Phoebus Haack and my Writing Failures

“I like to succeed in public, but to fail in secret.” – David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man

I don’t blame David Ogilvy, for like the best (and worst) of people I too like to keep my failures secret.

This may be due to too much pride – pride that I want to be a success in all that I do, pride in believing that the wider world really cares about what I do, for better or worse.

In the same way that I know that I should have a side of salad instead of chips, or get up an hour early to fit in gym before the office, I know I should find something to learn from my failures.

Hard to do when it

So in return for an extra hour in bed and for keeping our potato farmers happy, I shall start writing about my previous failures in writing in the hope that even if I don’t learn something, others might.

It’ll be embarrassing, it will show naivety, shockingly awful plots and flat characters, but it may at least be entertaining for some, even if it’s misery for me.

If you have a writing failure then let me know – misery likes company.

Phoebus Haack and the Crown Jewels of Britlantis

Years: 2005-6
Location: Cambridge & Dartford
Genre: Young Adult
Subject: Sci-fi novel that aimed to educate about archaeology. A blending of the myth of Atlantis with the history of Britain.
Summary: One adventurer’s quest to find the mythical British crown jewels before the bad guys do.
Reasons for failure: A young adult book without a young adult character, poor structuring, not much to say about itself. Aiming to educate young adults about archaeology

Royale McGuffins


Several hundred years in the future the British Isles sink and a few thousand years after that they rise again. Earth has been abandoned for aeons but those in the know have been watching it and realise the potential wealth and fame that awaits if they can claim the fabled Crown Jewels as their own.

Phoebus Haack is the adventurer who is racing against the evil de Vespain to claim the Crown jewels as his own.

Why did you write it?

There’s nothing like ignorance to make you think you know it all. I’d not read up on how to write – why did I need to, I’d just graduated from an essay-heavy course of archaeology and anthropology at the most prestigious university in the country.

The day after graduation I and three college friends signed on. Not to some fat joining bonus at a high-flying job, or to further study, but the dole. I felt I’d earned it – I’d worked before and the government soon informed me I’d accrued six months’ worth of National Insurance benefits.

Technically that meant that I would be looking for a job, but the clerk who took my application put me down as only looking for ‘archaeology jobs’ and archaeologists weren’t in demand. So while I looked for work, I was really imagining that I was in some artistic dream, helped by being in a house that ran on whisky, poker and cigarettes (or shisha for me) and stayed up till five most mornings. Moving to Dartford I wrote above my uncle’s butchers, the smell of raw meat, sawdust and blood wafting up as I typed.

This to me is what artists should do – I’d even lived in a cupboard for my last week of college. Surely this is the cocoon from which emerges a great artist.

I had dreams of having business cards with ‘writer’ on it, and from what little I knew about writing it was that you should always write what you know – and I knew archaeology.

Not only did I know archaeology – I even had a degree to prove it – but I also knew that the buying public prefers tosh and adventure to real archaeology. So why not combine the two?

So Britlantis arose from the seas of my imagination.

What went wrong?

Everything is too general, but “many things” is a good one.

The first is that I didn’t have a structure, I had a series of scenes I loved and strung together.

It’s good to have interesting scenes – mine was that of running across the dead Thames river bed as the jet-pack hardened mud returns to bog – but the danger is that, like the indulgent father, the writer doesn’t discipline or see any fault despite their obvious failings.

It was badly written – characters couldn’t merely ‘say’ something, they ‘spat’ words, ‘queried’ things, ‘vented’ and ‘tossed words’ at each other. Every other speech was accompanied by a description of their movements – I ensured you always knew when a character rolled their eyes, shuddered, flinched, glanced, turned away from, turned to face or, for variety, spun around.

I call this ‘Eclipse Writing’ after Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart and its frequent call to ‘turn around, bright eyes’.

Admittedly this would be worth writing about

But its main crime was that it told rather than showed, telling you how people felt, and dwelling on the trivial, such as what characters wore and what their furniture was, rather than showing what they did. I could sum it up as ‘his black leather-gloved fist smashed through the blue-washed pine wardrobe’s lop-sided door’.

I finished the book, but I also wanted to do illustrations and I’m no illustrator, and of course while the saying is that a picture’s worth a thousand words, like many other clichΓ©s it doesn’t belong in a good book unless you’re a good enough writer to know how to work them.

Once finished I then sent some very long, over a page A4, query letters that no doubt sent the agents and publishers who, if any, read them.

Finally, I think I just missed the point about writing. I worried earnestly on whether to use or not use a comma, whether I should use ‘said’ or ‘stated’, but not about how the whole thing worked, whether I was telling a good story well.

I was like an architect quibbling over where to put the plug sockets when the whole building was missing a wall and half a roof.

What went right?

First I discovered that I had friends who supported me. Dom read it, or at least had the decency to tell me he did, and praised me just for finishing a book (even if he didn’t praise the content, that’s what I call a technical victory). I also had a friend’s wife proof it.

I wrote for an audience, my youngest sister who is now studying archaeology at university, and knowing who your audience is is something I now know to be key. I may not have written well, but I knew who I was writing for.

Likewise, for all my letters to publishers and agents (from an outdated book of contacts no less), I did get one positive response. It was from a pay-to-publish house, which I and many others recommend you should never ever use.

It’s not worth vanity publishing, yet it boosted my ego despite me knowing the limitations. It’s not unusual it’s human nature – our ego takes a boost even when we know we’re being flattered.

So, rightly or wrongly, this support kept me going.

Would you do it again?


Oh, you want more. No, I know now that to be a Young Adult writer – or any genre author – you need to be committed. Not in the madhouse sense, I think, but in sticking to a theme.

If – hah – Phoebus Haack had succeeded (in more than finding the jewels) I would be expected to write more. Authors can’t just flit from one genre to another, it’s hard enough to get noticed and publishers want to see a return.

JK Rowling had to execute more than one book for her name to be global, but can you imagine her writing a bodice ripper? Terry Pratchett wrote five Discworld books before he could leave the gas board, and Roald Dahl hated that he was known as a children’s author and not the adult novelist he saw himself.

Likewise, railing against ‘tosh’ is foolish, you’re like a rotund beer guzzler in a football shirt railing against the latest Man Utd signing.

I know now that the first book isn’t a kickstart to a glitzy, staggering career. Other than the precious few exceptions it’s a slow, chugging, start that slowly builds momentum.

If I ever gain momentum, I want it to be in the right direction. And that way is not beneath the waves of a post-dilivuan Britain.

My cards still don’t say ‘writer’, but I know now that it takes more than a business card to be a professional about writing.

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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