Posts Tagged ‘novel’

Oh wow.  Negative reviews, eh?  In case you haven’t seen it yet, I am writing this post to link you to the perfect of example of how not to respond to a negative review of your writing.  (It’s not even that negative a review, to be honest, but hey.)  (Link via How Publishing Really Works – if you don’t already read, subscribe!) 

Not only is the author’s* response utterly astonishing, but she doesn’t see her mistake (both in response and in the original book).

This made me think about the value of receiving negative reviews and constructive criticism.  I can only see that this reiterates the importance of having an honest writing group or buddy who will get their red pen out as readily as their words of encouragement. 

As writers, it is our duty to hone our craft and knowledge of the English language and to shape our novels to be the best that they can be.  If this involves paying/befriending/kidnapping someone who knows their ‘there’ from their ‘their’ or an apostrophe from a semi-colon, then so be it. 

OK, so I was joking about the kidnapping, but not the rest. 

And beyond any philosophical writerly duty, just be a decent human being who has the good grace and professionalism to leave reviewers alone.

Good grief, what is the world coming to!

* though I hesitate to call her an author considering her disgusting behaviour and low level of pride in her novel to ‘release’ it into the world in that state.

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These three things are inextricably interlinked for me.  When I am reading a story I love, I feel most inspired to write.  And, I like to think I’m aware enough that I don’t fall into that trap of writing like what I’m currently reading, which I hear/read so often from writers – ‘I don’t read anything while I’m writing a novel in case it subconsciously influences me’.  Which is fair enough, but I do think that reading is the best way to learn about writing, closely followed by writing (see below for my justification of this!).  And if you want to get published, then it’s even more vital that you know what is already out there, what is selling and what the conventions are, whether you intend to follow them or not.

Now, to qualify that off-hand comment about the best way to learn to write … This is, of course, just one woman’s opinion, but I think that reading extensively provides you with the basis for any learning you might do through writing itself.  Before I ever attempted to write myself and before I ever had any formal teaching on writing, I read.  As a child I lived in imagined worlds more than I lived in the ‘real world’ (and if I had my own way, I probably would now, too).  This meant that when I came to write and to learn about story I had an instinctive understanding of structure, character, dialogue and so on.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was a basis.  It meant that I could think of examples of the kind of scene or plot I was trying to write or that someone else was trying to teach me about.  It meant that somewhere in the back of my mind a voice said that you needed tension and climaxes and resolutions long, long before I ever read about those things in ‘how to write’ books.

Reading was the underpinning for the rest of my learning about writing.  I cannot stress the importance of it enough.  (Plus, if you want to write and be published, then buying and borrowing books from the library is a great way to support your industry.)

If you want some more writing tips, here’s an interesting article from The Guardian – Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.  (And yes, I need for work on number 5 – me and my addiction to exclamation marks!)  I got the link via the often funny, ever enlightening Nathan Bransford.  He does a fantastic post on the week’s happenings in publishing – if you want to be published or work in the industry, you’d be well-advised to read it!  In fact, just subcribe to his blog and read it all – you’ll find something useful, I promise!

And if you were wondering where the start of this post was going – it was further praise for Robin Hobb.  I am loving Ship of Magic like a great big obsessive weirdo.  I know I am loving it that much, because I find myself thinking about it when I’m doing other things and I am constantly looking forward to the next time I get a chance to read it.  And as it’s lunchtime, that’s now. 

What I bought at the weekend!

(Though, before I go to eat and read – if you have any recommendations along the lines of ‘if you like Robin Hobb, you’ll love …’ I’d love to hear them.  Indeed, any fantasy recommendations with good female protagonists always go down well with me!)

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Cunning Plans & Fiendish Plots

A classic subject for blogs and other discussions on writing is plotting and whether one is a ‘pantser’ (someone who flies by the seat of their pants, not someone who writes pants/crap plots) or a ‘planner’.  And who am I to argue with such time-honoured traditions?  Except for when it suits me, of course, but today, dear reader, it doesn’t suit me, so we’re going to look at plotting.

A cunning plan in action.

In the past I’ve been both pantser and a planner, usually working to a very extreme form of one or the other.  In the past I’ve also been a writer who managed about 5,000-10,000 words of a would-be novel and then found it fizzling out.  I don’t think this is a coincidence. 

I think one of the most important factors in completing the first draft of a novel (which is often half the battle) is finding the way that is right for you.  Now, I may be speaking prematurely as I am only about one third of the way through A Thief & A Gentlewoman, but I think I have found the way that is right for me.  And yes, I know I have repeated that phrase, but to me “the way that is right for you” is vital to everything in life.  I don’t generally believe in absolutes and I think something as personal as writing absolutely requires the proviso of “here’s my advice/experience, but if it doesn’t work for you, then throw it out the window”.

And with that proviso firmly in place, this is the method of plotting (fiendish, cunning or otherwise) that works for me and has allowed me to get far further on a project than ever before, and hopefully it will see me over the first draft finishing line … 

I start with a vague idea of what I want to happen and I turn to one of my favourite things in life to help me set it out:

  • The
  • bullet
  • point
  • list!

Each event that I have in the story gets its own bullet point:

  • Girl meets boy. 
  • Girl and boy find out they’re from warring families.
  • Girl marries boy.
  • The pressures of their warring families mean girl and boy kill themselves. 
  • Families learn a lesson abut feuding (we hope!).

It is meant to be super basic at the moment – we’re talking vague ideas.  Eventually, however, this will become a list with a bullet-point for each scene in the story.  (OK, I know that sounds daunting, but I don’t find it so, especially as it’s written over time with scenes added and moved around as ideas evolve.)

I usually have these vague ideas floating about and then start fleshing out the characters involved before I come to this bullet-point process as this allows me to know how they will behave, but also whose eyes I want to see this particular scene through.  For really important events, I tend to overlap viewpoints, especially when it can create humour, tension or empathy by showing the different ways people can see the same incident.

From there I look at my scenes and think about what needs to happen between them, how the story will move from one scene to the next.  I also consider what will cause those events and how the cause will shape the form of the actual event – for example what is the exact form the warring family pressure that make boy and girl kill themselves?  This will give me scenes that come before as well as give me more detail for the original bullet points, so it might start to look something like this:

  • Girl meets boy.
  • Girl and boy find out they’re from warring families.
  • Girl marries boy in secret.
  • Boy argues with girl’s cousin (because cousin killed Boy’s best friend) and ends up killing him in a fight.
  • Boy gets banished for the killing.
  • Girl’s family arranges for her to marry another man, not knowing she’s already married.
  • Priest comes up with a plan to save the girl from bigamy and keep the couple together.
  • Girl takes poison and appears dead to her family.
  • Priest sends message to Boy, telling him about the plan and that Girl isn’t really dead, but just seems it.  Boy doesn’t get message.
  • Boy hears girl is dead and rushes to her tomb.  Unable to bear living without her, he kills himself.
  • Girl wakes and finds Boy dead.  Unable to bear living without him, she kills herself.
  • Families learn a lesson abut feuding (we hope!).

Still quite simplified, but you can see that we’ve fleshed things out a bit and that the original “The pressures of their warring families mean girl and boy kill themselves” bullet point has actually become two scenes as the idea has developed as we’ve worked out the specifics and the causes of the event.  That scene has also split to allow for the two viewpoints.  (Of course, this is Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, so as it’s not a novel it doesn’t have the two view-points as such, but if you were writing it as a novel with a third person narrator close to a character it would have to – Romeo is not alive when Juliet dies so the narrator can’t be near him for both events and Juliet is unconscious when Romeo dies so the narrator can’t be in her mind for both deaths.  Sorry, that’s quite a convoluted explanation, isn’t it?!) 


From there you also think about what is needed in this plot, such as the introduction of the key characters and setting up the idea of the feuding families (that latter of which old Shakey does with that brilliant “I do bite my thumb, sir!” opening scene) and add those in.  This is where I weave in the ‘set up’, by which I mean things such as the clues seen early on in Poirot but not initially appreciated for their full significance (like “Ah, but you have been to Egypt, non?  And so had the killer!  Duh duh duuuuuuh!”), or the mention of that clever little weapon hidden in our heroine’s knickers that will save her life in the penultimate scene (such as Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood who “whipped a pistol from her knickers” and swiftly dispatched of poor little wolfy).  So you go back and add an early scene where the protagonist overhears a conversation but fails to appreciate its significance, and another scene where we meet the protagonist’s teacher who also gives them a gift or teaches them a technique, which of course will save them in the end. 

Which also reminds me – I try to make my scenes work hard for their place in my story.  By which I mean that scenes have to fulfil more than one role, such as the above introduction of the teacher and of the important object.  A scene that is only doing one job just isn’t pulling its weight.  Sometimes it can be hard to imagine how you can make that scene that introduces Bob do something else, but if you give it some thought and look at how other people do it, you’ll soon impress yourself with your cunning by showing the reader Bob’s relationship with protagonist Jane, showing characterisation of Jane and Bob (Jane through her thoughts, words and actions and Bob through his actions and what he says to Jane) and setting up mention of the strange spate of catnappings on page 12 of the local newspaper that Jane is using to wrap up the glass Bob just broke (because he’s clumsy which is part of the characterisation you’re showing to the reader) … and so on. 

At this stage I find the major scenes tend to become quite long in their bullet points because there are so many important details that I need to remember to include, which is great because those major scenes can be rather daunting to write and can be easy to get lost in.  This bullet-point method also allows me to tick off scenes as I write them, which gives the list-writer in me a sense of achievement and reminds the writer in me that I’m one step closer to finishing the first draft. 

It’s also a great foundation for those snippets of conversation that come to you on the bus.  By knowing that at some point Jane and Bob will have a discussion about Bob’s vegetarianism and Jane’s love of meat, my mind will have that idea on the back-burner and when I wake up with that great bit of punchy dialogue, I have somewhere I can keep it safe, rather than just writing it on a scrap of paper that gets lost or in a notebook and not being able to find it when I come to write the scene.  Because when I come to write the scene, I’ll have my bullet points (that usually get printed out and scribbled on and then re-typed and re-printed to include the scribblings when the paper’s about to fall apart) with that snappy conversation and I can decide whether I still think it’s great or whether I think “whatever was I thinking?!”

I enjoy the whole process of plotting in this way, it’s a time for getting stuck on a problem, puzzling over it, then deciding to go for a bath and having that eureka(!) moment while you cook dinner.  It’s really fun weaving and winding your webs of intrigue and inter-connectedness – Hell, it’s the only way I can think of that allows a person to spend days fiendishly plotting without being a Bond villain!  And I do like a good bit of fiendish plotting.

Kitty doesn't care about plot, so long as kitty gets to sleep.

 Now, I know some argue that this approach doesn’t allow you any space for creativity – I’ve even said it myself in the past when I’ve been pantsing and even on previous attempts at planning – but I find this particular way of working does the opposite for me.  I can always change my bullet points at any time, I can copy and paste the order of events or just delete them, or split scenes up to allow for a flash-back half way through, but having that list there actually allows me more creativity when I’m doing the fun part of actually writing the scene.  Rather than sitting down and feeling tense and stifled because I’m thinking:

oh Gods, what’s meant to happen in this scene?  How on earth did I write myself into this rut?  I know I need to get to Lord Devilish’s house for the big climax, but how the Hell do I get there from here?!  Man, I really don’t want to write this scene if I’m just going to have to delete it when it comes to editing … Angst!

I get to say to myself:

OK, I know that Jane needs to ask Bob to the dance at Lord Devilish’s in this scene, and that he’ll think he’s finally getting lucky, but that he’ll be disappointed because she’ll explain she’s only doing it because she needs a date who’s quite plain and therefore won’t draw attention to himself.

And I get the simple enjoyment of that dialogue with a bit of sulking by Bob and back-pedalling by Jane and those fun little thrilling signs for the reader that they both like each other but don’t want to say, whilst still being safe in the knowledge that I’m taking the story in the right direction. 

In short, the bullet points tell me what has to happen in the scene, but I get to enjoy seeing how the characters take me there – and sometimes they surprise me.

If you’re stuck in a plot-rut or just can’t get past chapter 5, then maybe it’s time to try something different, try pantsing or this planning method, it might just help.  And scribblers, do tell me about your own cunning planning methods – I love to hear about the different ways people work!

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This week I have been mostly …

I just wanted to give you lovelies a quick update on what I’ve been up to …

  • Applications – a couple for jobs and a couple for PGCEs.  They take up a lot of time and are quite dull, but they need doing, alas!
  • Tulle skirt.  Meh.  It’s finished, but it looks frumpy and I’m not impressed by that!  I’m plotting ways to possibly de-frump it, or else it’s going in the bin (well, probably not the bin, but the pergatory that is under the bed).  Maybe making it a lot shorter (it’s knee-length at the moment) will help, but I’m a bit anxious to do that as once it’s cut, there’s no going back!
  • Reading – I forgot to mention this in my “You Should Read This” post, but You Should Read This (Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic).  It’s one I bought before we moved but hadn’t got around to reading yet and I’ve just picked and ye gods I already love it something rotten.  I’m only a few chapters in and I suspect it might become my favourite book ever.  Yes, that’s how much I love it.  I might have to write a full review once I’ve finished it, but for now I’m going to gush about the things I love about it: the writing is ohmygodsIwishI’dwrittenthat amazing – certain turns of phrase she uses are so simple and yet so perfect it leaves me wondering how anyone has ever described that thing in any other way, and this especially impresses me because these days I am so picky about writing that I can’t help but see every single flaw, so for me to be wowed this much is rare; the characterisation and characters – they are so incredibly real from what I’ve read so far, the chapter I’ve just finished in particular gets under the skin of that character so utterly that I felt I was seeing into the mind of another person, not reading made up imaginings; which brings me to that imagination – this is fantasy at its best, in my most humble of opinions – I’m quite well read in the genre and the ideas she comes up with are so unique and original without being too outlandish or unbelievable, which is exactly what fantasy should be.  OK, must stop gushing about Robin Hobb now, but I have major Writer Envy and Awe and Love and Wows!
  • Valentine’s-ing – the Boy and I don’t like going out for dinner on Valentine’s Day, it’s just a bit cheesy for our tastes, being out with loads of other couples and so on, so we went out on Thursday for a quiet meal and on Sunday I baked him cupcakes (raspberry with vanilla icing and red sparkles- yay!) and we got Yo Sushi take away (YUM!), watched our guilty pleasure (Smallville) and then went to a pub quiz.  It was a lovely day.

I should’ve taken pictures of the cakes, I know, but they were just too yummy not to scoff all at once … but here’s some sushi to look at instead:

I heart sushi!

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Gentle reader, I fear it has been far too long … in many senses.  Far too long since my last post here (and since ‘normal service’ here) and far too long since I have worked on A Thief & A Gentlewoman.  I have noticed that my writing or the absence thereof is quite a good measure of my state of mind and reading is a similar miner’s canary for me.

Most of the time I can write and meet my daily targets (more on that another time), albeit sometimes with a gentle prod from my inner sensible person, and most of the time I can sit and read for hours and hours and while away a whole weekend in another world.  What’s more, I’ll do those things gladly and feel fulfilled and inspired.

But (and you knew there had to be a ‘but’!) when real life gets hectic with not just things to be done, but things that must be done (very nearly on pain of death!), then my poor little canaries die and I find myself unable to concentrate on books (either the reading or the writing of them).

My poor canaries have been dead since I finished my Masters back in September.  The gas that killed them (to drag out the metaphor as long as possible – my apologies, dear reader!) was  a concoction of job-seeking, anxious (though thankfully temporary) unemployment, moving home twice in three months, moving 150 miles across the country, flat-hunting, trying to make new friends and several other little worries.

Of course, I am very lucky, like all writers and creative types, to be blessed with immortal canaries.  They might die for a little while, but given time and nurturing they can be given new life (without returning as zombie canaries, thankfully!  Yes, I actually got a relevant when I googled ‘zombie canary’.  I’m as shocked as you are.).

I am also thankful for the fact that the nurturing of these canaries requires no poking about in a poo-encrusted birdcage.  Now the flat is mostly unpacked and I have a semi-stable job, I felt it was time to get back into that writing mind-set, to rediscover my imaginary friends and rework my writerly routines.  For the past week or two I’ve been getting myself back into reading, finding time to sit with a book and visit new worlds.  Reading is my way of opening the door to ‘inspiration’ (or whatever you want to call it), it gets my mind working in that way that comes up with hair-brained schemes and crazy ideas that sometimes turn out to be nuggets that can be hammered into something more.  Also, for me, reading has been the first step of emerging from that place of being overwhelmed by Real Life.  If I could read again, then I felt pretty sure I could write again.

Now you’re probably asking what this means for you and why you should care.  I don’t blame you, but I really do have a point (for a change, perhaps!).  To be able to create your way out of a funk, you need to know yourself.  I don’t mean read some self-help book or go to a psychologist (though in some situations this may well help), I mean know what works for you creatively.  And this goes for any kind of creativity, not just writing.

What gets your ideas flowing?  What gives you that keen little jumpy feeling that has you positively chomping at the bit to get your hands on a pen/keyboard/instrument/needle/camera/[insert your creative object of choice here]?

When you have a creative idea, pay attention to the things that get you there, your triggers, your catalysts.  When you are being creative, pay attention to what you need to do that.  Experiment with what you need to do that.  And I mean need.  I don’t mean ‘would ideally like’.  I’m not talking about that sacred ideal of the Writer’s Study with that Perfect Desk and the World’s Most Comfortable Chair and a million books lining the walls all Perfectly arranged by subject … I mean what you really and truly find that you Need.  I can’t tell you what that is, no one can, you need to learn what those specific things are, because they’re different for everyone.

But a few word of caution – be realistic and be honest.  Is it true that you can only possibly write after you have cleaned your whole house from top to bottom, re-arranged the furniture so that it’s 100% feng shui-ified, eaten the world’s most perfect meal and meditated for at least 16 hours while the planets align for the first time in 1,000 years?  I thought not.

I’ve learned that there are certain things that I do need – quiet (not silence, that’s a ‘would be nice’, I mean no TV, no music and no/minimal distractions*), computer (preferably as I can type quicker than I can write by hand) or pen/pencil and paper and for my mind to be active.  I also need to make myself get on with it rather than making excuses not to write or to do something else instead.  This has led to my particular writing routine.

(*A friend of mine on the other hand, likes nothing better than to write in a cafe with the bustle and distraction all around him.)

And overall, I need to not have large issues hanging over me like I have over the last few months.

So today when I got home from work, I sat down while my mind was still active and I set myself the target of 250 words.  A small target, but highly achieveable even though I’m getting back into writing and Quin’s world and story.  I beat that target by a decent amount, which made me feel good, which makes me look forward to writing time again tomorrow, which will help me build up momentum and continue to tap back into my inspiration.

So while that dreadful drug of ‘inspiration’ may seem to have vanished sometimes, whether you write, paint, sew, compose or pursue some other form of creativity, you can still claim it back.  The trick is knowing what gets that little creator inside you dancing uncontrollably until you can get that ink on that page.  It is never lost for long unless you let it be.

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For the triumphant (?) return of the Saturday Shoe, what better theme than the queen of triumphant returns (and falls from grace, but we’ll skirt over that for now) – Angelique.  Now, if you don’t know Angelique, then I think you should get acquainted post haste!  Here’s Wikipedia’s very brief summary, while the official website can be found here.

My Mum read these books in her teens/twenties and I can remember their rather buxom covers being on our bookshelves throughout my childhood.  When she recommended them to me, I’ll admit I was put off by their pulpy, prurient covers and so it wasn’t until this year that I finally read them.

And what an adventure they have taken me on.

Pirates, thieves, princes, poisoners, whores, child-killers, Sultans and the Sun King himself – no one escapes the thrill that Angelique brings to 17th century France (and, in later books, Canada and the east Mediterranean).  Anne Golon and her late husband, Serge, take the reader on a wild adventure full of romance, intrigue and even philosophy and alchemy – their depth of research is not overwhelming and instead it renders the period utterly real.

Sadly these books are out of print (though there are possible plans to re-print them now the legal battle between Anne Golon and her former publishers has been settled), but if you can get your hands on them (at the library, a second hand bookshop or a kind friend who’s willing to lend them out) I heartily recommend them.

(Though I’ll give a couple of warnings: there are different translations and I’ve noticed this makes a big difference to the quality of the writing in English; the beginning might not seem so promising, bear in mind that the novel was written before we became so demanding of our gripping openings and trust me when I say that it becomes utterly enthralling.)

Yes, yes, yes, Clare, but where do shoes come into this? Well, these spangly silken creations are from the height of the Sun King’s reign and with those dizzying heels in red leather, I’d suggest these are shoes fit for our indomitable Angelique.

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Today I’d like to share a couple of wonderfully helpful articles out there in teh interwebs/blogosphere relating to writing and submitting fiction (though some of the advice might very well apply to other forms of writing)…

First, let’s start with the writing, because if you haven’t written anything, you can’t submit it!  My favourite ‘crabbit old bat’ (her own words), AKA Nicola Morgan, has written a thoroughly bloody brilliant post about Story Structure and Shape.  She likens the peaks and troughs of a story’s structure to breathing – and she is completely right!  This is a truly top article from a truly top blogger.  Read it and follow her.  That is an order.

Next, we move on to the scary world of submissions… Now, as I haven’t finished writing a novel (yet), I haven’t started on that particular merry-go-round/rollercoaster/other speedy, spinney ride, but that doesn’t stop me (like other aspiring writers) from thinking about when that time comes and researching how it works.  Forwarned is forearmed.  Or something.

So, yes, let’s think about submitting our work to publishers…

Do the words ‘slush pile’ send doomladen shivers down your spine?  Don’t have a clue how to submit to one?  Want to know how to stand the best chance of getting that submission read?  Then Daniel Clay’s A Winning Strategy for Escaping the Slush Pile is just what you need.  It’s written in a very readable and humble style that imparts lots of useful information and offers that thing that us writers need to cling to – hope.  (Via Girl Meets World – an informative blog from a fellow aspiring writer.)

And finally, I leave you with something non-writing-related but which (I hope) will prettify this post and perhaps even tantalise your tastebuds… Here’s a very cute turtle cupcake and the recipe/instructions:

Turtle Cupcake

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