Sunday, 30 October 2011

It's all junk anyway, why do I bother??

We've all felt like that at some time or another.  A writer called Gene Fowler once said, "Sometimes I think it sounds like I walked out of the room and left the typewriter running."  Feel familiar?

Usually I find I'm convinced it's complete rubbish when I've just finished a particularly tough scene which felt like it had to be at least 3000 words and I discover there's a mere 1000 or less. That's because it was such a slog getting there. And now I'm sure the mere 1000 is going to end up mashed in the recycle bin.

Worse is the time when it's flowing wonderfully well and you feel on top of the world as you realise you've exceeded your target for the day and you're convinced it's the best thing you've written this year. Then you read it back and deflate like a pricked balloon. It's terrible. It's the worst writing on the planet, and you immediately realise you've missed your vocation and nobody is going to want to read anything you write ever again.

Oh, those writing blues! How does one get over these humps? First off, you're allowed to write junk. Who said everything you set down has to be perfect prose? Where's the blueprint for the writer who does it right every single time? There isn't one. So Rule One is - give yourself a break, don't beat yourself up.

Rule Two? Leave it. Don't try to edit it now. Your judgement is out the window. You've gone into effect of your writing instead of being cause over it. You'll be wearing an editor's hat that's the equivalent of Simon Cowell laced with Craig Revel Horwood. Forget it.

Come back to it next session. You'll surprise yourself by discovering it's not nearly as bad as you thought, and a few tweaks will put it right. In the unlikely event it is still junk, cut it from the document and save it in a "temp" file, and then start again from the last good point.

Warning: Don't delete the junk! You might need it later. Maybe not the whole thing, but snippets. And if you don't need it, by the time you realise it, you'll have plenty of new quality material and you won't care about chucking it out altogether.

And take a leaf out of Katherine Mansfield's book: "Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all."

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Axe the dreaded cliche

"The most essential gift for a good writer," said Ernest Hemingway, "is a built-in shock-proof shit detector."

How true.  Though usually we have to grow one rather than having it built in.  My own acquired detector is always on the look-out for cliches.  There are so many time-worn phrases that don't even feel like cliches, that we are easily tricked into using them.

The boon of the cliche is its instant recognizable signal.  It does what it says on the tin.  (Oops, there it is.)  But this is also its liability.  It's too recognizable.  It doesn't surprise the reader, and thus doesn't hook him into your prose.  Finding another way to say it, one that is uniquely your way, is key to finding your voice.

It's not just another way of saying how blue the sky is, how her heart pounded or announcing the effect of shock.  It's looking for a completely different angle on the subject ('thinking outside the box').

Why talk about the sky at all?  Why not concentrate on light and shadow, for example, and its effect on the surroundings.  For that matter, why not take shock out into the environment and examine what the shocked person sees and how it changes in their consciousness?  Instead of pounding hearts, what about the heightened sense of sound outside the body?

It can be more effective to do the opposite of what is going on.  If the situation is interior with the person, go outside for your effects.  If the situation is exterior, go inside and show their reaction.

This is only one way of avoiding cliche.  There are as many ways as there are writers.  The key is first to start noticing the cliches in your work, and then backtrack and think how you could express this almost using another dimension.  Surprisingly, once you have forced yourself through it for a while, the practice becomes part of your craft and it isn't nearly as difficult to do as you might think.

And when you read, look at how other writers do it.  At the least, it'll hone your shit-detector as you start noticing the cliches they missed.

Sunday, 11 September 2011


Ok, so The Gilded Shroud came out last Tuesday in the US.  And I waited in all day, expecting something to happen.  Here's a piece of advice:  don't do that!

Nothing happened.  I couldn't work, I was too excited.  I sat at the PC, googling the title and rolling through links looking for something new.  There wasn't anything.  So then I fooled around on the net, looking at various sites for future ref on other stuff.  Then I rechecked the title.  Still nothing.

The thing was, I realised afterwards, all the work had gone in before.  A couple of reviews had come out already, the book was on sale all over the place.  Now there was nothing to do but wait for the book to get sold and for people to read it. End of story.

So I got on with my writing after that.  There have been a couple more reviews, but I'm unlikely to know anything at all about sales until the first royalty statement comes in - and I have no idea when that will be.  The only thing that will happen earlier, hopefully, is the next contract and that's up to my agents.

Moral?  Enjoy the moment, but then forget about it and get onto the next thing.  It's the same game as completing a book and starting to send it out to agents.  Don't wait for replies.  Start the next project.  Otherwise you'll go nuts with the waiting and the disappointment when zilch happens.

All data on the book is at my website

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Ghostwriting adventure!

Since I'm doing just this at the moment, it may be of interest to let you know how I'm finding the task.  I'm creating a fictionalised biography for someone who wanted it to read like a novel.  It's an odd sort of experience in several ways.

First, I am working from life memories.  We spent two or three days together while the subject gave me the life story data and I typed like mad on my Alphie (Alphasmart computer).  There are also lots of news cuttings and a couple of background books for research.  Back home, I transferred everything to my PC and went through it to find the holes.

The first thing I realised was that I needed more of the subject's emotional life.  Without that, I couldn't create a novel style book.  Back I went with a whole heap of questions and the subject talked some more while I typed.  Then I had to interweave this new stuff into my original text.  The deadline then shifted two months forward from December to October and I blanched.

At this point, I said I really had to start writing or I'd never make it and I couldn't know what was missing until I got going.  And off I went, taking each episode and turning it into scenes.  Immediately I discovered I had to invent dialogue.  I sent back the first chapters to check the subject was happy with what I was doing.  Turned out it was more than satisfactory.

But wait!  Now the deadline shifted again - another month forward to beginning October.  Argghhh!!  So I then went hell for leather and am now a quarter of the way into the story.

Next problem to come up was anomalies in the timeframe.  I'd been given conflicting dates and found I had developed the story in an incorrect sequence.  Back to the subject again to confer.  We talked it to and fro and decided dramatic style was more important than the exact sequence.  In other words, I was allowed to use artistic licence.

It's actually quite fun doing this.  And not much different from writing an original novel, except that I've got to stick closely to the outline.  Having a free hand with the dialogue and the subject's thoughts helps a lot.  From what brief comments I've been given on emotions, I'm able to work up a whole internal monologue to fit.  And as it's written in first person, I haven't got to worry about other viewpoints.  Everything is subjective to the subject's opinions and feelings, and everything is guesswork about what others are thinking.

I don't really mind that the deadline is so tight because it will free me up to start on my own third detective novel as soon as I'm done.  Plus I write best - as I'm sure I've said before - when I write fast.  No time to dither or worry about the quality of the writing.

My verdict on ghosting?  As long as it's using my fiction skills, bring it on!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Cripes! Long time no blog!

I hadn't realised how long it's been since I blogged here.  Have been screamingly busy and almost unable to do anything else but what I was doing... Then finished that and was straight into the local arts festival and that has just finished and I'm picking up the pieces.

I did a couple of writing workshops during the festival, including my write-a-thon and the skinny on how to get published.  I found myself raving about e-books and the possibilities that have opened up, and I realised how things have changed in a year.  I skated over self-publishing in last year's workshop, but now the ballgame is completely different.

You don't need me to tell you how Kindle has changed everything.  I am preparing old unpublished books myself for this market.  But here's a word of caution: put your book out there by all means, but first ensure it's the best you can do.

Don't sell yourself short.  Edit the work within an inch of its life!  If you aren't certain about any aspect of it, get it looked over by an expert - me or someone else who does assessments.  And then re-edit as needed.

The big downside to self-publishing on e-book is the plethora of really dreadful, badly written stuff with which your book will be keeping company.  My view is that a well-written quality book that catches the reader's attention and holds him for the duration will stand out and will succeed through word of mouth.  A badly written, poorly edited book spells death for your next one, because the buyer won't buy you again.

So get it right before you put it out there and you stand a much better chance of building a following.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Here's the good news - you do learn as you write!

I'm editing one of my old unpublished books for e-book, and it's interesting to discover lots of craft points that I now bring up with writers starting out.  Most obvious of these is viewpoint again.

First off, there are too many extra viewpoints (though I will have to hang on to a couple as I don't want to wholly rewrite the story).  Second, there is head-hopping like mad.  Third, the viewpoint when there is not polished.

A common mistake on the latter:  characters allegedly in viewpoint are spoken of as if someone else is talking - eg "a reminiscent smile rose to his lips".  No!  He can't see himself smile.  He can only feel the reminiscence, and if he smiles, he smiles.  It's in viewpoint, it has to be active.  We are not in the smile's viewpoint!

In essence, this type of writing is authorial.  In other words, it's author intrusion - telling the reader, which makes it passive, rather than showing it in the character's head/heart, which is active.  The result is to distance the reader from the character.  Head-hopping has the same effect because the reader has to switch identity from one character to the other.  This is why most writing advice suggests keeping one scene to one character's viewpoint.

I'm not going to be able to iron out all these errors, but I'm doing as much as I can without getting into major rewrites on the story.  What's good about it is that all these years down the line I've learned the craft so well I can spot this stuff easily.  And it isn't as if I've "studied" it.  I've just written and written and written.

So don't be dismayed if you are only on your third, fourth or even tenth book, and you still find you're making this sort of mistake.  (This particular book was in fact my 12th full length novel!)  You are learning and you will get to the point where you can do it fully in viewpoint almost without thinking.  And your writing will get better and better because you will pull your reader into the story and hold them there.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

You don't have to write in first person to write in viewpoint

This may be old hat to most, but I've recently helped someone with this problem, so it's worth going over it again for anyone who just doesn't know.  It's a craft point, and it's really simple.

Viewpoint, or being in the character's head, gives a story immediacy.  Even though you are writing in the past tense, it feels to the reader as if everything is happening now. Your objective is to pull the reader in so that they are seeing, feeling and thinking along with the character.  Then you can inject "information" about actions and it doesn't interrupt the flow or the viewpoint.

Reduced to simplicity, you write just as if it was "I" but substitute "he" or "she" and add the character's name every so often for clarity.  Thus:

First person:  "I raced hell for leather down the alleyway, shoving aside without apology a kid wearing a hoodie.  I could just see the black-coated figure ahead of me.  If I could only get a spurt on, I'd overtake him in seconds."

Third person:  "He raced hell for leather down the alleyway, shoving aside without apology a kid wearing a hoodie.  He could just see the black-coated figure ahead of him.  If he could only get a spurt on, he'd overtake the guy in seconds."

Almost exactly the same, except for identifying "the guy" instead of "him" to save confusion because we already have several "he's" along the way.

Frankly, that's really all there is to maintaining viewpoint inside the character's head.  Too much is often made of viewpoint, but if you stick to this really simple formula, it's easy.  You've got action, thought,and characterisation in three sentences.  When things calmed down a bit, you could add feelings too, along with using the other senses.

Writing doesn't need to be complex, honestly. Stick to simplicity and you can't go wrong.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Am I a micro-publisher?

Well, what I am is a one-woman online outfit opening doors for new writers.  Digital and online publishing is overcoming the traditionally tough route to publication.  But it is still true that everyone needs an editor.  Which is where what I’ve decided to call the micro publisher comes in.

I’ve launched Timeless Books with an anthology of short stories introducing new writers.  The stories originate from a summer story competition run in tandem with the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Sunday Express magazine.  I wrote to a number of entrants whose stories had shown promise and offered an assessment with the hope of the rewrite going into the anthology.  These fourteen tales are the result.

THE WAYS OF LOVE is a collection of stories in fresh voices.  Under the overall theme, the stories are very different.  From light to dark, from poignant to cynical, they illustrate the frailties and foibles of the human heart.

I’ve had to wear all the hats, including editing, proofing and designing the cover.  Fortunately I was able to use an image created by my brother, digital artist David Evans Bailey, which made things a lot easier.

It’s available in print or download at

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Finally back in the swim..

Book two went off to the agent last night - at last.  2 weeks late after deadline - horrors.  There is now a reasonable chance I may be able to blog again on a regular basis.

Am not planning to start Book three just yet, but as ever, when you're near the end of one book or finished, the next one starts jumping around in the head.  Noticed that, anyone?

At this point, I jot notes.  My rule is, write down everything I can remember about what was leaping about in my head last night in bed.  Then it'll be out of my head again.  Ditto every time ideas start to flit.  Then, when I sit down to work out what I'm going to do with the book, it'll be halfway done for me already.

That's the message for today.  Don't rely on your memory.  Write it down.

Doesn't matter if you don't use it in the end - most ideas don't get used when you think you're going to use them.  Eventually they will come into their own.  Worth making sure you keep them somewhere.

Back soon.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Brand new idea suddenly changing everything?

Go with it.  It will always be better than the idea you planned.  Why?  Because the story is live, real and working.  The characters have settled in and grown.  Your story impetus is probably quite different from the way you envisaged it.

The trouble with outlines and plots is they are just ideas.  Once a story takes off it has its own momentum and you need to allow for change.  Usually it's not that radical, but sometimes you will suddenly have a brainwave which entails taking the story in a whole new direction.

This is quite scary, to be honest.  I've just had this happen - hence the blog.  I was about 15,000 words off my target, had taken the story along the lines I intended and was pushing it towards the climax.  Then it happened.  A picture jumped into my head, along with the concept of a totally different climax.

OH NO, I said.  This means I've got to change direction.  How on earth am I going to get to that instead?  I looked at it for a bit, and the concept started to grow and I knew I had to do it that way.  It was miles better than my original plan.

I wasted a couple of writing days because I needed thinking time to figure it out.  I struggled with the first couple of scenes once I went back to writing.  And then it started to flow again and I'm back into it and can see exactly how to get there.  I can pick up loose ends earlier in the book during revision.

With the last book it happened too - the identity of the murderer suddenly changed - but that was earlier and more easily incorporated.

You just never know when it's going to hit, but when it does, it's best to run with it.  If you don't, you'll find yourself writing against your instinct and that makes life very tough indeed.  Why hang onto an idea that just died?  Use the live one and your story will be the more alive.

A word of caution.  This does not mean endless replotting when you're writing Chapter One!  You'd be well into the story if one of these was going to hit you.

Trust your instinct.  Your subconscious threw this up at you.  Grab it and use it.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

How do you keep writing when there's too much else to do?

Since I've just been right there - which is why I haven't posted for several days - seems like a good topic.

Situation: trying to finish Book Two, two assessments outstanding, and in come the final copy-edits to check for Book One.  Do I sacrifice my writing time and do the copy-edits?  Do I bash away at the assessments first, and hope to catch up with the rest, while keeping a frantic head around the looming deadline?

Rule One:  whatever you do, don't sacrifice your writing time.

I've broken that rule too many times and regretted it. Remember your writing time requires you to be creative, and if you're canny you've organised your life so that writing time happens when you are fully compos mentis and firing on all cylinders.  Don't waste it on sweating the small stuff.

Assessments (which happen to be my other main activity) require an editing head, not a creative one.  Likewise reading over and editing your own work, including copy-edits.  You could label research and plotting under the same heading.  You can think in your sleep!

The trick is to sandwich all the other stuff in between life commitments.  Hold your creative time sacrosanct.  If you don't, the book won't get written and you'll get more frantic.  Plus the next time you get down to it, you'll probably find you have to read over half the book before you can start because it will have leaked out of your consciousness and will need reviving.

Hold on to, and use your writing time, and you'll get to the end.

Memo to self:  Could you please for once take your own advice?  Do you realise your deadline is almost in your face?!!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

High Concept - what is it?

Ever since I was told by an agent that the work he was looking at was high concept, I've been puzzling out what it means.  I've now found a very good blog on the subject which really does explain it clearly.

This is what it says:  "Simply put, a high concept is an intriguing idea that can be stated in a few words and is easily understood by all."  Worth checking out the whole article which is on

Even if your book is not actually high concept, the article gives a useful set of tools for working out the premise of your novel so that you are clear about where you're going.  Plus it can be used to pitch to agents or editors, especially if you are networking and need a simple statement of your book.
What you're doing with this is encapsulating the story.  The premise is king, and it doesn't matter whether your book is plot driven or character driven.  It doesn't actually matter whether it's high concept either.  The purpose of the exercise is to be able to give the storyline in a few well-chosen words.

Incidentally, there are a number of articles on the net about this subject, but I found this one the easiest to grasp.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Headhopping confuses the customers

When you read over your text, look out for those interjected thoughts that emanate from some other character than the one driving the scene.  It's all too easy to throw in a comment from elsewhere than the head we're in.  Instant confusion and your reader is out of the story.

"Carina shifted tack, hoping to trick him.  'I suppose tomorrow is out of the question?'
He realised at once that she knew."

We're in Carina's head, so he's not about to realise anything.  Unless Carina sees it:

"Carina shifted tack, hoping to trick him.  'I suppose tomorrow is out of the question?'
His glance flicked away and back again.  Had he realised she knew?"

We're still in Carina's head and she's trying to read him.

A good test is to ask "Who said that?"  Meaning mental statement, not speech.

Another pitfall in this line is remembering your head character can't see themselves, so you can't use visuals that only another person could see:  "Carina looked him over with a glint in her eye."  She doesn't know she has a glint.  Stick to how she feels:  "Anger rising, Carina looked him over."

If you can, try to avoid the mirror trick.  Staying in the character's head and having them look in a mirror so you can tell us what they look like.  Clues are enough.  Is she overweight?  Have her get into a garment with difficulty or mention she bought it before she put on weight.  Then let the other character (assuming you have more than one viewpoint) tell us what the first character looks like.

Your reader will fill in the gaps, don't worry.

Keeping your viewpoint clean will up the quality level of your manuscript in leaps and bounds.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Thinking is writing too

If your story jumps around in your head when you're not at your PC, that's good news.  In the bath, in the car, on a walk, even while watching TV or a movie, and annoyingly in bed when you're trying to sleep - it can start leaping about and going places.  Let it run - it's all good stuff.

But soon as you can, get a notebook and jot down the general points.  Otherwise you may forget.  Believe me, you may.  I've lost more plot points by not writing it down than I care to remember now.

Usually I find when the plot starts rolling like this, it hasn't got anything much to do with the bit I'm writing at the moment.  That doesn't matter.  Get it into a document and let it sit there.  It might even be a different book altogether, get it down.  It's still fodder for your writing.

When you eventually come to use the ideas, they may have evolved or you may change them to suit.  But most ideas end up usable at some point.  Years later sometimes.

My historical crime series evolved from an original idea I had about 15 years ago for a "big" historical series, and my brother happened to say it could be crime.  I jotted that down as well. When I decided to switch to crime, I already had the basic scenario for the first book and I knew my heroine's name and something about her.  She evolved differently as I wrote, but the seeds of the character were there long ago.

It's worth harnessing anything that floats into your head.  Ideas are never wasted.

And a Happy New Writing Year to you all!