Be a voracious reader. Easy! During the school holidays I paid two visits a week to the local library. Once I had exhausted the possibilities of the children’s section I was able to borrow more using my father’s tickets. With them I was able to read H Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H G Wells and others ‘too advanced for children’.
Discover SF. Also easy. Among the authors I borrowed were Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein and Wyndham. They, and many others, captured my imagination as no other genre did. I haunted the three bookshops in Edinburgh that had American imports and the yellow spines of DAW books began to dominate my collection. I even used my pocket money to subscribe to Astounding/Analog. Sadly the collection hasn’t survived
Start thinking ‘What happened then?’ Not difficult. I often found myself dissatisfied with the ending of a book, particularly a happy-ever-after ending. I started imagining what the characters of my favourite stories did afterwards. I suppose it was a useful stage but it was very derivative and I’d pick up an idea from one book story and apply it to another. Nothing of this was ever written down (probably just as well).
Realise authors are people too. A difficult step to take. It seemed to me that authors were on another plane of existence. I didn’t realise otherwise until I went to university and met my wife-to-be. It turned out she was sharing a flat with John Brunner’s sister. Although I never met John I was gobsmacked by the realisation that he was a real person, not some mythical semi-divinity.
Marinade in ideas for years. I was stuck in this stage for far too long. Still reading. Still enjoying although I was, perhaps, getting more critical and I was becoming aware of plot holes (without knowing that’s what they were called), poor characterisation and continuity errors. It may not be a necessary step and, even if it is, I certainly wouldn’t recommend staying in it for as long as I did.
Be stimulated. Hopefully something will provide a kick up the proverbials but it’s not something you can plan on. In my case it was one particular book. I’m grateful to it, but I’m not going to name it because it was one of the few I’ve ever abandoned in mid-read. It was so bad that I ended up saying something like ‘How did that rubbish ever get published? I could do better.’
Do something about it. Having said that, I had to at least try. Unsurprisingly, my first efforts were just as bad and they will never see the light of day. I decided I had to learn how to write and went to an evening class and a weekend residential course. These were fun and I did learn from them. However, I soon realised my classmates and tutors were somewhat mystified by my genre bias.
Do something else. One of my evening class tutors suggested finding a Writer’s Circle. I did, but didn’t stay long because I quickly realised that it was a support group and everyone’s work was ‘wonderful’. Even at that stage I realised that I wanted a critique group. Critters.org was recommended by someone and I gave it a try. I did get some useful critiques. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t comment on structure and characterisation but were obsessed with the correct placement of commas and ‘correcting’ my spelling even although I stated clearly in my submissions that I was using British English. My association with Critters didn’t last long.
Keep trying. Shortly after retirement I discovered that Middlesex University was offering an MA in Creative Writing specialising in Science Fiction and Fantasy. I grabbed the chance and got a place on the course. Two years later I emerged with an MA, a partially finished novel (my dissertation piece) and a disheartening comment from one of my tutors who told me ‘I don’t think you’ll make it as an SF author’. Despite that I thought the course was worthwhile. I’ve kept in touch with some others from the course and we have an ongoing critique group.
Try again. After the MA I started submitting short stories to various magazines, finished my novel and went looking for agents. My rejections kept piling up until, to my surprise, I had two acceptances within a month of each other. The first was for an anthology which never appeared as the publisher had a dispute with his printer – bummer. However, the second one did appear in an on-line magazine and I could, finally, call myself a published author.
Be patient. Being published meant I could attend Milford, which I did twice. I kept writing, kept submitting, and kept collecting rejections. I did have a few more successes with short stories but what I really wanted was to have a novel published. Then, at FantasyCon I heard that Elsewhen Press were having an open submission period. I sent them the novel that had started out as my dissertation piece. When the e-mail offering publication arrived I was so shocked I reread it innumerable times to make sure it still said the same. The Empty Throne, my first novel, is now out in both digital and print formats. I took great pleasure in handing a signed copy to my tutor with thanks for stimulating me with that negative comment.
Keep writing. Now that I have ‘set my feet on Higher Ground’ * I have to keep on going. I’m sure there are more rejections ahead but I want that feeling of achievement again.
* With apologies to Mr Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band
David M Allan was born and educated in Edinburgh. He became a radiologist and moved to England to work (and to help civilise the English). After working for the NHS for almost 40 years he retired and took up writing. His home is on a houseboat on the Thames.