Archive for the ‘writing’ Category




using theme in your novel

Filed under: writing

Last weekend I was at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference up in Sheffield. As always it was a brilliant event, fully worth the six and a half freaking hours I spent sitting motionless in traffic on various motorways in order to get there. It was great to catch up with friends and learn more about writing, publishing, and (dare I say it) drinking wine.

I gave a workshop on Using Theme In Your Novel and afterwards, several people asked me to put up my presentation online. I’m not exactly going to do that, because I’m hoping to sell it as an article to various writing magazines, but I’m happy to summarise it here, and to share my process with my own novel, Dear Thing.

I decided before I started writing Dear Thing that the theme would be PARENTHOOD. That is, the book would focus on issues about parenthood, and therefore all the settings, characters, sub-plots and imagery would be connected, in some way, with this theme.

(I do this with every novel, by the way—even when I was writing shorter novels, although I find it even more useful when writing longer stories because it helps keep me focused. The theme of The Summer of Living Dangerously was ESCAPE, and particularly ESCAPING THE PAST. The theme of Getting Away With It was IDENTITY. The theme of my current novel is WHAT IS LOVE?)

Once I decided what my theme would be, I did some brainstorming about it. This isn’t the actual brainstorm…my real one was much messier, and much more random, with lots of threads I didn’t end up using, but this is one that actually contains stuff that exists in my novel:

PARENTHOOD brainstorm

PARENTHOOD brainstorm

Once I’d thought about different applications and contexts of the idea ‘parenthood’, I used these to come up with the characters, secondary characters, plot, subplot, setting, and imagery for my book.

For example, one heroine Claire, who’s infertile (MAIN PLOT), has a job as a teacher in a secondary school (CHARACTER), where she’s tempted to become a parent figure for one of her students (SUBPLOT). And the other heroine Romily, who’s a single mother and a surrogate mother (MAIN PLOT), works as an entomologist with knowledge of social insects and their parenting behaviour (IMAGERY), and has a dilemma involving the father of her child (SUBPLOT) and whether she fits in with the mums at the school gate (SETTING).

It gets much more complicated than that, because of course each character has multiple relationships and roles.

Can you do this for your own novel? Sure. Identify your theme, brainstorm it, and try to see how you can use this theme, in different ways, to make your novel deeper and richer.

As far as the conference goes, there are some brilliant posts about it here on Janet Gover’s blog and on Miranda Dickinson’s vlog.

Comments are off





Filed under: writing

I hate starting to write a new book. I believe I’ve mentioned this before, because it’s a perennial problem. I have, to date, started a fair number of them—including the ones that haven’t been published, it’s at least 21 or 22, maybe more—but it still never becomes any easier or more pleasant.

There are too many things that can go wrong. I know, from experience, that these things will work themselves out in time. I know that I can fix anything that’s wrong, and if worse comes to worse, I can start over. (I wrote close to 20,000 words of Getting Away With It before realising I’d done it wrong, so I had to cut it and start over. And then start over again. And then again.)

I know that the act of writing a book teaches you how to write a book, and that therefore there’s no better way to start a book than to start it, even if you do it wrong at first. Nevertheless, starting a new book is a huge leap of faith. Even if you know the idea is good—even if you’ve discussed it already with your agent and editor, and they’re enthusiastic—that still doesn’t guarantee that you can do the idea justice. There’s a very good chance that you will spend weeks, maybe months, writing something you’ll end up deleting. And although that’s okay, the doubt is still enormous.

Whenever I start thinking about a book, I have a huge, miraculous idea in my head of what the story will be. The act of writing it down inevitably reduces my idea, makes it finite, makes it smaller. And that’s okay, too: as a reader, I’m more interested in small, concrete ideas embodied in actual people and events than in big, abstract, vague ideas. Even so, there’s something a bit disappointing about taking one’s lovely vision and subjecting it to the limits of one’s own ability, making it fit the size of a page.

When people ask me how to get started writing, I usually tell them: ‘Just write.’ And yet, for me, just sitting down and starting a book requires a particular state of mind. I have to be full enough of the story not to care that I might be mucking it up. I need to be determined enough to keep on writing words that I may well delete. I need to be swelling, pregnant, desperate to get this story down and out of my head.

Because otherwise, it’s too frightening. It’s too much hard work. I would rather spend my time researching, doing character quizzes, getting ready.

Strangely enough, once I have started, I never have any trouble whatsoever carrying on. It’s as if there’s this wall I have to break through, and once it’s down, it stays down. Writing the middle and ending isn’t hard for me. I enjoy the routine of sitting down and picking up the threads of the story, forging ahead, 1000 to 2000 words a day. If I could start the novel in the middle I would probably find it easier, but unfortunately I’m a chronological, accumulative writer so it would be just as bewildering.

Anyway, I’ve been putting off starting this latest novel for a few weeks, but last week I sat down and I started it. It was difficult. I whined a lot.

And then something miraculous happened: the characters took over. It happened on about page four. And now, suddenly, I’m not at the beginning any more. I’m in the middle of the beginning. And I can’t wait to write more.





an idea that will fly

Filed under: writing

On Twitter yesterday @ivegotadrill asked if I would blog about my process of coming up with my book ideas and how I know that they’re workable and will last for an entire novel. This process is different for everyone, I guess, and it’s certainly different for me with every book. But I’ll blog about my process so far, with this book, which is as yet unnamed and unwritten.

September: I finished the draft of Dear Thing and sent it to my agent. She sent it to my editor. As I waited for my editor’s response, I started thinking about what I was going to write next. Some people get ideas for several books at the same time, but me, I’m more monogamous. I had ideas for different sorts of books, but not really an idea for my next mainstream book under my own name. All I had at this point was a character, and that was only because we got chatting to this elderly lady this summer and I thought she was fascinating. I thought, ‘I’d really like to write about someone like her.’ And I began kicking around story ideas based around a character like that. The problem was, this was a character, not a story, and though I really liked her, I didn’t think she was enough to carry a whole novel of the type I’d be writing. So I decided not to push it, filed her away for future use, and tried to do the whole emptying-your-mind thing that helps ideas come to you.

October: No ideas were coming to me. Still, I wrote a novella (under a different name) and trusted that something would turn up. I decided to have a chat with my editor once we’d put Dear Thing to bed, because I don’t just want a good story; I want a good story that people will buy, that will fit in with my author brand, that will deliver the kind of book that I want to write. And which will, also, be interesting enough to me that I can spend the next year on it. Then my editor sent me revisions on Dear Thing and I didn’t think about anything for a little while. Except that maybe I did. Maybe I had a little niggle of an idea about a character and a situation that was connected to a topic I’m quite interested in. But it was that: a niggle. (It was in no way connected to the earlier character I thought I’d probably write about.)

November: I went on retreat with some fabulous writers, all of whom were on deadline and had to write like crazy. I wasn’t on deadline. I had nothing to write; in fact I was actively trying NOT to write. While they were all tapping away on their laptops, I went for a long walk instead, and I did a bit of reading. I picked up a non-fiction book I’d brought, which was on a topic related to my idea, within five minutes I had read a line that hit me between the eyes with the effect of a sledgehammer.

It was my next book, in one sentence. It wasn’t a character, or a situation: it was an entire problem, an enormous conflict, a question about what every human being is and feels. It took my breath away. It was so huge, so interesting. I immediately started wondering if I could do it justice. So I didn’t do much with it. I let it sit there in my brain and fester a little while until it found a character to attach itself to. Actually, now that I think of it, I need to write that sentence down and put it up somewhere where I can see it all the time.

December: Interestingly, I didn’t start getting much of an idea about specifics of character or plot: instead, the first page of the book came to me. And then scenes, as if I were seeing them on a screen. And then I saw a film and a TV show which gave me my next hero. (I do this all the time—find an actor I really like and start building a hero around him. I find it helps me when I’m a little bit obsessive and have a crush.) The hero became immediately alive; I wrote about a side of A4 about him, which I will probably never check or read, and I chose his name. Through getting to know him, I started to get to know the heroine. I started to ask why she felt the way she did and why she acted the way that she would.

My agent rang and I blurted, ‘I’ve got my new book idea.’ She, quite naturally, said, ‘What is it?’ And then I realised that I didn’t really have my next book idea; I had an idea, and a couple of shadowy characters, and a big major theme, and a general sense of how it would all turn out. So I babbled it all to her. Bless her, she said, after a while: ‘Well, that sounds good. Write me an outline so I can sell it.’

Meanwhile, the story was getting clearer in my head; I was beginning to see how it would be structured and what would happen (that was what I was talking about below, about getting ideas when you really wanted a latte). So yesterday I started to outline my idea. Often I do this with Post-It notes or index cards so I can move things around. This time, though, I just started to write what was going to happen. I didn’t edit or think about things too much; I just wrote down what was in my head and as usual, the act of writing stuff down made me think up more stuff. This isn’t the outline I’ll give my agent; it’s just some rough notes for me, which I may or may not look at ever again. I wrote a very brief character sketch, wrote about the inciting event and a couple of turning points, and then, at a point that’s probably about midway through the story, I stopped.

I don’t want to know what happens in the end. I wrote a full and detailed synopsis of Dear Thing before I wrote it, and although that worked out quite well, and I do like the ending a lot, I noticed that having it all planned out in advance made it less fun for me to write. So if I can get away with not knowing, I’ll keep myself ignorant.

My next step, I suppose, is try to sum up the entire book in one sentence, as a selling hook. I’m going to meet with my editor on Tuesday for that good chat I wanted to have with her, and see what she thinks and if she has any suggestions. Then I’ll write a proper blurby thing, a few paragraphs or a side of A4, to show to people. And then I’ll start researching properly and doing some character sketches to start writing the first draft of the book. I haven’t yet decided whether it’s going to be first person or third person, or whether it’ll have multiple viewpoints or only the heroine’s. I’m still trying out various things—I haven’t decided what the heroine’s job is, or whether the hero has a child.

But I do know that my book has a theme, a situation, a conflict, and a character, and that all of these things are big enough to take me through 100,000 words. I’m not entirely sure how I know that they’re big enough; it’s experience, I suppose, but also because I’ve chosen BIG things—a huge theme, a life-and-death conflict—and if you have large stakes, the book can be deeper.

I hope. I hope. I hope.






I honestly only wanted a latte

Filed under: writing

One thing about taking some time off writing any actual words of fiction: I’m being assailed by ideas.

I’ll be walking down the street, minding my own business, thinking about maybe changing my library books and getting a cup of coffee somewhere, and…WHUMP! Another idea for another novel. Right between the eyes, as if dropped by a passing carrier pigeon.

The problem is, of course, that I can’t possibly write all of them, not all at once. And also, they’re not fully-fledged ideas; they’re just concepts, and they need expanding, working out, living with before they can become anything as substantial as a book. They’re the one-line high concept things, rather than the actual story.

Anyway. Novelists are asked all the time, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ And that is the answer.

They hit you from the sky like bird poop when you are on your way for a latte.





Sex on The Write Lines

Filed under: interviews, the web, writing

I was honoured to be a guest on Sue Cook’s podcast, The Write Lines, talking about making a career as a writer, along with super-writers and teachers Nicola Morgan and Sue Moorcroft. We talked about how we got published, the publishing world right now, and what you can do as a writer to make sense of it all.

(We also talked about inappropriate uses for Dyson hand driers but I don’t think that made the edit cut!)

Here’s a snippet of me, talking about (what else) my top tip for writing a sex scene.

The new series of The Write Lines will be available from from Monday October 29th and our programme will be released on Monday November 5th and you can follow all of us on Twitter: @SueCook, @nicolamorgan, @SueMoorcroft and @julie_cohen.





revising (or, making a mess)

Filed under: crows, Dear Thing, writing

I’m revising my book. On the upside, I love revising. It’s the chance to take my POS (Piece of Shit) manuscript and make it into a real, coherent, reasonably well-written story. The right-brain process of creation becomes the left-brain process of analysis. And I LOVE analysis.

On the down side, if I’ve started revising a book, that means I have to give it in soon. Which means I’ll be leaving this wonderful world and people that I’ve invented behind. It also means that for the first time, this poor little story, my waking dream, is going to be subjected to the keen eyes of my agent, my editor, and the entire team at my publisher. To say nothing of the keen and critical eyes of readers. This particular manuscript is the first one for my new publisher, Transworld, and it’s a new direction for me—not a romance, but more a relationship story between two mothers and a child. It also has quite a quick turnaround time ahead of it—I’m due to give it in next month, and it’s scheduled to come out in hardback in April. Six months is a very short amount of time in publishing.

So revision, in this case at least, involves quite a bit of The Fear.

However, one of the glorious things about revision is that I get to make an enormous mess, guilt-free. Here are some photos of my process thus far:


This is my manuscript. I wrapped it up in rubber bands and cling film to transport it from the US (where I had it printed out at The Maine Press because my parents’ printer is slooooooooooow). This was a good idea, because it meant that the ms wasn’t damaged in my suitcase. But it was a bad idea, because it is very very tempting not to unwrap such a tightly-packaged thing at all. But I did.

Going through ms and changing it

This requires certain aids.

Notes, chocolate wrappers and tea

When I’ve finished entering my changes into the computer, I chuck the pages on the floor. This gives me a great feeling of accomplishment.

That's about 230 pages revised.

And I also like to spread the mess around the house. BECAUSE I CAN! THIS IS WORK!

Not far to go now.






Filed under: RNA, writing

It occurs to me (and has occurred to me before) that when you’re writing a novel, you’re dealing with several different types of time at once.

There’s author-time, which is how long it takes you to write a novel. I average about 1000 words a day when I’m writing, and my first drafts (100K) take about seven months. I know that maths doesn’t add up, but I do take weekends and the occasional day off, and sometimes you just have to delete what you’ve written.

Then there’s story-time, which is the time scale of the story itself. The book I’m working on now covers about ten months, from March to the following January, but a book can cover several years or decades. Or the events can occur over the course of a few minutes. (One of my favourite pieces of fiction occurs within the space of about fifteen minutes or less, with most of it occurring simultaneously).

Finally, there’s reader-time, which is the time it takes the reader to read your story. Whilst author-time can be a year or so, and story-time can be several years, reader-time might be an afternoon, or even the length of a bath.

Story-time is entirely illusory, whereas author-time and reader-time are not.

Essentially, as you’re writing, you’re using your author-time to create the illusion of convincing and lifelike story-time so that the reader is fooled into thinking that the reader-time feels more intense, and usually much longer, than it really is. A good novel can make you feel as if you’ve lived an entire lifetime in an afternoon.

(Fiction, and drama/film/television which is also written story, are the only art forms which are made up of these three distinct types of time. Music and dance are experienced in real-time; visual art is experienced over a much shorter timescale and doesn’t usually create an illusion of time passing. Of course, in drama, you also have the time spent by the actors and directors and producers etc to create the drama/film.)

I don’t have anything particularly useful to say about this; it’s merely an observation. I’ve spent the last three days writing a single scene which takes less than half an hour of story time, and which will be read in about ten minutes or less.

That tends to make you think about time in a different way.

I’m off to the RNA conference in Penrith tomorrow, to see all my romance-writing mates. I’m giving a workshop on learning story structure through Pixar films. I’m also going to learn as much as I can about writing and the writing business. I’m going to talk and laugh and drink far more than I should and wear my new snakeskin heels.

It will all seem to go by far too fast.

1 Comment




the days go by…

Filed under: writing

I haven’t put up a new post here in a long time. Partly, it is the fault of Twitter, and partly, it is the fault of me. Anyway, I was looking at the great gap here between posts, and I realised that the gap is pretty representative of what I’ve been wrestling with in my writing lately.

I’m a chronological writer; I construct my stories cumulatively. The emotions, the events, the language all builds up as I write, and I could never, for example, write the climax of the novel before I’d written most of the middle. I might (and probably do) know what happens, but I couldn’t write it properly, without having to change it a lot after I’d written the middle, because I tend to add little objects and secondary characters and jokes and themes and just general *stuff* that I like to use again and tie up loose ends.

In my opinion, the advantage of this is that I’m able to build up the significance of events in an organic way. There’s a certain resonance of language and I know that the characters are following a coherent and reasonable sequence of behaviour. I know that I’ve got the character arc in the right order, and I know that my scenes are going to be relatively varied in setting, tone, etc because I can see what’s come before and plan what comes next.

The disadvantage of this is that it can lead to plodding.

I hate to skip stuff when I write.  I find myself a horrible pedant when describing action and when a character enters a house, for example, I have to physically restrain myself from describing how she finds her keys, unlocks the door, opens the door, walks in but only a step or two, closes the door, takes off her shoes, hangs up her coat, puts her keys on the table, walks down the hall to the kitchen, etc etc forever and ever to the point of infinite boredom.

So you can imagine how difficult it is for me to write a story about a pregnancy, say, without documenting EVERY SINGLE twinge, ache, puke, test, scan, appointment, and stretch mark.

Non-writers think that the hardest part of writing must be making the stuff up, but we writers know that’s not hard at all. We make up stuff as easily as breathing (sometimes, in hay fever season, it’s much easier to make stuff up than to breathe). We make stuff up about the people we pass on the street, about the lost sock on the pavement, about the bee that’s landed on the rim of our coffee cup, about that weird noise we heard at 3.23 am this morning.

The hard part is selecting what’s good and necessary. Knowing what’s okay to skip because it’s not important. Knowing when it’s okay to skip something that’s quite important but sum it up later, because it is important but not so important that it needs a whole scene to itself. Knowing when to combine two or three important things together into one scene because alone they’re not so important but together, they’re dynamite.

Skipping things drives me crazy, but it has to be done. So much of writing is selection and shaping of the big messy story that’s in the writer’s brain. And however much it pains the anal, pedantic part of me to leave big gaps in my story—if it’s done well, the reader never notices the big gaps at all.


Top ↑