Author Archives: Ianmchugh

Writing versus storytelling

Guest post by Ian McHugh

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, lots of people (ie, jealous writers) love to disparage novelists like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer for the quality of their writing. It’s clunky, repetitive, boring, grammatically questionable and blah. At the same time, they love to idolise writers who possess a lyrical command of prose, like Margaret Atwood or Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin. I think they’re missing the point.

Quality of prose isn’t what makes a novel a bestseller. The story is what makes a novel sell. Rowling and Meyer are great storytellers: they’ve mastered the art of telling stories that appeal to their target audiences. Competent prose is a necessary part of that success – or, if you extend the net to writers like Dan Brown and E.L. James, functional prose (meow, saucer of milk for me etc). Lyrical brilliance? Not so much. Sure, it’s nice to read beautiful prose, but it’s not an essential ingredient to a successful novel. The secret sauce isn’t in the prose, it’s in the story.

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Helsinki Bus Station Theory for writers

Guest post by Ian McHugh

Helsinki Bus Station Theory is the creation of Arno Rafael Minkkinen, employed as a metaphor for the career of a photographer. It goes like this: Helsinki Bus Station has a number of platforms and a number of different bus routes start from each platform. All the buses from a given platform follow the same route out of the city centre and stop at the same stops for the first part of their journeys before heading off their separate ways into the suburbs. For the sake of the metaphor, each bus stop represents a year in the life of a photographer.

So, you – the new photographer – get on a particular bus at a particular platform and, after three stops – three years of work – you decide to get off and try out your portfolio at an art gallery. The curator tells you that your work reminds her of a certain famous photographer, whose bus started from the same platform, some time before yours. Dismayed that your work is apparently derivative, you decide to go back to the station and get on a different bus. After three stops, you get off, try your new, different portfolio of work at a gallery and… the same thing happens. So you go back to the station again and again, and every time the same thing happens and you wonder how on earth any photographer can create original work when everything seems to have been done before.

And the lesson is: stay on the bus.

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How to Handle End of Novel Blues

Guest post by Zena Shapter

Let’s say you’ve been working on a novel for a while – maybe a year or two, fitting it inbetween work, life and kids. Now you’re approaching its end… you’re past the novel’s climax and you’re starting to wind everything up… You should feel elated. Yay – your novel is almost done! Finally!

Hold on, what’s that? You don’t feel elated? Instead, you feel down… and don’t know why? You find yourself thinking:

“Why am I even doing this?”

“This novel is a load of rubbish – why am I bothering?”

“Why have I wasted all this time?”

“No one is going to buy this!”

Evenso you decide on a day, or a few hours, when you’re going to finish the thing, no matter what. The time arrives, but suddenly you’ve forgotten to do the grocery shopping – replant the lemon tree that’s outgrown its pot – apply for that new job – fix that squeaky door… The next thing you know, you’re doing a workout because you realise you haven’t exercised for a while, or you’re cooking dinner, and then it’s too late in the evening to do any writing. You’re exhausted!

Why did you do all that stuff when you should have been writing? Hasn’t this project gone on long enough as it is?

[Please note: in my case, please substitute all of the above distractions with ‘did something on social media’]

Alternatively, you did sit down and thrash out those final few scenes. Only your lack of enthusiasm now shows in the words you wrote. They’re lacklustre, not befitting of the genius literary effort you made at the manuscript’s beginnings…

Fear not, fellow writer – there’s nothing wrong with you… you’ve simply got ‘end of novel blues’!

You’ve been working on this manuscript for so long now, the problem is that you have no idea what’s going to happen when you actually finish it… What will come next? Not knowing the answer is affecting your writing.

What’s that you say…? You’ve lost your creative spark… You’ll never make it as a writer because you only ever had this one novel in you and now you can’t even finish that?

Well I’d say that there is your problem. You haven’t planned far enough ahead.

You know very well that writing a novel is not like this:

Write a book –> Get published immediately –> fame + fortune

For some rare lucky people, it may be. But for the rest of us it’s more like:

Write a book –> Spend a few years submitting it for publication –> fame + fortune

Ha ha, only joking – there’s no fame or fortune for any of us: we’re writers!! No money + only fleeting fame during book launches!

So what are we going to do about your blues? Think about it… what are you going to do during those years trying to get published?

The answer is simple, yet you may not have thought about it before… plan your next project before you finish your first!

And yes, I know you don’t want to lose your focus on your current manuscript. I’m not suggesting that you actively go away and research or start writing a new novel before you’ve finished your first. But you do need to ‘plan’ what you’re going to do immediately after you type ‘The End’. You need to know how you’re going to spend those months while you wait for responses on your manuscript.

Also, what if no one offers on it… will you give up… will you try overseas… will you write a different novel? All of that takes time, time that until now has been filled with your current novel writing project. When that project ends, it will leave a gap in your life, which will need filling if you’re to stop yourself getting ‘end of novel blues’:

  • How about setting up or directing more traffic towards your author platform, ready for when your novel is published?
  • How about writing a short story?
  • Why not plan your next novel?

Don’t wait until after your novel writing project finishes to decide!

Up until now, you’ve kept the pressure on yourself with ‘I must finish my novel, I must finish my novel’. Keep that pressure on your creativity by finding a new mantra – one that you can’t wait to fulfil!

What to do if you’re bored by your characters

Guest post by Ian McHugh



There’s a short story that I love called “A Dry , Quiet War” by Tony Daniel, which is basically a space-western that recounts a conflict between superhuman veterans of a war at the end of time. At the climax, the hero goes on an epic rage-bender like Superman after Zod slapped his mum in Man of Steel and decides that he’s going to kill the villain so hard that he will never have existed. Apparently this involves the unravelling of entrails, but the point is that when I say kill your characters I mean kill them hard like the avenging space cowboy-god in Daniel’s story. The novelist as Vladimir Putin! Or Kim Jong-Un. Boo-yah! Excise them from the story like they never existed.

But what if your story needs them?

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Clean Your Novel, As If It’s Your Home

Guest post by Zena Shapter

Getting a manuscript ready for submission to agents or publishers is much like cleaning your home or car.

Since I’m no mechanic, and we all have homes, I’m going to go with the home analogy for now.

But why, do you ask, is preparing your novel anything like cleaning your home? What’s that, you don’t even clean your home – you have someone else do it for you? Well, either way, the analogy works. Let me explain…

Imagine you’re expecting some important guests to visit your home…

And yes, your home is your manuscript. And yes, the important guests are the agents/editors to whom you’re sending your novel. Can I continue now? Good, right then…

… you want your home to look its best. So you’re going to tidy up a bit.

First, you do the regular cleaning: you clean the floors and dust – this is the spell-checking of your manuscript, you need to delete all the dirt that might discourage your important visitors from relaxing in your home.

Next you tidy away any visible mess – this is the formatting of your manuscript, you need it to look pretty.

Now what?

Well, now it’s time to go a step further.

In my home, I know where the dust traps are, I know those little nooks and crannies that get missed on a general tidy up or clean. There’s a particular ledge on my toilet roll holder that gathers dust especially well and, being polished silver (no, not real silver, just chrome okay?), it shows up the dirt really well. Any visitor, important or not, will see that dust trap for what it is – something I’ve missed.

The same is true of my writing – I know my flaws. So before sending out any manuscript I search for those flaws and, sure enough, I always find them. For instance, I seem to love the word ‘but’ in my writing. I also often start paragraphs with the same sentence structure. Sometimes I don’t even notice that I’ve started three or four paragraphs in a row with the word ‘I’ (easy to do when you write in first person). Grouping examples in threes is something I do on a regular basis. You get the idea? Knowing what to look for in your own writing will ensure you send out only the best manuscript you can.

Now, back to cleaning my home…

When I’m cleaning my home, even after I’ve addressed all those problem spots, I often leave a room believing it’s all clean and tidy, then re-enter it a few minutes later and spot something that needs putting away or cleaning. (These are really important guests, remember – your house has to be perfect!)

The same is true of my writing. I might think it’s ready to go out to agents/editors but, absolutely guaranteed, if I put it away for a few months, when I pick it back up and read it afresh I see all manner of flaws. When you’re close to a writing project, you don’t see it in the same way as when you’ve had your view set on something else for a while.

What’s that, there’s more to this analogy? There sure is!

Sometimes, when my Hubbie is helping to clean our home, he’ll think he’s done a good job of something. But when I come to ‘inspect’ the results, I find he’s still got lots of work to do.

Yep, you’ve guessed it: the same is true of my writing – sometimes, no matter how much time has passed, I can’t see anything wrong with what I’ve produced. That’s when it’s time to bring in beta readers. Beta readers are readers who give your novel manuscript a final look before it’s sent out into the world. They’re not readers who’ve helped you form the plot or characters as the manuscript has developed. They’re the ‘fresh eye’ of the process. Use them!

What about perspective?

When I’m being really thorough about cleaning a piece of furniture, I often get down on my hands and knees and clean at eye level. The different angle gives me a different perspective and I find dirt (possibly spiders) I wouldn’t have otherwise seen from above. Lucky me!

The same is true of my writing. When I print it out and read it in a different area of my home, I see things I hadn’t seen before on the computer screen. I have a fresh perspective and it really helps me polish the manuscript.

Don’t forget – you can learn from others!

Another way to improve your cleaning(!), is to watch someone else clean. My mum is a professional at cleaning. I would never have thought to unscrew pop-up sink plugs and clean underneath. But having seen her do it, I check all the time now! (Well, okay, maybe once a year)

Sometimes seeing just a sample of your writing edited by someone else (in Word’s tracked changes or in pen), will show you a habit you need to work on.

Or, you could just pay for a polish!

If you want a really clean home – bring in the professionals! Professional cleaners can save you a lot of time and effort, and bring a touch of bling to your abode.

The same is true of your manuscript. If you can afford it – hire an editor! Editors repair and improve novel manuscripts everyday, that’s why they’re so good at it. They’ll see things you never saw before; they’ll know tricks that you never knew. They can bring a touch of bling to your manuscript.

Now get polishing!!

Issue #3 of Dimension 6 is out!


Issue 3 is out now, with new fiction from Cat Sparks, Rob Hood and Steve Cameron. Download it here in epub or mobi formats.


Interview with Donna Maree Hanson

by Ian McHugh

With the (then) impending release of her new novel Shatterwing, part one of Dragon Wine, I interviewed Donna Hanson about her long-time passion project. Because I’m a slacker, Shatterwing is now out in the world and the sequel, Skywatcher, is on its way on October 9. The blurb for book one and the interview with Donna are below this rather striking cover art.


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The mystic power of triangles, and knowing why your characters are there

Guest post by Ian McHugh

One major challenge of stepping up from short stories to novels is managing a larger ensemble of characters. In my impetuousness, I exacerbated this problem for myself by starting from real historical events. Reality is way less tidy than fiction. In real life, people bob up and do one or two significant things that help carry forward the great events of history, and then sink back below the surface of the historical narrative. Translated into fiction, this amount to supporting characters walking on stage, having never been sighted before by the reader, doing their thing and then walking off again, never to be seen again. It doesn’t do a hell of a lot to deepen the reader’s engagement with the story.

Or, you might think of your protagonist in whatever context you’ve provided for them and start filling in all the normal relationships that would be around them in that setting, be they friends, teachers, family, crewmates, fellow Jedi apprentices, whatever. And you start giving them names and fleshing them out. As you start writing, you put your protagonist into a position to interact with them all. And then, finally, with all that sorted and the protagonist’s normal life firmly established, you start the wheels turning on their story. And as you go on, even if your protagonist  remains surrounded by that same set of characters, most of them have very little to do and, by the time you do use them again, you’ve forgotten who they were, let alone your reader. But without those characters, the protagonist’s circle of relationships would begin to seem unrealistically small.

So what do you do?

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My Top Social Media Tips for Writers

Guest post by Zena Shapter

I didn’t mean to become one, but over the last few years I’ve become a social media consultant. Writers started asking me how to use social media and, after a while, I thought – why not? Since I know about social media … why not share my knowledge?

What’s that? You’d like a share in some of that knowledge too?

Well okay then, you’ve twisted my arm! After all, it’s what everyone wants to know these days, right?

How do I establish my writers’ ‘platform’?

How do I sell my novels through my website?

What are the secrets to getting more people to like my Facebook page?

Well, let’s start by addressing some of that lingo…

Establishing – Selling – Getting

Nope. None of that’s working for me. Instead think…

Involvement – Discussion – Content

Here’s what I mean

Tip 1: Establishing vs Involvement

Social media is not a static thing that you can establish. You don’t set it up then leave. Social media is a choice to get involved. When I advise writers and businesses of this fact, they groan… “but I don’t want to have to talk to people”. Well then, why are you getting on social media? Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Goodreads… it’s like picking up the phone. If you don’t want to talk to people, why pick up the phone in the first place? If all your listeners hear is an empty dial tone… they’ll soon hang up.

On the other hand, if you’re happy to get involved – talk to people – then you’ve got it made. People are on social media because they want to connect. The first thing I do every morning is pick up my iPhone and check it. The last thing I do every night is pick up my iPhone and check it. Hubbie is the same. It’s not because we’re workaholics (though, I kinda am), it’s because we have this deep need to connect with others similar to ourselves. If you have this deep need, as I do, then social media will work for you. Find me here if you like.

Tip 2: Selling vs Discussion

I had a client ask me the other day (okay, really, every client asks me this): when will I start to see sales from all this? I get it. I understand that the effort they put into connecting/talking with people on social media takes time, and that time should be rewarded with sales. But here’s the thing – people aren’t on social media because they want to buy a book. If they want to buy a book they go to Big W or Target, they go to Amazon or Book Depository, or *gasp* they go to an actual bookshop! They’re on social media because they want to connect – they want to learn, share experiences, be the first to know about updates or new products (yes, including books). Word of mouth and recommendations do result in sales. But those sales are a by-product of the social media experience. That’s why aggressive selling doesn’t work on social media.

Instead, if you want to sell on social media, get people discussing your work. Blog and tweet topics relating to your book, to generate interest. Browse blog sites already discussing relevant issues and join in with the comments. Find similar books to yours on Goodreads and chat with fans about their experience of that book. Get talking to people!

Tip 3: Getting vs Content

How do you ‘get’ more people to like your Facebook page, follow you on Twitter, or add you to a circle on Google+? The short answer is: you don’t. There’s no getting any people to do anything they don’t want to do. If they do it, it’ll be because they want to. Why do they want to? Because you’re offering them something they want. So if you’d like more fans on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or anywhere else, start by offering them something they want.

Ideally, that something is your book, right? Ideally, your book is going to connect with people and they will want to connect with you back. But what if your book isn’t getting the publicity it deserves? What if people don’t know your book’s even out there? Then your something… is you. You can be what fans come back to connect with, beautiful wonderful you. Are you funny? People love humour. Use your humour to connect with others. Are you kind? Be generous with your blog or Facebook page, support other writers and people will want to connect with that. Are you clever? Are you a pioneer? Have you simply got something to say about, well, a lot of things? Offering people good content is what will attract people to you on social media. Offer good content, and they will come.


Epic interview with Simon Dewar

by Ian McHugh

With the forthcoming release of his first fiction anthology, Suspended in Dusk, I interviewed editor Simon Dewar about chutzpah, the importance of having no concept of level of difficulty, the horror of caesarian sections and the inspirational value of Mariah Carey and prog metal. Oh, and some stuff about the nuts-and-bolts of editing an anthology and writing fiction, too.

Suspended in Dusk

sid smallDusk:  A time of change; a time between times; a time on the brink between light and dark.

With an introduction by the renowned Jack Ketchum, Suspended in Dusk features 19 fantastic authors of the dark,the horrific, and the bizarre:

Alan Baxter,  Angela Slatter (British Fantasy Award Winner) , Anna Reith,  Armand Rosamilia, Benjamin Knox,  Brett Rex Bruton, Chris Limb, Icy Sedgwick, J.C. Michael, John Everson (Bram Stoker Award Winner), Karen Runge, Ramsey Campbell (British Fantasy Award and Bram Stoker Award Winner) Rayne Hall, Sarah Read,  Shane McKenzie, S. G. Larner, Tom Dullemond, Toby Bennett, Wendy Hammer

“SUSPENDED IN DUSK offers a delicious assortment of chills, frights, shocks and very dark delights!” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of FALL OF NIGHT and V-WARS

“Disquieting and at times terrifying, SUSPENDED IN DUSK shows that horror can, and should, have substance.” – Kaaron Warren, Shirley Jackson Award winner and author of Slights, Mistification, and Walking the Tree.

Suspended in Dusk will be launched at the Conflux Science Fiction convention in October 2014.

– – –

It wasn’t so long ago that we were tearing apart the first story you put through the CSFG crit group, and then congratulating you on your first fiction sale (of that same story). It takes a fair dose of chutzpah to go so quickly from there to editing your first book, let alone to pulling together a line-up including award winners and other established names. And I believe you were originally going to co-edit with a more established editor (Nerine Dorman, who edits the Bloody Parchment anthologies) but had to complete the project solo. How did you go about pitching yourself, and this project, to the authors you solicited stories from? What do you think was the key to success?

Originally, I began approaching authors about the project while the plan was to still go ahead and publish it with Dark Continents Publishing, for whom my good friend Nerine Dorman is one of the editors. With a few exceptions, like an open invite to CSFG members and Litreactor members, it was invite-only.

I think the fun all started when I was talking to Nerine and she mentioned that she’s a great fan of the Aussie horror author Angela Slatter. As a joke, I said… “you know what? I’ve got Angela Slatter on my Twitter. Why don’t I ask if she’ll contribute a story?”  So I contacted Angela and said “Hey, I’m working on this anthology and my co-editor is a huge fan and I’m wondering if you consider making her day and contributing a story—perhaps a reprint or something?” Angela responded and offered a brand new story of hers! I was over the moon (still am!) and after thinking about for a while I realised something: the worst Angela could’ve done would’ve been to say no.  As a writer, we get used to people (editors, publishers, agents, family) saying ‘no’ all the time, right?  So I wondered if I could repeat the process. Read more →