Sunday, 28 February 2010

Pride and Persistence

I usually start classes with a word count. In turn, everybody has to say how many words they've written since the last class. No one checks on the accuracy or otherwise of the word count, so in theory you can lie, claim to have written 11,567 words over the past week and then bask in the collective oohs and ahhs from the rest of the class, as if a firework has just exploded overhead in a shimmer of light.

But I don't think people do lie. People state their word count and if it's zero they blush, and twist their hair and contort their bodies and pull faces, just like toddlers being caught out. And the excuses! Sob stories, tales of woe, the occasional barefaced 'I didn't have time'. The rest of the class boos and throws cabbages at them. (But only metaphorically.)

But even though the boos are unheard and the cabbages are invisible, just the pressure of having to admit a zero word count to our peer group is enough to push people to write. There are quite a lot of confessions to the writing having been done the evening before, or even the morning of class - and I've even had a notebook waved filled with scribbles written as the student walked along the corridor, but hey - who cares? It's writing.

And writing is what it's about. Being proud of being a writer, and persisting with it until you get something written. You can always go back and edit later, but you need the raw material to start with. Set yourself a daily word target, proudly announce when you've achieved it and give yourself a reward. (Chocolate biscuits work for me which is why my bottom is the shape it is.) many words have you written this weekend?

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Objects of Desire

Writing about Jilly Cooper and my longing for a dog made me think about an exercise I used to do with my students from the Bristol Uni Diploma class, so here it is for the weekend.

Write about an object of desire you had as a child. It could be something tangible - in my case, a dog - it could be something more abstract, but write about something you really, really wanted. Why did you want it? Did you ever get it? What happened?

These were some of my favourite pieces when it came to reading them out and I noticed the rest of the students listened attentively. There was something so simple, so effective, so specific when we wrote about what we wanted and the frustrations or successes that came with those desires.

Shakespeare wrote: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on" so when we're writing about imaginary characters, we need to be clear about what it is they want and be as specific as we can. If it's good enough for Shakespeare....

Friday, 26 February 2010

I was Jilly Cooper's Dogwalker

When I was a child I wanted a dog but although we had the usual run of cats, hamsters, mice and one rogue rabbit, my parents flatly refused to countenance a dog. By my early teens I'd given up nagging them, but it didn't stop my secret longing. In particular, I wanted the dog across the road, a handsome English Setter. I didn't know much about his owners - he was something in publishing and she was a journalist for the Sunday Times but my parents read the Observer so that was that - but they had this gorgeous lovely lollopy dog.

One summer I bumped into her and the dog and, in a moment of courage, offered to take him for a walk. I took him for a million walks across Barnes Common, basking in the glory of temporary ownership. I played Crufts, solemnly putting him through his paces around an imaginary showing ring, and rescue dogs, and spy dogs, and tracker dogs. I loved that dog, and spent hours on a painting of him against a background of autumn leaves as I'd run out of green paint. A few years on and I swapped dogs for boys - though dog walking was a useful ploy to spend time alone on a park bench with the object of my affection.

A few more years, and I was babysitting for the couple across the road. I now knew that she was also a writer. It was very hard work. I knew that because the room she used as her office was directly opposite my bedroom. If stuck on my homework I would stare across at her typing away. She was never stuck on her homework, always typing, always working. When it was sunny she'd take her typewriter into the garden and write in a bikini and a floppy hat, but the words still flowed. When I went round to babysit I'd be asked to supply a good name for a cat or dog in one of her books, or give information about what young people were reading or listening to. She was successful, but she worked for her success.

She wrote six novels in that office across the road, the ones called by girls names: Octavia, Prudence, Emily and so on. Then came Riders, and they left our street for a big house in the country. Now I'm a writer myself, working from a similar room, trying to put the hours in that Jilly Cooper had when I was a teenager. And as for Jilly Cooper, she's still got that painting of that daft English Setter up in her office. I like to think it brought her luck, but I suspect all that hard work had something to do with it.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Writing and the Partnered Down Dog

Yesterday evening at Pilates we finished with a Partnered Down Dog. This sounds pretty raunchy and indeed there were quite a lot of giggles and joking about it turning into a bondage session. Of course in practice we were all very serious and stretched our hamstrings out in turn, our partners providing a counter balance so the stretch increased. Walking home afterwards I realised I'd pushed my body further than I would have done on my own, and it felt good.

Wouldn't it be great if we had a writing partner who made us go that little bit further with our writing? Who said, go on, you can write a little bit more today. Or nudged us into completing the story we were struggling with. Who encouraged us to persist with that extra round of letters to agents. I think most of us could do with a writing friend like that.

If we're lucky we can find a writing partner in class, through a writing group or an on-line forum, but they can't be there for us all the time. If you seriously want to write you have to develop your own inner writing partner, a little voice that will send you to write when turning on the television would be easier, the one that never lets you get away with sending out work you deep down know isn't finished. Call it your Muse if you must, but learn to be your own best writing friend.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Making First Page Promises

The first page of a novel (or a short story for that matter) should be a promise.  You are going to read this sort of book, with these sort of characters.  The problems they face are going to be about this.  The writing style is this, the tone is that.  If you read the first page, and like it, you'll like the rest of the book.  I promise.

As authors we can't control the cover, nor the blurb on the back (although one hopes to have input into them).  What we can control is the promise we make to the reader on that first page.  So it is absolutely essential that the right promise is on the first page, that if it's a racy thriller, either something racy happens, or we're explicitly promised that it's going to happen pretty soon.  Similarly a relationship novel should ideally start with the relationship problem being clearly stated.  

I must admit I only formulated this idea a few years ago after I'd done classes workshopping first pages with students.  The ones that got the most positive responses were the ones where the author's promise to the reader was clear.  When I went back to my first novel, Adultery for Beginners, I saw that, without realising it, I'd made the promise there.  The opening paragraph starts with the single word: Drat. Isabel and her husband have just made love, but all Isabel can think about is that she's going to have to change the sheets - and she only changed them yesterday. It summed up their stale relationship. 

So when you're writing your opening page, think about what promises you're making to the reader, and know that you're going to be able to keep them.  

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Why Blanche, while Beautiful, is obviously a Baddie

Rules for Heroes: 3 : Never kick the dog

You can always spot a hero from the way they behave to those who are beneath them socially, be they animal or human, because heroes are always kind to underdogs of every species.  We can spot the hero in, for example, Georgette Heyer novels, because he is invariably good with dogs.  Dogs that are frightened of strangers accept his attention, often positively fawning with delight as the hero finds exactly the right spot behind the ear to scratch.  

Okay, so it's become a cliche, but compare with a character such as Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre.  She may be beautiful, but we know she's a baddie because she's so unpleasant and condescending to the staff (including, of course, Jane Eyre herself). Mr Rochester can be careless of other's feelings, but makes amends when he realises.  (And Pilot the dog loves him so under that brusque exterior he's obviously okay.)

Contemporary heroes may not have servants but there are waitresses and shop assistants to be considerate to.  Hannibal Lecter may be a cannibalistic monster who'd eat your liver as soon as look at you, but he is polite to Clarice Starling even as he toys with her emotions and fears.  Scarlett O'Hara, for all her many faults, is devoted to her Mammy. As readers we sympathise with underdogs, and we loathe those who are mean or nasty to them.  Make sure your main characters never kick the dog.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Turn Up

Woody Allen was asked how to become a success, and his answer was: 'Turn up.'  It's the answer if we want to succeed in writing too.  We need to turn up.  First, and above everything else, we need to turn up at the page and do the actual writing. I spent my twenties wishing I had written a novel before it dawned on me that to be a novelist I actually had to write the wretched thing.  And you can't write a novel without turning up at the page on a consistent basis - 100,000 words is a lot of typing.

But as well as turning up at the page, we need to turn up to the world of writing.  We need to get involved. Go to conferences, subscribe to magazines like Mslexia or Writers Forum, join writing groups, follow writers on Twitter and Facebook, read writing blogs, join writing societies, attend writing classes, subscribe to daily publishing news digests like or The Bookseller so you're up to date with the world of publishing.  

After a while you'll become recognised, then accepted as part of the writing world yourself. Perhaps there are some people who don't need to get involved to get published, who can loll around in some ivory tower and magically land a wonderful publishing deal.  Personally, I've yet to meet them, although I have met depressing numbers of people who seem to think it's enough for them to have written a novel, they don't need to bother with getting involved with the publishing world.  Then they get bitter when they don't get published, claiming publishing is clique.  

In my experience publishing is anything but a clique.  It's open to anyone and everyone, but no one is going to push the door open for you.  You have to do it yourself.  Turn up, and get published.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Feedback and the Florentine Bag

One Easter when I was a student I went to Florence. I saw the sights but most importantly I wanted to buy a bag, as I knew Florence was famous for its leather. Most of the bags were too expensive for my student budget but finally, down a back street, I found it. White leather, softly gleaming leather, stylish. My bag.

I loved that bag and wore it every day, everywhere. Back up at university I proudly showed it to my best friend. 'But it's plastic,' she said.

I looked. It was plastic.

I never wore that bag again, now I'd seen that the soft gleam was actually the harsh glint of plastic. Reality ruined it for me. Writing can be like that. You write something you think is beautiful and are then destroyed when feedback suggests otherwise. It's why feedback is so essential to writers if they want to be published. You must know how it's coming across to someone else.

But on the other hand, if you've no ambitions to be published and are truly writing for yourself, don't go looking for feedback. You may not be any happier for knowing it's plastic.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Plot Generator

A character sits an exam. There are two outcomes: Pass or Fail.
Write two lists: what might happen next if they pass, and what might happen if they fail. use your imagination - go conventional, go wild, it doesn't matter.
Choose one outcome from the Pass list and write another list of what might happen next.
Choose one outcome from the Fail list and write another list of what might happen next.
Carry on doing this until you get bored/run out of paper.

Your lists should have a mixture of positive and negative outcomes. Trace a story path from the lists eg X fails the exam, they don't get the job, they lose their home, they die in poverty. Or...X passes the exam, they win the job, they become mega successful, everyone loves them.
The first story line is a line of negative outcomes, the second is nothing but positives. And both are equally dull.

What about...X fails the exam, doesn't get the job, starts own company, becomes successful. Or X passes the exam, gets the job, the company fails, X is made redundant.
Both are more interesting as they shift from positive to negative to positive to negative to positive...

You can use this to generate plot ideas. You have your character, their next action can have a positive or negative outcome. Choose one and follow it until you get to the next action. Now swing them in another direction: if they were positive first time round, go negative now. It's all going well - oops, they crash the car. It's all going badly - hey, a win on premium Bonds.

And if you're really, really stuck go for the Terry Pratchett solution: a naked woman bursts into the room carrying a flaming sword.

Friday, 19 February 2010

10 Steps to Getting Published

1. Write
2. Finish what you start
3. Write from the heart – be passionate and committed.
4. Keep your eyes on the market – read read read
5. Rewrite, get feedback, rewrite, edit.
6. Write until you’re sure it’s the best you can do.
7. Do your research – read The Bookseller, go to conferences, join organisations.
8. Be professional – publishing is a big business not a dinky little hobby. You want them to give you money, show you deserve it with perfectly presented covering letter, synopsis and first three chapters.
9. Deal with rejection gracefully and be persistent
10. Be lucky and/or have a rich partner

Above all, WRITE!

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Hitting the Wall

I've heard it said that long distance runners hit 'the wall' when running, a point when they feel they can't go on but if they can struggle through 'the wall' they can continue to the end of the race. Not being able to run to the end of the street myself means I can't comment on the accuracy of this or otherwise, but there certainly does seem to be a point when writing a novel that you hit 'the wall'.

The wall usually turns up at about 30,000-40,000 words. You've written enough to have committed some serious time to the project but now you're wondering if you've made a mistake. Other ideas pitch up in your head, all of them more attractive and seductive than your boring old 30,000 or so words. The question is: should you jump ship and start again?

I think that depends on your answers to the following questions:
- Are you clear in your mind what this novel is really about? In other words, what's the underlying story you're telling eg wronged woman gets revenge, crime doesn't pay, man grows up and takes responsibility for his actions.
- Do you have an idea of where it's going? This doesn't mean you know The End, but do you have an idea of where the end might be?
- Do you have a clear idea of how your main character(s) are going to change/learn something about themselves? Novels are about change, and characters need to develop.
- Do you have a history of giving up at this point?

If you answer 'yes' to the above, then I'd say stick with it. Write down your answers in simple statements and put them somewhere so you can see them when you're writing. Then carry on writing.

If you answer 'no' to the first three, then see if you can, with some thought, come up with some answers, at which point your answers indicate you should carry on.

If you answer 'no' to the first three and can't for the life of you see what the novel you're writing is about, where on earth the ending might be, and can't see how the main character(s) are going to change then I'd give up and start again - but this time, before you commit yourself to 30,000 words, try to work out some of the answers first.

I think a lot of novelists, whether published or unpublished, come to a point where they can't stand the sight of the current work in progress and wish they'd taken up watercolour painting instead. I've done it on every novel I've written and, now I'm more experienced, just accept it as being one of those things about novel writing. Take it steadily, and write your way through the wall.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

How Much Faff per Hour?

When you join the Society of Authors you get invited to a New Members drinks party, and jolly good fun it is too. At mine I met people who had proper day jobs but had also published a non-fiction book, a handful of children's book illustrators and half a novelist. He'd started writing with a friend and originally they had intended to split the writing evenly between them, but it turned out that he was good at the writing while his friend was moderately famous so he'd ended up in effect his friend's ghost writer. And the books didn't sell that well, he told me, morosely gazing into his glass of white wine. He'd worked out the previous week that his rate was 10 pence per hour.

This was not encouraging news for a first time novelist. A few years ago I did one of those 'organise your life' things and filled in lengthy sheets about how I spent every 15 minutes of every day. It was a scary experience. Perhaps I should start again and work out my hourly writing rate. I expect it's very good if you include only the hours that I actually write, and poor if you include all the hours I put into the business of writing (like this blog!), and disastrous if you add the hours of faff I seem to need before I get on with writing. And if you added in the hours I feel guilty because I'm not writing but think I should be, then I'm practically paying to write.

If I had to fill in the time sheet again, would I, could I, put in a column for 'faff'? Things like running downstairs to see if the post has come, making another cup of tea, looking for that vital bit of paper, getting drawn into emails and reading other people's blogs. Faff, faff, faff. I could win prizes in it. I feel unproductive most of the time. And yet, I manage to get a book out a year. So perhaps I should say faff is part of my writing process. Yup, writing process sounds much better than faff. They teach university courses in 'The Writing Process.' Perhaps, when I'm next asked about my writing routine (ha!) I shall describe my process instead, the essential need for faff.

Hmm. I think I'd better go and do some writing.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Dilemmas, Dilemmas

I've just done something awful. I've thrown away my daughter's Christmas money. I am truly sorry about it, but in my defense, leaving your money wrapped up in a tissue at the bottom of a used supermarket carrier bag along with old sweet wrappers and then leaving the bag to fester for several days in the sitting room is asking for trouble. Especially when the days you leave the bag festering coincide with rubbish day. And even more so when you are congenitally untidy and it's not the first time money has been lost due to being left hanging around with used bus tickets.

So I feel sort of justified in accidentally throwing the money away. But I also feel guilty for not checking thoroughly. But justified because it's really a bit much to expect me to check through all her rubbish on the off chance. And guilty because she's feeling broke at the moment. And justified because her room is a tip, and the bathroom is a tip and she never clears up after herself. And guilty...and justified...and guilty...

My dilemma - should I replace the money?

I don't know what to do. But I know it would make a good minor dilemma for a character. (Minor because it is very domestic and, hey, it's only money we're talking about, not life or death.) A good character dilemma is one where both sides are equally attractive or unpleasant, there are pluses and minuses for each side. If I'm tough now and don't replace the money, then maybe she'll start being more careful with her possessions. But it was my fault, even if I didn't do it on purpose. I don't know what the right thing to do is, and if I were writing this scene, I'd go through the options as I have done here. Hopefully, readers would also find the choice a difficult one to make. Then the character would make their choice and the novel would play out the consequences, good or bad.

Good dilemmas make for good books. Sophie's Choice by William Styron comes to mind, with its heart-rending central dilemma. We can talk about them, debate them, have arguments about a good dilemma. Meanwhile, back at home, I'm still dithering which is not an attractive character trait. Dilemmas, dilemmas. What would you do?

Monday, 15 February 2010

Why Dickie and Freddie Deserve to Die

Rules for Heroes: 2 : Murder yes, careless of other's feelings no.

One of my favourite books is The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. Tom Ripley, the main character, displays a lot of characteristics we're supposed not to like: he lies all the time, he's ingratiating, he takes money under false pretenses. And yet we like him. We like him so much that we're on his side when he murders first Dickie Greenleaf and then Freddie Miles.

We've all been in situations where we feel out of our depth and vulnerable. Tom Ripley feels like that for much of the book and he tries to deal with it. He wants to be Dickie's friend, and most of us have experienced wanting to be friends with the coolest kid in the class, the feelings when the friendship is reciprocated, then the horrible sensation when you realise that the friendship has waned and you're suddenly out in the cold. Okay, so most of us don't respond by bashing the coolest kid's brains in, but I reckon we all know the feeling of wanting to. We understand why Tom does it.

What's brilliant about Highsmith's writing is that, because we only see Dickie from Tom's point of view, we accept his assessment of the situation. If you looked at it from Dickie's point of view...this bloke turns up, tags along, is unfriendly to your girlfriend, is a bit weird and intense, you catch him in your bedroom dressed up in your clothes, he gets possessive about you, wants to go with you everywhere - well, it's understandable that you'd withdraw a little. Freddie deserves to die even less. Freddie is loyal to Dickie, tries to help him, begins to work out what Tom has done. But in Tom's point of view he's unattractive, fat, red-haired and is threatening Tom's safety. We accept he deserves to be whacked with an ashtray.

That's the book. The film tips the scales even further in Tom's direction. Tom's talented and clever but poor. Wealthy Dickie is unpleasant to Tom, taunts him and in a fit of unhappiness, Tom kills him (rather than the murder being premeditated, as in the book). Freddie steals Dickie away from Tom, excluding Tom for snobbish reasons. They are both careless of Tom's feelings. They deserve what they get.

So, your character doesn't have to be nice or even someone you'd like to spend much time with so long as we not only understand where they're coming from emotionally but have been there too. Tap into those deep emotions most of us have felt and we'll forgive your main character anything, even murder.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Bad Sex for St Valentine's Day

It's St Valentine's Day and it was obvious that I should write something about writing about love. Only trouble was, it was like meeting a bloke your best friend insists is perfect for you: he looks all right, he sounds all right, but he doesn't do it for you. In fact, I don't really like writing about love at all. My characters fall in love, and out of love, but they do it as part of a 100,000 word novel. To write about love now, just because it's St Valentine's Day, feels a bit like being some poor chap at the IVF clinic being asked to provide a sample.

What I do like writing about at almost any time, however, is bad sex. (By this I mean the sex is bad, rather than the writing. I hope.) Good sex should be involving, happening entirely in the present, with no distance between mind and sensation and emotion. That makes it much harder to convey an individual experience in a way that is universal. Bad sex on the other hand...

Well, we've all been there, haven't we? Sex when you realise that you don't fancy them after all, sex where it goes wrong, sex when you'd rather read a novel. When the sex is bad, your brain doesn't engage, you become an observer. The characters can observe what's about to happen to them - Is he really going to do that? Oh God, yes he is. Wish he'd hurry up so I can get back to Chapter 4. You can make bad sex sad, or funny. You can make it slapstick - my favourite bad sex scene is in Another Woman's Husband when everything conspired against the would-be lovers. You can use metaphors in a way you'd never get away with if the sex was supposed to be good - take going round the golf course, him getting to the 18th while she's still stuck in a bunker over by the seventh, putters rattling in the golf bag, missing the shots, hole in one.

I hope in real life you're having a lovely romantic day. And if stuck alone with a laptop, I hope you're enjoying fantastic bad sex.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Saturday Exercise

Start by going for a walk (the exercise is good for writers bottom as well as writers imagination). On your walk collect natural objects - right now it might be teasel heads and dried seed pods, snowdrops and old man's beard, glossy ivy leaves and a pheasant tail feather. As you walk and collect, think about how these items feel in your hands - light or heavy, rough or smooth, fragile or sturdy. Think about how they smell and the sounds they make as you handle them...

Back home, write either a list of adjectives describing these found objects, or put it into a piece of descriptive prose. Now, using your list or the description, imagine a character and describe them in the same language as the natural object. For example, if you had found a conker, you could compare the prickly outer shell to a prickly personality perhaps concealing glossy depths or you could imagine a child, whose potential is only just beginning to peep out from a shell of parental protection. Or, 'she had spiky hair, but the brownest eyes you ever saw...'.

Then having invented a couple of characters, put them in a scene and see how they play off each other, trying to keep some of the descriptive language you started with.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Backing Into the Limelight

How would you feel if you were innocently walking down the street minding your own business when a complete stranger bounded up to you like an overgrown puppy, licked your face and panted: I'm wonderful! I'm fab, me! And then beamed expectantly, waiting for you to say...well, which do you think would be more likely?

a) I love you and must represent you immediately or
b) Get away from me you mad person or I'll call the police.

Now imagine you're an agent receiving the equivalent in covering letter form. Straight to the top of the Must Be Read pile? Or the Immediate Rejection pile?

So how do you say I'm wonderful without saying it? The simple answer is you get someone or something else to say it BUT it's got to be the right someone or something. So your Mum is not the right someone and nor are your children nor is anyone who has any personal connection with you, because of course they think you're wonderful, but their opinion doesn't mean anything in this particular context.

I'm not convinced an author or a creative writing tutor is much good either: 'Joe Bloggs suggested I write to you' doesn't mean much when it comes down to it. If Joe Bloggs really rated your work, they'd snatch it out of your hot sticky little mitts and personally hand it over to their agent/editor, and because writers are usually worried about their own precarious position they tend not to want to annoy their agents/editors with handing over extra work. Especially when that person is potentially a rival author.

The person you want to endorse you doesn't know you. They only know your writing and, ideally, paid you money for it. They gave you a prize in a short story competition. They published your article. They broadcast your short story. They published your non-fiction book. The more credits you can build up, the more endorsements you're getting. When I was at this stage I deliberately entered every short story competition I could find to build up some endorsements. When I wrote my covering letter I was able to say I'd won or been short listed for seventeen short story competitions. (Which, thinking about it, also shows persistence and a degree of obsession that is very useful for a writer.)

Credits mean someone else picked your writing out of a crowd. It will give an agent confidence that yes, you - and your writing - are wonderful.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Clint Eastwood Never Draws First

Rules for Heroes: 1 : Play fair

Imagine the scene. The Wild West. Tumbleweed blows down the main street. Our hero faces the baddies, all six of them. Eyes narrow, hands twitch nervously over holsters. Someone goes for their gun and bang! bang! bang! The dust settles, and our hero picks up his hat which one now-dying baddie so inconsiderately shot off.

But who drew first?

The answer is ALWAYS one of the baddies. It's an absolute rule for heroes that they never start a fight. (Which of course is why the first Iraq war was OK as Saddam had invaded Kuwait, but the second one wasn't.) Your hero may suspect that the gang are about to mug him, but he mustn't whack them over the head until one of them has made a move. Dirty Harry may have got his name for his careless regard for the law, but he always obeyed the hero rules by inviting punks to make his day before he shot them with his Magnum 44.

It goes straight back to the nursery and 'who started it?' Whatever your reasons, you were in trouble if it was you. There's an interesting exception. Remember the first Indiana Jones film and that scene when a scimitar v horsewhip fight looms? Indy realises he doesn't have the time and shoots the swordsman. We laugh because our hero expectations are confounded, but deep down we're actually shocked by this breakdown of the hero rules - I can remember people talking about the scene when the film first came out.

In most cases I'd be saying make your characters active, not re-active, but this is one instance when they mustn't start a fight. Let the bad guys start things if you want the hero to retain reader sympathy.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Bolt Saves The Day - But Loses His Audience

Recently my daughter sat me down for us to have a bonding session while watching Bolt. The film starts with Bolt the dog and his owner escaping from terrible dangers, Bolt has super powers, and it was all very exciting - baddies shooting guns from helicopters, blowing up bridges, that sort of stuff - but it didn't really hold my attention. Then about ten minutes in, the director calls "Cut!" and it's revealed that actually they're making a film. The real story isn't about thrilling escapes, it's about Bolt discovering that he doesn't really have super powers, but still manages to save the day.

The opening of Bolt demonstrated something that I'd learned on Another Woman's Husband: we need to know characters before we care what happens to them. It doesn't matter how dramatic or noisy or extreme the action is, if we don't know, we don't care. I don't want to sound disrespectful, but while I'm shocked by what's happened in Haiti, and like everyone I've donated money, I haven't lost sleep over it. I don't know any of those poor people personally so I can only care in the abstract.

Originally, Another Woman's Husband started with Becca's mother, June, announcing that after fifty years of marriage she's decided to leave Becca's father, Frank. It's a dramatic moment, and shocking for Becca. But as the reader doesn't know Becca, or June, or Frank, the reader couldn't care less. So the novel now starts at June and Frank's golden wedding anniversary party so the reader sees all the main characters in a happy, normal setting, gets to know them and hopefully cares a little about them before June makes her announcement.

One of the standard 'rules' about writing is to start in the middle of things - in media res - but sometimes you have to start just before then, or the reader is as indifferent as I was to Bolt's heroics.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

It's Sarah - with an H

A man had long-term close friend called Ginny who was a literary agent, so when a friend - I'll call him Mike - said he was looking for an agent for his novel, naturally he suggested Ginny would be someone to call. Mike rang Ginny up.
'Hi, Ginny,' he started. 'I'm a friend of -'
'My name is Virginia,' she cut in, and put the phone down.

This story was told to me by an unpublished writer who was tut-tutting at the rudeness of the agent. And I did a bit of tut-tutting too, at the arrogance of Mike.

1. I would hesitate to call anyone I didn't know well in the middle of the working day. It's just arrogant to assume that people will be happy to stop working to chat to little old you.
2. Cold calling is always irritating to the recipient - just think how you feel when you get interrupted by someone trying to sell you double glazing.
3. Equally irritating is when people get your name wrong. Irrational maybe, but also irritating.
4. Mike didn't bother to do any research to discover Ginny's professional name.
5. He also hadn't done any research in the best way to approach agents - always by post in the first instance. What would have been wrong with...

Dear Virginia Smith,
Our mutual friend, Joe Bloggs, suggested I contact you....

Get real. Agents are deluged with manuscripts and callers wanting to be published, even the ones who say they're not accepting new clients. They are not lolling over their desks, making miniature Eiffel Towers out of the paperclips, waiting for a prospective client to give them a call. Give them the same respect you'd give any other busy person. Give them the respect you'd like yourself. And it's Sarah, with an H.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Over Steering and Fine Tuning

When I first learned to drive I was all over the place. I zig-zagged down roads, hefting the steering wheel this way and that - oh no, about to hit that parked car, quick, heave the wheel to the right, oh no, I'm going onto the other side of the road, there's a car coming, quick, back again, oh no, parked car, etc etc. But I practiced, and improved, and learnt how the car responded and it wasn't that long before I could maintain a straight line without over-steering.

It's always disconcerting when you make a comment on student work and they respond with an aggrieved cry, 'But you told me to do it like that.' My first reaction is always that I must have been taken over by aliens who have whiled away the hours of boredom that is being me by handing out some truly dreadful advice. Normal service resumes a few seconds later and I abandon visions of the mother ship and ask exactly what my advice had been. Invariably my pearl of wisdom has either been misunderstood and translated into a gnarly old nugget of dung, or the student has taken it on board so enthusiastically that they've applied it to everything regardless of the circumstances being appropriate.*

For example, I was commenting on a piece of work that featured all the characters being relentlessly nice to each other. The sun shone, the birds tweeted, and everybody was helpful, sweetly sharing and caring for each other. This may be an accurate reflection of real life, but I felt it could make for bland reading and suggested adding a little conflict between the characters - nothing major, just the occasional hesitation before offering to lend out their favourite pair of shoes so Cinderella could go to a party.

I hope the writer understood the comment because after class another student asked me why I'd thought the piece bland - she was confused as the setting had seemed dramatic and anything but bland to her. She'd over steered and applied the comment to the whole piece. It was never, ever my intention to comment that the whole piece - the writing style, the situation, the location, the characters, whatever - was bland, just that one aspect could do with a little fine tuning to spark it up a bit.

It happens in class too. Someone makes a specific comment on a specific paragraph and the writer rushes to apply it to the whole piece. I'm not sure why - eagerness to improve, the desire to please, lack of confidence? It's one of the skills we learn through experiencing feedback, the ability to make the minor adjustments that maintain a straight story line.

*Or maybe I should just stick with the abducted by aliens bit.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

My Favourite Displacement Activities

All writers need them, those useful little activities that convince us we're contributing to our writing careers without actually involving writing. My top ones are....

1. This blog, Twitter, and email to friends, writers, fans, just about anybody actually
2. Checking my Amazon ratings
3. Planning my next classes
4. Planning marketing campaigns on loose bits of paper and then losing them
5. Going on writing courses
6. Organising my teaching files
7. Reading 'how to' creative writing books
8. Researching topics just in case I might use them in a novel
9. Reading around the background to the novel I'm writing
10. Travelling to the locations of the novel

But actually, I did need to go to Rome three times on research trips for A Single to Rome... Other useful displacement activities involve:

1. Walking the dog
2. Watching 'Bargain Hunt'
3. Making cups of tea
4. Laundry
5. Eating biscuits
6. Visiting my mother
7. Doing Sudoku
8. Tidying up after my daughter
9. Looking at houses for sale on the Internet
10. Shopping for the perfect foundation

With all these essential activities to do, it's incredible I ever get anything written at all.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

The Golden Rule for Scriptwriters

A couple of nights ago I was at a dinner party and found myself sitting next to Doug Chamberlain, who wrote, among many other things, Toy Story 2. (Oh, what a glamorous life I lead!) Doug has given up Hollywood for the past couple of years to be a lecturer at Bath Spa University. We gossiped a bit about BSU, where I taught for a year about five years ago, and then talked about being a professional writer who also teaches.

Doug's verdict was that teaching was great, but marking sucked. He then commented that students seemed incapable of remembering the basic golden rule for scriptwriters, which I thought I'd share with you today:

If you can't see it, you can't hear it, you can't write it in your screen play.

Friday, 5 February 2010

My 10th Birthday

I've just realised I am ten years old as a writer.

January 2000, I started going to a creative writing course, Fiction Writing - Women only (Beginners) - run by the University of Bristol.
March 2000, I heard about the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa and thought I'd give it a go.
April 2000, I was offered a place and almost turned it down on the grounds that if they were offering me a place the course couldn't be much cop.
October 2000, I started the MA.
May 2001, I started writing the first draft of my first novel.
July 2001, I finished it. It was brilliant.
September 2001, I didn't get a distinction for my novel. Nor an agent.
November 2001, a book doctor thought my novel wasn't brilliant.
February 2002, I started rewriting completely, making it single viewpoint.
May 2002, I joined the RNA, went to the summer party and got an agent. Yes, just like that. Sort of.
Sept 2002, the rewrite was finished.
October 2002, I had a publisher
October 2003, I was offered the same teaching slot as the course I'd been on, renamed it The Fiction Writing Workshop and made it open to anybody.
May 2004, Adultery for Beginners was published in ten countries around the world.

In the last six years I've published four more novels and I'm still teaching at Bristol University. I also teach at Oxford Uni and an American university. I've written a film that's won lots of awards at film festivals but didn't get distribution. I'm writing my sixth novel. In a couple of hours I'm teaching the Fiction Writing Workshop, and I hope the students enjoy it as much as I do.

I am ten, and it happened to me. No reason why it shouldn't happen to you too.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Tale of the Canadian Pilot

There was once a Canadian who'd been a pilot in WWII. When he reached retirement he decided he'd go to England and try to track down the nurse who'd looked him after when his plane had crashed and he was in the burns unit. He'd always remembered her because it never hurt when she put the drops in his eyes. He had her name, and the area in N Wales she came from, but nothing more.

He planned his trip carefully, budgeting for a six month stay - surely he could find his gentle nurse in six months. He arrived in N Wales and went to the local newspaper. Perhaps, he explained to the girl on reception, he could speak to a reporter. No need, she replied brightly. I think you're talking about my second cousin. Hang on, I'll ring my mum. Five minutes later, and he had his nurse's phone number.

It's a romantic story, but it ends way too soon, both as a tale and in real life (the six month trip being now redundant). How much better if he'd had to struggle in the search, the quest twisting and turning though red herrings, false hopes and loose ends, until at last, when all hope had gone - there she was!

Delaying gratification is a useful trick with story writing. Never make it easy for your characters, always make them struggle, always make them wait. Even a simple thing like needing a pen to jot down a phone number can have a little bit of tension - will there be one at the bottom of the bag? No? Yes! It's a bit like fancying the unobtainable boy who always keeps you guessing. Readers will love you for making them wait. So the warthog from yesterday's blog...he got away.

PS The nurse was my mother. She and the pilot met again after fifty years. They didn't fall in love. Another reason why fiction is sometimes so much more satisfying than real life.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Warthogs and Lions

Years ago I went on a safari to Kenya and on the first day out witnessed three lionesses hunting a warthog. It was a thrilling ten minutes: the lionesses took up their positions, crouching low among the sparse grasses, bellies inching over the dusty earth. Then in turn they made sudden dashes towards the warthog, who wheeled and squealed, little black tail twirling frantically as he twisted away from the claws and jaws, making a run for safety - but there was always another lioness blocking his path. Oh, how I wanted his courage and agility to be rewarded with escape, but I also wanted the lionesses to get him, I wanted to see the kill.

I was on both their sides, but if I'd been writing the scene I'd have to chose a point of view: lioness or warthog. Why? Well, imagine it. As the outside observer in real life I often didn't know where to look - at the warthog in the centre, or one of the lionesses stealthily sneaking round the side to spring a surprise attack. Sometimes I was confused - how had the warthog escaped again? where had that lioness come from?

Changing point of view backwards and forwards can be like that, confusing and lacking focus. Which character is the reader rooting for? If we were following a pride of lions and knew there were starving cubs to be fed, we might be sympathetic for the warthog, but we'd know how important success was to the lionesses. If it was the story of one little warthog then, while we'd thrill to his perilous adventure, we'd long for him to get away. Switching between the two points of view would make it harder for the reader to empathise with either. Emotions would get cloudy and muddled.

Of course, some writers do manage to write dramatic scenes from both viewpoints without losing or confusing the reader. But generally that's the exception. It's a good idea when you're writing a scene to decide: warthog or lioness. Then keep the focus, keep the tension, keep the reader. And I'll tell you what happened to the warthog tomorrow.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

101 and still going on

Yesterday I posted my 100th blog entry. I decided when I started this that I'd post every day on the grounds that - well, not really anything except it seemed a good idea, a bit like writing a diary almost. Not that I've ever managed to keep a diary going for anything beyond three days, which might have sounded a small alarm bell.

Posting every day has caused many moments of panic when my mind is completely blank and the whole business of writing a blog seems designed by the evil imps of publishing to add another layer of guilt and stress onto a writer. The prospect of an empty page is an ongoing issue for a novelist, the empty blog only adds to it.

But here I am, still posting into the ether. It's been great getting comments back and knowing that there are people out there reading my blog. I believe blogs like mine are called vanilla blogs, being just plain old text and without anything fancy. One day I'll learn how to do links to other blogs and persuade them to link back. One day I'll learn how to stick up photos. One day...but until then I'll carry on posting every day and hope the content adds a bit of interest to boring old vanilla.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Let's all be like Goethe!

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative or creation there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have believed would have come his way.

What ever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it." Goethe

It's Monday, and the start of a new month. If you're thinking about starting that novel, sending out that short story to a competition, going to that writers conference, why not do it now? The only certainty in life is if you don't do anything about it, nothing will happen. No one is going to do it for you. Do it now, whatever it is, commit, and let the action empower you. Be like Goethe.