Thursday, April 26, 2007

Coffee Break 15

I had a great deal of say...but the producer didn't have a great deal of listen.
Douglas Adams (on the TV adaptation of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
In a big hurry today as I'm on a TV writing course so...

Who would play your hero/heroine in the movie/TV series of your book?

Maggie Gyllenhall would be my current heroine.

And how are we all doing this week?


Monday, April 23, 2007

Plotting, brain-stretching and Stan Barstow

We want incident, interest, action: to the devil with your philosophy.
Robert Louis Stevenson

There is definitely a difference between the bits of the brain used for writing, and the bits used for plotting, don't you find? Writing can be joyful or frustrating or plain hard work (like typing, rather than wading, through treacle) but plotting is one of those tasks that makes my brain feel tired.

I was relieved to read in this piece in the Guardian a while back that this feeling is not unique to me. The writer, Oliver Burkeman, describes doing one of those brain-training exercises (it doesn't work on the Grauniad website, as it's all written in black type so I feel at liberty to reproduce it here). You have to read the following out loud, but read out the COLOUR in which the word is printed, not the word itself:

Red Green Blue Black Black Green Red Blue Red Red Blue Green Black

It's hard, isn't it? Well, that feeling (Burkeman says the exercise activates 'as many regions of your prefrontal cortex as possible, strengthening neural connections and even creating new ones. This is all just neuroscience-speak for the weird sensation - it actually feels almost like a literal stretching of the mind') is the one I get when I sit down to plot a new novel. Don't get me wrong, it's not as though I am working through some complex crime plot, which truly would be like mental spaghetti, but I am at that point expanding an idea which may until that point only exist as the most basic of 'what if's...For example, what if a bunch of former Brownies were reunited, each sharing the same childhood secret? Or, what if a woman who was terrified of everything, had a near-death experience and realised how precious life is?

That's where I am right now - I've got two book ideas on the go (separate from the book I've just finished writing), one quite developed, the other very sketchy, and I am trying to work out which one has most 'legs'. The under-developed one is getting the full thinking treatment - how can I turn a notion into a story, what must the characters do and need, and how can I put obstacles in their way? It's a rather alarming, unsettling form of mental juggling. Or to carry on the circus analogy, perhaps it's more like the trapeze...that feeling of vertigo, of wobbliness. One wrong move and the story comes tumbling down.

OK. Maybe that's a step too far. But I find this aspect of the novel-writing process both exhilirating and exhausting.

And if you're a bit of a gizmo person, like me, then you might like this article on how to plot your novel using Google Notebook - a tool I hadn't realised existed. It's effectively used, in this case, as the online equivalent of index cards. Haven't quite got the hang of it, but it's good fun!

In other news, a piece I wrote for Norm's blog about a favourite book - in my case, the Kind of Loving trilogy by Stan Barstow - has gone up today. Anyone fancy sharing their thoughts on a much-loved book?

Yes, I've been a busy writer the last few days: I've been updating my website with the opening chapter of my new book, The Self-Preservation Society, which is published in just over a month's time. And also been doing some Novel Race updates: welcome to Cally!

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Friday, April 20, 2007


A finished second draft and a finished dirty first draft. You rock, girls...

Who'll be next?

Also get on over to ManicMum's Running on Empty Marathon Party...

Coffee Break 14

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Elmore Leonard

The man from Del Monte, he say yes...

By which I mean, my editor loves the new book. Hoorah! I had one of the nicest editorial emails ever from her on Wednesday, saying she thinks Book 5 is great - I shan't repeat the words as it seems a bit showy-offy. This isn't always a given mind you: I've had initial emails from her before about first drafts where she's been careful to sound enthusiastic, but has also left me in no doubt that I needed to roll my sleeves up to get stuck into a major edit.

I'll get some notes soon about what she's calling a bit of 'beefing up' and 'fleshing out' here and there (but I'm a vegetarian!) but it doesn't sound major...I hope I shan't suddenly receive 20 close-typed pages of suggestions. Actually, even if I do, I really value this stage in the process. I've spent so long with my story and characters (well, OK, 3 months isn't THAT long but it's been an intense relationship) that I definitely need that outside input to make it all better...

Ironic - or possibly not - that this book has been my fastest (and, to be fair, my simplest in terms of the narrative). Maybe I am learning how to write a novel at last! Though I shan't speak too soon: each book is different, of course, and the next one could just as easily be the equivalent of a difficult grizzly baby, keeping me awake for months and months.

I rewarded myself with cake and a trip to the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park which is an astonishing place. Utterly magical. I'd never been there before but I can see it becoming a regular haunt...

So how are you doing, novel racers? Have you had any editorial input yet from editors, agents, and critique partners?

Oh, this is one of those pieces on what gets writers' creative juices flowing...I like Douglas Coupland's most of all.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pure Passion

I ransack public libraries and find them full of sunk treasure.

Virginia Woolf

What a weekend here in the 'burbs! Sky high temperatures, the scent of BBQ in the air...we put our brand new bargain basement sunloungers through their paces, big-style.

And then this morning it's back to grey spring weather. I'm actually longing for a bit of rain, if I'm honest, the plants are looking frazzled. I'd like a good thunderstorm. And then more sun. Got that?

But to brighten up this grey day, I'm really thrilled about Pure Passion, which is a North West Libraries scheme launched this week to promote "some of the best contemporary Romantic Fiction available to borrow from your public library." And Brown Owl's Guide to Life is one of their titles. It's lovely to be featured alongside fab writers like Katie Fforde, Neil Gaiman, Erica James, Adele Parks and many more...

I think this is such a great promotion - and not just because I'm in it! First of all, the diversity of the titles is the best possible illustration of what a wide genre romantic fiction is. Second, libraries are such brilliant places, yet in many areas, they're comparatively under-used: it's a real case of use it or lose it, so if your membership has lapsed, please go and renew it. Some councils do see library services as a 'soft target' when making cuts and the best way to retain your local service is to get borrowing. I love my local libary - it even has its own garden at the back, where you can read the papers on a sunny day - and I see it as such a privilege being able to take my pick of books without paying a penny. It really encourages experimentation and risk-taking in your reading. As an author I also approve - writers are given Public Lending Right money each year, to reflect loans (it's around 4.5p per loan) so everyone's happy.

I'm also chuffed to little mintballs that they've picked Brown Owl: it's set in and around Cheshire, Manchester and Salford, areas where I spent a lot of time when I was growing up. I'm going to be doing some events to tie in with the promotion, dates to be confirmed, and it'll be lovely to go back.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Coffee Break 13

Writing is very improvisational. It's like trying to fix a broken sewing machine with safety pins and rubber bands. A lot of tinkering.

Margaret Atwood: Conservations (1990)

Ooooh, creepy or what. It's Coffee Break 13 on Friday the 13th. Stay safe out there, boys and girls!

Given the date, I wonder if anyone wants to share writing superstitions and rituals? I'm actually surprisingly ritual free, considering my neurotic repertoire of fears and phobias. In fact I can't think of any writing rituals. I keep thinking it would be nice to buy myself something symbolic at the end of each book - a piece of jewellery or something - but as I haven't done that so far, it would feel slightly artificial. Anyone else want to 'fess up to running around their desk anti-clockwise singing Brown Girl in the Ring first thing every morning?

Belated happy publication to Lucy Diamond - her new book is fab and is everywhere. It's gorgeous to look at as well. We also have a new novel racer, Judith. Welcome to the club! (But I can't seem to find your ID at blogger, is it still up there? Will add as soon as it works...)

I finished my movie treatment but don't think it's up to much. Sent it anyway, on the off chance. I do have a plan for the next book (book 6! How did that happen?) but another idea that seems much hotter has just occurred to me. They just keep coming. As I've said before, I have very little quality control so these urges have to be controlled... What I do now is stick a Post-it with the title on it to my wall. There are currently 9 Post-its there.

Oh, and can I share my cover news? It's quite relevant, honest, to see how designs change from hardback to paperback. So this is the hardback of my new one, out in just over a month:

The reports from the bookshops are good – the cloud up at the top is a really unusual foamy texture, almost rubbery – and I am predicting a whole new market for my books among the rubber fetishist fraternity (ooo, just see those web searchers end up here after googling those words).

The paperback (out in December) has just popped up on amazon and is completely different, though similar to my jacket for the paperback of Brown Owl's Guide to Life. I like the fairground theme – there’s a pivotal scene around the winning of a fluffy goldfish – and the lettering.

I like both but aren’t they really, really different? No conclusions to draw except it’s interesting as it’s a) the same book and b) a book that features romance, yes, but also near-death experiences, advice on self-catering in your nuclear fall-out shelter, and musical comedy. See. You can’t ever judge a book from its cover.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

'Free' time

So...I worked all weekend on my edits (well, in between choc-scoffing and a fab stay at the Malmaison Hotel at the old Oxford Prison) and emailed them off on Monday evening.

Since then I have:
  • watched the last, fab episode of Life on Mars (curiously I fancy both John Simm AND Philip Glenister. Though I prefer John Simm);
  • done my VAT return;
  • started a new file for the new tax year;
  • paid a lump sum off the monster gas bill that we somehow incurred over the winter;
  • replied to SOME of the emails sitting unanswered in my inbox;
  • had a fascinating conversation about hearing loss with a woman from the RNID;
  • finished off my feature about hearing loss and hearing aids with the information from the conversation;
  • written a two-page treatment for a movie version of the book I've just finished;
  • begun writing the script for the movie version...

Sadly, the last two don't mean I have Hollywood producers banging down the door, but I am going to send the script to the Script Factory under their friendly producers scheme (I wonder how friendly they are exactly? We need to be told). I don't hold out much hope as I find scripts quite tricky but it's a rare opportunity to get some material read (you can only submit if you've been on one of their courses) so, nothing ventured, eh? And also it gets the opening of the book clearer in my mind, by imagining it as a movie.

I had promised myself a break after the edits but once I've done the script, and done a piece for Norm's blog about a favourite book, I will take it easy. At least until I get the comments back on the first draft.

Oh, and I have a new blog I like: if you haven't come across her novels, Jojo Moyes is mistress of fantastically intense emotional books, with great settings and fascinating ideas. And her blog's cool too.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Coffee Break 12

I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork.
Peter de Vries

Word count: hovering around the 92,500 mark as I chip away

OK, so it's Good Friday, but that doesn't stop us having coffee, does it? Thank you for all your lovely messages about finishing my first draft. I have no plans to abandon the race as it's a great community motivator - and I plan to begin my next book in May so will start all over again.

I had a whole day off for that Tower of London visit, before getting down to the edits.

I work on edits as follows:

  • type the last words, then wait for as long as the deadline allows (in this case, a non-luxurious 24 hours, but as this is a relatively simply structured book, that's not the end of the world)
  • print the whole thing off (11 point font, 1.5 spacing, double-sided, as I hate wasting paper and it also, crucially, makes the pile of pages look less intimidating)
  • read it through, making marks in the margin, crossing bits out, often drawing a long line down several paragraphs with the letters 'r/w' along side them. I also use my own short forms for certain problems: TMI (Too Much Information) is for when I have got carried away with an image or an idea. 'Telly' means I have overdone the 'telling' aspect of a scene, most often where perhaps my central character is overplaying an emotion or a change... It is a particular issue in first person, as you want to portray change (and what is a novel's purpose if the character doesn't learn or develop in some way?) WITHOUT that character necessarily being aware that s/he is changing...
  • I also go back to the first page of each chapter once I have read it and marked it up, to work out what the overall purpose of the chapter is: is it character development, plot progression, a combination? If no purpose is evident, then I either find one, rewrite or chop. Haven't done that in this one yet as it's quite tightly plotted but there's always that option.
  • Then it's back to the computer, and I begin to incorporate the changes. I might leave little details - later on I will double-check the chronology, make sure that the right nicknames or pet names are used by different characters. If there's something troublesome in terms of structure or development, I will usually put a little 'Word Comment' to myself to consider later but I try not to do this too often or the draft after this takes so much longer...

I'm at this 'back to the computer' stage and about 2/5ths of the way through, but actually that's misleading as the second half is in much rougher condition than the first. Ah well. We do have lots of plans for this weekend, so it may be a 'burning the midnight oil' scenario.

So how's everyone else doing? Have a lovely weekend - and do make sure you don't get Easter Egg between the keys of your keyboard...

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Monday, April 02, 2007


Word Count: 92,848

If you are going to make a book end badly, it must end badly from the beginning.
Robert Louis Stevenson, (Letter to J.M. Barrie, 1892)

Finished it JUST after Dr Who on was very chuffed indeed. Of course, it's only the beginning. My dash for the finishing line means it is pretty rough and ready towards the end, and I've now printed it off and will be editing all week and groaning about my hideous writing!

Btw I think that as a novel race founder I shouldn't 'win'! Who will be next to finish?