‘Twisted Histories’ made real

Contributor copies have arrived! ImageIt’s difficult to describe the buzz from finding your words made artefact, part of an actual Thing. A gorgeously creepy Thing, at that. The eyes of that cover image have been following me round the room for a couple of days. Every so often I stop to riffle the pages and fondle the spine.

I suppose I’ll have to take the rest out of the box soon …


That was 2013, that was

I had big plans for 2013. They didn’t include my father being taken ill, rushed to hospital and subsequently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the start of the year.

Fast-forward to an enjoyable family Christmas dinner and so far we’ve been lucky. His medication’s working well. He’s still very much the man who cycled the 3 lakeland passes to celebrate his 70th birthday; the man who walked me down the aisle in 1989; the man with whom, a couple of months before, I’d enjoyed a perfect day in the hills when we walked up from the valley to climb Centurion on Ben Nevis; the man who taught me clutch control, how to change a car wheel, how to ride a bike; the man who could mend anything; the man who helped with the plastering, tiling and wiring on various renovation projects over the years. And so many more things. It’s fair to say the prospect of seeing that shared experience being eroded piece by precious piece has cast a deep shadow over the year.

So I had big plans for 2013 but the less important ones fell by the wayside. The big one, though – to Finish The Damn Novel – I made that one happen and it’s out on submission now. Huge thanks are due to beta readers Noosh and Grum for their invaluable input and encouragement.

xmasmogNo top ten lists here. Stand-out reads from the year are Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls and Sarah Pinborough’s Mayhem, while TV brought us the superb Peaky Blinders.

Plans for 2014? Keep working on the important stuff and live every bloody minute of it. I’ll work out the detail as I go along.

Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing, York, 2013

This weekend I spent 52 hours immersed in discussion of the technical (and human) aspects of writing. The Writers’ Workshop team provided an excellent selection of workshops at York, as well as opportunities to discuss a sample of your work with agents and book doctors. This year I attended sessions presented by Allie Spencer, Jeremy Sheldon, Julie Cohen, and Jo Unwin. If you get a chance to hear any of them speaking, seize it.

Packing so many thought-provoking exchanges into the weekend was head-spinning. On the Sunday a few of us who’d met at York in 2012 were discussing whether we could justify returning the next year. It was that point in the weekend where the rigours of the student lifestyle were biting, hard. We’d managed to catch the workshops we’d missed last year. We might get stuck in a loop of diminishing returns. The weather this year was cold. Our time might be better spent just getting on with the writing and taking our chances with the slushpile. For some reason we were all busy ignoring the elephant in the room at that point: preparing for the one-to-ones gives you an external deadline to work to if you’re writing on spec. One you can’t rearrange if you have a slow week.

Anyway, the elephant shuffled off to commune with the geese* while we trailed in to the very last workshop. There were all sorts of ideas being batted round the room about which POV to use for a story. My sleep-deprived backbrain was noodling away on an issue readers had raised concerning one of my characters. And someone near the back of the room asked a question about a character’s hidden flaw. Cue the light-bulb moment to end all light-bulb moments. Only bigger. Think lightning strike on a dark night: the kind that illuminates every contour of the landscape, refracts off mist in the hollows and outlines trees on the horizon. Think celestial choirs … Well, no. It was more of a head/desk interface moment. An issue I’d never quite pinned down because I’d been so busy staring at it but not seeing it. Moments of clarity like that are priceless.

The thing is, after being off-colour and getting stuck in an editing rut where I felt I was making everything worse, I so nearly bottled out of going to York at all this year. If it had rained on Friday morning that would have been all the excuse I needed. I’m so glad it didn’t, or I’d have missed an exhilarating weekend. Props to the team at Writers’ Workshop for all the work they put into organising the event.

* The fabric of space and time would be damaged beyond repair if the geese at York university campus didn’t get a look in.

Twisted Histories anthology

Here’s a rather wonderful thing: the cover image for the Twisted Histories anthology. Superbly creepy.
Edited by Scott Harrison, it’s due out in paperback from Snowbooks in November and features re-imaginings of mythical figures. I’m delighted to see one of my stories keeping such good company.


01 – Gog & Magog by Kaaron Warren [Gog & Magog]

02 – Little Boxes by Gary McMahon [Pandora’s Box]

03 – Collapse by Susan Murray [Green Man / John Barleycorn]

04 – Blame The French by Stephen Gallagher [Odysseus]

05 – A Silence Between The Sounds by Scott Harrison [The Magi]

06 – Containment by Justin Richards [Werewolves]

07 – The Tides of Avalon by Jennifer Williams [King Arthur / Mermaids]

08 – Flaming Sword by Richard Dinnick [Adam & Eve]

09 – Covenants by Simon Beswick [Ark of the Covenant]

10 – The Second Coming by Wayne Simmons [The Resurrection]

11 – The Lips of Every Sleeper by Alison Littlewood [Dryads]

First Draft Euphoria

Or: Outlining? Pfft.

This week I completed the first draft of the novel I thought I’d never finish, nine months after embarking on a major rewrite. It’s rough, it’s messy, and it weighs in at a suitably epic 124k.  I’ve resisted the temptation to print it out. A whole ream of A4? Ouch. Enough paper’s been sacrificed to reach this stage, most of it dog-eared and no longer relevant:Image

A few lessons learned at this stage. All of them are highly subjective as with any creative process.

This project’s much heftier than previous novels so I’ve needed to keep track of world-building notes and plot details. Scrivener offers loads of options for keeping notes and adding meta-data and it’s taken time to fathom out which are most suited to my way of working. Hopefully for the next project I’ll be able to work smarter from the outset.

I started out with a core 50k from the previous draft. With hindsight it would have been better to ditch that and start from scratch as I spent a lot of time getting reacquainted with detail that’s ceased to be relevant as the story’s evolved.

Outlining’s been of limited use for this project. I feel like it should be some kind of magic plot bullet, but, no. Twists and turns emerge organically once I’m immersed in the writing. I’m a diehard pantser (I need a Bruce Willis-style vest* for writing first drafts). Whenever the drafting process ground to a halt it was because I’d outlined a development that didn’t tally with character motivation.

On the other hand, brainstorming possibilities and mind-mapping them has been tremendously useful. Everything gets jotted down, however daft or dull. Then you can drag them about, rearrange them, highlight the useful ones, cross things out and still have a record of where you’ve been if you need to backtrack. I’ve been using Scapple for this, it’s great value for money but Mac-only. The open source Vue is also very accessible and available for other platforms.

I’ve taken to working in 20-30k chunks, pausing to take stock and brainstorming the next section before pushing on. Freewriting’s been invaluable for pushing through the no-idea-what-happens-next moments. From feeling out of my depth working on a novel of this length I’ve stumbled on a process that works for me.

So, I finally got it written. Now to get it right.

* You already knew not to come to me for sartorial advice, right?

Shakespeare as Oracle, or Much Ado about Plotting and Pantsing

This isn’t where I wax lyrical about how much I love Shakespeare’s work. I’ve read very little of it, beyond what we had to read at school, and remember less. First there was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A character named Bottom? Really? I never quite got past that.* Later, in Middle School, we tackled Julius Caesar. In one memorable** class we had to learn a speech off by heart then stand up and recite it: Therecomesatideintheaffairsofmenwhichiftakenatthefloodleadsontobetterthings … thefaultliesnotinourstarsbutinourselvesthatweareunderlings … Dear Reader, I crashed and burned. Thanks to a crackly radio adaptation we listened to in school I do at least have a favourite line: Then fall Caesar. Gnurrgh.

Somewhere along the way we encountered Romeo and Juliet. I suspect I had mumps at the time, for I managed to keep my eyes averted as I shuffled past their tragic corpses. I can’t even remember which play we studied for ‘O’ levels alongside Lord of the Flies and Jane Eyre, although I do remember flinging poor Jane across the room in disgust upon reading the words ‘Reader, I married him.’ One day I might read to the very end, but that day hasn’t arrived yet. Despite the best efforts of the exam boards my reading choices at the time remained centred on space ships, triffids, dragons, and Jane Austen.

But there’s no escaping the ubiquitous bard. I’ll find a phrase noodling around in my mind and, thanks to the wondrous internet, I’ll discover it’s one of his. He has a way with language that makes his phrases stick, tenacious as any earworm. Hold that thought.

What has that to do with plotting and pantsing? You may already have guessed I tend towards the pantsing end of the spectrum. Once I’ve found my characters and their dilemma we launch into the unknown until we run aground 20-30k later, and then pause to take stock. After that I loosely plan the next stage of the story, along the lines of this, this and this has happened, so that, that and that will happen next. But it rarely does. Some other thing crops up, and it’s usually far more convincing than what I’d planned.

So here I am approaching the end of the story. Except the characters galloped headlong into what I’d originally envisaged as the closing scene several thousand words ago and it wasn’t the ending at all. While I was stuck an online friend – plotter to the core – commented she always knows the ending before she begins to write. That just doesn’t work for me, my process is altogether more messy. Away I trailed to delete another 5k of plot cul de sac, envying her efficient process. And the earworm began taunting me – the stupid earworm that led me into the stupid not-ending first time round – the first line from the opening scene of Macbeth. The notion of three characters closing the circle at the end still felt relevant so I went and looked it up in context.

When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

When the hurlyburly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.

Light bulb moment! After several weeks of minimal progress this may be a beleaguered writer clutching at straws, but I like to think my subconscious was on the case the whole time. Either way, I’ve decided which direction the story takes next. Time will tell if it works or not.

This isn’t the first time the bard’s bailed me out when a plot’s stalled. The very first time it was one of Bottom’s lines, no less, rattling round my subconscious since the mid-seventies, just waiting until I needed it to trigger a few new associations:

… to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.

You’d think I’d have learned by now. Next time the writing grinds to a halt I’ll ask the oracle a bit sooner.


* Anna J Grace-Smith has no such problems. You can find her rather wonderful extrapolation of the tale here.

** A day without a dreadful pun is a day wasted.

So, that was 2012

2012. The year it rained. And my first year without formal study since 2006. I’d like to claim I threw all my energy into writing amazing things, but in reality I lurched between writing projects and long overdue decorating tasks. Every time I went rabbit-in-headlights with the writing another wall was painted, or another chunk of the garden was weeded and mulched.

During one of my rabbit-in-headlights phases I signed up for the online course Self-editing Your Novel run by The Writers’ Workshop and that turned out to be one of my better decisions. Workshopping for six weeks with a group of enthusiastic writers was a real game-changer and I learned loads, coming away with new techniques for tackling the work-in-progress.

Buoyed up by the course I entered the Bristol Short Story Prize and was bowled over when my science fiction story made the longlist. It was round about then The Fear clambered up onto my shoulder and began whispering: Why would they do that? That’s a rubbish line. Cliché. You cannot be serious … Trouble is, The Fear has a habit of being right on some level.

Since then The Fear and I have filleted the novel, thrown away the rubbish ending, brought one character back into play, refined another character. One of my aims for 2012 was to finish redrafting the novel: I haven’t. But I’ve learned a lot this year, it’s taken time to internalise new approaches. The novel I finish in 2013 will be stronger as a result.

The Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York in early September was one of the high points of 2012. It was a luxury to spend a whole weekend immersed in all things writing-related, and great to meet so many online contacts who turned out to be every bit as lovely in the real world.

Goals for 2013? Finish more stuff and submit more stuff. Starting with that novel.

The Next Big Thing

Many thanks to that versatile spinner-of-plates, Scott Harrison, for tagging me last week in this writers’ blog chain thingy. Basically there are ten questions to answer about the current project, five more writers to tag for answers this time next week. That’s the theory, anyway.

What is the working title of your next book?
The working title of my current project is Bitter Legacy. At present I’m (re)drafting the final chapters.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The story started out as an image prompted by a writing exercise.* A small boat was crossing a squally stretch of sea. On the boat sat a woman. She was less than chuffed with her situation. I had no idea where she’d travelled from, why, or what lay in store for her.

What genre does your book fall under?
Epic fantasy.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
This one’s tricky as I don’t envisage characters in precise physical detail. Given it’s hypothetical, I’ll assume access to a time machine. For the displaced Alwenna I’d choose someone who could bring that sense of otherness Uma Thurman or Sissy Spacek (in Carrie) bring to their roles. For the soldier-made-good think Viggo Mortensen (as Aragorn) blended with Clive Owen (moody and secretive as Parks in Gosford Park) and a dash of Liam Cunningham’s Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones (but younger).

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
In civil war a king sends his wife to safety in the protection of the only man he trusts; with loyalty stretched to breaking point she is betrayed and must draw on dark powers to protect the closely-guarded secret she carries, only to discover her husband kept secrets of his own.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Once the novel’s complete, revised and polished I’ll be seeking representation.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I’m aiming to complete this draft by the end of this year. It’s had a couple of lengthy spells on the back burner while I was finishing my degree or busy with other projects, but at a rough estimate I’d say the time spent actively working on it totals six or seven months so far.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Until I’ve had time to step back from this story any answer risks being wildly misleading, so I’ll suggest Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, or Kristen Britain’s Green Rider as two favourites and leave it at that.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Other than the years spent exploring worlds created by authors like John Wyndham, Marion Bradley, Raymond E. Feist, and Robin Hobb? Well, one item on the notional Unfinished Business list – after ‘Get that degree’ – has always been ‘Write those books’. Add to that a conversation long ago when my mother asserted nothing – but nothing – changes your life like having children;** and throw in a few random thoughts that have percolated down through the intervening years.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Think Roman Holiday meets Carrie. With swords.

I’d like to tag two talented writers I first met while studying with the Open University:  Anouska Huggins (who has a story in Issue 8 of The Yellow Room) and Graeme K. Talboys (whose latest novel Stealing Into Winter is published by Roundfire Books).

* For the curious, the exercise was 13.5 from Bill Greenwell’s chapter ‘Rhetoric and Style’ in A Creative Writing Handbook (2009, ed. D. Kneale, A&C Black Publishers Ltd). Students of the Open University course A363 may well remember it.

** This was a masterly piece of understatement.

No, not those changes

Title notwithstanding, this blog isn’t about mid-life angst. It’s about writing and stuff, at least that’s the intention. There may well be some angst along the way, there may well be pictures of cats. The only certainty is that posts will not appear at regular intervals.