Friday 29 February 2008

Not half bad

All week, I've been reading James Scott Bell's book on Plot and Structure, which is excellent and accessible, probably the least daunting of all such books I've read. It's full of exercises, which I imagined I'd eschew but in fact I've enjoyed. One of the nicest things about the book is that not only did it remove my feelings of inadequacy about my skill for plotting and structure but it gave me a great boost in terms of my strengths. I CAN write great dialogue! I DO write compelling, memorable characters! These things are not easy, in fact many authors who are plot aces struggle with character and/or dialogue.

According to experts, the ability to write strong characters is linked to a laudable level of self-awareness - the better you know yourself, the better your characters. I blinked a bit at this, never having thought myself much cop in the self-awareness stakes. Then again, my stamina for this crime novel project has astounded me in the last week. I'd thought that second agent rejection had killed me dead in the water, but lo! I lived to write another day.

All this and keeping work and home happy too!

Thursday 28 February 2008

The writer's arsenal

I'm doing my best to cultivate the twin habits of Determination and Indifference, a tip I picked up from The Writer's Book of Hope (which isn't as banal or patronising as the title suggests). I've always had more than my fair share of Determination. Call it obstinacy, cussedness, what you will. For those who believe in that sort of thing, I'm a Taurean, so bullish by nature. Indifference is another kettle of cats. It means not minding when people reject your stories, not investing too much in the submission process, caring enough but not too much what other people think of your writing, so that when the inevitable rejections come along, they don't dent your resolve or (this happened to me countless times in the last three years) stop you dead in your tracks. There's the added bonus of being pleasantly surprised by success when it arrives.

To be armoured in Indifference seems to me a crucial requirement for a writer. I'm not talking about arrogance, or not wanting a reaction from your reader, and I certainly don't mean not caring about your craft or your characters. I'm talking about riding out the waves, refusing to let the slings and arrows daunt you.

I have a project out there right now which I'm telling myself is No Big Deal. If it comes off, terrific, I shall be ecstatic. If it doesn't, pfft. On to the next one.

Detecting a note of Bluff in the above? You bet. I'm not armoured just yet. But I've got the breast-plate gleaming, and that's a start.

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Agent insights

This morning, I was lucky enough to spend forty minutes picking the brains of a leading U.K. literary agent about what's right and wrong with the current manuscript of my crime novel. Absolutely invaluable, not least because she said many positive things about my writing while being brutally (her word) candid about the problems with plot and structure. She was keen to stress that this was a subjective, personal response to the ms, but honestly? Everything she said resonated with me. And a lot of it fell under the general heading of Gems for the Aspiring (Crime) Writer. So I'm going to share an edited version of her insights, in the hope it will be of value to others. Indulge me as I record the good stuff, personal to me, by way of an investment in my self-confidence. And bear in mind that some of the negative stuff may be things with which another writer is lucky enough never to struggle.

Keys to good crime writing

“Crime is a brutally rational genre with an almost Puritanical discipline in terms of plot, motivation, evidence, reasoning and conclusion. At the same time, it has the potential for the most gothic exploration of the inner reaches of the soul.

“What makes a good crime novel is the contrast, and the tension, between the creepy and the mundane.

“Narrative tension is crucial but good plot is more important than too much plot – lose the codes and complications.

“Settle on a single strand of story and go deep – dig down into the psychology.

“The more gothic the ingredients (and gothic is good – we all love gothic), the greater the need for logic and resolution. The premise, the core of the story, has to work in these terms.

“You need to plot out a very very tight story. Take away all the trappings and work out which story makes psychological sense – focus on that story.”

Specific problems with the ms

“It was as if you’d thought what are the ingredients for a crime novel? A bit of Da Vinci Code, a bit of police procedural, a bit of Michael Connelly? Then you put them all in. There was no air to breathe.

Note: Interestingly, I didn't think this; I've never read the Da Vinci Code, or any Michael Connelly, but I will confess readily to trying too hard to deliver what I thought crime readers wanted to read, rather than focusing on the story I had to tell

“There were too many strands and every strand was twisted – I stopped believing it because of this 'clottedness'. There was too much plot and drama; just as we were settling into one strand, there are questions raised about another.

“Your mistake in trying to make it plot-driven was to introduce more plot when what you need is less but better plot. You need to slim down the many elements, tease out a simpler but deeper story.”

The bright side

“You write really really well, with genuine wit, originality and charm. Straightaway there is the sense of feeling relaxed with the text that comes with confidence in the author.

“You have the potential to write with real depth, no doubt about it – you have created great characters and dynamics between them.

“With your ability to write, and the ideas here, you have the makings of a really really impressive novel.”

Last but not least

“Revision can be harder than starting over. If you do decide to rework this story, it might be best to show the revision to someone who hasn't seen the original, but I’d be very pleased to see a new story from you.”

Sunday 17 February 2008


I shan't be around for a week. Work and play, in about equal measure. I'll be using the break to recharge the batteries and reflect on writing challenges/obstacles. See you around in seven days or so.

Friday 15 February 2008


I wrote this some time ago. It's up at The MagusZine. You can read it here.

Thursday 14 February 2008


Isn't this beautiful? I found it here.

Junk yard

Right now, my brain is a junk yard. I have the definite impression that there are hidden treasures lurking here, if I could only just clear the lumber and the faux antiquities, the slag-heap of yellowing papers out of the way. Something priceless might be hidden, a lost Vermeer or another of Nabokov's forgotten masterpieces. Until I start digging, I can dream.

I am in self-imposed limbo awaiting the agent's verdict, unable to begin writing anything new for fear the problems afflicting the last ms are endemic. This week, I have turned out a 300 word flash, straying back to literary fiction because it's my comfort zone in times of doubt, a place I can take cover (under a warm, worn tapestry of words) hiding from the monster, Plot.

It won't last. I won't let it. Increasingly, I don't count it as writing if it feels too safe, too easy. I suspect this makes me a fool, and possibly arrogant also. Ah, well.

Every Day Fiction

Those nice people at Every Day Fiction have devised a list of their top 25 stories 'based on unique views, comments, star rating, incoming links, popularity and divination,' and I'm on the list no less than five times. Lolita's lynch mob takes the number 3 spot, followed by The facts as I know them (7), Waiting room (9), Would like to meet (16), and The ravages of Tim (18). Phew. This link will take you to the list, which then links to the stories.

Even better, the editors have just accepted an edited version of a flash I wrote a while back (they wanted a more definitive ending) so in due course, An angel in a plane tree, will be published there, too.

Wednesday 13 February 2008


The publication date has been put back for the Subatomic anthology, One Step Beyond: Rocking Tales of the Fantastical, which features my short story, LoveFM. It's now due to publish in June. The cover is in progress and it looks great. I'm very excited to be part of this.

Monday 11 February 2008

Bits and pieces

I'm delighted to be making my debut in Literary Mama this morning, with my story, A Thistle Harvest. A new venue is always exciting, and this is a tough one to break into from all accounts.

Enthusiastic acceptances are rare enough, but when they come from a famously choosy venue, they're extra special. I got an immediate response from the lovely Robin at Boston Literary Magazine to my flash, Don't give me that face, and it cheered me up no end: "Yeah, baby! We'd love to snap this one up, thanks!!! And thanks for the bio. You've been busy!" When I told her that she'd made my rotten week a little better, she sent a slice of virtual chocolate cake to cheer me up. What a sweetheart!

Last but not least, my story, Would Like to Meet, is up at Every Day Fiction today. Please drop by and read it, and comment, if you have the time.

Friday 8 February 2008

Salvage operation

I'm feeling fairly demolished, having just received a second agent rejection of the first crime novel. Don't worry, I got the crying jag out of the way earlier on, so this isn't going to be a self-pitying post. I am trying instead to salvage something positive from the experience.

1. Both agents requested a copy of the full ms. First time out for this ms and both got past the first hurdle. That's a positive, has to be.

2. The agents did not agree on the problems with the ms, so there is no negative consenus as such. This is both a plus and a minus, but I'm choosing to see its upside.

3. Both agents said encouraging things about my writing. The second even said, 'Your writing is wonderful and your characters really do come alive'.

4. The problem seems to be with plotting and structure. Possibly the pace is too slow; possibly there are too many povs. The good news is that I have an open door to discuss the issues in detail with the second agent, by telephone, in a week's time.

5. Both agents asked to see future work from me. So I can't be quite the lost cause I'm feeling myself to be right now.

Best of all, I keep telling myself, is the fact that I have a plot outline for a new novel (same characters, much stronger plot and structure), even if it will be an uphill struggle. But I've been wrestling this thing long enough to know I have what it takes not to give up now. I have what it takes to work damn hard to fix these problems and move on. It helps that there's no choice. I might wish all this didn't matter so much, feel so monumental in my life, to my life. But it does and, ultimately, that has to be a positive thing.

Picture post

Photobucket Photobucket

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Taking the pledge

Inspired in part by a post on a fellow writer's blog, I've reached the conclusion that I need to shuck off this bad habit I've fallen into - of seeing writing as yet another chore, a means to an end, when I used to enjoy it as an end in itself. I'm putting a voluntary embargo on submitting flash fiction, on checking for news of contests and the like. I'm concentrating what little free time I have on the new novel, making use of the lessons I've learned so far, especially the one that tells me when I'm enjoying writing THAT is when I write my best stuff. I've been encouraged, vastly, by some feedback from a reader of the first novel who is helping me to get a proper perspective on its strengths and weaknesses. This new novel will be so much better, because of that perspective but also because of this pledge to restart the process of writing for pleasure. All bets are off, all pressures relegated to the background, for now at least. Let's see where it takes me.

Monday 4 February 2008

So stab me

I decided to take a bash at this year's Debut Dagger, run by the Crime Writers' Association. I had the entry fee in PayPal cash earned from various short fic sales in 2007, so I thought I may as well plough it back into this competition. Popped off my entry this morning. Wish me luck!

It's Monday (again)

Funny, how it comes around. The sun is shining. It's freezing cold. I've written 150 words of flash fiction for this week's challenge at WriteWords, and I'm pretty excited about them. Won't post just yet, though. Waiting for the first flush to fade so I can get a perspective on the piece. It's my trademark 'ambiguous', and that doesn't always translate the way I want it to. So I'll let it simmer for a while.

Today I need to pick up a parcel from the Post Office and collect the dry-cleaning. Complete some office work and hand it to over to a colleague. Attend parents' evening at the school. Not much writing time left in the day, and tomorrow is London, so it may be Wednesday before I'm back here.

Sunday 3 February 2008

On plotting

I suppose it's possible that some writers love plotting, but I'm not one of them, or not yet. Indeed, three years ago, I swore I couldn't plot for toffee (not that anyone was offering me any toffee at the time). It's one of the reasons I believed I'd have a hard time trying to hack it as a crime writer. Then I wrote (in fact, co-wrote) an opus that exceeded a quarter of a million words, and surprised myself by managing to conjure the illusion of progression and, moreover, by bringing the story to a definite conclusion. My co-writer, a wise and wonderful woman, told me not to get hung up on the notion of plotting - 'What is plot, anyway? Just a series of coat-hangers, one leading to the next.' She was right, too. There's an art to arranging those hangers, though, and it helps to have most of them in place before you get too deep into the process of writing. That, at least, has been my experience. What do other writers find? Care to share a few tips? I'll go first.

Writing Tip#1 - The Synopsis Shortcut

Of course, there's no such thing as a shortcut in writing. No matter how many books you read about your craft, or forums you join, or courses you attend, at the end of the day you have to sit down and write 80,000 words or more, or less. But when it comes to plotting, when you're sitting with that blank sheet of paper, wondering how on earth to make the idea in your head take coherent form over those 80,000 words, try this. Make yourself write a synopsis that fits on a single side of A4 (around 800 words). Make it have a beginning, a middle and an end. If, like most writers, you have preconceived ideas of 'your limits' (those little voices in your head that tell you that you can't write conflict or action or pathos) - ignore them. This is the key. Shuck off all your expectations, free yourself from worrying about how on earth you're going to write this story. Tell yourself the synopsis is not for a book you are required to write. Rather it's a book you'd like to read. Nothing is impossible, no parameters, no comfort zone, no limits. Just the need to tell a story that will grab the reader and carry him/her through to the very end. That means intrigue, excitement, menace, tension, action - the whole works. Cheat if you like, give the synopsis a blazing ending that subverts the assumptions you started out with. You can go back and fix the inconsistencies later. Think in three acts, each with a climax. This will force you to concentrate on the necessary momentum and narrative progression. When you have a synopsis that makes you sit up straight, THEN you can start expanding it into a chapter-by-chapter plot.

I know that many writers find it harder to tackle a synopsis than just about anything else. I used to be one of them. But, trust me, this will work if you give it a chance. Because you're not writing a synopsis to submit to an agent or publisher; you're writing it as a brain-storming exercise to get a first draft of your plot in place. There's no pressure to produce a synopsis which is fit to be seen by anyone else. This is for your eyes only.

I wrote the one-page synopsis for my new novel sitting in a noisy playground surrounded by screaming children. I refined it at my leisure, in a quieter setting, amazed by the new-found confidence I have in my ability to plot. That single side of A4 is my talisman - tangible proof that I have a story worth telling. Of course I still worry whether I CAN write it; those little voices are persistent. But when they get the better of me, I reach for the synopsis and remind myself why I'm so excited about this writing lark.

Trends and dangers in crime writing

For those interested or involved in crime writing, this is a great commentary by Natasha Cooper, distributed by the Crime Writers Association.


Right now, I am editing a piece of flash fiction at the request of an enthusiastic editor (ending too ambiguous - my calling card, I fear), discussing Pokemon cards with my seven year old (who is sporting a brand new gap in her smile after losing a tooth in the cinema yesterday), reading in stages the final chapters of Doctor Death by Jonathan Kellerman, writing (in my head) the second chapter of the new crime novel), listening out for the washing-machine to finish so I can go and hang up bedclothes. That's a writer's glamorous life for you.

Friday 1 February 2008

Why it pays to be well-read

Because prior knowledge of literary classics, particularly controversial ones, can prevent expensive marketing mistakes, like naming a bed for six-year-old girls, The Lolita.

Poor old Woolworths

New beginnings

I started writing the new crime novel yesterday. Just the prologue so far, but it's something. I meant to just write a single sentence that had been knocking around in my skull all week, a good opening line. But once I started, I kept going. I wrote 300 words, that's all, but they reminded me that this is how it works, that even when I'm not in the mood or I imagine I can't manage more than a sentence, writing one line leads (almost) effortlessly into another, and another, and none of it quite what I'd imagined I'd write, all of it a surprise, a reminder that I can do this and why I do it. A week from now, or six months, I may decide these 300 words are not worth keeping, may change or delete them, but for now I'm cherishing them. Cold evidence, you see, alive on the page; uniquely mine.

Giving credit

Bear with me while I get started. I'm new to this. The first thing to say is that the image in my blog header, Battersea Power Station triptych, is an astounding piece of original artwork by Colin Halliday, created using genuine London grime from the back of Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Big shout out to Colin. It's my most earnest hope and wish that one day this image will feature on the cover of my crime novel. That's the second thing. I'm writing a crime series. The first instalment is being read by an agent right now. I've just started the second. Watch this (crawl) space.