Sunday, 23 November 2014

So long and thanks for all the fish...

OK, so it's not goodbye exactly. Or at all, really. I'm having a change of direction. I have a lovely big pile of paper on my shelf that is my completed draft of the middle grade novel. But that's where it'll stay. Yes, I know I've been working on it for ages and yes, I know I was really excited by it. Perhaps I will be again one day. But it got to the stage where sitting down to work on it was becoming a chore, so I made the decision to leave it.

I thought perhaps that I'd finished with writing. I thought perhaps that it was time to give it all up. I've given it a good few years, I've worked hard, I've learned a huge amount, but was I all written out? It seems the answer is no. So I'm not giving up, I'm changing direction. It's goodbye to writing for children, but it's hello to writing for grown up people.

I have a sparkly new idea. I have a pin board full of new pictures. I have notes. I have a new Scrivener folder. I have the beginnings of a new story. Where all this will take me, I couldn't say. Hopefully somewhere shiny, new and exciting. But I've taken the first step on what could be a long and happy road and I'm delighted!

Thursday, 18 September 2014

My 500 Word Challenge

So I did an experiment, an exercise in avoiding procrastination. I decided that for ten days I'd write 500 words a day. It doesn't sound much but actually it can be a bit daunting, especially if you have to fit your writing around family and paid jobs (three jobs in my case). I always find that I'm OK once I've got going, it starting that can be the problem. So how was it?

Day 1. I had a long train journey and I took nothing else to do – not a book, not a newspaper, not a Kindle. I wrote 617 words of the WIP in longhand. A good start. Encouraged by this, I jotted some ideas for a new story. Word count: 617 plus new story notes.

Day 2. I did everything I could think of not to write. I made a playlist of Kate Bush songs that matched the set list of the show I went to the previous night. I spent a lot of time on Facebook. In the end, knowing I would only be letting myself down if I didn't knuckle under, I wrote 599 words. They were quite useful words as they showed a little gap in the backstory that I need to think about. Word count: 599 plus back story notes.

Day 3. I had to force myself to write but I did so before I started anything else. It was easier today. Perhaps I'm getting used to it. Word count: 595 words to finish the chapter.

Day 4. Not much time today as I was out all day and into the evening too. So I wrote 604 words outlining the rest of the story. I am nearly at the end. Actually looked forward to the writing today, and the miracle is that I wrote the words before I did anything else. So I have now proved to myself that I can get up in the morning and go straight to my writing. Word count: 604 word outline.

Day 5. Really didn't want to write today but having done everything else I could have possibly done – apart from housework, obviously – I wrote 560 words of chapter 20. Doing the outline yesterday helped. I'm beginning to see that writing first thing is the best way for me. Too bad I didn't go down that route this morning! Word count: 560 words of a new chapter.

Day 6. OK, so much for writing first thing. That's what I was going to do today. I had the best intentions, really I did. But instead I faffed about on the internet, bought a very nice shirt, and then it was time to go to work. But I did write later on. I have to admit that I wasn't in the mood, but I wrote 557 words of the end of the story, which was quite useful because it gave me an insight into a problem I'm having with the current chapter. Word count: 557 words of the end.

Day 7. Wasn't really getting the chapter I was working on so I avoided it. I didn't want to give up on the word experiment though so I ended up writing the rest of the end. It feels quite odd having written the final word, especially as I've not actually finished. Word count: 580 of the end.

Day 8. The marvel that is a lovely book! Sadly not the one that I'm writing but the one that I'm reading. So I wrote nothing on my long train journey but instead read and read and read. (The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud, in case anyone's interested. Second book in the marvellous Lockwood & Co series.) BUT I got home and wrote a section of the current chapter, so all was not lost. Could a habit be forming? Word count: 538 words of chapter 20.

Day 9. I had a very busy day so had no writing time. But when it came to bedtime I just couldn't NOT do it. I made lots of excuses to myself as to why it was OK to leave it today but it just felt wrong. So I wrote a detailed outline for a new story. Word count: 509 words of a new story.

Day 10. Last day! Word count…nil. I know. I let myself down on the very last day. In my defence. I was out all day – London zoo for four hours! Then an exhibition at the V&A. Too exhausted to do anything but sit in front of the TV with fish & chips. Still, I have to admit to being disappointed.

Day 11. An additional day in lieu of yesterday's non-starter, and actually it turned out rather well! Finished chapter 20, and wrote chapter 21. I am one chapter away, I think, of finishing this first draft. Who'd have thought it? Word count: a marvellous 2,311 words!

So was my experiment a success? I think so. It got me writing. Whether it's created a permanent habit, I don't know. I'll probably have to stick at it for more than ten days for that to happen. But, I have got 7,470 words more than I may not have got without the challenge. And I've also proved to myself that I don't need to be in the mood to write, or in the right place; I can write at any time and anywhere! That's probably the biggest success of all.

PS on Day 12 I completed my novel. I wrote 3,588 words. 11,058 words in twelve days. The experiment worked after all! 

Friday, 29 August 2014

Kate Bush and the Power of Words

I went to see Kate Bush on Wednesday. It was an amazing experience that touched the audience in a way I have never seen before. Philippa Francis (writing as K.M. Lockwood) wrote a wonderful piece inspired by her visit to the show the night before. You can read it here.

I have seen many bands in my time. Hundreds, literally. It was my job at one point. I've become a little jaded. These days I would much rather go to the theatre than a concert. This was different. This was Kate Bush. Who knew she'd tour again? It was beautiful, extravagant, theatrical, of course. She was gorgeous, her voice pure and perfect. All these are things that have been said before and will be said again as more people go and more people write reviews.

This isn't a review. This is my response to the experience. Because the thing that struck me most was not the voice, the staging, the choice of songs - though all were wonderful. It was the emotion, such sheer depth of emotion both expressed by Kate and her band, but also by us, the audience members collectively and singularly. When she walked on stage, and she did so in a very unassuming way, I felt quite overwhelmed. When she started singing I almost burst into tears. And I wondered why. David Bowie is my ultimate hero (I went to the V&A exhibition 3 times. I first saw him when I was 16. I love him, basically). But I've never felt like crying when I listen to his music or when I've seen him perform. So what does Kate do; what does she bring that is so different? Emotion.

This a woman with incredible songwriting skills. The music is fantastic, but I think the emotion she portrays is through her lyrics. The power of her words hold the emotion. Cloudbusting makes me cry. I have no idea why. Perhaps it's because she so perfectly captures the depth of feeling between the boy and his father. Perhaps it's because I 'get' their relationship, I feel their love, their pain.

I hid my yo-yo
In the garden
I can't hide you
From the government
Oh, God, Daddy
I won't forget

Written by Kate Bush / Lyrics © EMI Music Publishing

She writes with an honesty, a purity and a beauty that touches you, and lets you empathise with the character she sings about. Judging from the audience's reaction on Wednesday, she speaks to people of all ages, from all walks of life. We were all lifted by her songs. So is this something that only happens with music? Do you need to hear the lyrics with accompaniment to be so moved? No. It happens in film. It happens with books. With film you're given the same image as the person next to you. With music you're given more of a complete picture but it's open to interpretation. With books, the words must speak for themselves.

David Almond is one of the most lyrical writers I've had the pleasure to read. I wept buckets at the end of Kit's Wilderness. Without giving away the (fantastic) ending, it's all about belief, hope, trust. Some writers can capture emotion through the eyes of their characters, some in the beautiful choice of words. The words the writer chooses have the power to reach out and both deliver you to a new world and to echo feelings inside you. A writer who can do that, either through the written word or through song, will truly tap into your emotions and create a bond that is long lasting. A bond Kate Bush has managed to keep with her live audience even after a 35 year absence.

Right, now to find the tissues....

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ten Things That Are NOT Writing My Novel (but they're not far off)

1. Reading blogs. This is fun. It's entertaining. It's informative. I can kid myself it's writing related when I read about other people's processes, interesting facts from past times, author interviews. It's not getting the words on the page of my novel but perhaps it kicks me into at least opening Scrivener.

2. Watching TV shows on Amazon Instant. It's a shame really that I can't count this as writing. If I put as much effort into writing my novel as I have with watching Arrow, then I'd not only have finished and polished it, I'd have planned a sequel too. But does it count a little bit? Can I say that following the plot and the arc of a TV series helps with my own plotting?

3. Reading fiction. Reading informs our own writing in that it inspires (hopefully) and triggers little lightning flashes of ideas, however remote and fuzzy. If we are to write, we must read. In the past week I have read 2 ½ novels. Is my own novel any further forward because of this reading? Not really, but I firmly put reading fiction in the "part of the writing process" department. Fiction fills our heads with worlds and from those worlds new ideas grow.

4. Reading non-fiction. Of course this is counted towards writing. It's research! Even if I'm writing a Victorian novel (which I am, by the way), reading a book about alchemy or Egyptian Gods is part of the writing process. We all have an ideas book, right? Well ALL non-fiction has the potential to spark a new story idea. Anyway, I have a magpie mind and I like collecting facts that may or may not be of use at some point.

5. The Theatre. Oh, how I love it! I've been to some fine plays recently – Another Country, Birdland, The Crucible, Richard III. And (huzzah!) after 3 ½ hours in phone and online queues, I got tickets for Hamlet next year with that Cumberbatch boy. Again, not writing. Although it does give me an appreciation of the beauty of words, so perhaps it's counted.

6. Music. Listening to it, not playing it – I have no talent in that department. Does singing along to the Arctic Monkeys help with my writing? It would be a huge stretch of the imagination to say that it did. Or would it? What about the rhythm of the lyrics? Could they help in some way with the rhythm of the words in my story?

7. Art galleries. There are no words here. Well, not in the exhibitions I've been to recently. So does art inform writing or is it just bunking off? Did my visit to the Royal Academy summer exhibition spark any story ideas or did I just stand there feeling somewhat confused? Both actually. Some of the pieces were beautiful. I think that any image we're drawn to can enrich us and this will be carried through to our writing. The confusion? How were some of those pieces even chosen?

8. Buying stationery. This is definitely counted as writing. You buy a new notebook therefore you write something nice in it. And neatly too. If you buy lots of notebooks then you must use them for lots of things – one for story ideas, one for character traits, one for plotting. In fact, buying stationery is obligatory.

9. Hanging out with friends. If you hang out with writer friends, especially if you meet up to write, then this is definitely counted. How can you sit at a table, opposite someone who is writing with a fury and not do the same?  I've found that it is possible to go on Facebook and Twitter while writing the occasional word, but if you have to compare word counts at the end of the session, you soon realise the error of your ways.

10. Cooking. How can cooking be related to writing? It's not. But by doing something so totally unrelated, you can free up your mind, and sometimes that tricky plot problem will resolve itself. OK, so it's not all that convenient to write down the perfect sentence or plot outline while up to your elbows in flour, but I didn't say it was easy!

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Back from the Past

I've been out of the loop for almost three months. I've ignored my novel. I've been in the slums of Southwark, and by the cholera infested Broad Street pump. I've been in Kensington Palace, and to the Great Exhibition. I briefly visited the textile factories of Nottingham, and the coal mines of South Wales. I've marched with the Temperance Society, and marveled at Champagne Charlie's antics on the stage at Wilton's Music Hall. In short, I've been in Victorian Britain.

I've just finished an online course on Victorian history. I love research, and the course was excellent, but oh how much I love going back to my story. I was worried that our mutual absence would mean that my story and I would have grown apart, but that's not the case at all. In fact, the course has both inspired and informed my story and it is growing into a far better, leap-off –the-page thing.

And now I know it's true. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder!

Monday, 5 May 2014

5 Truths We Must Face Up To When Writing A Novel

1. The story doesn't write itself. It just doesn't. Wouldn't it be handy though? We could carry on sending those all important tweets and making those witty Facebook posts while the Story Fairies work away on those tedious drafts on our behalf.

2. Social Media is very nice but it isn't actually writing. Sorry. I mean they're words, there's no denying it, but does it get the novel finished? No. The words just don't count. In fact, sometimes they should be minus words. You should really deduct them from your writing word count because they are words that could have been in your novel had you been writing that instead.

3. Ideas don't just pop into your head one at a time, fully formed, ready to go. But this could be another job for the story fairies. You could have one fairy per idea. You just give them a hint of the story, the what if, the story spark, and away they'd go. They could research, they could order, they could plan, they could ditch the rubbish ideas and polish the gems. Sadly, story fairies aren't real. At least I've never seen any. So you'll have to sort your own ideas, you'll have to decide which ones to work on, and keep the others for later.

4. Sometimes you pick the wrong story. Yup. Gutting, but it does happen. You can get all keen, all excited; this story is the one! You research, you plot, you make character charts, you write, you write some more, you get a bit stuck…you realise it's going nowhere. This is not a good thing but what can you do? Learn from it. Every word written is an experience. Every word written is exercising your writing brain. Practice makes perfect, right? So you may have had a rubbish story, but, odds are, it's helped you to be a better writer.

5. You can write the best story in the world but unless you put down the editing pencil and actually send it out, no one will know. Really. Just send it out. Do it! There comes a point when you just cannot make any more revisions. In fact, to change another single word will set your story on the road to ruin. Leave it. Send it out. And work on something new.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour - Write, Pace, Edit

I was delighted to be approached  to take part in this writing process tour by Nicky Schmidt; she of the always interesting blog, Absolute Vanilla. My friendship with Nicky is more virtual than face to face. In fact, we've only met once at a British Isles SCBWI conference. We do, however, share a mutual love of wolves, chocolate, and, above all, stories. Do read Nicky's blog tour post. It is, as ever, fascinating. Thank you, Wolfy One, for passing the baton!

What am I working on?
Oh, I love it so much! It's a middle grade thriller set in Victorian London. It's got gangs, it's got bodies, it's got grit and grime, it's got twins. It's set in the docks – Rotherhithe and Wapping – and I've pounded the streets, making notes, taking photos, trying to take myself back in time.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?
What a question! Is anything ever startlingly original? Does anything really differ? If so, how does it fit its genre? But all that aside, I'd have to say my work differs because of its sense of place. I tend to write about London. I live in London. I love research! I hope that what I've done in this novel is that through all my research and street pounding, I've made the Victorian London docks seem real to the reader, to evoke a real sense of place.

Why do I write what I do?
I've said in previous blog posts, that I'm not really a 'what if' writer. I tend to get a grain of an idea from places. In the case of my current novel, it came about through a visit to a Victorian mortuary in Rotherhithe. I write thrillers because that's what I love to read. And I write for children because it's such an exciting field, full of wonder and possibilities. There's nothing better than watching a child becoming engrossed in a story, being inside its world, and I want to write a book that does that.

How does my writing process work?
In a nutshell – idea, research, plot, write, pace, write, pace, write, pause, edit. I come up with the idea, get all excited, then I do some research – about the place, about the people, the history. I never write without knowing where I'm going, so I write a loose plot. This always changes along the way, but I like to know roughly what happens before I sit down to write. I'll write a character list, do some character studies, and I'll outline the first few chapters in more detail. Then I begin. The opening chapter never ends up being the actual opening chapter. I know this as I begin. It's fine. What this original opening does is set the scene in my head and, more importantly, starts building the voice. I find I only get the voice by chapter three or four, and I only ever get the voice by actually sitting down and writing it. So I write, and I pace. I don't know why, but I just can't sit still when I'm writing. I have to get up, walk around for a few minutes. Then I'm good to go again. I do this until I have a full first draft, stopping every now and then to plan out the next set of chapters. I don't edit along the way. I'm of the 'quantity not quality' opinion first time round. The pause between writing is never that long. I can't help it. I try writing something else. I try writing nothing. But I need to go back fairly quickly. I write using Scrivener and keep folders of bits to add, ideas, and changes. They help hugely with the edit. Which is basically the same process as above but with 'quality not quantity' fixed in my brain!

So that's me. I'm handing over to the splendidly excellent Liz de Jager. Her post will be really interesting because she writes like a demon. If anyone knows how to get the words on the page, it's Liz. Look for her post on 21st April. 

While writing her debut novel, Liz de Jager fostered her love of YA and genre fiction by developing the popular My Favourite Books review blog. This ran for seven years and enabled her to gain insights into the publishing industry. She grew up in South Africa and now lives and works in the UK with her husband Mark. Banished (Tor Books) is Liz’s debut novel and you can also find her on twitter as @LizUK.

And a late entry to the er...race. OK, to the blog tour, is Mark Jones. Mark always has an unusual view of the world and I'm sure his post will be both enlightening and vastly entertaining.

Mark is a small shrub at the bottom of your garden. Due to an ‘accidental’ dumping of toxic waste he became sentient and started doing the only thing a shrub with no legs could do to stay sane, write books. You’ll often find him struggling to survive amongst those nettles you really should pull up, one leaf wrapped around an old biro, scribbling over a sheaf of dock leaves.  Dig him up before he attaches himself to the cat.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Trauma of the Title

Titles. How hard can it be? I'll tell you how hard. Absolutely, totally impossible, that's how hard! Yet somehow a novel never seems right, never seems real as you're writing it unless you have the right title. My current novel is certainly no exception. Yet I've written novels with excellent titles. And I've had excellent titles but no novels to go with them.

Some authors have the most wonderful titles, and I am green with envy.

The Treachery of Beautiful Things (Ruth Frances Long). How gorgeous is that? The book's good too.

The Feral Child (Che Golden). Great title. Great story. Hmm. Could there be a connection here?

My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish (Mo O'Hara). I know. Perfect, eh?

But then you have titles that are not so great.

Lord of the Rings? Meh!

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Good. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Bit nothingy. (But my favourite ever book, actually.)

So I battle on with my own titles. Mudlarks - ditched that. It didn't even have much to do with the story.  Becoming Patience Baker. Really? What was I thinking of?! Bird Wars. Luckily I only stuck with that one for the briefest of moments. I've made lots of scribbled notes. Words that have something to do with the plot. Disappeared? Bit rubbish. Sometimes I come up with a nice title, only for someone to have got there first. And done really well with it. Ah well. The search continues.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Story Starters

I was lucky enough to go to the launch of Liz de Jager's fantastic new book Banished last week. The dedication to her husband Mark says "thank you for asking what if". I've never been much of a "what if-er", so this got me thinking. How do my stories start?

My current story, a Victorian middle grade thriller set in London's docklands, started with a visit to an old mortuary. Sadly – or perhaps thankfully – it's no longer a mortuary, but a very knowledgeable guide took us round, gleefully telling us where the bodies were hung so as to drip dry, and other such didn't-really-want-to-know details that brought the old place to life. I could really picture the bodies all lined up ready for collection, the viewing hatch where grieving relatives stood to identify their dearly departed, and I saw the still-there beam where the body hooks went. Incidentally, the floor is sloping in that room, for obvious, if grim, reasons. So I had the setting, but what sparked the story? A throw away comment from the guide who told us that people were given a crown on the south side of the river if they brought river bodies into the mortuary, but half a crown on the north. I wondered what sort of person would do this? And what about those people who found bodies on the north bank of the Thames? Yes, they did bring them over to the south, apparently.

The last novel I wrote – The Apothecary's Apprentice – started with Whitehall Palace and Charles II. I love Restoration London. What must it have been like to go from distant Charles I, to Puritan Oliver Cromwell, and then to the flamboyant Charles II? And how could the most terrible slums be just a thirty minute walk from the Palace itself; a fifteen minute walk from the posh Strand houses? So, again, I had the setting. The characters? I started with Apothecarys' Hall, which, like the mortuary, I visited during London Open House weekend. And there I found them. The young, newly qualified apothecary and Lizzie – the only female apothecary's apprentice in London. I loved this story. It got me an honorary mention in Undiscovered Voices. But it wasn't to be. Good setting though.

No what ifs yet.

The novel before that? A fantasy that I long to go back to. It's still there, all lovely and pretty, but it was never right. And how did I get the idea? Walking through the woods at Holkham in Norfolk. Setting again. I imagined my character, Faith, walking out of the woods, almost feral, almost fae, into a normal village. I set the story in 1605, and there were plots (involving gunpowder of course), there were faeries (big Pagan ones), and there were a lot of words that didn't quite fit. But no what ifs.

I often wonder whether I should try a what if or two. But would it work? Is it me? Can I even think of any? Maybe, for me, the what ifs come later. After the first draft. Maybe I can use them to refine and define my story; to create the pitch, find the heart.

How many other writers out there are what if-ers and how many, like me, start with the sense of place? 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Getting Back on Track

There have been some very inspiring blog posts recently. Kathy Evans talks about ways to trick yourself into writing, Bryony Pearce talks about getting over procrastination, Julie Day updates us on her writing goals. All of this made me realise that I'd gone off the boil.

I started 2014 quite well really. I already had a first draft of my novel but after some excellent and timely feedback, I knew I had a lot of work to do. So in January I wrote a new backstory, I beefed up the story line, I plotted new character trajectories. I wrote three chapters. Too bad about February! I seem to have stalled.

My plan – and it was a good one – was to have a good draft of my novel by May because (hurrah!) I'm going on the lovely Book Bound retreat. It would be a miracle if I managed to run with the plan though. So, inspired by the splendid blog posts, I am coming up with a New Plan!

First of all, I am publicly stating my intentions right here! OK, so I can delete this post if it all goes pear-shaped, but hopefully someone will have read it and will hold me to account.

I will carve out chunks of time for writing, which will be out of the house and therefore more likely to be productive.

I will have a Kathy Evans style deadline – 25,000 words by 5th May 2014.

I will report on my progress in public. And I will be honest.

I know it won't be easy. Trying to balance my time is hard enough at the moment – work, writing, family, health stuff – but I know it can be done. After all, I don't really need to watch Tom Hiddleston/Coliolanus trailers over and over again. And then search Google for more.

So watch this space. And, hopefully, watch that word count rise!

Here's Tom.