Guest blogger: MARK WEST

To begin my irregular series of guest-blogs by already-published authors reminiscing about the ups and downs of being a new writer and how they arrived at where they are now, I am happy to kick it all off with the ruminations of Mark West, author of the short story collection Strange Tales, and two novels, In the Rain with the Dead and Conjure. His novelette The Mill was featured in the Gary McMahon-edited anthology We Fade to Grey. He lives with his wife and son some distance north of me:

“What started me writing was reading and watching films and TV and wanting to get involved in that world of make-believe.  I am one of the original Star Wars generation, almost 8 years old when it hit the UK and me and my friends wanted (nay, demanded) to know what happened to Han and Chewie and Luke and the droids (not Leia so much – I mean, we were 8 and girls were a bit bleurgh) after Vader had gone spinning off into space.  And so we wrote them and I loved it, though I don’t recall writing anything that even remotely resembled Empire or Jedi.  My friends’ enthusiasm quickly waned, but mine got stronger – I started to write short detective stories (inspired, in part, by Return Of The Saint and the stories you used to get in boy’s annuals – my favourites were The Six Million Dollar Man) and then mysteries, as I got into the Alfred Hitchcock & The Three Investigators series.  Those books fed my early teenage drive, with a series of 8 books about The Three Intrepids and 4 novels (ha!) – Shark, Hadley Hall Comprehensive (I liked Grange Hill), The Space Mercenary (still didn’t predict any Lucasfilm storylines) and Glamourpuss.

“By my late teens, my reading and viewing patterns had changed – I was into Kerouac and existentialism and the American ‘new wave’ (Michael Chabon, Tama Janowitz, Brett Easton Ellis, Robert Coover) – and my writing changed too.  I started to write about me and my friends, about life and what I saw around me.  My first ‘proper’ novel was a detective thriller called To Save The Moon – which didn’t do anything other than teach me not to take on such a massive project without some kind of thinking time beforehand – whilst my second and third were contemporary dramas – The Loved One and Alice – both of which I loved and both of which were summarily rejected by several big London publishers.

“In 1998, having been a lifelong fan of horror, I discovered the ‘Dark Terrors’ series co-edited by Stephen Jones.  I hadn’t read a horror short story in years (though I’d written a couple in my early-20s) and I picked up more of the series.  I began to write short horror, found that I felt really at home in it and then my wife bought me a Writers Handbook for Christmas.  Through that, I discovered Chris Reed’s BBR and, through that, TTA Press and The Zine and then the small press and suddenly, a whole new world opened up in front of me.

“I caught the small press at the back end of (probably) its last Golden era, when the Internet was still something you read about but had never seen and every zine was either a perfect bound book or a glossy mag or little more than a side-stapled fanzine.  There were loads of them – Sackcloth & Ashes, Enigmatic Tales, Nasty Piece Of Work, Peeping Tom, The Grotty Arab, The Dream Zone, Terror Tales, Oktobyr, Psychotrope, Sci-Fright, Unhinged, Strix, Flickers & Frames, Roadworks and many others I’m sure I’ve forgotten – and I wanted to get into them all.  So I began to write, much more seriously than before, with an eye to publication though I very rarely followed guidelines – I wrote the story and then tried to figure out which market it fit.

“The great thing about this boom was that, even though there were plenty of markets, most had plenty of material to choose from and so wouldn’t take just anything.  The novels getting rejected was something I’d dealt with on the assumption that I was a kid from a small town and nobody in London would be interested in me – getting rejected by the small press toughened me up.  Sometimes it was the fault of the editors – I trusted the story, could see it was solid and airtight and would send it on to another zine which would pick it up.  But occasionally the stories would keep coming back and that’s the lesson learned – sometimes, you can have the greatest idea in the world but, as a writer, you really screw up the execution of it.  Or, alternatively, you have a dreadful idea and write it beautifully.  Those editors, back in the day, could mostly see that and that process certainly honed my eye when I looked at my own stuff.  Of course, those rejections hurt – as they do when I get them today – but I had a passion and I had a self-belief and I kept going.  What would have happened if I’d never had an acceptance, I wouldn’t like to say.

“By this time, around 2000 or so, I decided – because I like big ideas that don’t always make immediate sense – to write a novel.  I’d also just embarked on a three-year night-school course (for my professional qualifications), so the short stories petered out.  In 2003, I approached John Ford at Rainfall Books with the idea of a collection and he went for it (Strange Tales), but the only shorts I wrote were on invitation.  At the same time, I spoke to John about a novella idea I’d had – which later became my novel Conjure – and he went for that too, though it would take a couple of years to write, then another four years to see publication.  In 2005, Chris Teague accepted In The Rain With The Dead (after it’d been turned down by two major publishers and a handful of agents) and Pendragon Press published it later that year.  That was a major milestone for me and I should have capitalised on it but my son had just been born and writing time was scarce and I entered a terrible period of writers block, that I’m still struggling to break completely free of even now (in 2010).

“I was lucky with my novel, in that it was generally well received and eventually sold out, so it wasn’t as if I had naysayers but the block really knocked my confidence in what I could do.  I had plenty of ideas and kept trying to write them (the closest I got was a collaborative novel, which faltered a few chapters in), but all the time I thought the story was too obvious, the writing painfully thin, the idea an old clinker and so I got worse.  What helped to break the block was Gary McMahon wanting a story – a novelette, no less – for what became We Fade To Grey.  I’d suffered a family loss in 2003 that I was still trying to get to grips with and it occurred to me that I could do so through my fiction and I did – The Mill is one of the best things I think I’ve ever written and, thankfully, Gary took it (after insisting I take a couple of thousand words out).  It was well received, the book did well and I felt good.  The year after, Conjure came out and where it was found and bought, it seemed to be well received.

“This time, I decided to capitalise and threw myself into a novella that I’d spent the last few years making 17,000 words of notes for  but after six months, I realised it was going nowhere.  That hurt, but rather than stop, I began making notes for other projects, trying to keep alive this little creative flame The Mill had restored for me.  Part of my drive came from watching (a little enviously, I admit, but also proud too) as my friends got book deals and had sales to anthologies and magazines – they’d done what I should be doing and I could get there.

“My original dream was publication, then it was to be published before I was thirty.  I achieved them, so my dream shifted to getting a novel published.  Now it’s much more prosaic – to produce work that has some worth and to find a market for it.  You don’t have to be published to be a writer, but if you want your work to speak to people, then it’s a necessity and that means overcoming your own fears and frustrations and also developing a tough enough skin that when people knock you back, you just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start again.”

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7 Responses to “Guest blogger: MARK WEST”

  1. Cheers, Simon!

  2. My first rejection sent me into a spiral. I haven’t submitted but one political article since then, and that got me investigated. I’m in an entirely different frame of mind these days, and actually look forward to my next rejection letter.

    Thanks, Mark, for the insight, and thank you, Simon for this blog, which has gone a long way towards helping me start writing cofidently again.

  3. Andrew Murray Says:

    That was terrific. well written, honest & inspiring. As a still unpublished writer of short stories its always encouraging to hear a favourite writer talk about their beginnings. It makes my try harder with my own work & too not be so lazy or think “that’ll do”. which explains my rejection slips!. So thank you Mark and Simon for sharing this. I wish you more success in the future.

  4. Thanks, Andrew, much appreciated – I wish you success in the future too, get cracking with those short stories!

    • This is exactly why I thought asking authors to talk about such things – people think that, once a writer has ‘made’ it, that it’s all plain-sailing… these guest-blogs will reassure aspiring writers that even their favourite authors have problems… abd that success is no guarantee of having a book or story accepted…..

  5. Now that’s a fine guest blog. I need to check out some of Mark West’s work, I think.

  6. Thanks very much for that, Paul, I really do appreciate it. Plenty of information at http://www.markwest.org.uk if you’re interested!

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