Monday, April 7, 2014



I hope this blog finds you well and happy. So I'm well into writing book number four - 50,000 words in and it's at this point that I usually freak out. Here's why. I've written 50,000 words. That's a big chunk of a book. But what if it's awful? Drivel? Tosh? What if I finish all 90,000 words and it's just 90,000 words dangled together to create 90,000 words of utter shit? This happens every time I write a novel. It just does. Why? 

It happens because unlike some writers I don't plan much. I read blogs from other writers and they have notebooks full of character ideas, sketches of how they look, what their favourite breakfast is, what will happen at what point during the book - so it doesn't get boring in the middle. It's like going on holiday. Some people like to plan a lot. They might have lists of places to eat, activities to do, and of course, I do my research, but when it comes down to it I sort of like to see how things evolve by themselves. I don't like a set plan, and yes sometimes this means I miss out on doing some really cool things, but I also discover things I didn't know were there. My wife and I are the sort of people that like to wander. We went to Venice once, checked into our hotel and then went for a wander. We didn't aim straight for all the 'must see' places, but just wandered. We got lost and ended up in this little courtyard full of really old and beautiful buildings. We still have a photo we took there hanging on the wall. The thing is, we saw all the 'must see' stuff eventually, but we took our time and enjoyed the journey there. It's also why we always book hotels out of town. If you stay in the suburbs, you'll see things and meet the locals, and get a completely different experience than if you just stay in the centre of town - there's a top tip for you.

I'm sort of the same with writing. I have some rough notes for all my books, some brief character points, and even an idea for the end...BUT, I like to wander through it. The problem is that at some point I panic that I shouldn't be wandering quite so much. Then today I thought...bugger it. This is just me. I can't change who I am and the way I work and the way I take holidays. I like to wander. I like not knowing what's going to happen next and you know the thing is, it always works out all right in the end. I always finish my books, we always enjoy our holidays, and the unexpected twists and turns become as important as the destination themselves. I remember that little courtyard in Venice as much as I do St Mark's Square or Doge's Palace. Wandering is a holiday within a holiday and it's also writing within writing. The places my characters go and end up is often as much a surprise to me as I hope it is to you - and it definitely is to them.

Until next time.

Jon X

Thursday, March 27, 2014

An interview with Nick Spalding, Matt Dunn, Ben Hatch and Jon Rance on writing comedy.


A few years ago I watched a TV show about comedy. It was Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K. and Chris Rock talking about their work. It was a brilliant show and really insightful for a comedy lover like me. Since I started writing I’ve become friends with a few writers and so I started thinking about doing an article with them…about writing comedy. Matt Dunn, the King of one-liners and the author of nine romantic comedy novels, Nick Spalding, author of the hugely successful and hilarious 'Love...' series of books, and Ben Hatch, who writes the funniest travel books you’ll ever read. And me, of course. Four male writers talking about writing comedy. Strap yourself in…it’s going to get funny.

From an original idea or concept, how long until it becomes a finished book? 

Nick: Depending on how good the idea is, and how pro-active I'm feeling, anything from six months to six weeks!

Ben: Depending on distractions, it’s just about possible for me to have an idea that I’ll see through to a conclusion within 12 months. That said I once spent seven years writing the same unpublished book. I became so easy to distract one year I once watched the entire coverage of Crufts. I remember a very tense gundog group final with a spinoni bitch with a gentle rise from tail to loin. I didn’t even have a dog, or really even like them that much at the time.

Matt: To paraphrase, there's no such thing as a finished book – just one you decide to stop working on. Generally, though, it probably takes me about a year from typing the first word to seeing it on the shelves, though I've been working on and off on my latest, What Might Have Been, for almost three years now. I know other authors can write a bit faster than me, but they don't play as much tennis as I do.

Jon: It completely depends on the book. Some ideas come sort of fully formed, you start working on them and within a year (or so) it’s done and dusted. Other ideas are like a mature cheddar and take years to become a deliciously tasty novel. My second book HAPPY ENDINGS went through lots and lots and changes, revisions, and edits before it was finished and probably took about three years from the original idea being jotted down on a scrap of paper to the book being in the shops. My next book ‘This Family Life’, took less than a year.

How does writing comedy challenge you as opposed to say writing drama?

Ben: I’ve never written what you’d call a drama. It’s too hard to resist the temptation to try and make it funny. Though I’d say I’ve never strictly written comedy either. I try to write what feels real therefore drama and comedy equally play a part. The difficulty with combining them both is in ensuring you don’t let the comedy take over. The story must take priority, but if you can have laughs along the way all well and good.

Matt: Comedy writers are in fact the most talented/hardworking writers, because our books need to achieve everything that every other book does AND be funny on top of all that, so there's a challenge straight away, and it's hard to be funny for 95,000 words. Though on the plus side, writing comedy is very rewarding on the (very) odd occasion you know you've nailed a joke.

Nick: Comedy's all about the pacing, which can be hard to do on the page properly. It takes a great deal of practice. Also, what you might find funny may not necessarily be what somebody else does, which can make it difficult to know what to write. I usually end up just writing what makes me laugh, which happily (for the most part) seems to be what a majority of my readership find funny too.

Jon: For me writing comedy or drama is essentially the same. My original idea for anything is to set out with a dramatic situation. I’m writing a drama about real life and real people. Then as I write I tend to make it funny, but the humour should always come from the characters and their situations. My first two books included subjects like infidelity, death, and suffering a miscarriage, hardly light topics, but I think to write really good humour it needs to tackle serious, dramatic subjects. 

"To paraphrase, there's no such thing as a finished 
 book - just one you stop working on" - Matt Dunn

What makes you laugh?

Nick: Nudity, bodily fluids and complex word play. That's why Monty Python remains one of the funniest comedy ventures in history. Combining stupidity and intelligence effectively in humour is an art form, and when you find something that does it well, it's hilarious.

Jon: So many things. My kids, my wife, people on Twitter, ridiculous YouTube videos – I suppose just life in general. In more specific terms, I love sitcoms. I love The Office, Peep Show, Outnumbered, and for the older people like me, Monty Python, Only fools and Horses, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, and I could go on. In writing terms, I love the work of Nick Spalding, Ben Hatch, and Matt Dunn, these guys crack me up.

Ben: Apart from friends and obviously Matt, Jon and Nick’s work, I tend to laugh more at TV shows than books. I’ve just finished The Peep Show box set. Before that over the course of the last two years I’ve watched all 250 episodes of Frasier. We have Modern Family also on the go, which I love. When a book makes me laugh though it becomes something special. The funniest books I’ve ever read are Catcher in the Rye, Catch 22, Lucky Jim, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They all have a little or a lot of darkness in them. That I always think makes the comedy even sharper.

Matt: Lots of different things, from re-runs of Frasier, to my twitter feed, to Harry Hill on You've Been Framed.


Did you always want to write comedy?

Matt: Yes – at least, ever since I read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. I'd always known I wanted to write, but it wasn't until I read that that I knew that was what I wanted to write.
Ben: My dad was a comic writer and performer and for years I rebelled against the idea of trying to emulate him. Instead I was sacked from about 30 different jobs. You name I, I failed at it. Postman, painter and decorator, McDonald's chicken station monitor, insurance broker, journalist, bank clerk, unemployment benefit officer. I was even a private detective for a while. Eventually I tried writing. My mum had just died, I’d just turned 30 and somehow that changed my antagonistic relationship with my dad. I loved it. I could do it in a dressing gown after all.

Jon: I think so yes. Comedy was always on in our house growing up. I remember sitting down with my family as a kid and watching Hi-di-Hi, Allo Allo, Open All Hours, The Two Ronnies and I just think it’s good to laugh together - it brings people together and makes them happy. Comedy has always inspired me and it’s still my favourite genre of anything. I’ve always had this need to try and make people laugh. It’s probably some deep emotional and psychological issue that I never dealt with. Comedy is my medicine.

Nick: Not really. I just tend to gravitate towards it when I do write (see my fantasy book The Cornerstone as evidence). I do enjoy it though, which is probably why I've continued to write in that genre. Also, it seems to be what people like to read when they pick up a Nick Spalding book, and, as ever, the customer is always right :)

"I try to write
what feels real
therefore drama
and comedy equally play a part"
- Ben Hatch 

What books or writers have most inspired you?

Jon: I think as writers, and without even knowing it, we borrow bits and pieces from every book, TV show, or film and it all filters into our work somehow. Growing up I read the Adrian Mole diaries over and over again. Years later I wrote my first book ‘This Thirtysomething Life’, a diary about one man struggling to grow up. Adrian Mole definitely influenced it even though I hadn’t read them for over ten years. I studied English Literature at university and so I read widely and even though my work is quite commercial, even books like Catch 22, and The Catcher in the Rye, influenced me. Obviously writers like Mike Gayle, Nick Hornby, and even Matt Dunn have been quite influential to me over the last few years. TV shows are huge too and I’m definitely influenced by the comedy of The Office and more recently Outnumbered. I love shows that are comedies without necessarily being just comedies.

Ben: The Catcher in the Rye switched me onto reading proper books, i.e. away from the Alistair MacLean thrillers I’d only read before. It was a revelation that books could be funny and truthful. Salinger makes the coming of age story of Holden Caulfield seem so effortlessly amusing and also moving at the same time, that all the hard work behind it is completely hidden. It looks like he dashed it off in an afternoon whereas in fact it took him ten years. It’s what I used to remind my wife when I was writing that book that took me seven years. I have been through Graham Greene phases, Evelyn Waugh phases, Ring Lardner, Geoff Dyer, and Nick Hornby phases and all have left their mark. I am a big fan of Mil Millington too. Though less of one than I was. When I met him at a party he borrowed 35 pence from me. He didn’t even spend it. He just put it in his pocket. That was nearly a year ago now!

Matt: See above, plus John O'Farrell's The Best A Man Can Get. I'm also inspired by David Mitchell – he crafts every word and every sentence so well (just read Cloud Atlas and you'll see what I mean) that I'd pay to read his shopping list.

Nick: Stephen King, definitely. I've been reading his stuff since I was ten. Terry Pratchett as well, for the same length of time. I also love Bill Bryson's style of humour, and Douglas Adams was a genius.

How much of your life is in your books?

Matt: That'd be telling. Though a conservative estimate would be 'all of it'.

Jon: Oh, ah, umm, that depends who you ask. Put it this way, when my wife read ‘This Thirtysomething Life’ for the first time she would stop every few pages, look at me and say, “Really? You put that in there?"

Ben: I tend to put a fair amount of real life both into both my travel writing and also into my fiction. I always feel uncomfortable making something completely up. If it doesn’t seem true to me how will I convince anyone else that’s the case. I need to find at least one detail - an observation, a feeling I’ve had, a story I’ve heard, whatever it is - to get me started. The scene initially hangs off this one little bit of truth that sometimes oddly like scaffolding gets removed at the end in an edit because it’s become unnecessary. Giving away true details has got me into trouble with my wife however. There was a scene in one book involving a sexual pulley system… no I can’t say. I’ll get in more trouble.

Nick: Absolutely none. None at all. Not a smidgeon....alright, that's a complete lie. I'd say about 80%. Which 80% though, I'm not letting on.

"I try not to pay much attention
to reviews - be they good or bad.
That way lies madness." - Nick Spalding

What's been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Nick: Being the bestselling self-published author of 2012 in the UK. No matter what else happens, that's a title I'll always have.

Ben: I think it was when my first book The P45 Diaries (Lawnmower Celebrity it was called then) was published. I can remember the stack of 50 of them on the 3 for 2 table at my local Waterstones. I stood for ages just staring at the pile willing someone to pick one up. I couldn’t believe I had written a book that was actually on sale in a bookshop. I stayed lurking there until someone bought one then I followed him out of the shop. I wanted to tell him that I’d written the book he had in his hands. I wanted to see him read it, watch to check if he laughed. In the end he panicked about half a mile down the road and leapt on a bus to Twickenham to escape me.  But I caught a cab and followed him to his house. I then climbed a tree so I could see into his living room. I stayed up there until he chuckled (OK, I didn’t do the last bit).

Matt: Two things – my second novel, The Ex-Boyfriend's Handbook, being nominated for both the Romantic Novel of the Year Award and the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance (though it didn't win either of them), and my last novel, A Day At The Office (which I self-published) becoming an Amazon top-10 best-seller, and hitting #1 in five different categories, including Women's Popular Fiction (where it knocked 50 Shades off the top spot).

Jon: Seeing ‘This Thirtysomething Life’ in the Kindle top ten in the UK when it was still self-published. I wrote it, designed the cover, wrote the blurb, and published it myself and it got to number 8 in the charts. Then, of course, there was the publishing deal with Hodder and Stoughton.

"Comedy writers are in fact the most talented/hardworking
writers because our books need to achieve everything
that every other book does AND be funny
on top of all that."
- Matt Dunn

Do you pay much attention to reviews and especially the ones that say you aren't funny?

Jon: I did. When I first started getting reviews I would read and re-read every one and the good ones would make me smile and the bad ones would put me in a bad mood for the day. Now I spend far less time looking at them, far less time worrying about them, and honestly, you aren’t going to please everyone. The main thing is that I’m proud of what I’m doing. Although saying all that, one reviewer did say that if anyone found my work funny, it was the end of civilization as we know it - a bit harsh.

Nick: I try not to pay much attention to reviews - be they good or bad. That way lies madness. Everyone has a different opinion, and if you start down the path of listening to all of them, you'll end up writing homogenised crap that appeals to no-one (I'm looking at you, Hollywood).

Ben: I don’t tell to get pulled up on not being funny because I don’t write out and out comedy. Instead a bad review might label one of my characters irritating. If that character is based on me as they often are, then that isn’t going to put a spring in my step. But I’ve had enough reviews now not to get too upset about bad ones or carried away at good ones. I’ve just come back to these answers a few days later and guess what – some arsehole HAS just called me unfunny in a review. The fucking cheek of it. What does he know? Nothing. The moron. Unfunny. Bollocks. Like I say, I don’t tend to over-react when I get a bad review.

Matt: Any author who says they don't pay much attention to reviews is probably lying, and having said that, I don't pay much attention to reviews. I don't mind reviews that say I'm not funny – there's a lot of comedy I don't find funny myself, so I can't expect everyone to laugh at mine. But I think like most authors, it's the reviews that are downright nasty that we have to try not to take to heart. We've all had them, and you have to wonder sometimes what it was about your simple attempt at a funny story that made them spill their bile out onto the page.  

"My first two books included subjects like
infidelity, death, suffering a miscarriage,
hardly light topics, but I think to write
really good humour it needs to
tackle serious, dramatic subjects." - Jon Rance

Do you think it's harder to be successful writing comedy 

Matt: I can't answer that, mainly because I've never tried to make a living by writing anything else. I think that generally, you write the way you write/what you like to read – I couldn't write a Western, or a spy thriller, for example – so I'm stuck with it. And it's hard to be successful as a writer full stop.

Jon: I think it’s harder to do well in comedy because it’s far more subjective than other genres. Put it this way, a comedy has never won an Oscar, a comedy actor has never won an Oscar for best actor. People tend to look down at comedy as somehow less of an art form, but the truth is, writing great comedy is far more difficult than anything else. I love comedy and being funny is every bit as difficult as making people cry or think. Take the Ricky Gervais show ‘Derek’, that is the perfect example of when comedy crosses over into drama. It was funny, but it makes you cry and think. Comedy can be anything you want - you just won't win any awards for it.

Nick:Not especially. It seems to be pretty damn difficult to become a successful writer, no matter what genre you happen to ply your trade in. Each has its own problems and challenges.

Ben: I think writing humour into a scene is the most difficult thing there is to do in writing. It’s massively under-rated. On TV the highest paid writers are those writing sit-coms. In the book world making people laugh is often sneered at. That’s why when Howard Jacobsen won the Booker with what was considered an amusing book it became a news story. But yet in real life humour is a part of every day. I can never understand why really great books that make readers laugh as well as tell a story aren’t taken more seriously.

Lastly, what’s the best piece of advice 

you’d give your unpublished, just starting 

out self?

Ben: I would say to myself, be more confident. I would advise myself against continually rewriting. A book is like a sculpture. Don’t spend hours making the perfect toe. Work the whole stone. Finish the book then go back and rewrite and straighten it out. I would also tell myself not to get too involved in Crufts in 2001 no matter how intoxicating Peter Purves commentary is.

Matt: Keep going. It's the best job in the world, even when it isn't. Oh, and bash out a best-seller about a boy wizard, or sadomasochistic sex, or something involving Da Vinci and codes first – that way you can write your romantic comedies in your own time on your yacht while your butler brings you endless glasses of Cristal...

Jon: Worry less. As a writer the only control you have is over the quality of the book you write. After that it’s pretty much out of your hands. Focus on writing the best books you can and let all the other stuff take care of itself. Oh, and start doing yoga much earlier because your back definitely needed it. 

Nick:Don't get too carried away when good things happen, and don't get too depressed when bad things come along. This business is more up and down than a roller-coaster designed by three drunk monkeys, so it's always best to stay calm and keep your feet firmly on the ground.  

"The story must take priority,
but if you can have laughs along
the way all well and good." 

- Ben Hatch

Thank you so much to Nick, Matt, and Ben for not ignoring my emails and actually doing this, it's been a lot of fun. I'm a writer and I love to listen or read about other writers. The process is so different for all of us, and yet our goal is always the same. I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you want to buy the latest books from either Matt, Nick, Ben, or myself, click on the links below. If you don't, whatever, we don't care, we don't do this for you, no, sorry, I didn't mean that, please buy our books, go on, I'll send you a fiver in the mail*...
Matt's bestselling and hilarious novel 'A Day At The Office'
Nick's new novella 'Buzzing Easter Bunnies' out now - Every story needs a decent climax!
My second novel 'Happy Endings' - Four people. Two couples. Six months that will change their lives forever.

Until next time.

Jon X 

* You definitely won't get a fiver in the mail.