Monday, 7 January 2019

Writing resolution 2019

I like a challenge, as you know. I like to start something new in the new year and keep it up. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Mostly when it doesn’t, it’s because it’s too vague or too hard. The single most successful challenge I have ever set myself is to write 500 words a day every day for a year, which I did in 2016. I found that for me 500 words a day is absolutely doable in any circumstances. On a good day, it’s thirty minutes of writing; on a slow day it might take about an hour. I included every type of writing in my 500 words – words that were part of whatever my work-in-progress was, blog words, reviews, writing exercises. Each day I added my words to a spreadsheet and found, by the end of the year, that I’d written over 200,000 words. Every single day felt like a successful writing day when I added my daily total to the spreadsheet. That is a feeling worth having.

I learned two main things the last time around. Number one is that, for me, first thing in the morning, before I get out of bed is the optimum time for writing fast because the critical self-editor who normally sits on my shoulder appears to be still asleep at this time. Any later and it’s likely to take me twice as long. And the point is to get the words on the paper. They don’t have to be readable – they just have to be there. Knocking them into shape is an entirely separate thing.

The second thing I learned is that I need to spend more time on detailed plotting and planning ahead so that I always know exactly what I’m going to be writing each day. I had some moments in 2016 when I had finished everything I had planned and so I began writing random parts of things that I had had vague thoughts about, all of which are still sitting in files waiting for me to get to them some day. On the other hand, there is definitely room for spontaneity. In 2016, I began writing little pieces of fairy tale as writing exercises and these stories grew wings and have become my Snippets project which continues to be an absolute delight to work on.

So I am beginning the year writing a short piece which will become the beginning of a new novel I hope. At the moment I know how the story begins but the rest is sketchy. I need to find a way into it before I start doing serious planning. I think this will be around 3,000 words and so will fill about a week. I’m not yet sure what my subsequent 500 words a day will be about because my first big project of the year isn’t writing something new but reworking something I originally wrote back in 2016. I need to read it first to decide if I’d be better off starting from scratch or if there is something that can be salvaged. That probably sounds like a disheartening task to be undertaking but it’s not. I love the idea of this book and I think I’ve come up with a much better way to tell the story. I imagine I’m going to need a good bit of planning before I’m ready to write some more on either of these projects. Seems to me like this might be a chance to write some new Snippets stories – oh yes!

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
Find out about my Snippets project and how you can help on my Patreon page.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Why I’m calling this draft Draft 0

Writers have a lot of different names for the first draft of a novel – many of them not all that polite... This is the draft you write when you’re working out how the story fits together, when you’re telling yourself the story.

It’s not for public consumption.

It doesn’t always make sense.

As you write, the characters may change their names requiring you to go back and do a search and replace to make them consistent. Chances are that once you’ve done this you’ll notice a lot of squiggly red underlines beneath words you didn’t intend to change. In my most recent book, I changed a character called Abby to Karen. As a tabby cat also featured several times in the story, I then had to do another search and replace to change tKaren back to tabby.

It could be that some vital piece of a character’s identity will only be revealed to you halfway through writing. You could go back… But no, onwards, always onwards. There’ll be more to sort in the next draft. Right now, you just need to get to the end.

Then there are the places where you can’t make a decision about something or you need to go away and do some research. But the clock is ticking: on-wards, on-wards. And so your draft becomes a patchwork of margin notes, square brackets and highlighting.

Don’t even get me started about the beginning – you may as well face the fact that whatever you’ve written in this draft almost certainly isn’t actually how the finished novel will start. You have to put the words on the page and move on.

The ending will be worse. How do you tie up a story in a surprising but inevitable and satisfying way? How do you return your characters to a settled state showing that they have changed somehow from their experience? And what is more, how do you do these things without great big signs pointing out, “Look! Here’s how my character has been changed by the story!” It’s entirely possible that you have no real idea about what change has happened or what the underlying theme of your story is.

So here you are with your first draft, little more than a document full of words and ideas and notes strung together in some sort of order. Perhaps the most expressive of the expressions writers give this first draft is the vomit draft. No matter which way you look at it, it’s RUBBISH. It’s so thoroughly disheartening to look at that you could almost just press the delete key right now...  If only you hadn’t sweated so much over this worthless pile of words.

Here’s the thing, though. When I started the last book I wrote, I labelled it Draft 1 as I usually do. I will expect to get to around Draft 5 before I’m happy with it. But this time, just after I started to write, I happened to look at Robin Stevens Instagram account. Robin usually posts a picture of the corner of her screen every time she gets past another 10,000 words. I love that she does that – it’s the kind of thing I expect from not-yet-made-it writers but for her there are legions of avid fans just waiting for those 10,000s to show up in her next book. I’m always ready to cheer on any writer for their next 10,000! Anyway, in the comments Robin had called the draft Draft 0. And as soon as I saw this a lightbulb flicked on in my mind.

Draft 0! Of course! This first draft isn’t really a draft at all. It’s the raw material that Draft 1 will come from. It’s work you do on a lump of clay before you throw it onto a wheel and make a pot from it. Readers, I went straight to my computer and relabelled my mess of a manuscript Draft 0!

And now I’ve reached the end of Draft 0, I can put it away in its virtual drawer to mellow and mature for a while, confident that when I get it out again and discover that it’s not a book, it’s not a disaster. It's inevitable. It’s not supposed to be a book yet. I can love it for what it is: the raw material from which to build a book.

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
Find out about my Snippets project and how you can help on my Patreon page.

Sunday, 14 October 2018


The days of October are ticking away.

Half gone already.

Do you know what that means?

It means I’m half done with my NaNoWriMo prep…

(“Nano-what?” some of you say. Here’s the explanation.)

I know I can write 50,000 words in a month. I did it last year. In fact, I’m just now finishing the edits of the book I wrote last November and I’m pretty pleased with it. Strong on plot, I’d say, which is a bit of a departure for me as my characters are spend quite a lot of time drinking tea and chatting. The difference is probably that I’m aiming younger, what’s known as ‘Middle Grade’ even though that’s a reference to the US education system which is meaningless in Britain. Middle-graders don’t have a lot of truck with tea-drinking and chatting in books.

The great thing of course about writing a book that’s strong on plot is that there’s a clear forward pull on the narrative. Every time the characters stop running, you pull the rug out from under them and they’re off again. And for me to keep that much plot going at a rate of 1,667 words per day throughout November, I need to do plenty of planning.

I’ve found that the best way to plan is to ambush myself into creativity. That sounds slightly bonkers written down, but here’s what I mean. I know that my mind is at its most creative first thing in the morning before anything else has come to fill it. I spend a precious half-hour in bed with a notebook and pencil and the cup of peppermint tea my lovely husband brings me. I set a timer and for half an hour I write notes about the book I’m planning. They could be characters notes, plot notes, lists of names or places, lists of possible situations to throw my characters into, questions I need to solve. Anything and everything that comes into my head gets written down. After half an hour I put the notebook aside until the following day and begin the rest of my day. I hardly think about the book at all the rest of the day, but presumably it's all slotting into place as the day goes on because I always have more questions and more lists the next day. Last year I did this every day of October and by November 1st I was champing at the bit to get started on writing. (A side note, I worked out that if I could keep up this 30 minutes a day every day of the year it would add up to over five 35-hour working weeks of creativity – there’s a thought!).

Last year was the first time I’d tried this method and last year my daily notes were quite random. This year, just before the start of October I discovered the snowflake method of plotting so that’s what I’m trying this time. It’s more focused and because it requires you to continually go back to what you’ve planned before and expand, I think I’m going to have sorted out a lot of the potential plot holes before I start. Of course, there are potentially lots of these – I’m having a go at a detective story which turns out to be incredibly complicated… but more of that in another blog.

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
Find out about my Snippets project and how you can help on my Patreon page.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Resolution – or why I read (and write) fiction

What is story for?

To be honest, this is a question I mostly try to ignore. Why does something have to be for anything? It’s like looking at a painting and saying, “But what is it?” But I suppose it’s a perfectly reasonable question. So here goes:

1. Story can take you out of your own life.

Through reading or writing stories that are different from your own lived experience, you can escape whatever is going on in your own life – lifting you out of the boring everyday or respite from turbulent times.

2. Story can take you out of your own head.

Reading and writing can also give you a temporary escape from yourself –being able to shut out all the things that are going on inside your own head can be delightfully restful.

3. Story can show you what it’s like to be someone else.

This is the one educators often like. Reading stories about other people’s lives can help the reader to develop empathy for other people. It can help young people to understand other people’s situations and problems. Encouraging young people to try on other people’s lives is the surest way I can think of to move forward from the ‘othering’ of people which is poisoning our society.

As for writing, inhabiting a character is a marvellous thing. It’s a little bit like being Frankenstein and a little bit like an accelerated version of bringing up a child. And just like both of those scenarios, there’s a magical moment when your character turns out to have a mind of their own…

4. Story can reflect your own experiences.

Here’s a place where the publishing industry – and in particular, children’s publishing – are working hard at the moment. Children and young people need to recognise themselves in the books they read. It breeds self-esteem and inclusion. In some cases, it can help young people to understand the situation they find themselves in or to deal with a problem.

Do I want to reflect my own experiences in my writing? I’m not sure. I certainly thread snippets of things that have happened to me together with little bits of language I’ve heard. I’m there in the opinions of some of the characters and the dress-sense of others. All my stories are a little bit me, of course they are. No one else could write quite like I write because they have not lived my life. But that’s as far as it goes: it’s a reflection of some things I’ve experienced, but I’m not sticking to ‘write what you know’. Oh no – that would be much too dull.

5. Resolution

What I’m looking for in a story is a pattern of problem and resolution which singularly fails to appear in real life most of the time. For me, it’s fiction’s biggest asset. Hope of satisfying ending is the thing that carries you through the trials and setbacks of the plot to the moment when you turn the last page and feel uplifted by the rightness of it all. And when I say uplifted, I don’t necessarily mean that the ending has to be happy. It just has to be right.

Writing a truly satisfying ending is incredibly difficult. I can see the appeal of the happy-ever-afters of romance fiction and the final unravelling of the crime or capture of the culprit in crime fiction. Of the three books I’ve published to date I’d say I’d got the ending just right once and nearly right twice. The problem is to tie things up neatly enough to give the reader a satisfying resolution to the problems of the plot, but not so neatly that it seems the characters have only one way forward. I suppose you could say that I want my characters in the right place to live happily ever after with the choice to not live happily ever after if it suits them. Bit like real life then.

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
Find out about my Snippets project and how you can help on my Patreon page.

Friday, 20 July 2018


 You know all those stories about how some famous writer or other only got published after rejections from every publisher and agent in existence? They’re supposed to be inspiring, aren’t they? Supposed to make you gird your loins, polish your manuscript again, research who is actively seeking submissions and whether they’re looking for stuff like yours, and send out another handful of submissions.

But here’s the thing.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

cover illustration by James Marsh
I’m not sure it had occurred to me that fairy tales could be anything other than children’s stories before I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. I breathed in these stories and they changed the way I felt about story itself.

Such things are possible.
Stories are fluid.
They can be used in different ways to say different things.

(You’d think I’d have realised this already – I was nineteen and at university studying French literature. Perhaps, though, it was no good other people telling me, perhaps I had to find it out for myself).

I’ve written the date 22nd January 1985 inside my copy and - can you see? - I've covered it in sticky-back plastic, so I certainly thought it was a keeper! But I’m certain I must have read the book before 1985. Neil Jordan’s fabulously strange and atmospheric film The Company of Wolves, based on these stories came out in 1984 and I’m sure I went to it desperately hoping that he’d done the stories justice. He had, of course, and if you haven’t seen the film, you should put it on your watchlist right now. Worth it for the werewolf transformation alone!

So I’m imagining I’ve borrowed and read the book some time before, then seen the movie and felt I absolutely had to reread the stories. And in 1985, by some piece of extraordinary happenstance, I had the most perfect part-time job it was possible for a bookworm like myself to have. I had a Saturday job in the Good Book Guide Bookshop on Great Russell Street, just along from the British Museum. Now back then Britain had a thing called the Net Book Agreement, which meant that all books had to be sold for the price printed on the back of the book. I know, it sounds like a really odd idea now, but I’m pretty sure it was good for the publishing industry and I know it was good for authors. Anyway, what it meant was that having a job in a bookshop was a very fine thing for a desperate accumulator of books like myself, because I could buy books at cost, which was 33% off the cover price. I bought a lot of books.

And at the same time during the years I worked there, I breathed in the book world: I opened boxes with stacks of lovely new books; I arranged tables; I sat with a drawer of file cards on my knees checking the stock (no computers, oh youngsters!) and discovering all the backlist books a good bookshop should hold; I sought out books we didn’t stock on British Books in Print, which I assume must have been on some sort of microfiche system, but I can’t recall; I listened in while the manager chatted to the visiting publishers’ reps with their cases full of covers of forthcoming books.

And so to my copy of The Bloody Chamber. Imagine me. I’ve seen the film. I’ve maybe seen it twice. And it’s there on the shelf, when I’m stocktaking. I keep taking it down, leafing through, talking to the other person in the shop (it’s a small shop – there are only ever two of us). “Will you just buy it,” she says. “You haven’t bought anything since—” “Last week,” I finish for her. “There you go then,” she says. “You absolutely need that book.”