Four years ago, I began my annual rewatch of the BBC TV series, The Box Of Delights, while reading John Masefield’s original book for the first time. The wolves were running and so was my brain. I wanted to write a story where magic spilled over into the real world, and nobody questioned it or scoffed. Where a daring Kit Harker could take on a merciless opponent like Abner Brown and win against all the odds.
But I wanted it to be in modern Devon – not the non-specific shires of the 1930s, and I didn’t want to have to tone down the language, or the horror, for kids.
After a walk on the moors with my adopted Alaskan malamute, Sky, I had an idea. I came back and roughly scrawled out the opening chapter. It’s not very different from the one you can read if you buy the first in my folk horror book series, Wicker Dogs. The final version is missing three unnecessary prologues, a lot of pointless scene-setting, and Patrick’s no longer a total shit, but it’s not far off.
It’s been a hell of a time since that heady December of 2017 though right?
At the end of 2020, I was doing David Gaughran’s highly-recommended course on Book Marketing, in which he suggests it is near impossible to market fiction unless you’ve written a series. Now, at this point, I already had two Weekend Rockstars books published, and half an idea for a third in the back of my head. So it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to just churn one more of those out and focus my attention on putting them in front of people. After all, Weekend Rockstars was, at that point, still my strongest seller, even after four years of my not really marketing it, or realising it was, in fact, a series.
But, as is so often the case, I decided to make my life a little more difficult. I came up with a new pen-name, D.A. Holwill, and vowed to release the first three Wicker Dogs books over the next twelve months instead. After all, horror sells in much lower numbers than rom-coms, and is near impossible to market. I abandoned the rom-com I’d been writing for half of 2020 (that ties in with the Weekend Rockstars/Gap Years universe really well) and threw my whole head into the new idea.
In my defence, I had been querying Wicker Dogs for a year and a bit at this point, and book two, The Bellever Hagstone, was almost ready to go to my beta readers. All I actually had to do to thrust this series into the world and put Mr Gaughran’s solid advice into action was write one more book. Since the first book is set around the fictional Wisthound Weekend, the first weekend in December, I set that as publication date for book three. My 2021 challenge was set in stone, this thing I would do, no matter what.
And, against all odds, I’ve actually done it. (And filled all three books with cryptic references to the Box Of Delights, they’re not hard to spot.) Despite the last twelve months taking two cars, three cats and the use of my left ankle away from me (the ankle was only for a couple of months, but it really didn’t help). I did have to completely rethink the way I approach my writing though.
As 2020 drew to a close, like a lot of people, I was struggling to put words on the page. Spare time got harder to find, and, by evening, my brain really couldn’t think good, let alone write nice. So I woke up in January 2021 and made a decision. I would get up before six every morning, and get at least a whole hour’s writing in before going to the day job. I really didn’t expect it to work, since I am not, and have never been, a morning person. But it did, my half-asleep, semi-unconscious, brain is apparently way better than the supposedly fully-awake version I had been trying to access during lunch-breaks and after work. This year I have regularly knocked out more than my 1.5k wordcount targets every day before I leave for work. Sometimes in less than an hour.
I have a policy that as soon as I hit that 1.5k target, I stop and do something else. Thanks to Graham Greene, who famously did the same thing when he hit 500 words. I don’t have the same luxury of time as Mr Greene, so I still have to work harder, but it’s achievable, and way better than my old method of doing as much as I possibly could in every spare minute I could find. Pro-tip, give yourself permission to stop before you burn out.
Previously, I had spent all day fretting about how I would get that wordcount in, then stare at a blank screen in every spare minute I could find: getting it done – but having to drag word by painstaking word from the depths of my overstimulated, whirling brain. I was giving myself anxiety and not getting any real breaks in the day. Now, even though I hate the sound of the alarm, and still get those anxiety pangs while I’m in the shower, dreading having to throw words at the page, it’s out of the way before I start my real day. And I get to spend my lunchbreaks reading for fun, or watching crap on the telly, while in the evenings, I do marketing plans, write blogs (hello) and try to be funny on social media. I hate the early starts, but I seem to have fixed my writing problem, and this year has been more productive than ever.
I opened the year drafting book three, while I polished up books one and two, ready for human consumption. I put my dayjob-honed Photoshop skills to good use in the evenings and knocked up a solid concept for ongoing cover art (using my dog, Sky’s, hypnotic eyes to maximum effect) and sketched out the way I’d put all the pieces in place by the end of the year.
I even put together a free prequel story – The Stalking Of Lady Sophia – that needed way more research than I expected, and not enough people have told me they like just yet. Do please rectify that by downloading it for free – you just have to sign up for my mailing list, and I really don’t mind if you unsubscribe as soon as you’ve got your free book. It’s cool.
I almost kept to the spreadsheet, though not rigidly. I needed to be flexible, for the sake of my mental health. Summer came and, due to car number two being destroyed by a passing 4×4, I ended up sending out the beta version of Jack Sharpnails late, and fell behind the curve. I took a bit more downtime than planned, spent some quality time with my wife, rehabilitated my ankle properly and still managed to get book three ready in time for Wisthound Weekend. It’s done, it’s out, and I started writing this blog on the very day that Polly and Patrick moved to Dourstone (probably).
If I hadn’t become obsessed with the Box Of Delights again, didn’t live in a small town where they hold a very odd, fire-themed carnival every year, and hadn’t adopted such a singular kind of dog, then I doubt very much I’d ever have come up with the book. If I didn’t have such a supportive wife and helpful bookish friends and connections, I’d never have finished the first book, let alone all three.
Merry Christmas to one and all (especially the guy I know in town who wants me to sign his copies of the Wicker Dogs books, but unwittingly revealed he had never read them by asking me if Sky was a husky – with no trace of irony. I genuinely love you, please never change). I hope this next year brings you all the same satisfaction this last year has brought me.
2022 will be a whole different challenge, and those Weekend Rockstars books will be coming your way, as well as Wicker Dogs Four. The problem with achieving your goals, is that you know what you’re capable of, and you have to live up to your own newly-altered expectations.
God damn it.