Friday, 30 April 2010

Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit

So, off to Chipping Sodbury. To my shame, I'd never been there before speaking at the library last night, but I'd assumed it was a dormitory town for Bristol, possibly with an old heart but drowned with modern developments. How wrong can you be. It's a lovely Cotswold town with an original market street lined with old buildings, one of which is the newly refurbished library complete with fabulous librarians Linda and Julie.

You turn up at these events unsure of what you will find. There is an imaginary vision in your head - books will be laid out for sale, drinks provided, comfortable chair for the speaker, appreciative audience. It never arrives - until last night. Everything went smoothly, I gabbled away at top rate, answered questions, signed books, drank tea and ate custard creams and twiglets (could there be a better combo?). Even better, I was delighted to see on the display stand my favourite books: they'd seen the list on my website and dug them out. It was an object lesson in how to make an author happy. Thank you.

The evening would also have been memorable for the presence of two Only Fools and Horses fans among the sea of, well, generally middle-aged women. Aged 13 and 12, they were a great credit to their mums, and behaved impeccably, listening to me going on about books and writing for hours when all they really wanted to know was what David Jason was like.

And oh dear, I probably rabbited on for far too long. I spend most of my time talking to the computer, and may have no face to face contact with real people for days, so when I see lots of them I go a bit...verbal. And it was the first Kissing Mr Wrong talk, so I was nervous on top of that - I'd wanted to read a WWI bit but on practising at home realised I couldn't without crying. Nowadays you just have to mention the Somme and I'm off.

Add prime minsterial debates and rain into the mix, and the whole thing could have been a disaster. But I had a good time. I just hope the audience did too.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Full Moons and Fibs

Last night there was the most wonderful full moon. It lit up the whole street more vividly than a street lamp when I was taking the dog for his last stroll around the block. I wrote about such a moon in Kissing Mr Wrong, a scene when Lu, my main character, was making some momentous decisions (and coincidentally also taking the dog for a wee).

After I finish writing the first draft I work out the dates and make sure that weekends and bank holidays are in the right place and so on. I checked the state of the moon on the date. Oops. No full moon, in fact there would be only a tiny sliver to hang in the sky. Three choices: change the date, change the moon, fib.

Readers, I decided to fib.

Yes, I have deliberately and in cold blood put in an incorrect fact. I am sorry, but I really couldn't change the date, and having such a round, shining, glorious moon in this crucial scene was important. I try to be reliable with the facts - if I say it's the 76 bus for the Protestant cemetery in Rome then it is - but this time my standards have been lowered. Will anyone notice, or care? Will I be accosted at lit fests with angry readers clutching lunar calendars and demanding their money back? Somehow I doubt it. But even if no one else notices, I know, and it tugs at my conscience like a healing scab.

(Though not enough to change it...)

At Chipping Sodbury Library tonight at 7.30pm, ready to be accosted by angry readers clutching lunar calendars.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Jane Austen had it Easy II

And another thing Jane Austen didn't have to contend with was keeping her hero and heroine from jumping into bed with each other. Let's face it, most people when they meet someone they like, they kiss pretty soon and if that seems satisfactory, take it further. I'm not suggesting that we all telescope those steps into the course of an evening but there's nothing to stop us doing that if we choose. And then we split up or stay together.

This makes problems for anyone writing romance. Your main characters meet early on, ideally in the first chapter, and then you have to contrive to keep them being attracted to each other while at the same time not developing their relationship. It can be done, but it's much harder when there isn't a reason such as social etiquette, religion, race or class keeping them apart.

With Nice Girls Do, the original version didn't have Will and Anna making love. This was partly because it didn't fit in with the story as it was, and also I had qualms about having Anna - who had so enthusiastically shagged Oliver at the beginning of the novel - sleeping with another man a few hundred pages along, even if he was The One for her. She was a Nice Girl, after all.

My editor said that they had to make love. In her opinion, Anna was an experienced woman, not a timid virgin and it would be unbelievable for Anna to be so in love with a man she hadn't slept with. So I re-wrote the ending, and the book IS better for it but it caused me all sorts of logistical problems that Ms Jane Austen didn't have to deal with, from the mechanics of providing a comfortable location for the event to how to make it plausible that they wouldn't come together relationship-wise until the last page.

Life might be easier now we're more relaxed about these things, but not necessarily for writers.

If anyone is near Chipping Sodbury on Thursday evening, I'm speaking at the library at 7.30pm, click here for further details. I'd love to see some friendly faces. Or any faces, for that matter.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Jane Austen had it Easy I

Lucky old Jane Austen. In her day she didn't have to worry about characters having to do inconvenient things like earning a living, they could, if necessary, just hang around doing nothing except having picnics and interacting with each other. I'm currently in the middle of my new book and oh, it's frustrating. My characters, like most people, have to keep going to work. They can't loiter and dally, except at weekends and in the evenings. And - if they're not working - there has to be a plausible reason why.

Of course, there are advantages if you can find them a good job, but not all jobs are suitable for writing purposes. At Westonbirt Arboretum last summer I stopped and chatted to a bodger about his work - strictly speaking, a bodger is a man who lathe turns green timber to make chairs legs. He ran chair making courses in the woods and said out of nowhere, 'I wish a romantic novelist would come on one of my courses, I think I'd be a brilliant hero.'

So I told him what I did, but decided against having a bodger in my next book. His chairs were beautiful and I can see there are lots of opportunities for sensuously running hands over chair legs, but it's a solitary, static sort of job, and you're stuck out in the woods. I had a similar problem when I made Will in Nice Girls Do a gardener; he generally had to be there. (And writing this, I realise we never see Will anywhere else except the garden.)

Office-based work is even worse. It's difficult to get any novel action going when you're hunched over a computer all day, and it's hardly wish fulfillment for most people. Small wonder that many main characters have jobs in journalism or PR where they can get out and meet people. Then there are jobs that lack a certain something. I'm sure there are lots of fabulous dentists out there, but it's not a very sexy job. Obscure jobs can be fun - Natalie's job in A Single to Rome was a delight to write - but there are pitfalls here. The least sexy job I've come across was in a self published thriller where the hero was a specialist in intestinal worms in pigs. Original, yes, but I could never take to him - I always knew where his hands had been.

So what with the mechanics and sex appeal and originality - oh yes, it would be so much easier if they could all just hang around and intermingle without having to worry about the 9 to 5.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Making Good Choices

I don't know about you, but in my real life there's an awful lot of hanging around and doing small repetitive actions such as teeth brushing, showering, getting dressed, eating breakfast and so on. If we included every single one of them in every single novel, then each book would spread to 1000s of pages - if they were ever read. So a writer's first job is to make certain selections of the kind of actions they're going to include, and most of us do this automatically - I don't think it's ever occurred to me to write about a character going to the loo for example, and I can only remember one bit of student work where it featured.

So, we choose not to include basic bodily functions. If you accept this premise, from here it's not a hard step to accept that as writers we are continually making choices, and there is no absolute requirement to include any information at all. Most importantly this means that you leave out any boring bits. There is no reason for including them. If they bore you, they'll bore the reader.

If your character needs to pass the next two weeks but not much happens, then simply write, 'the next two weeks went by without anything happening.' If your character had a puppy when she was 8, it may have mattered to her, but is it relevant for the reader now? If not, then you don't need that bit of backstory. If you've written that the character went by car, would it be a more interesting choice if the car broke down and he had to go on foot, or call a taxi? If he goes by foot he might see something interesting, by taxi and the driver could have a conversation with him.

Choices, choices, choices. You are making choices all the time. Learn to make good ones and relax about ditching bad ones.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Arbitrary Stories

All stories are what you, the writer, make of them. If you give the bare bones of a story to different writers, they will choose different elements to add, different voices to work with, different styles, different tones, different settings, different everything! The same story can be compelling or dull, depending on how you tell it.

With an arbitrary short story, you get supplied with the bare bones of a plot to which you then add the details. I love doing this in large groups and seeing all the variations that emerge from the different imaginations. Here's one we did in class last week...

Read 1, and write a paragraph. Then read 2, and write another paragraph following that direction, then 3 and so on.

1. Someone is on their way somewhere.
2. A form of transport goes by - they get on.
3. They see someone - describe this person.
4. They find something in their pocket.
5. It makes them remember something.
6. They reach their destination.
7. They change their mind about what to do next.

All story telling is about going from A to B to C to D, what matters is how we write the journey.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Ooops! I've Done It Again

My first book was called Adultery for Beginners and was the story of Isabel, wife of Neil, who has a torrid and obsessive affair with a man called Patrick. Patrick, I realised quite recently, was an amalgamation of of a couple of men I'd known, but at the time of writing I could honestly put my hand on heart and say none of the characters were based on any real people or events.

Then my sister sidled up to me. Several people had asked, she reported, her eyes not meeting mine, whether the character of Neil was based on her husband. I was astounded: as far as I was concerned the two couldn't have been further apart. I couldn't see why anyone would think that. Well, she replied. There's the moustache. And the job. And the ex-pat angle. And the reading computer manuals in bed (which I naturally didn't know about). And... I was so embarrassed because the points of similarity were there but honestly, it had never occurred to me before.

And I've just done it again. Kissing Mr Wrong has as its main male character a WWI expert called Nick. And my son is a WWI expert called...Nick. My only excuse is that I think it's a nice name and apologies to my son...but if he's divorced with two children, then as his mother I really should know about it. I suppose that's the answer - you give 100 characteristics to a character, and the chances are some of them are going to coincide with those of a member of your family and friends. Still. It is embarrassing. Sorry Nick.

Friday, 23 April 2010

For My Dear Friend Without Whom...

Writing the dedication is one of the nice bits of being a writer. It's your chance to say thank you to anyone who has helped you with the book, or in your life, or to make a wider point. However, dedications are a bit like the Oscar winner's speech you've been practicing for years; when you actually get to the point of writing one you're suddenly not so sure.

My daughter got the dedication in my first book. It seemed fair, given that I'd used her name for the main character, promising to change it when the book was finished, but I never did. Also, she was (and still is) the only member of my family who showed any signs of interest in my writing. But when the book came out, oh the complaining from my son. Why wasn't he mentioned etc etc.

So dedication No 2 went to him. My partner got No 3. My lovely parents, to whom I owe so much, got No 4 - just in the nick of time as my father died a couple of months after the book was published in hardback. My dear friend Nancy, who reads all my first drafts, and was a terrific personal support a few years back, was a shoo in for No 5. Now I'm on No 6, and it's getting less obvious as to whom I should dedicate the book to. My dear old dog is desperately ill at the moment, so I'm tempted to give it in memoriam of him, but perhaps it would be more tactful to mention my agent, or some of my other friends and family.

Still, think of the problems should you write for younger children. You may have several books out each year, and start to run out of children to dedicate them to so you have to move on to adults. The only book that has ever been dedicated to me is called All Aboard to Work Choo Choo! by Carol Roth and Steve Lavis, and as you might guess from the title I'm not in the target age group.

Worries, worries - it's not all champagne and flowers being a writer you know. How do other writers choose?

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Take Two Women

Meet Muriel: "A moment later the other came out, the frizzy one. This evening she wore a V-necked black dress splashed with big pink flowers, its shoulders padded and its skirt too skimpy; and preposterously high-heeled sandals."

And Rose: "She was pretty in a sober, prim way, with beige hair folded unobtrusively at the back of her neck where it wouldn't be a bother. Her figure was a very young girl's, but her clothes were spinsterly and concealing."

Two descriptions of women, both from The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. Nothing has been said about their personalities, yet from the descriptions we feel we know them. Look at the language used for Muriel: frizzy, splashed, padded, skimpy, preposterously. And Rose: prim, sober, beige, folded, unobtrusively, spinsterly, concealing. I particularly like the use of verbs: splashed and folded. They sum up the two women's very different characters, and yet all Anne Tyler has done is describe how they look.

Sometimes, when I'm stuck with a scene, I get out my thesaurus and make a long list of words that sum up how I want the scene to feel. Then I have a go at writing, with the list beside me. I don't use all of the words of course, but it definitely helps to create the mood through description. Try it!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Never Give Up, Never Surrender!

There's a lovely film called Galaxy Quest which I'm very fond of. The story is about a television programme called Galaxy Quest (which bears a similarity to Star Trek) and how aliens have been watching it from outer space, believing it all to be true. So when they're under attack from another planet, who do they want to come and help them but the crew of Galaxy Quest, who of course aren't really space crew but actors. The Galaxy Quest motto is "Never give up, never surrender!" and writers could do well to adopt it.

Writing is such a random business - sometimes it all comes together, sometimes it doesn't. Some days are good and thousands of words flow without effort, other times it's a struggle to write a paragraph or two. And then the business of being published seems random too - your manuscript lands in the right place, or it doesn't. Someone you know is scooped up in a fabulous book deal, while you have to carry on struggling. You get published and it seems to do well, but then there's a dodgy cover, the supermarkets don't buy and you're out of favour.

Let's face it, if anyone knew what really worked we'd see an endless stream of profitable books selling exactly their print run and yet books fail left right and centre, while others come from nowhere to glory at the top of the bestseller lists. I think the only thing you can do is hold on to why you're writing in the first place. Although I make my living from writing there are other things I could do (I think) that would probably be more profitable and certainly more secure. I write because I like it! I like telling stories, and there are things I want to say. I like the process of writing a novel, solving problems and making it work as a whole. I like my imaginary characters, I like living in a different world, I like it when I'm searching for a solution and suddenly realise I've already set it up.

You have to hang on to why you're doing it in the first place and not get sidetracked by the business side of writing. Write because it makes you happy, and don't worry about where you'll end up. No one can read the future, so don't bother about it. Keep on with the writing so long as you enjoy it, and try not to be influenced by the market. Never give up, never surrender!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Opening Sentences

Which one of these would make you read on - A or B?

She clung to sleep tenaciously, wrapped in beguiling dreams. It was explained to her afterwards that they weren't dreams at all, only reality breaking through the days of confusion as she rose from deep unconsciousness to full awareness, but she found that difficult to accept.
With her sharp little face set in lines of dissatisfaction, the twelve year old girl sat up and searched for her knickers among the forest leaves. It had finally begun to dawn on her that sex with Bobby Franklyn wasn't all it could be.

I'd have said B. We start right in there, it's shocking, dramatic and I don't know where it's going next but I want to find out. A doesn't tell me anything about 'her', it could be about anyone, and be set anywhere.

They're actually both from the same novel, The Dark Room by Minette Walters. A is the opening sentences of Chapter 1. Did she - or her editor - think it was a bit dull, a bit nothing? I may be completely wrong but my guess is that Walters decided she needed a more gripping start and provided a prologue to supply one. Because B is the opening sentences of the Prologue and after the unnamed twelve year old girl discovers a body on the next page, we never hear about her or Bobby again.

Now, I'm not saying that you need a prologue, but think of your opening sentences. Would they grab a reader in the same way B does?

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Most Important Words You Write

Imagine you're an agent with a stack of unsolicited manuscripts to get through. What do you read first?
Imagine you're a preliminary short story competition judge with a stack of short stories to look through - what do you read first?
Imagine you're in a bookshop choosing a book. You like the look of the cover and open the pages and read...what?

Okay so some perverse people might read the last page or a couple in the middle but the answer for most of those situations will be: the first paragraph. Once you're been successfully published you can risk a less than riveting first paragraph (although I wouldn't recommend it) but to capture the reader's attention when you're unknown, you have to have a good first para.

But what makes a good first paragraph? It's going to be different for every book, but there has to be something, the so-called 'hook', that makes a reader want to keep on reading. Something different, something unusual, something intriguing, something that gets the reader's attention.

"The trial was irretrievably over; everything that could be said had been said, but he had never doubted that he would lose. The written verdict was handed down at 10.00 on Friday morning, and all that remained was a summing-up from the reporters waiting in the corridor outside the district court."
- The opening paragraph from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

1) What's the trial about?
2) The use of the word 'irretrievably' intrigues me in a way that, for example, 'completely' wouldn't have.
3) I expected it to say he never doubted that he would win.
4) Why did he never doubt that he would lose? What's going on here?

I want to read on to find out - as have millions of readers around the world. This is also a great opening paragraph because not only does it make us want to read on in the first sentence through setting up questions and confounding our expectations, but it tells us exactly where and when we are in the second. Go and check out some of the novels on your bookshelf (especially first novels in the same area you hope to write in) and examine what works in the first paragraph. Then see if you can apply the same principles to your own writing.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Turn Up On My Doorstep If You Can

Think about a phone conversation in real life. You can easily hear one side of the conversation - yours - but the other side may be more muted. You can see the things around you, but you can't see the person who is speaking, or their surroundings. If you're using a landline you're trapped, only able to move the distance of the telephone cord.

So fictional telephone conversations immediately start with problems. They're usually static situations, and halve your scope for describing what's going on. There can be no nuances of facial expression, no grimacing, no scratching of heads, no running of hands through hair (this may of course be a good thing, but I'm sure you get the idea). No clothes, no surroundings, no nothing but one person in a room talking into a phone.

If I discover I've let a phone conversation slip into the first draft I always try to manoeuvre my characters so they meet face to face. Physically being in the same space heightens the conflict, whether it's the brush off call (how are they going to get rid of this unwanted visitor?) or the arrival of a loved one (how soon can they get them in their arms?).

There are going to be times when the phone call can't be changed to a face to face meeting, or is better as a call - for example, the conflict coming from a character's longing for closeness - and if they use a mobile, then at least you can have them moving so the scene isn't static. But in general, get them turning up on each other's doorsteps whenever possible.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Irritating Chinese Proverbs

I was moaning to a friend about the WIP, how it was taking me ages to write, how I'd had a good day but the novel didn't seem to be getting any further.
'Ah,' he said, rather smugly I thought. 'You know what they say...'
'Nope,' I replied. 'What?'
'The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.'

This was particularly irritating because I'd said it to him last year about a book he was moaning about and regretting accepting the commission for, and I have a horrible feeling I was very smug at the time too. But the really awful thing is - it's TRUE.

When we set out on a novel we don't always know where we're going, but unless we take that first step we'll never find out. And then take another step, and another. That thousand mile journey is made up of lots of little steps and if we concentrate only on the enormity of the journey we'll never have the courage to take a single step, and we certainly won't enjoy the process.

So there we have it: the 100,000 word novel is one sentence after another. And there's nothing more irritating than having your own advice quoted back to you.

Friday, 16 April 2010

POV and Mega Casts

Yesterday's post made me think about books with huge cast lists and written from many view points. I think we still focus on one main character, and want to follow one main story line. I loved English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize. The story is told from twenty different points of view so you'd think it might get confusing, but it doesn't. However, the main focus is the journey of Captain Kewley and the Reverend Wilson to Tasmania, and that's the story we follow. The other points of view skillfully weave their way around the main plot line.

Let's try some of the great C19th novelists. Take War and Peace, for instance. The focus is on Pierre and Natasha. Trollope has huge cast lists, but each novel is clearly focussed on one person, from Septimus Harding onwards. Ditto Dickens. Despite the great sweep of these novels we always know where the focus is.

I suspect it's because as people we're geared up to have intense relationships with only a few people. A large cast of characters without focus is like being at a drinks party where you talk to lots of people about superficial things; you simply can't get deep and meaningful with all of them. That's not to say the large cast shouldn't be colourful - it's best if they are - but that as a writer you should know where your main story lies.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Whose Story is it Anyway?

One of my first students started with short stories. They were always entertaining, but they often inspired the same comment from me, which in the end would have her saying tetchily, 'Yes, yes, I know what you're going to say Sarah. Whose story is it?' To which I'd reply, 'well, okay, whose story is it?' And she would grumble and complain and we'd talk about it a bit and finally decide whose story it was.*

It's important to know whose story it is because that's the person we as readers will focus on. We see through their eyes, we feel through their emotions, we are scared when they're scared, happy when they're happy, in love when they love. We want to make the connection, and if it's not there, or confused, we disengage. Sometimes the story is written through a single person's viewpoint about the events in their lives, so it's obvious where our focus is. Sometimes the story is told by an outside observer and it's less clear whose story it is. A good example is The Great Gatsby. The plot follows the story of the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy, but the story's really about the narrator Nick Carraway and how he changes over the course of that summer.

Sometimes I see stories told from the point of view of a character who doesn't change, who isn't affected by the unfolding of the tale, so why should I be affected if they aren't? This is something to check when you're revising, whether you've written a short story or novel: have you chosen the right point of view? Always go for the person who is changed the most by the story.

*She has gone on to be multi-published, with very focussed stories so I imagine something stuck!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Getting the Stakes Right

Before Madeleine Wickham became Sophie Kinsella she wrote 6 novels, one of which was A Desirable Residence. It came out in 1996, a time when people were still dealing with the property price collapse of the early 1990s, there were many redundancies and interest rates shot went to 15%.

I can remember two things about the book; firstly reading a review which went along the lines of "woman wants big house: so what?" And secondly, one of the main characters being obsessed with getting her child into a particular fee-paying school with a scholarship. Not because they needed the scholarship to afford the school, but because the woman wanted the prestige. I've never forgotten it because it seemed a seriously daft thing to want. I mean, I can see why you might want to send your child to a private school, but to obsess over getting a scholarship when you had the money?

Compare with Joanna Trollope's The Rector's Wife of about the same time. Here the main character wants her child to go to a private school because she's being bullied at the local school. The mother works in a supermarket stacking shelves to achieve her aims, despite the disapproval of the local community - and her husband. It was a huge bestseller, the one that established Joanna Trollope, and was made into a very successful television series.

Two characters wanting roughly the same thing, but the reasons why they want it couldn't be more different. One yearns to help her bullied child, the other wants the snob appeal.

Reading the book again I realise Wickham's character, Anthea, was probably given such an unattractive obsession by the writer because she was married to the hero, who was going to have an affair. I don't know this was the case, but I can see the logic: make the wife unsympathetic as justification for the straying husband. The trouble is, the stakes are so wrong and out of tune, it makes him appear a twit for putting up with her. And he's going to have the affair with the woman who wants the big house.

It's hard to feel sympathetic for the Wickham characters, but they show us writers an important lesson. The stakes have to be right - a mother's desire to help her child is fairly universal, and we approve of it. Snobbery, which if we're honest is probably equally universal, is a darn sight less sympathetic. I know which I'd rather read about.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Judging a Short Story Competition

It looks as if Spring has finally arrived and with it lots of short story competitions. This year I'm judging the short story competition for the Wells Literary Festival so I thought I'd write what I'm looking for. But first I must stress that all I'll see is the short list, the final 15 or 20 that make it through the preliminary rounds. That means there may be a story entered that I'd love which never makes the final round.

The short list turns up and I immediately read them all without making any notes. Then I put them away. A week or so later I get out the envelope but before I read, I make notes on the ones I can remember. Then I shuffle them up so I don't read in the same order. Then I read through again, this time making notes as I go. One final read through, and I've got a fair idea of which are my favourites. I look at the stories on different days to try and get a bit of objectivity into the process, but let's face it, a lot will depend on my mood on the time, and the stories I'm presented with. I entered a lot of short story competitions before I started writing novels and I know how many hopes go along with each entry. It's not a job I take lightly.

What am I looking for? I like story telling, so wispy little bits of lovely writing without much story attached aren't to my taste. I like stories that move me - tears or laughter, I don't mind. I like stories that stay with me. I like bravura writing, big bold ideas, I like to be amazed by the firework display but I also like the sort of story William Trevor excels in, a life summed up in one tiny incident.

I'm not keen on animal stories or sci fi, yet stories about a cat going to the vet and a futuristic traffic jam made the top 3 for the last competition I judged. The top spot went to a story about relationships, so (being contrary) I was prejudiced against it, but it was written with such style and wit I longed to have written it myself. So, I wouldn't say there are any particular genres to avoid: a good story is a good story.

And that's what it's about: writing a good story. Good luck!

In case any one is interested, I'm running a class in Bath on Friday afternoons for 8 weeks over the summer, a mix of exercises and workshopping. Contact me for more details on

Monday, 12 April 2010

No Writer is a Hero in Their Own Home

There are many problems associated with the life of a writer - lack of money and security for starters - but today I want to blog about one little known facet, that of the writer's place in the family.

The problem is, they know you. Outsiders only see the book launches and signings, the thousands of books with the author's name blazoned across the covers, the requests for interviews, the opportunities to pontificate on blogs as if you knew what you were talking about but to your family you're anything but a writer. To my children I'm obviously only there to service their domestic requirements, to my siblings I'm the one without a proper job, to my mother I'm quite clearly as capable as the toddler I once was.

Respect at home is not part of the writer's life. After all, it's not a REAL job, is it? It doesn't require commuting or a briefcase or an office. You don't have to wear a suit or a tie or lace up shoes - if anything, your work wear is more likely to be a tracksuit and t shirt, or even pyjamas. If you're a mother, you may have been attracted to writing as a chance to combine parenting with work, but the end result is your little darlings will see your writing as something that can be fitted around all the other more important stuff, like running them into town because they missed the bus.

You're no use at helping with homework, obviously, because "they don't do it like that any more". And they don't - the worst mark my son got for English GCSE was on the only essay I helped him with. (Mind you, it would also have helped if either of us had ever read Julius Caesar.) Even if you get some kudos because someone's mother may have once read one of your books, it's tinged with amazement that anyone would do something so unlikely.

If you write commercial fiction your family may well sigh and suggest you might like to write something, well, sort of...better. By which, of course, they mean literary. (I suspect literary fiction writers are given helpful suggestions by their families to write something which, you know...pays the bills.)

No wonder writers like blogging and Twittering. For a few happy moments we can delude ourselves that someone, somewhere, takes us seriously. And I'd like to write a better punch line, but my daughter can't find her clean jeans anywhere and it's like, really important, and I've simply got to help her find them.

In case any one is interested, I'm running a class in Bath on Friday afternoons for 8 weeks over the summer, a mix of exercises and workshopping. Contact me for more details on

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Marking Woes

End of term - hooray! No more teaching - I'm free! And then the unmistakeable thud of assignments plopping through the letter box and the illusion of freedom is gone. It's bad enough having deadlines for my own writing, let alone having deadlines for marking other people's writing.

I love teaching and enjoy meeting students, but marking is - and I was thinking of being tactful but decided against it - the pits. I usually like reading the work, it's the assigning of grades that's so difficult. Is this one to get a 64% or is it only 62%? This assignment has lots of grammatical and spelling errors and the presentation is terrible, but there's a feel for language that makes the heart sing - should they be marked higher or lower than the perfect presentation that technically 'works' but reads at a plod? The writer in me goes for higher but I suspect I may have to argue the case later on so it would be easier to give them both the same mark...

Would we look at a Picasso, for example, and mark him higher, or lower than a Rembrandt? Would we be judging on use of materials, brush work, composition or the emotional effect the whole work created? Would we consider that a wide canvas with many characters was 'better' than an intimate portrait?Would we mark experimentation and innovation up or down? Should courage be rewarded, even if it fails, compared to playing safe?

When I'm agonising I remember I once had to cover for another lecturer. At the end of class one of the students sidled up to me and asked what mark I'd give for the work she'd brought in. Off the top of my head I said a high 2:2 - perhaps 58%. I discovered later it had been marked before and she'd complained so it had gone to a second marker. Luckily the second marker had agreed with the first - 58%. No wonder she'd looked sour at my spontaneous response.

It's fascinating we'd all agreed, given writing is such a subjective subject. I was terrified the first time I had to mark a bunch of assignments but it was quite clear where most of them lay in relation to each other. At university level there are second markers and outside examiners which gives some standardisation of marks. When I've worked with second markers and moderators it's rare for there to be much disagreement. We may not like to hear this, but some writing really is better than others and it shows.

In case any one is interested, I'm running a class in Bath on Friday afternoons for 8 weeks over the summer, a mix of exercises and workshopping. Contact me for more details on

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Flavouring Speech

Last week I was doing something very silly (pointless, you could say) on television with my mate Caroline. Or was it with my friend Caroline? When I'm with my mother with other adults around I usually call her by her given name, but alone she's still my mummy. In other words, my vocabulary shifts depending on who I'm talking to and the circumstances, and I bet yours does too.

Each character you write will have their own way of speaking and their own vocabularies which will change subtly depending on their circumstances. As a writer we need to be aware of this and not write one universal vocal pattern for all our characters. It should be clear from the way the language is spoken - the rhythm of speech, the vocabulary used - which character is talking without the need for dialogue attributions.

Try this... Write a short bit of dialogue as two dukes meet and discuss the weather. Now write another bit of dialogue with two dustbin men meeting up and discussing the weather. Now write some more dialogue, but this time it's with a duke and a dustbin man meeting and discussing the weather. Each time, hear their voices in your head before writing. The dukes don't have to be upper class twits, not the dustbin men Gorblimey Alfred Doolittle types, but try to make it clear from the way they're speaking who is speaking. Capture the flavour of their speech.

In case any one is interested, I'm running a class in Bath on Friday afternoons for 8 weeks over the summer, a mix of exercises and workshopping. Contact me for more details on

Friday, 9 April 2010

Giving up the Day Job

We're British, so asking people how much they earn simply isn't cricket. Unless you're a writer, in which case the social niceties go out the window. I am constantly amazed at how shamelessly people ask. If you demur and say something like, enough to pay my bills or - after a couple of glasses - enough to keep me in expensive lingerie, the questioner will laugh and then say something like, so how much is that then?

The truth is that writers do not - repeat, not - earn a great deal of money. Yes, there are the few who make shedloads, but they're far and few between. It's like assuming that everyone who works in computers is as rich as Bill Gates.

Back in the real world, what do you get? When I got my first deal my agent told me (afterwards) she'd have accepted £10,000. This would have been £2,000 if it had been a literary rather than commercial novel. Not enough to give up the day job for in other words. Now, I got more than that, but that was then and times are harder now. Still, let's say you get £30,000 for your book. Yippee! You could live for a year on £30,000.

But before you break out the champagne consider this. First that's income, not a handout from the Lottery. You've got to pay tax and NI on it, after your agent has taken their 10 or 15%. That reduces it to about half. Can you live for a year on £15,000? Possibly, but now think about timing. When I sold my first book in October they wanted it to be a May launch, but it was too late for publication in May the following year. So it came out in May the year after that - 18 months later. Advances are stretched over the publication schedule - perhaps 1/3 on signing, 1/3 on hardback publication, 1/3 on paperback publication. Would £15,000 last you for 18 months?

You have no control over the publishing schedule. I was late delivering Another Woman's Husband (tut tut), so they allowed an 18 month gap for me to deliver A Single to Rome even though I produced it after a year. (It explains why Kissing Mr Wrong is coming out this May, 6 months after ASTR. I'm not working faster, just the output has caught up with the publishing schedule.)

The effect was, the advance for 2 books spread out over 3 years, again, 18 months per title. You have to be getting fairly large advances to cope with that. Yes, there are extra sources of income such as large print and audio rights, and foreign sales, but they're all unpredictable and if you're sensible you'll be tucking them away in savings accounts and pension plans. I did give up the day job, but quickly developed another in teaching creative writing and would strongly advise any writer to keep the day job going for as long as possible - or at least until the mortgage is paid off.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Pomp and Circumstance

Recently I offered to look over a final year student's dissertation - he's on the borderline between a 2:1 and a 1st and the mark for the dissertation would be crucial. I read it, marked it up, and returned it.

It was an interesting exercise for me because I knew nothing of the subject under discussion at all. Perhaps that made it easier to see where it was literally incomprehensible, as I had no previous knowledge to help me piece things together. I suspect the culprit was in the numerous drafts there had been, but some sentences were without verbs, and it mattered.

Also clearly visible were leaps in logic. These left me floundering, often due to going backwards and forwards in time, where a straightforward A:B:C:D would have been simpler. This happened, so that happened, so the next thing happened...

Stylistically I was struck by how many qualifiers were used, I assume in an attempt to make the writing sound more magisterial or academic. "Accordingly in all probability...However the general consideration of the facts in this circumstance...Arguably in these respects..." Nothing could be simply stated, all bets had to be hedged: generally, usually, possibly, sometimes, on occasion. Cut, cut, cut went my red pen. Also cut were repetitions and restating the case. I suggested adding several sentences too, for clarity.

The student thanked me politely, then a couple of hours actually looked at it because at that point another email came through: Bloody hell, mum, there's more red than black here. But he went through it, used some of my cuts and additions, rejected others. I read it again. It was the same, just better.

I've seen this before with student work. Careful editing doesn't change the writing, it makes it more like the writer wants it to be, cleaner, clearer, uncluttered. It's the difference between a dusty mantelpiece and one that's been cleaned, the bedroom after the bed's been made and the floor hoovered. The same, but better. And now it's cross fingers for the 1st.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Chapter Length

I'm often asked how long a chapter should be, and the answer is, of course, as long as it needs to be. Which is, of course, tremendously helpful. Here is an alternative answer.

Chapters may be very short, or very long, but they're usually about enough for a person to read one or two chapters before going to sleep at night. I'd say, somewhere between 1,000 and 6,000 words. Much shorter than 1000 and it feels a bit flimsy; over 6,000 and it starts to feel a bit unwieldy. (This is a generalisation and you'll be able to point to lots of writers who write longer chapters - JK Rowling comes to mind.)

I always recommend writing in scenes rather than chapters, and if you think scenes being between 500-3,500 words, then you're going to have anything from 1 to 5 scenes in a chapter. If you're the sort of person who likes to do a lot of forward planning (and I'm not) you might work on a scheme of 3 scenes per chapter, each scene 1,000 to 2,000 words long. Twenty chapters like this, averaging 4,000-5,000 words and you've got a complete novel. It's not my way of working, but it could work for you.

Vary the length of your chapters so the reader is constantly surprised and so drawn into continuing to read. Shorter chapters increase the pace, so it's usually good for them to get shorter towards the end of the novel (again, that's a generalisation). Finally, however long you make them, give your chapters good must-carry-on-reading endings.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

If Only Romeo and Juliet had had Mobile Phones

Life was so much easier for writers before the new technology turned up. So many tragic stories would have been sorted with a quick phone call. It's something that has caused me problems before when I'm working out my stories because it's so obvious that an ordinary person would just pick up the phone and ask what the situation was and yet, my character simply can't do that, or the plot will fall to pieces.

It's especially difficult for me because not only do I constantly forget to turn my mobile on, I forget to recharge it, I never know what the number is, and usually forget to have it with me. Plus it can't text. (That's not just me being incompetent, several teenagers have tried before tossing the phone to one side in disgust and saying 'you need to get a new phone'.) So it's entirely plausible to me in real life not to be able to call someone, or be called by someone, but in fiction my characters have to be much more together than I personally am.

The trouble is, if you don't let your characters take the obvious route, they end up looking like complete dimwits. I've twice worked with a story where a single phone call would have sorted out many difficulties. First, Anna in Nice Girls Do was stuck underground. That was easy - she couldn't get a signal, and then, as part of the escape, she leaves the phone behind. Then came Natalie in A Single to Rome. That was harder to orchestrate. The whole plot fell to pieces at the end if people could phone her up rather than meeting face to face. I had to set up the missing phone early on - and have her comment several times that she really ought to get round to doing something about the phone - so its absence didn't look too much like a plot device when it was needed.

I've done this post about mobiles, but it could be anything that an ordinary person would use which is inexplicably missing when needed. If it would be used, then use it - or set up a very good reason for its absence.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Even the Smallest Flowers can be Beautiful

Yesterday morning promised to be a good writing opportunity. All household chores had been done, gym was not on the agenda due to cricked wrists, and we were off to lunch elsewhere, to be followed by a dog walk. So there were no excuses for not writing. I sat down and decided - given I had oodles of time - to have a quick look at Twitter. Someone had posted a link to an interesting blog so I read that, and commented. That made me think of an article a friend had written which I hadn't yet read, so I read that on-line, and then another one she'd written for the same publication. And then I read about Scarlett Johannson being in Iron Man, and something about Kate Middleton and cup cakes, all of which I could sort of justify as research because I might try to write for this publication too, and somehow two hours just slipped away.

My lovely writing morning had vanished. I had under an hour left before the real world intruded. It hardly seemed worth opening the new novel file, but I decided not to berate myself for having wasted so much time on surfing, and instead get on with some writing. And then proceeded to have the most useful 45 minutes I've had on this novel. Suddenly the first quarter, which I 've been struggling with these last few months, fell into place. I could see how the scenes were going to work and interlace with each other.

It was good to be reminded that time spent with the novel, even if it isn't the ideal, is never wasted. Any time is better than nothing, and in this case, it was just what was needed. So grab whatever time you can - even ten minutes can make a difference.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Silent Partners II

I really went into acting for the chance to dress up, and one of my big regrets is that I never got to be in one of those BBC period dramas. But I did do some period work on stage, and managed to play Alithea in The Country Wife twice, once at Leicester, and once at the Theatre Royal York.

Restoration comedies are long, and need quite a lot of cutting to make them work for modern audiences. Part of the reason is that modern audiences come to the theatre, sit in rows obediently and listen to the play. Audiences in the late 17th century were quite different. They turned up at any point, mainly to meet up with their friends. There were formal seats round the edges for the posh, but most people ambled around in the pit. Because of this, Restoration comedies have many acts, and the beginning of each one starts with a quick recap of what's happened so far in the play so all the late arrivals can catch up.

Now think about writing a novel. You're writing the book, it's living with you every day, but a reader might take a month to read it, one chapter at a time. You need to keep the characters fresh for them. Thomas Wycherley did it with a plot recap from time to time, but that doesn't work for the modern novel. So you've got to keep everything going in the reader's head, and make it easy for them to follow what is happening, even though their reading may be disjointed. Keep all the main characters alive and don't 'lose' them. That way, you won't lose the reader, either.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Silent Partners I

Imagine reading a detective novel. As the story continues you're busy trying to work out the murderer. The clues are there, but you can't seem to pin point it on anyone. It's coming up to the final chapters and in desperation you decide that the great aunt must have dunnit, on the grounds that she's the unlikeliest. The detective reveals the answer: it's some bloke you haven't heard of until now.

How disappointing that would be. You'd probably hurl the book across the room and vow to never, ever read another book by the same writer. Part of the deal when reading a mystery is that the clues are there so you can get to the answer before the detective, and that the answer (which you will probably have got wrong) will have been staring you in the face all along.

Even if you're not writing detective fiction it's important to keep all your main characters going. They won't be centre stage all the time, but they need to be present within the narrative - even if it's just someone looking at a photograph or letter and having a fleeting thought about them.

Sometimes, of course, you want characters off stage - within my genre, for example, it's not unusual for a main character to be transferring her affections from one person to another, so it would be natural for there to be fewer thoughts about the past love and more about the new one, and equally natural for the main character to have a 'goodness, I haven't thought about Jim for ages,' moment.

But if the character is a major player then they need to be around. In Adultery for Beginners, for example, Adam doesn't turn up as a major character until the last section, but I put him into several scenes beforehand, even though Isabel (and the reader) hardly notices him. In Nice Girls Do Will goes off-stage for ages as he's stuck at Templecombe while Anna is distracted by Oliver in London, so I had to devise ways to keep him present in the narrative - a phone call, a letter. So, don't cheat the reader. Keep all your major characters to the forefront of the stage.

(There's another, very practical, reason for not losing characters along the way, but as this is getting a bit long, I'll write about that tomorrow.)

Friday, 2 April 2010

Dictatorship and Me

When I'm starting a new class I usually declare that it is not a democracy, but a dictatorship, my personal fiefdom. Students must do as I say - there will be no dissent. It always gets a laugh, although actually I'm quite serious - classes should be led, or it all ends up a shambles. But what is democratic is taste. There is no 'correct' opinion.

There may be a concensus of opinion - many people enjoy reading Lord of the Rings, for example, fifty years after it was published. But equally many think it's a load of old tosh and not worth destroying trees for. I love Captain Corelli's Mandolin, especially the beginning, but there are lots of people out there who couldn't get past the first chapter. And take the Da Vinci Code, one of the best selling books ever, the one that writing tutors say: read, just because of the page turning qualities. Well, those qualities completely passed me by - I only read to the end because, as a writer and creative writing tutor, I felt I ought to but I was yawning most of the way.

So if anyone tells you your work is wrong, poor, bad, shoddy, inept, bland, dull or generally not quite up to scratch, take a deep breath and try not to let your writer's soul shrivel and die. If you speak to lots of people, who are knowledgeable about publishing and they all say the same thing then yes, you should give careful consideration to what they're saying. But always remember it's only their opinion. They could be wrong. Unless they're me of course, in which case, my opinion goes.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

April Fool

An Englishman, a Frenchman and a Japanese man are stranded on a desert island with little prospect of escape. 'Right,' the Englishman says. 'We need to get organised. The English are obsessed with houses, so I'll build and maintain a shelter, the French are good at cooking, so you,' and he points at the Frenchman, 'can be in charge of the food, and you,' and he points to the Japanese man, 'can be in charge of the supplies.'

They all agree that this is a good arrangement and go off to do their various tasks. The Englishman builds a shelter, the Frenchman starts cooking a meal, and the Japanese man heads off into the interior of the island for the supplies.

The Englishman and the Frenchman never see him again. They try searching for him, but the jungle is very thick and there are wild animals around and it takes their energy away from the business of survival. Twenty years go past....

Finally a boat comes past the desert island, and they're rescued. Hooray! But before they leave, they ask if the crew will help look for the remains of the Japanese man, to see if they can give him a decent burial. So they all head off into the jungle. Carefully they creep along, hacking a path with machetes, going deep into the interior, but there's no sign of the Japanese man. Then there's a rustle - they pause, machetes at the ready in case it's a wild animal - and then - whoosh! out jumps the Japanese man. 'Supplies!' he shouts. 'Supplies!'

Happy April Fool's Day.