On one, very special evening I learned a lesson that put me on the right path to becoming a published author. Another almost immeasurable blessing – and, I can honestly say, one of the key turning points in my life.

Though it didn’t come without a sting in the tail…

By now I was in my first year as an Oxford undergraduate at New College – and basking in the tutelage of Christopher Tolkien as I pursued my studies in Old and Middle English.

I’d also discovered – and joined – a bunch of friendly nutcases called the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group. Over time the group had amassed a considerable library of fantasy and science fiction books. So every week I would go and grab an armful. But I also stayed for the meetings – and there I met Diana Reed, who had just launched the group’s own fiction magazine, SFinx. To which, in due course, I was happy to contribute.

My then girlfriend was as deeply into fantasy as I was, and one issue – with a design of hers on the cover, and a story of mine inside – became the focus of attention for a particularly memorable meeting.

Because our guest that evening was the remarkable British SF writer James Blish.

These days, I suspect, many SF readers won’t know Jim’s work, but it was invariably beautifully crafted, thought-provoking and imaginative. So it was with some trepidation that we gave him a copy of SFinx for his comments and feedback.

HIs dissection of my effort was surgical and merciless. And every word he said about it – unwelcome as it was – made it clear why the story simply didn’t work.

But

Then he told us how to write stories that do work. With a very simple formula.

You begin with a problem that your hero or heroine has to solve. In the course of the story the problem may become more and more complex and involved. Until, at the end, you unravel it – ideally with something you planted fairly soon after the first paragraph. Or – if your central character is less sympathetic – you begin with what looks like an opportunity for a scam, which backfires spectacularly at the end.

But the first line matters – that’s the ‘hook’. The rest of the story is the ‘line’. And the denouement is the ‘sinker’.

I’ve used that basic formula ever since, in almost everything I’ve written. I’ve taught that same formula to aspiring writers working with me on the team I built for my Newsletter Genie enterprise. Because if Jim was happy to share it, I wanted to do the same. And, for the record, you can read a more detailed explanation of what I call the ‘Blish model’ in a longer article here.

After all, what’s the point of a blessing if you can’t share it?

But that, of course, is only the hook for a much longer story. Because to learn a craft properly – inside and out – you’ll need to serve an apprenticeship.

I did. And that, too was a blessing. Well, mostly…