Five of the most important things I have learnt from writing

For me being an author is a continuing learning process. Although I’m about to publish my seventh novel there’s always something new to discover or surprise me, either from something I read or from my writing colleagues. I was once asked what I thought were the five most important things I had learned which could be passed on to would-be writers and here they are –

1. I guess the most important thing of all is self-belief. As a fledgling writer embarking on my first novel I was very aware I was entering unchartered territory. I knew what I had begun was going to be a huge and probably at times, a difficult task. I had the plot sorted but exactly how many thousand words would that translate into? Would it be enough for a whole book? And would anyone want to read it? This was the point where I told myself no matter what it took I was going to write this book; that yes I could do it. It wasn’t an easy journey and there were difficult moments but I kept going, holding on to my belief that I could achieve my dream of being an author. My first book, When Tomorrow Comes was published in 2009 and five others have followed, which I guess is proof that if you believe you can do it, you will.

2. Reading. A writer needs to read…and not only their own genre. Reading enables you to keep up with what is currently on the market and gives you an insight into other writers’ techniques. How they structure their work, create characters and develop storylines. It’s also helped me when I’ve hit a flat spot in my manuscript. Sometimes quite unexpectedly a scene in the book I’m reading will provide me the answers I need to kick start my writing again.

3. Social Media. This is so important. When my first book was published I knew very little about social media. The first thing I set up was a website and hot on its heels, Facebook and Twitter accounts so I could link it. I now have a blog and regularly invite other writers to come and virtually chat. This gives them exposure for their own work and in turn, I get invited back to promote my work. I also review for Brook Cottage Books and have set up a dedicated website for this. Facebook in particular, is very useful, enablling me to link with other writers, join groups and forums and spread the word.

4. Patience. Novel writing doesn’t always go to plan. You begin a story but it’s not always a smooth ride. When things go wrong, as they often do, you need to approach your problem in a calm way. To get your writing back on track, patience and determination should be your main focus. You will do it. It will happen. Yes, I know it’s frustrating but over the years I’ve learned to become very philosophical seeing these unforeseen obstacles as a ‘meant to be’ moment. It goes with the territory and needs to be treated as a challenge not a disaster.

5. When the going gets tough… Yes, there will be moments of frustration when things don’t go to plan. You can also guarantee you’ll suffer from writer’s block – when you have a scene to write but no matter how many attempts you make, it simply won’t come right. Or your writing dries up completely. I guess this situation connects with No 4 above. It’s part and parcel of the pathway. It’s annoying but it happens. When I find myself in this situation I simply take a step away from my work for a while and do something completely different. Because I know in doing this when I return I’ll be much fresher, see things in a completely different way and can guarantee I’ll resolve the problem.

So to summarise, the five things I’ve learned from being an author are:
• Believing in myself
• Being a reader as well as a writer
• Developing a good social media presence
• Having patience when you hit a problem
• Knowing when to step away from your work

 

This post is brought to you by Jo Lambert.

Talking Male Depression

When I was a kid, the word ‘emo’ got bandied about in unpredictable ways. It was almost always used as an insult, but not always to mean the same thing. It could be used to criticise a band for sounding like My Chemical Romance. It could be used to criticise someone for looking like they might like My Chemical Romance. It could be used to criticise someone for things they put as their MSN name. It could be used to criticise someone for their haircut. It could be used to criticise someone who was basically a little bit different in any way from the person who was calling them an emo.

The word emo seems to have gone out of fashion a bit (unless you’re talking about music, where it turns out, some bands that get classified as emo are actually pretty damn good). In fact, I’d completely forgotten how often I used to hear the word emo in day-to-day conversation until recently, when a good friend of mine, in front of a group of people in the pub, asked me ‘remember when you were really emo for a while?’. My immediate reaction was to feel uneasy. I wasn’t sure why. I hadn’t heard the word emo used like that in years. I wondered if somehow it had been so drilled into me as a kid that even being accused of being emo was a terrible thing, and so my natural response was to feel on edge.

It was only when I got home that I realised what my problem with it had been. I’d had a spell of around four years where I suffered from pretty severe depression. What my friend actually meant was, remember when you were suicidal? Remember when you couldn’t function at all? Remember when you spent days crying and then weeks in near-silence? Now, granted, I was listening to a lot of Joy Division and reading a lot of Sylvia Plath – but there was something more going on there.

I think what I found particularly concerning about this was that this was a friend of mine who had seen me go through that dark period and knew how difficult it was for me. It was pretty disheartening for me. Not because my past pain was being slighted, I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I do it quite a lot myself because it can feel helpful to distance myself from my depression in that way. What concerned me was the derisory, mocking tone it was brought up in. The subtext was that was silly, wasn’t it? And yeah, I’ve no doubt, at that time, I was a silly, silly person. In fact, I still probably am. But the thing is, I was also a terribly sad, sad person. And what if one of my friends at that table, in that pub, was experiencing something similar? What if they had wanted to talk to me about it knowing I’d gone through it too, only to hear those feelings dismissed in such a casual way? They’d feel ashamed. And embarrassed. And weak. And a million other things that depression makes it very, very easy to feel. That detached macho attitude is what leads to a perceived inability to discuss these problems. It’s what leads to distressingly high number of suicides in young men.

2016 sees the release of my debut novel. It’s called Waves, and recently I’ve had to start explaining to people what I think the book is about. People close to me are often surprised to hear that it has some semblance of positivity in it. My favourite writers (Hunger is probably my favourite novel) tend to be pretty bleak in their outlook.

But that’s exactly why it was important for me to write a book that has some degree of joy in it. Or hope. Or something between the two. Maybe it’s a naive hope, some would definitely say so, but that doesn’t really matter. I needed to write something where someone found their way out of something painful and moved onto something else. Because suicides in young males are at terrifying figures – if a man aged 20-45 dies in the UK today, it is more likely to be from suicide than any other reason – and sure, dark art can comfort you in dark times, but to get you through them you need something else too, and I wanted a book that worked in that zone where you’re ready for something else.

We all know how to get from our On The Road chaos to our Big Sur despair, but how do you get out of that Big Sur phase and onto the next thing? A lot of people don’t, and Kerouac sure didn’t, so as I reach an age where a lot of people around me are coming out of their young fuck-everything phase, and having to face their mental demons, it’s a conversation I want to be a part of. And I want other people to feel able to be a part of it too.

https://www.thecalmzone.net/

 

This post is brought to you by Jared A. Carnie.

 

Typofuckituptis – The Writers’ Curse

A couple of years ago, when I was preparing my novel The Changing Room for publication it finally dawned on me why most writers are mad. Of course, I’d heard stories about writers who imagine aliens and psychotic wide-eyed rabbits peering out of bushes at them but I’ve never considered myself one of them because, as anyone who knows me is aware, I am completely normal.

However, what I have discovered whilst proofing The Changing Room is that these crazed writers are not just authors of science fiction, fantasy and obscure meaningless poetry as I imagined. They are not even affected by booze, drugs and mental illness. (Well, not all of them.) They are just poor unfortunate writers, such as myself, who have been cruelly afflicted by a terrible disease called
Typofuckitupitus. Now you may not have heard of Typofuckituptis before but let me assure you it is very real and very dangerous. Here’s the definition from the Turley English Dictionary:

Typofuckituptis (Ti-poe-fuck-it-up-ti-tis)

A disease afflicting mainly authors whereby the writer develops an inability to spell even those most common words whislt under pressure. The disease can spiral out of control so that in the advanced stages the author will become delusional and imagine mispleled words leaping of the page and slapping him around the face with a wet mackeral. In recent years, the disease has spread from the author community to the journalistic community. Daily Mail Journalists are particularly affected and a recent outbreak at The Guardian caused The World Health Organisation to issue an international health warning to journalists the world over. There are three stages of Typofuckiyuptitis:

Stage One: The author, usually under pressure to meet a deadline, starts to spel homofones and and random lenghty words wrongly. It is, however, sometimes difficult to diagnose in American writers as they spell things wrong on a daily basis. Therefore, caution must be exercised in diagoinsing American authors as they can be highly volatile when accused of spelling things incorrectly. It should allso be noted that most American authors sleep with a gun under their pillow (in case anyone tries to steal their manuscript) so editors, proofreaders and medical practioners are advised never to ring thier clients late at night.

Stage Two: The auhtor begins to spell even more words wrongly. Theise include simple words lik 2, free and fore, fhe and fuk. This inablity to spell even fhe most simpl off words cuases the writer to become mentaly unstable. Soem off the wurst cases have led to authors riping up their manyouscripts, senfin letter boms to literary agnets or microwavingt their rabit. During this stage jounrlists at the Guardian will usually be fired but at the Daily Fail they will be promted to senior columnist.

Stage Three: Thise stage is the most sevear. Auhtors beging to see typos that don’t even exist. The delusons become staedily wurse until they r comparable to a heroin trip, accompanied by a bottle oaf whiskey and a large joint. When the delusions are a tthei peak auhtors beginn to to read Fift Shaeds of Grey an stab themselves repeatedly and cry “If only I had writon ths mastrepeice!” At this stage, if the auhtors’ wpunds have not proved fatal they are incarcervated in a mentall institution.

So there you have it – Typofuckituptis which as those of you ahve read my blog The Witty Ways of a Wayward Wife might already know – I have been afflcited by for quite some considerbale time…

 

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This is what happens to writers with Typo Fuckitupitus. As the author of children’s picture books, this writer thought she was immune from the illness – until she found she’d spelt her own name wrong on the front cover. She collapsed on the way to the library on her way to pick up a copy of Fifty Shades.

 

This post is brought to you by Jane Turley.

My summer in books

What’s the best thing about summer holidays? The time to spend with loved ones? The chance to explore new places? Escaping from the office? Ice cream? All these are important, but the very best thing about holidays as far as I’m concerned is the extra reading time. I even look forward to plane and train journeys as long as I have enough books to keep me going…and that’s rarely a problem. One of the unexpected perks of having my first novel, The Daughter’s Secret, published last year has been ‘meeting’ some fantastic book bloggers on Twitter. They have opened my eyes to books which would otherwise have slipped beneath my reading radar, and helped me discover lots of new authors. These days it feels like every time I go online I end up with a new book for my ‘to be read’ list!

I’ve read all sorts this summer – from sagas set in the 13th century to science fiction set in space, as well as some non-fiction in preparation for my first foray into writing historical fiction. I also, of course, read plenty of contemporary fiction. Some of these were new titles hitting the shelves for the first time this summer, while others have been around (and in some cases on the giant pile by my bed) for a few years.

My top five contemporary summer reads this year – in no particular order, it was hard enough whittling it down to five – were:

* The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer. This had been sitting on my shelves for more than a year. I’m so glad I finally dusted it off and took it with me on holiday, especially as parts of the book are set in North Norfolk where I was staying. There are lots of books about missing children around at the moment but The Girl in the Red Coat is a truly original take on the topic and I couldn’t put it down.

* The Good Father – Noah Hawley. I was blown away by this fast-paced literary thriller. Rheumatologist Paul Allen must face the unthinkable when his son is accused of murdering a popular presidential candidate. We follow Paul as he struggles to uncover the truth and come to terms with his relationship with his son. Not to be missed by fellow fans of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and definitely one of my books of the year.

* The Fever – Megan Abbot. I don’t think anyone captures the thrills and horrors of being a teenage girl quite like Megan Abbot. In The Fever a mysterious illness sweeps through a US high school, affecting Deenie Nash’s best friend but leaving Deenie untouched. In the days that follow, Deenie’s life starts to come apart at the seams and her brother and father are swallowed up in the hysteria and speculation that consume the town.

* Raven Black – Ann Cleeves. Not only is this the first in Ann Cleeves’s hugely popular Shetland series, but it’s the first of her books I’ve read. I loved the island setting and the twists and turns as this mystery unfolds. It’s safe to say that I’ll be heading back to Shetland with Ann very soon. I’m also looking forward to watching the television adaptation of the novels – the scenery must be stunning.

* Cut to the Bone – Alex Caan. I’ve just started this debut and it has me gripped. Set in London, it takes us into the dark and intriguing world of YouTube vloggers. With millions watching her online, how can vlogger Ruby have vanished into thin air? I can’t wait to find out!

What did you read this summer?

 

This post is brought to you by Eva Holland.

Historical fiction – and research

I am researching my next book.  It’s always a fascinating, if slightly scary process. One of the huge delights of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to delve into a previously unknown, or under-researched area.  It seems to me that writers of historical fiction fall into two camps.  Those who, like me, prefer to tackle a subject, or a character about whom relatively little is known, and those who take a subject that is already well researched and find some extra dimension to explore. Perhaps the most famous exponent of the second camp is Hilary Mantel and her two novels about Thomas Cromwell – a man whose life has been exhaustively explored in biographies.

I fall into the first camp.  I prefer a subject about which little has been written before.  I think it’s the journalist in me.  I enjoy the opportunity to research, delve and piece a previously untold story together.  This approach has another significant advantage – one can extrapolate from the evidence without fear of too much contradiction.  This is not the same as ‘making things up’.  Both my novels involved considerable research and I am anxious at all times to ensure that the context and detail of my stories are as accurate as possible.

TGWTEE

This was particularly true of the central character of my first novel ‘The Girl with Emerald Eyes’.  The novel was prompted by a personal experience.  My husband had a stroke whilst making a film about the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  He was taken to the medieval hospital of Santa Chiara on the edge of the Campo dei Miracoli.  I lived for several weeks in a tiny hotel on the other side of the Piazza whilst I cared for him – families are expected to feed and bathe their relatives in Italy.    My ‘commute’ each day took me past the Leaning Tower, the Duomo and Baptistery, and I became fascinated by these buildings and I resolved to write a novel based on our experience.   Several years later my husband (now fortunately recovered) introduced me to the Professor of Medieval History at Pisa University and world expert on the Tower. I had done a little research on the history of the Tower and asked him about Berta di Bernardo, the widow who famously left sixty ‘soldi’ (coins) to the authorities who ran the Piazza specifically to build the Tower back in 1172.  Why had she done it?  Her reasons appeared to be of no interest to him, but he showed me a copy of her will and I was surprised that the gift of money for the tower formed the central bequest.   I was also interested that the three men who had witnessed it included the Operaio (who ran the Piazza and its buildings), the notary of the Emperor Federico, and finally, the master mason who went on to build the Tower – Gerardo di Gerardo. Why was this man important enough to be with her at her dying moment? What might their relationship be I wondered? That was the starting point of the novel.  As virtually nothing further was known about this woman apart from her husband’s name, I had carte blanche to let my imagination run riot about Berta’s motivation.  But as the daughter of two architects I was determined that the architectural thread that ran through the book would be as accurate as possible.

My second book ‘Daughters of the Silk Road’ was triggered by my life-long interest in blue and white china.   I had purchased a collection of antique storage jars whilst working as a reporter for the BBC in Hong Kong.   They weren’t particularly valuable, and were certainly not Ming, but they provided the initial inspiration for the novel.  What if someone were to inherit a piece of china and not realise its true value?  And more to the point, what of its history?  Who had owned it over the millennia and how did it survive to the present day? I mulled on the story for several years, and then – as so often happens – reality caught up with fiction.  One day, I read a news story of a brother and sister who inherited an old vase from their uncle.   It turned out to be a valuable piece of late Ming and was sold at auction for a huge sum of money. I resolved to start writing before someone else got there before me!

DODR

Crucial to the story was the exploration of how Chinese porcelain came into Europe. Could an explorer have brought it back?  My first thought was to write about Marco Polo who had travelled to the Far East in the thirteenth century.  But the chances of any piece of rare china surviving more than eight hundred years would, I felt, stretch the readers’ credulity. In addition, I felt intimidated by the idea of focussing a novel on a man who was so well known and about whom so much had already been written.

Fortunately, I discovered a second, less famous Venetian merchant explorer named Niccolo dei Conti, who travelled widely in the Middle and Far East a hundred and fifty years after Marco Polo, returning to Venice in 1444 – a time that coincided with the early Ming dynasty.  Even more remarkably, dei Conti had left a diary, dictated on his return to the secretary of the Pope.  A copy of that diary, kept by the British Library, formed the basis of the early part of the novel.  A rich resource, it provided me with the skeleton of a story that took my characters across the globe to meet with one of the most famous Chinese admirals of the Ming period – Admiral Zheng He.  On their return journey the family travelled through Egypt, where they were briefly imprisoned, before the tragic death of dei Conti’s wife and two small children.  Dei Conti finally arrived back in Venice with his two remaining children – Maria and Daniele. Nothing more was known of dei Conti’s children after 1444, but I was interested in what sort of life they might have had after their fascinating upbringing.

It was likely they would have continued as merchants;  it was the only life they had known.  Would they have stayed in Venice, or travelled north, as so many merchants did at that time, to the major mercantile cities of Northern Europe – Bruges, Antwerp and Amsterdam. This progress formed the backbone of the story, as we track the vase through the hands of one family.

My next book will also be based in Italy.  Once again I am exploring a relatively under-researched subject and have found a real woman who, as far as I can discover, has so far eluded any novelist’s scrutiny. I just hope I get it written before anyone else finds out about her!

 

This post is brought to you by Debbie Rix.

Crime fiction as a resource

The genre of crime fiction, in both written and visual forms, can be used as a valuable reference for writers in other genres. I don’t write crime fiction and take my hat off to those who do. If ever there was a category open to hazards and slip-ups, this is it. Divulging the wrong clue at the wrong moment can inadvertently expose the plot sooner than intended and leave the rest of the book, series, play or movie almost moot.

A well-written piece is like an instruction manual for those of us who write other types of fiction. There are so many lessons to be learned from reading a perfectly constructed story unfolding in just the right way to keep the reader interested, guessing and eager for more. But it’s not only books that provide a treasure chest of teaching material for a writer.

I am in awe of such wonderful scriptwriters as Sally Wainwright, the main writer of the detective drama, Scott and Bailey, and Jimmy McGovern who wrote the gripping two part series, Accused. As I watch these episodes, as well as being engrossed in the story, I’m fascinated by how expertly they drop just enough crumbs along the trail to keep the viewer intrigued. The plot is revealed in perfectly constructed stages, often with flashbacks and different points-of-view, and events are presented at just the right moment to throw more legitimate questions into the viewer’s mind.

They are experts in setting pace, dangling hooks and lacing sub-plots into the main framework. They portray characters with colour, contradiction and idiosyncrasies. A simple line cleverly inserted to appear almost insignificant can highlight a great deal about the belief structure of a protagonist which the viewer, often unwittingly, absorbs. For example, in Scott and Bailey, DCI Gill Murray’s comment that a criminal ‘has the mental age of a banana’ shows in those few words (and delivered with her clipped tone), that she has no time for ‘low-life scumbags,’ as she’s also prone to call them. She certainly does not suffer fools and this is made clear within a few short seconds.

Watching these skills played out on screen can provide precious material for any writer. Distilling a complicated story, regardless of the genre, into a tight-knit format that keeps the reader wanting more is no easy task. As a writer, I absorb as many of these visual clues as I can. They are reminders of how important a cleverly placed line of text can be for plot development, revealing a character’s backstory or setting up the next scene. It is also a wonderful source of watching how ‘show, don’t tell’ is crucial in maintaining the viewer’s interest.

Consumers are clever. Readers and viewers alike don’t usually want to be spoon-fed the obvious. We want to think, analyse, guess and predict. It makes the journey exciting and makes us feel like we’re in the story. We buy into it. It is perhaps the greatest reason to stay involved, to keep switching on or turning the page. If a scriptwriter or novelist can achieve this, then that is surely one of the biggest measures of success.

Competition for the readers’ and viewers’ time is more critical than ever so every tool a writer can add to their belt can only be an advantage. For me, then, a leisurely break in front of the box often doubles as a cheap research trip (at least that’s what I tell myself as I settle in with my feet up!).

 

This post is brought to you by Toni Jenkins.

On setting… and boats

author picture with boats

One of the things with writing contemporary fiction is that the setting will almost certainly be a place that is familiar to the reader. Maybe not the exact spot, but the general surroundings will hold something they will recognise. In a sense, this makes life easier. There’s none of the research and fact checking needed to place the action in a convincing mediaeval world, for instance, or the depth of consideration that’s essential to build an entirely new world in a sci-fi epic fantasy. We contemporary writers can place the little touches so necessary for three-dimensional writing by sitting and looking out of the window, or going for a walk, or taking a bus ride. I’ve often been out and noticed, say, a poster on the wall of a building or a couple arguing in a cafe and thought, ‘yes, that would work in the part of my book when…’ and a whole chunk of the plot will have fallen into place.

Summer of Secrets Front Cover

Sometimes, of course, we want things to happen in a specific place, somewhere that we may never have been. This is not impossible. Google and Wikipedia are the writer’s friend when we need to explore a town virtually, or pick up details about local amenities, significant beauty spots, even something as prosaic as bus times. My second novel, still currently ‘in progress’, starts in Thailand. I’ve never been there, but with some crossover experience of travelling in other parts of the world, including Singapore, some shameless stealing of my ex-husband’s stories of the trip he took there as a teenager (a writer never wastes information!), the detailed bus routes and ferry timetables I found online, and numerous travel blogs, I reckon I’ve built up a pretty good picture.

Having said that, I had an experience lately that reminded me how very valuable it is to go to the place you’re writing about. After my heroine leaves Thailand, she ends up on a canal boat. Her journey takes from Macclesfield down towards Stone, and it’s her first experience of being on a narrowboat. I’ve lived on my boat for over ten years now, but I don’t do a lot of actual boating. The boat is a place that I live in rather than something that I do. You need to set aside quite a lot of time to travel on the canal and, with kids who need to be at ballet or karate or Duke of Edinburgh expeditions or swimming club in the endless cycle of these things, that’s never been something I’ve managed to do.

I have a diary somewhere which chronicles the first few months of the boat, which included sailing from Runcorn – where the boat was launched – along the Bridgewater and Leeds/Liverpool canals to the place where I now moor. This diary holds invaluable memories about the experience of being a new boater: the propeller becoming clogged with plastic bags, the first attempt at reversing, of pumping out the toilet tank, of meeting another boat in a tight stretch of the waterway. Unfortunately, I’ve still not been able to find it… Luckily a friend – herself an experienced boater – has recently had a new boat built, and invited me along to be one of the first crew members. Even more fortuitously, her planned route was to take us along the Macclesfield canal.

macclesfield canal

My initial draft of the chapters where my character sails along the Macc. were okay. I had a lot of the flavour of canal travel. I do, after all, know a lot about the canal bank. But the specifics were missing. I’d forgotten what it was like to be at the tiller when the boat sinks down into a lock. I’d forgotten that moment when the lockgates open and a picture of the world beyond is framed by those vast wooden gates. Being the exact spot I wanted to write about, I was taking notes frantically. A fallen tree trunk here, an unusual balance-weight lifting bridge there. The sound of the engine, the smell of the water. As so often, I’d forgotten to bring along my notebook, but I did have my phone. The advantage of this being that they sync with my computer.stoic

Something I want my plot to include is a canal boat chase, which is something of a contradiction in terms and therefore a challenge to write. This didn’t, of course, happen on my Macclesfield trip. But you can’t have everything, and sometimes a writer just has to use her imagination. I’ll let you know how the chase scene goes when I get round to writing it!

 

This post is brought to you by Sarah Jasmon.