Case study: Simon Bell
Discover Simon Bell, a graduate of our Develop Your Fiction course, whose dystopian debut novel The Epilogue Event is launching on Saturday 6 July (2024) at Jarrolds.

Below, Simon describes catching the writing bug, quitting his job and ‘climbing the mountain’ of novel-writing, sharing insights of the journey and a look into what’s next for his ‘AI Aftermath’ series.


You recently published a novel called The Epilogue Event, tell us more!

The central act of the book concerns the cynosure or performance of Gordon Langley. He triggers a virus which will infect the world. Transmission is achieved by exploiting the receptive mindset encouraged by social media. Stealthily the virus transfers from digital to human, gradually building up an army of followers. The story introduces important characters, describes the first of what will be many terrifying acts of group-madness, and is organised as a thriller. But the narrative is centred around four ordinary people, three love affairs, two acts of betrayal and one attempt at redemption.

The Epilogue Event stands alone but is intended as a prequel to a quartet which begins ten years later: ‘Baptised and Newly Born’, ‘The Woman and the Light’, ‘Lost Tunnels of London’ and ‘Beneath the Graves’. These are the books of the ‘AI Aftermath’ series.

 

You were tutored by Megan Bradbury on our Next Steps Fiction (now called Develop Your Fiction) course. How did this experience contribute towards writing The Epilogue Event?

This was so important for my development as a novelist. Since 2002 I had written and edited six novels, two memoirs and over one hundred short stories, but in 2022 I was totally, frustratingly, infuriatingly stuck. I had only had small success in getting my work published and I did not know what was wrong. I was being driven crazy by the lack of feedback from literary agents and publishers. I was in danger of losing my friends, many of whom I had pressed into reading and commenting on my manuscripts, and I had the distinct impression that they were starting to avoid me. I was miserable and going nowhere.

My partner and my daughter encouraged me to take Megan’s course. I had read books about creative writing and completed short courses such as the BBC Maestro series. I had paid for professional mentoring and editing, but I had not had formal teaching in creative writing.

The course was like pure, clear water to a parched throat. I could not drink it in deeply enough. It was wonderful, like finding an oasis following decades in a desert. I loved the course, I treasured the writing and comments of my fellow students and was awestruck by the professionalism, care and attention of Megan. I am sure that without this I would not have completed my novel.

 

What were the benefits of studying a creative writing course online?

When I began the course, it was my intention to use it as a polishing stone for The Epilogue Event, but it was so much more than that. The online material was rich with the exploration of compelling literature, the principles of novel structure, the tools and techniques that can be applied to make writing more productive and successful. Thousands of words were read and reviewed by Megan and my fellow students. The resulting comments and suggestions were miraculously empowering and enriching. I learned what I was good at and, critically, where my weaknesses lay.

 

What is your best piece of advice for anyone embarking on writing a novel?

Never be too proud to listen and learn. Realise that writing a book is no trivial thing, it is a noble but daunting task to undertake. Lots of people think that they can write a novel but very few complete one. No matter how much support and encouragement you receive, you have to love the writing process, and this is a solitary activity which requires you to take a long hard look at yourself, because your book is hidden within you, and you alone can find it. If you are happy to be solitary, if you are content to go into yourself to find your book, then, in my experience, you have the necessary and sufficient qualities to write. In this case, you now face the mountain of the task.

Some are talented or fortunate enough to find an early acceptance or approval of their writing­ — they get a ski-lift to the summit, or at least a good pair of second-hand mountain boots. But most writers are not so fortunate, and there will be little help. The mountain must be climbed, barefoot, every inch of it. But it is not all hard work. Others climb with you, your feet grow callouses, and the view can be stunning. Mountains are wild but also beautiful.

Keep climbing and, if you are determined and you find that you still love writing your story, you will realise that you want to share it with others. Learning this will give you an energy boost — take it, absorb it, you will need it.

When you are near the summit, please persevere. The last bit can be exhausting, defeating. But the panorama from the top of the mountain is magnificent.

Never give up, but also be humble, never think you are the complete mountaineer. Even the best can fall and the potential for improvement is limitless. If someone offers you help on the way, even if the help hurts, humbly accept it. It may not feel right, but equally it might provide the vital, missing component which will bring your journey to completion.

 

Tell us about your experience with the editing and publishing process, and any particular challenges you had.

Like many authors, I love writing, I have grown to like editing, but I dislike many of the elements involved in publishing. My challenges are not unique. As an unpublished novelist, I needed good, professional critical feedback to help me to improve as a writer. I found the ‘void’ of responses from the publishing industry incomprehensible. My manuscripts were ignored. Letters of rejection became a bonus. I enjoyed knowing that someone had taken the trouble to send me a dismissal email, “your work does not fit our list.” Authors spend countless hours trying to figure out how to be read, approved of. Yes, we would like a pat on the head, but to be noticed would be a start.

Megan’s course, her comments, the critical comments of other students, and those from friends in the Norwich Writers’ Circle, these are the things that helped me to improve. It is no coincidence that it was only after completing Develop Your Fiction, that I had my first email of interest from a publisher. I cannot express my feelings when I read it. Yes, I did well up.

 

Are there any places, events, or characteristics of Norwich, as a city of literature, that have been important in your writing and publishing process?

I was born in Norwich, and since my earliest years have found my city inspiring. As a child, shopping at Langleys in the Royal Arcade was magical. Cream donuts and milkshakes at Matthes’ coffee shop, nestling in the Back Of The Inns, a rare but rapturous treat. But even greater inspiration came later, when as a teenager I took long walks after the pubs had closed. It was then that I discovered the night city, silent except for the crinkle of sodium lights. The city was like an empty stage waiting for me to explore. I made up stories as I walked the shadowy streets, from Unthank Road to Elm Hill, from Magdalen Street to Thorpe Road, the Riverside and the cavernous emptiness of the football ground. It was enchanted, sometimes a bit scary, but it was mine — stories seeped out darkly from the empty churches, and eerie gardens. Later, I lived in Colegate, Norwich-over-the-Water, before it was gentrified. My home had been a sixteenth century pub. Lying sleepless in the creaking house at two in the morning, I relived my experience of the city of night, and with the strange noises of the nocturnal people, the incessant flow of life, Norwich was like a story constantly telling itself.

One of my teenage haunts was Norwich International Club which met at the Music House on Kings Street. Here I met other young people from distant countries, heard their stories, learned about their lives. I was not to know that, many years later but only a hundred yards up the road, I would meet and talk with writers, poets, actors, translators and screenplay writers from all over the world, at the social events at Dragon Hall.

 

What’s next for you?

More mountains to gear up for. Book two of the ‘AI Aftermath’ series is accepted for publication. I aspire to see the entire quintet published. And there are those two memoirs to polish up. One is about my chaotic experience as the owner of the first domestic wind turbine in South Norfolk. The other is about the thirty years I spent as a member of a mystery school, and my reasons for leaving it.

 

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Prior to being a novelist, Simon Bell was an academic and the CEO of a research institute in London. He travelled the world, and his work concerned issues with information technology and international development, from the measurement of sustainability to assessing group dynamics, the mechanics of fear and the value of mindfulness. He was restless, and there was eloquent evidence of a problem — he could not control his curiosity.

In 2002, as a respite from work and travel, Simon started writing fiction. He wanted to explore the things that occupied his professional and academic life, but beyond the boundaries or agreed facts. He had a long-standing fascination with the ideas of dystopia and aftermath and wanted to see where the fictional trail would take him. So, he wrote the fourth book of The Lord of the Rings. He sifted through the ashes of Tolkien’s world to write about what happens when the great event is complete, when the main actors have all gone away. It was fun, and he learned a lot. When the manuscript was finished and packed away on his hard drive, Simon thought he had got the fiction writing bug out of his system. Not so, he had merely stirred his inquisitiveness. He enjoyed this writing and wanted more. A friend encouraged him, saying, “aftermath is a recurring meme in human experience.”

So, without any real plan, Simon carried on, and found that he loved the writing habit. His dystopian stories wrote themselves, often in his unconscious. He would wake in the morning to find that his characters had moved, had adventures, fallen in love, or died even as he slept. On many mornings he would sit, groggy and tired in half light, a cup of green tea on his desk, typing frantically, trying to recall the self-writing story before his day job began. This was magical, this was what he was meant to do. So, when Covid came and ended one version of the world, Simon handed in his notice as CEO, and dedicated himself to writing.

This is when The Epilogue Event emerged.

Find out more on Simon Bell’s website!

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