Does This Ring a Bell With You..?
I didn't think I could be a writer. I thought that was the kind of thing clever, confident people did, and that certainly wasn't me. The biggest breakthrough in my life as a writer was the moment I gained the confidence to believe in myself and my ability. A moment I remember well.
My writing hero is P.G. Wodehouse, a hugely successful comedy writer of over 100 books, recognised as a genius in his lifetime. I read everything he wrote, and then read it all again.
Imagine my delight when they dug up some unpublished stories after his death. A whole book he had written in college, long before he became famous, called The Pothunters. I was so excited - I rushed out to get it immediately. Rapt with anticipation, I got stuck in and, as I turned the pages, I found, to my amazement…
...it was awful. Terrible. Amateur tripe.
Imagine. At first, I was devastated that my hero could let me down like this. But then a truth dawned on me... this was hugely meaningful. When people call Wodehouse a genius, in a way, they do him a disservice because it is dismissive. "Oh, he's a genius," as if that explains it all with a wave of the hand, and that's not fair, because it fails to recognise the work he must have put in. The determination and passion, the hours and the learning that went into him becoming successful.
His early work was really not very good… and nor was mine. Here I was — someone who felt comfortable telling funny stories in the pub or round the dinner table but I didn’t think I could be an actual writer. However, I did have drive. I did have a love for writing. I did have passion… and in that moment, I realised that perhaps those were all the things I needed the most. If I worked hard, perhaps I could transform into a proper writer like my hero. I realised that success comes from passion and hard work far more than some God-given 'genius' that makes it all easy - and it gave me the start I needed. I never expected to be the next Wodehouse, but this revelation led to my first two books being written and my first publishing deal, with Summersdale Publishers in the UK, in 2001.
The Competition Win
The same year I got published, I won the EuroScript Film Story Competition. First prize was to work with a film guru who would help me to form up my winning story idea (my next planned novel, entitled Mere Mortals) into a film script.
I knew nothing about the film industry at that time so I was very excited. I decided to put myself in this guru’s hands and just say 'yes' to everything. He would fly in from his glamorous life in Los Angeles, give me my homework to do and fly off again and I would simply do everything he said until we got a movie made.
So, although I did not like what he was doing, nor the method he seemed to be using, I just kept on saying ‘yes’. It was the movies and it was glamorous. He was going to get me somewhere. Things were really flying now...
Success was just around the corner.
What could possible go wrong?
Mr Hollywood Ruins my Story
As a novelist, as far as I was concerned, the process this guru brought to me was all wrong and the resultant script we wrote was a dog’s dinner. Sure enough, Mere Mortals did not sell.
Looking back, I now know what my glamorous mentor was doing. He simply took my story, rolled his sleeves up and crowbarred it into this thing called the Hollywood Formula.
This was proof to me that the Hollywood Formula had some serious flaws. It destroyed the integrity of my inspiration and was really quite heartless.
I knew the story was good because it won the competition. I knew what he did to it was bad because it then didn't sell.
The Turning Point
I honestly felt a little lost for a while. I didn’t finish that story as a novel (in fact, come to think of it, I still haven’t) and the wheels had come off any spectacular explosion onto the scene in the film industry. 2003 found me whining to my publisher about my experience and he asked me to contribute a chapter to a series of books he was publishing on ‘how to write; how to get published; how to deal with agents’ – that sort of thing.
I agreed, and began asking myself some questions. What do writers want when they reach out for help? If there is no 'model' that accounts for every story, what is a story? Is there a 'science of story'? How do stories work? Little did I know, these questions would go on to define my life.
iI became fascinated by the process of story development. I missed the deadline for contributing my chapter by, ooooh, about seven years and I went over the word count by, ooooh, around 95,000 words.
The result was called The Story Book, published in 2010.
Now published in several languages - including Chinese! - The Story Book remains my best-seller. I had written down what I thought writers wanted when they looked outside of themselves for help. Because I knew for sure what they didn't want - someone barging in and telling them how their story should go. That was plain wrong...
I had struck a chord with writers the world over... and I had discovered my calling in life.
An Amazing Fact About The Definition of 'Story'...
As a writer myself - and one who had not only lacked confidence at the beginning, but also experienced 'help' from a 'guru' - I had a pretty good idea about what worked for me (and what didn't) and where I thought the power was in the stories I told. It seemed simple. It was to do with Knowledge Gaps. That was my intuition. It seemed blindingly obvious to me. I assumed it must be common knowledge.
I went to the bookshelves and the libraries - and to the named 'gurus', and to my surprise, nobody had ever directly noticed how important knowledge gaps are. Lots of indirect recognition, but nobody had pulled it all together. I had a friend in a university, and she put me on to some serious academics and some serious academic works, and some amazing revelations left me stunned:
In 2,300 years of studying story, going back to Aristotle, nobody had ever noticed the role of knowledge gaps in story. But that was just the start of it...
Get This. Nobody in history has ever successfully defined the word 'story' in a way that everybody else agreed with. Even in 2010, nobody formally knew what a story IS!
There is a thing called 'Narratology'. The study of narrative theory. They must know... However, their formal definition of story was all based on common structures found in existing stories and said nothing about the psychology of a story.
I was on to something. I met a few narratologists, joined their society and before I knew it, I had intellectual eyebrows going up all around me. I had supportive supervisors and had signed up to develop, test and prove my theories. I was becoming an academic of story theory. I never saw that coming!
This endeavour led to my Ph.D. thesis proving that stories are a function of mind, not a function of the structure of a story. A story is a crafted exchange of meaning between an author and a receiver that uses the instinctive mental reflexes of the receiver to trigger them to create the narrative in mind — the same reflexes we use to make memories.
My tools and methods are based on the encoding by an author (using knowledge gaps) and the decoding by the receiver (using subtext).
I had developed the first ever holistic definition of story and asserted principles that apply to every story, in any format, at any time throughout history; principles that every writer will inevitably use whether they want to or not. I had discovered the substance of story.
I now call these principles 'The Primary Colours of Story', because, like the primary colours in art, they are inevitable, and knowing about them will not damage or impact your inspiration - you keep ownership of your own story - so you might as well understand the primary colours and use them to make the most of your stories.
The Secrets of Success…
Fast-forward a decade or two and I've had a wonderful time. I now have nine books out there, I've worked on dozens of films as a scriptwriter or story consultant, I give seminars and spend my days writing. Perfect! However, my experiences have also empowered me to help other writers, because I know from experience — I wish I didn’t, but I do! — why writers do not get the success they crave even if their work is excellent.
It is because - let's face it - we are not very good at selling ourselves. I prefer to spend my time immersed in art and writing rather than in sales and marketing, and I am sure you feel the same. Don’t be fooled by people’s profiles and the way they present themselves online. The vast majority of writers barely make a living. You probably know this already even if you have had some success.
My next challenge, then, encapsulated in this website, is to find out how to address this. Aspring writers cannot be doing big-shot business moves. We’re writers and we need to work with tools we can afford and understand. My mission is to map out what a skint writer can do to transform into a profitable writer and, most importantly, how can they do it by being themselves, by investing energy rather than money, without pain and without that horrible embarrassing feeling that you are 'selling' in that seedy sense that comes with so much unease.
The answer is to work to your strengths. Selling is about telling a story, and it is about identifying the hero who can take your work to a point that makes you money. Here's the secret: The hero of your story is not you. It's the person who can take you to the next level.
So take a look around. My mission is to help story creatives. What you see here is the culmination of decades of experience and study, and I sincerely hope and believe you will find value in these words and videos.
Do please get in touch and let me know when you get some success, and I look forward to shaking you by the hand at an industry event one day soon!