The Elements

I Want To Be A Paperback Writer

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book….

I’m always writing. Music columns in the local paper, rhyming stories for school purposes (the best of which, The Wrestlers, is an illustrator away from a best-seller), an as-yet unfinished novel about shoplifting and addiction and betrayal where I wrote myself into a cul-de-sac, ran out of steam and left 40,000+ words in two-thirds-still-to-go flimsy-plot limbo.

It’s tough writing a novel. You can have all the ideas, all the time, all the energy, but the constant redrafting and nit-picking, rearranging and forever changing is mentally tough, especially when juggling an actual job and a family and everything that goes with it. You write a thousand words one day and read them back. They sizzle with unrestrained potential and you can’t wait for others to read them. You go back to them a week later and they’re as limp and flaccid as last week’s lettuce.

I was chatting to my fellow Irvinite John Niven about it. His novels – Kill Your Friends, The Amateurs and Cold Hands amongst many others – are proper page-turners full of plot developments, twists and turns and the golden touch of a well-chosen phrase or visualisation. He’ll routinely rattle off a couple of thousand words, he tells me, before the school run, and it’s only after the 5th or 6th draft of a new work in progress that he’ll feel comfortable sharing it with his publisher. His editor will then suggest further changes and the story goes through a spin cycle of rephrasing and refinement until, by the 9th or 10th draft it’s considered ready for publication. When you consider all that, it’s quite the thought to turn your ideas into print-ready reality. There’s ironing to be done and bins to be emptied and a never-ending pile of dirty laundry that’s needing dealt with. To drop everything and start tapping out key words and phrases whenever the writing muse strikes isn’t always easy to do.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working on a young adult novel. It’s about shoplifting (again) and residential reality TV and social media and goodies and baddies and zips along at a pace I think the target demographic will enjoy. Like almost every writer on the planet, I managed to punctuate it with its final full stop – “and dat’s de end o’ dat!” – during the first phase of lockdown. With John’s advice ringing in my ears, the story underwent much editing and rethinking along the way. Parts that had initially seemed essential and well-written were swiftly chopped and swept aside like a home-made lockdown haircut. All the unnecessary fluff was shaved away, revealing a fast-paced story with identifiable characters, plot twists and turns and an ending that might perhaps hint at a (cough) follow-up. I think I’ll try and get this published, I thought to myself around May or June. And that’s when the hard work really began.

As it turns out, it’s not as simple as emailing Harper Collins or Penguin or any of the publishers whose logo you might fancy appearing on the cover of your novel. No. Publishers don’t talk to writers until they really need to. You need an agent. An agent is the portal that will open publishers doors for you, direct your novel into the hands of a sympathetic editor and see your hard-fought hundred thousand words into actual print. An agent will know which publisher is looking for which genre of book. If they like your work, they might just take you on. If they already have another author who happens to have written a young adult novel about shoplifting and residential reality TV and social media and goodies and baddies then forget it, they might like what you’ve written but they won’t represent you. If it’s taken you a year and a half to write a novel about shoplifting and residential reality TV and social media and goodies and baddies and stories like that are no longer on trend then forget it, you’ve missed the boat. Agents, it is now clear to me, are the most important element in getting your work published.

I’ve written synopses, I’ve written one-line pitches, I’ve written bloody bastarding bite-sized blurbs, but I can’t get an(y) agent to bite. To put it simply, my novel is unloved. I’ve been through the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, I’ve respectfully emailed every Tamara, Tabatha and Thandie and all I have to show for it is upwards of 40 pleasant-ish replies. Some are standard, some are a bit more encouraging and personal, but all are unified in their final line. Sorry, not for us.

I’d given myself the target of Christmas time to see what happened. Some agents can take up to 12 weeks to reply, if they reply at all. In my experience, about 60% of all the agents I got in touch with replied, and most of them did so quickly and succinctly, but I respected the 12 week thing in any case. Right now, according to my carefully curated notes, I have no agents left to write to and no replies forthcoming. I have exhausted all avenues. One publisher gushed forth about the novel and its potential and offered to publish it…for an admin fee of a few thousand pounds. If you thought it had that much potential, I suggested in my ‘no thanks’ email, you’d surely be happy to publish it without the need for me to pay you. You can, after all, self-publish on Amazon for nothing. So, my race has been run. I’ve come to the end of the line. My chips have been cashed. I have a novel that no-one wants to publish.

I’ve decided instead to serialise it here. Serialising of books is nothing new – Charles Dickens did it with The Pickwick Papers, Stephen King’s Green Mile was serialised half a dozen times before being published as a novel and Hunter S Thompson’s Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas was published in Rolling Stone over a number of issues. In no way do I align myself with these titans of writing, but my faint hope is that someone somewhere picks up on this and maybe, just maybe, offers to publish it. Until then, I’ll feature a chapter or half a chapter or something of readable length perhaps once a week – how much can you realistically read on an iPhone before it becomes unbearable? – until the whole story is out there. I’ll refrain from editing and rewriting as I go, unless I spot something truly horrendous. What will appear is exactly what I’ve mailed to every relevant agent across the UK. If they don’t like it, why should you? I’m not offended if you think it’s rubbish. Just don’t tell me if you do. All positive comments though are very much encouraged.


The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 1


Connor stood just inside the musty door of Mr Szczęsny’s shop. A handful of people gathered around the till area, engaged in the sort of conversation that only ever happened in corner shops on wet Tuesdays. Connor’s attentions were focused on the row of magazines in front of him. He found what he was looking for, peeled it from the shelf and, with a furtive glance towards Mr Szczęsny behind his counter, rolled it up and walked out of the door in one swift, well-practised move.


Heads turned, but Connor didn’t see them. He also didn’t see Mrs Szczęsny. Arms folded, legs apart, all five feet of her stared him down, barring his exit. Connor could’ve pushed her aside, pushed her over even, but he wasn’t that sort of boy. So, he stopped, shamefully handed the magazine to Mrs Szczęsny and, on her unspoken instruction, followed her back into the shop. The small group of people who had come for their milk and their cigarettes and their tittle-tattle stood in a semi-circle, tutting disapprovingly as Connor was led through the multicoloured strips behind the counter and into a small room that he never knew was there.

Then the police arrived and his parents arrived and the tears arrived. Big, snot-filled gloopy ones. The sort that emphasised just how sorry he was. The sort that you only cried if you’d brought real shame on your family. The sort that promised never to do it again.

“Ve haff you on zhe See See Tee Vee, Connor. Zis is zhe zhird time zhis veek. You must know, I let zhe first one go. Boyz vill be boyz efter all. And I ignored yezterday too. Connor, I like you. I em reminded very much of me vhen I look et you. But enough iz enough. Zis,” he said, sweeping his arm around in an arc, “iz my whole life. I can’t haff you stealing from me. You are taking me for a fool and I em very much not a fool.”

Eventually, a court case arrived.

The judge was a wizened and yellowy, beaky man with a sorry sweep of hair across the top of his liver-spotted head. He had no sympathy for boys who liked YouTube and xBox and petty crime. His own father hadn’t fought in world wars for that, he said. He offered Connor a choice.

“Connor Stewart.” His soft Scottish burr echoed across the near-empty courtroom. “I am a fair man and I am a believer in second chances. I note from our report into you that you have had no previous convictions from this judiciary. That, young man, is your lifeline. If this were to be your third, or maybe only second appearance in front of me, well….”

The judge’s voice faded away as inconspicuously as his suit and tie. 

“…So I will offer you a choice. An unusual outcome, perhaps, but one that will allow you to determine your own fate. That is fair, yes?” The judge wasn’t looking for a reply from Connor, who stood shaking uncontrollably from head to toe.

“The usual sentence for this sort of crime is six to nine months hard labour with the Department of Enforcement. I will give you the option of eight months with this Department, working from their Northern Shires depot. You would be taken there today and expected to begin work tomorrow.”

The Northern Shires were over 300 miles away. At this time of year there would be snow and ice and cold, cold winds. Connor was 15 seconds at most away from crying.


The word hung tantalisingly in the air. Caught in a shaft of sunlight that had sneaked in through a crack in the curtains, small specks of dust formed around it, swirling like tiny planets suspended in time.

“Alternatively, I will offer you a progressive, modern sentence. Should you accept this punishment you would have the honour of being my first such recipient. There is a brand-new television show in the making and I believe they are looking for boys of your calibre to take part in it. It is filmed in a studio far away from here. You will receive food and lodging but you will also be expected to take part in all activities asked of you. It goes without saying that you would not see your parents or your friends until filming is over. Filming can last anything from a month to a year. So, Connor Stewart, I put it to you – eight months labour in the Northern Shires or up to a year filming a new TV show. What shall it be?”

Connor, who had been expecting the worst, lifted his head. He realised his shaking had calmed. He looked at his sobbing parents. He looked at the judge. He looked deep into himself. Connor, who had never been on TV before and quite fancied the experience tried to answer calmly and not too promptly.

“I will accept the option of taking part in the television show, your honour, sir. Thank you.”

It wasn’t the first mistake in Connor’s 12 years of life, but it was, to date, the biggest.

(more to follow in the future)