Archive for the ‘writing’ Category




calendar and post-it plotting

Filed under: Dear Thing, writing

One of my most popular posts on this blog is Post-It Plotting, but as one writer pointed out, my normal Post-It plots don’t include any sort of a calendar or timeline.

I’m working on Dear Thing, which is the story of two women and one pregnancy. It has two points of view, which is something I haven’t done for a while, and it has to be plotted out over the course of ten months which, because one character is a child and one is a teacher, must include three school terms and three school holidays.

My brain is far too small to process all of this, so I decided to do a bit of keeping track. I went to Staples and bought a financial year planner (I would have bought a normal year planner, but my novel just happens to start in March and finish in January, so an April to April one is much better). I coloured in the school holidays, determined what date one of my characters would have conceived, and wrote in 40 weeks’ worth of pregnancy. Then I started to plot events, from two points of view, on the calendar.

I had to cut the Post-Its into smaller strips to fit on the calendar. That is a down side.

It’s very rough as of yet, and only covers half the novel so far (because—ahem—that’s all I’ve written). But I’m finding it extremely useful.

And then some stuff happens. Yes, there's a character called Jarvis. I'm quite excited about that.





elevator pitches

Filed under: writing

On Twitter, @suefortin1 was asking for tips on writing one-sentence blurbs for her novel, and I suggested that Twitter was a really good tool for producing these. When you only have 140 characters to get your ideas across, and when the messages are read whilst zipping down a tweetstream, you have to be both brief and catchy.

These are also called ‘elevator pitches’ because they’re the sort of thing you can tell to an agent or an editor, or indeed to any old half-interested stranger, whilst in an elevator between one floor and another. They’re extremely useful for selling your book—not only to a publisher, but to the book buyers once it’s published. They’re also useful at parties, when being interviewed, or basically any time you want to tell someone what your book is about without boring them to death.

I volunteered to tweet some elevator pitches for my three latest books, all of them 140 characters or less long. Here they are:

A woman tries to escape tragedy in her real life by pretending to be in a Regency romance.

(The Summer of Living Dangerously)

An erotic science fiction romantic comedy about a woman falling in love with a big blue robot.

(Love Machine, by Electra Shepherd. I used these exact words in my query letter.)

Dear Thing follows a couple as they try to have a baby, and focuses on their best friend’s decision to carry one for them as a surrogate.

(This is taken from The Bookseller article about my next book.)

They’re all quite different, but they sum up the book’s premise, outline the main conflict, and give some idea of the genre and the tone. One of them starts with the main character; one starts with the book’s genre; one starts with the title. So there’s no formula. It’s whatever works.

Some other writers have taken up the challenge and tweeted theirs as well. Here’s one for Veronica Henry’s (@veronica_henry) The Long Weekend:

Eight people check into a Cornish seaside hotel for a long weekend,bringing their emotional baggage with them.

Lovely word play on that one, and emphasis on setting, emotion, and the fact that there are multiple, possibly connected, storylines.

This one is from Catherine Miller (@katylittlelady):

When there are more than miles keeping Grace and Adam apart, will they ever go the distance?

Catherine tells me that this is for a women’s fiction novel, but to me it reads like a straight romance, probably on the lighter side of the spectrum. I love the play on words, though. What do you think?

This one is for Sophie Hannah’s (@sophiehannaCB1) latest thriller in progress, and is quite different in style as well as genre:

Plane delay. Hotel overnight. Share room frantic stranger whose friend’s charged with murder. Who? Only man you’ve ever loved.

This is from Shelley Harris’s (@shelleywriter) debut novel, Jubilee, and combines subject with period and also major symbol:

Iconic photo of street party taken on Silver Jubilee day – but only British Asian boy at its centre knows truth behind picture.

If you take up the challenge yourself, please post what you’ve done in the comments. No more than 140 characters please (including spaces and punctuation)! I’ll try to add some more from Twitter onto this post. The discussion is hashtagged #elevatorpitch






lucky 7

Filed under: Dear Thing, writing

Kate Hardy tagged me with this Lucky 7 meme.

Rules: go to p77 of your current work, 7th line down, and paste the next 7 sentences. Then tag 7 others.

I’m working on Dear Thing. It’s the story of Claire and Ben, who can’t have children, and Ben’s best friend Romily, who offers to act as a surrogate for them. Romily’s a single mum, and Posie is her daughter.

This is when Claire comes to Romily’s flat for the first time:

            ‘This is nice,’ Claire said, trying to hide the implication that she hadn’t expected it to be.

          Claire followed Romily’s gaze as it settled on the worn carpet and then glanced over two dying potted plants on the windowsill. ‘Well, it does all right for me and Pose. Cup of tea?’

            Romily scooped up Posie’s crumpled school uniform from the sofa and kicked a pair of stray trainers aside on her way to the kitchenette, which was fitted into an alcove in the main room. Posie appeared in the doorway, her face wreathed in smiles, and ran to Ben to give him a hug, and then Claire.

            ‘I didn’t know you were coming over!’ she said happily. ‘Come to my room, I need to show you my base camp—I’m in Peru today.’  

This is actually an interesting exercise. It can show you whether you’re lacking tension in your work. I’ll admit that after cutting and pasting, I did a little editing out of unnecessary sentences, so that this extract would show what I wanted it to: the contrast between Claire and Romily, how Romily feels that Claire is judging her, and Posie’s imagination and love for the other couple. I’ll probably keep the edit in the ms.

I’m rubbish at tagging people, but if you’re moved to do this on your own blog, add a link on the comments so I can come and see. Or if you don’t have a blog, put yours in the comments!






Filed under: Delicious, writing

Liz reminded me yesterday that, according to this blog, ten years ago this month I started to write a book that I titled Delicious, and that exactly nine years ago yesterday, on 21 March 2003, that book was rejected for the second time. (It had already been rejected once in August 2002.)

I don’t know how Liz remembers these things—she claims it’s because she’s secretly installed video cameras in my house*—but her comment sent me to my Rejections File to have a look.

My Rejections File is quite large. It’s yellow. It lives at the bottom of my desk, next to (ironically enough) my Publishing Contracts file. At this point in my life, my Publishing Contracts file is bigger than my Rejections file (largely, it must be said, because rejections consist of one page, and contracts consist of about twenty). But it wasn’t always that way. For a very long time, my Rejections file was by far the biggest file in the pile.

I’ve been rejected by publishers, by agents, by magazines, by contests I didn’t win. The weight of these rejections came from the time before I was published and agented, but I’ve had rejections since then, too. My last two rejection letters were for a short story and for a novella. They were both form rejections. They stung. I wish I could say they didn’t, but they did.

Rejections do sting…at the time when you get them. That’s why when you get a rejection, you have to rant and rave (not to the rejector or in public, but quietly, in private) and drink wine and eat chocolate until you are drunk and sticky. But they do something else too.

Today, I looked at my 2003 rejection for Delicious and it didn’t sting at all. It wasn’t a form rejection; it was a two-page letter detailing where I’d gone wrong and possibly the best rejection letter I’ve ever had in my life. And everything that was in that letter was exactly correct. That book didn’t deserve to get published. It wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready.

Two years later, I rewrote that novel from scratch, using the advice I’d been given in that rejection, and I sold it.

My most recent form rejection, for the novella, got me thinking too.  I tried to think about why it had been rejected, even though the rejection gave no specific reasons. I gave the novella a thorough edit, to address the issue I thought it probably had, and sent it out somewhere else, where it sold.

Lesson number one: you can learn from rejections.

Some of the rejections in my Rejection File came from editors whom, later on my career, I ended up working with. Some of them came from agents whom I now know on a social basis, or whom I’ve run into in a social setting. A couple of times I’ve said, quite cheerfully and without rancour, ‘Ah yes, you probably don’t remember, but you rejected me ages ago.’ The reaction has either been polite forgetfulness or embarrassment, accompanied by a complete shift in topic. I’ve usually felt rather foolish.

Lesson number two: specific rejections are best forgotten, at least in public, even if you don’t care about them any more.

I’m proud of my Rejections File. Each rejection in there is proof of a time that I tried. It’s proof that I’ve been working hard and getting better. I don’t think that my fragile ego could deal with reading all of the rejections in one go, but I’m glad I’ve kept them. They still have things to teach me.


*If that video camera thing is true, I really feel sorry for poor Liz, because I am NOT a pretty sight about 98.4% of the time and sometimes I am also scratching my butt.






Filed under: about me, writing

I hear advice, very often, about how writers should trust their instincts. How we shouldn’t follow the market, but write what we love because we should trust our instinct about what people would like to read. How we should take criticism but always with a pinch of salt, because we need to trust our instinct about what’s right for our stories.

This is good advice. At least, my instincts tell me it’s good advice. Writing and publishing are so very subjective that we need a life-saver of instinct to cling to, or else we’d flounder around in a sea of conflicting ideas. Well, more than we already do.

The thing is, I don’t really know if it’s completely true. Personally, sometimes my instincts are spot-on. And sometimes, they really really suck.

My instincts, for example, tell me that everything I write will be loads better with at least one penis joke in it. This is so self-evidently not true that I can’t help but regard my instincts with suspicion.

I’ve submitted at least three books that I actively hated when I pressed ‘send’…and every one of those three books has been called ‘your best yet’ by my editor at the time.* On the other hand, when I sent in my last book I absolutely loved every word of it…and my editor (quite rightly) gave me huge revisions.

Several times, I’ve come up with what I think is an absolutely brilliant idea for a story, only to have it shot down in flames by my agent. But then another idea is okay. Why? Why? For the love of God, why?!!?

My instincts do not tell me. They are too busy partying with the penis jokes.

On the other hand, I usually know instinctively when there’s something wrong with a scene or a plotline a conflict or a character, even if I can’t figure out why. It gets all tangled up and it doesn’t work.

Except, of course, when it does seem to work, and I totally love it, and only discover later on that it doesn’t.

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell says that truly effective instinctive people have trained themselves with knowledge and experience, so that their split-second decisions are often the most accurate. After eight years as a published author, I’d like to think that’s true; that my instincts are informed by what I’ve learned. But sometimes, I can’t help but think that while you should trust your instincts, you shouldn’t trust them too much. You should look around for knowledge and experience too. For good reasons to fall back on. Maybe this is why I’m an analytical writer as well as an impulsive one; I like to know why something feels right.

I’ve had a really good couple of writing weeks, and I really like what I’ve produced. I think it does exactly what I wanted it to do; I think it’s challenging me while playing to my strengths, and I am in love with the characters**. I feel that way, of course, until it comes time to let it out into the world. Then my instincts run off to party again.

What are your thoughts about your instincts?


*I like those books a lot better now, with distance. And no, I’m not going to say which ones they were.

**It doesn’t include any penis jokes, though. I wonder if maybe I should put some in?





squeezing out a synopsis

Filed under: writing | Tags: , ,

For the first time in my life, I’ve written a synopsis when I haven’t written a word of the actual book yet.

It’s good to try these new things, I think, but I won’t lie to you: it’s been painful. It’s taken me two days, and many times in those two days I’ve felt as if I’ve been battering my head against a stone wall whilst crows of doubt lurked overhead, waiting to eat the choicest bits of my brains.

So many of the things that give a story richness and depth come to me as I write the actual words: the scene-setting, the intertwined symbols, the layers of emotion, the voices of my characters, not to mention the little funny details or extra dramatic oomph. And for me, that’s a big part of the joy of writing. This synopsis (and it’s still a first draft at the moment) feels like a skeleton without any flesh on it. I’ll have to attempt to add sinew, muscle, blood and skin as I revise the synopsis draft.

However. It’s been a really useful exercise for me in structure and planning ahead. Though it’s longer than a single page, I followed (more or less) the synopsis formula I’ve posted here, plotting events on a three-act graph and making sure that each event raises the stakes for the characters. For once in my life, I’ve figured out the secret twist before my own characters have (shock horror!).

The idea behind this is that it might help me to structure the book better at the scene and character arc level as I write it, and avoid my usual missteps, especially at the beginning when I tend to write and then delete 10,000 wrong words. I think it will be an interesting experiment, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

I do think that every now and then as writers, we have to be open to trying new processes. It can, maybe, push us in new directions, challenge our abilities and lead to something fresh.

Are any of you pantsers who have tried to write to a synopsis? Or plotters who have tried to just fly off into the mist? What was it like for you?

(Edited to add: @MsAlisonMay reminded me of a useful technique I’d mentioned on the course I taught a couple of weeks ago—highlighting different parts of your synopsis to see what you need more or less of. Here, backstory is green, plot is blue and emotion is yellow.

I can see that I’ve got emotion covered, but maybe I want to work on that plot aspect a little bit more. Thanks, Alison!)






Filed under: writing | Tags:

Your high school English teacher might have fed you a lot of bull about a novel’s theme being something “deep” or “difficult”, something that only Great Works of Literature possess.

I am here to tell you that all of that is rubbish.* Every novel, even novels that are not Great Works of Literature, has a theme. Some novels have lots of them. And they’re not difficult at all.

The theme is your novel’s predominant idea, or emotion. It’s what your novel is about—not at the plot or character level, but at the more abstract, intellectual or emotional level.

For example:

The Harry Potter series is about a boy wizard defeating an evil snake guy and playing a lot of Quidditch on the way. But the overarching theme of the series is love. Harry’s strength (and indeed his life) comes from the love of his parents, his friends, and his colleagues. All through the novel, love wins, and Voldemort is ultimately defeated because he can’t understand it. There are secondary themes about growing up, and finding out who you are, and probably several more. This is a single theme going across nine books, and it helps to make them emotionally satisfying. It’s not difficult, but it’s important.

So how can you find your novel’s theme?

Think about what your characters want. How they have to grow and change. Think about the sort of things they get up to, and how that shows who they really are. Jot down some single words that sum up some of the emotions they’re going through, some of the problems they face, some of the ideas they’re wrestling with.

They don’t have to be difficult words: some examples are trust, identity, loss, memory, loyalty. All of these are simple words, which portray very complex ideas.

Perhaps you’ll discover that your novel has several different themes. That’s fine. Lots of them do. But generally, your novel is going to have one theme that’s more important than any of the other ones.

Once you’ve discovered your theme, you can use it to refine your novel so that you make the theme even stronger. You can design scenes and plot events that revolve around this theme. You can use your secondary characters to embody different aspects of the theme. You can refine your language so that the theme is teased out through symbol, metaphor, setting, description, tone.

I like to define my theme very early on in my writing process. It gives me an idea to riff off of. I’ll write the theme down and keep it in mind the whole time I’m writing the novel. It keeps me focused. The theme of Getting Away With It, for example, is identity, which is why it’s about identical twins. The theme of The Summer of Living Dangerously is escape, which is why the heroine takes a job pretending to be someone else. The theme of my next book is motherhood.

Does it matter if your novel has the same theme as another novel? No way. Harry Potter‘s theme is love. So is Romeo and Juliet‘s. They’re entirely different texts, because there’s a lot to say about love.

Some themes are more suitable for certain kinds of novels than others. For example, romantic novels are often about trust, confidence, vulnerability, family, belonging, and less often about ambition, hatred, revenge, morality or existentialism.

If your theme seems to be working against your genre requirements, that could be a good thing (it’s refreshing) or a not-so-good thing (you’re not giving your readers a satisfying experience).

If you’re writing a romance, one of your themes is obviously going to be love. Try to take it a little deeper and discover another one, too; it can give your novel more scope and emotion. But remember: keep it focused, especially if you’re writing a short, commercial novel.

Your theme can give you some ideas for your title, too. Lots of novels have their themes in their title, either literally or through a metaphor: Pride and Prejudice. Crime and Punishment. The Thorn Birds. Gone With the Wind.

Knowing your theme can give you a very useful focus for writing your novel, and—when combined with a snappy plot-based pitch—for selling it. Plus, it’ll really impress your former English teacher.

Thanks to Jane O’Reilly, one of the participants on my Advanced Novel Writing course, for giving me the idea for this post. If you’d like to suggest a topic to discuss in future posts, please do!

*And I used to be an English teacher, so I KNOW.





sweating the small stuff

Filed under: writing | Tags:

As a writer, there are some very very simple things that you can do to improve your chances of getting published. They’re so simple, that I feel sad when I see an aspiring author’s work which, through carelessness or ignorance, has got them wrong.

These little things can make the difference between an agent, or an editor, or a contest judge, or even a writing instructor like me thinking ‘Hey, yeah, that looks good and professional’, or thinking ‘Hmm, this might be hard work.’

Here they are.

Check your work for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. Computers do this fairly well, but not all that well, especially with things like homophones and punctuating speech. So you need to learn as best you can how to spell, punctuate and express yourself accurately, and check your own work carefully. If you know you have difficulty with this (and many excellent writers are dyslexic, for example), recruit someone to help you.

Format your work correctly. This means the following:

  • Font should be black, 12-point, and easily readable (eg Times New Roman or Arial).
  • Your story should be double-spaced. (Your covering letter and, usually, your synopsis can be single-spaced; check guidelines.)
  • Indent your paragraphs. Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs within your story unless you have been asked to do so (this is okay in a single-spaced synopsis).
  • Don’t fiddle with margins to make them smaller or bigger.
  • Get rid of ‘widows and orphans’ in your formatting menu (it’s usually under Format: Paragraph).
  • Left-align your work.
  • Include a header or footer with your title and the page number, and also your name unless you have specifically been asked not to do so (for example in a contest with anonymous entries).

Send in what you’ve been asked to send. If they categorically only want a one-page synopsis, don’t send a two-pager. If they ask for only a covering letter with a short blurb, don’t also send a synopsis. If you’ve been asked to send the first page of your manuscript, don’t send page 38, or the entire thing. If they want 1000 words, don’t send 1500.
When I get a manuscript to read that doesn’t follow these simple bits of advice, I feel…cranky.
Is that how you want people to feel when they read your work?


Top ↑