also a writer. (It’s taken me a while to realise it, but I always have been.)
The next wave’s coming. This time I’m gonna catch it and see where it takes me.
Wish me luck.
* It was very much expected back then that a child would choose a career path and basically follow it through to retirement.
** He specialised in horror at the time, but has since made a big splash in crime fiction with his Roy Grace books.
*** A form of fiction I’ve since returned to as an accountability tool – making myself write on a regular basis, exercising those mental muscles but also giving myself the freedom to try new things.