Sunday, 6 July 2014

What the Agent Said

So this is what the agent said:

"thanks so much for sending this new version. There is a lot of potential here and I am going to pass, albeit reluctantly. Climate change and apocalyptic or dystopian  themed novels are difficult to place, although a further narrative layered on top creates interest. I sense that underneath the main narrative, this is a story is of grief? The loss of their mom; this is what moved me.
I know you have interest elsewhere and I am sorry to let this go.

If you write anything further and have not yet found representation, please stay in touch."

Having just watched 28 Days Later and googled 'Apocalypse YA Novels' my mind has started to go numb as soon as I hear the words: 'something just wiped out civilization'... so I guess I see her point. Sobs.

Sunday, 15 June 2014


From what I can tell, literary agents avoid wannabe writers. It's a bit like shouting into the void. Most of my experience is waiting eight to twelve weeks for them to tell me to bugger off (politely). Considering the appalling quality of most of what I've written, I can't say I blame them. In fact, I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise to all those agents I've harassed through the years by sending them my unplotted novels full of unconvincing characters and cardboard dialogue - and for those to come.

So imagine my surprise when I sent my first three chapters to a zillion agents one day, and received a reply within seconds asking me to re-send the document. (I had mailed the digital equivalent of cooked spaghetti.)

Five hours later, the agent replied to say she liked it, but it made no sense, and if I managed to make it make sense, then could she please see it again.

Here's what she wrote:
This is an interesting world you've created. It's a bit difficult to stay in the narrative however,  as I'm not entirely clear on the story.  I like the voice. Of the books you mention - you're right, none of them are a close fit.  Have you read HOLES by Louis Sacher?   He's doing something similar in that the world is not clearly depicted but we follow it.  Oh - also anything by George Saunders - if you haven't read him, definitely do.    If the world and the story were clearer in Superfreak: Bad Monkey, I'd like to see this again if you revisit it.

I nearly fell off my chair. My novel didn't make sense?!? Actually, that's not what happened at all. I immediately forwarded the message to my friend because I was SO EXCITED and totally forgot to reply to lovely agent. Oops.

So this was back at the end of January. It's now early June. I've ripped out the start, middle and end of the novel and edited the so-called-final version five times since. I sent it back to lovely agent, expecting to hear nothing for a few weeks. I figured she'd expressed interest in a fit of madness and would have come to her senses. But no. She replied within minutes.

Talking to an agent isn't the same as getting published, I know. Even getting an agent is no guarantee. But it's a first step, so it's exciting. After years shouting into the void it feels amazing when someone shouts back. So what I'd like to say right now is I love you lovely agent I love you so much. Even if you don't ultimately want to represent me, you've given me a thrilling few months where at least it was possible.

Saturday, 14 June 2014


This morning, I woke up and changed the end again. I've lost count of the number of times I've proudly told my kids that the blasted book is finally finished (again). Maybe now, it is.

Sara didn't like this original (super-brief) ending as she said it left too many questions unanswered - what happens to the mother; what is the fallout from Sally, and more. In truth, I wrote it in a lazy mood, putting down the absolute bare minimum, so I think she had a point. But the last version I replaced it with was just so grim! I'm still not sure it's OK in a kids' book to kill all the main characters (by wiping their memories). But it was just so logical. Of course the police would go down into the cellar. Of course they would take Frank, Eris and Bobs away for testing to check they were OK and they'd realise they weren't quite human.

But I felt quite sad that we lost the happy resolution, and the message that kids are the ones who will solve climate change (get working kids!). For a while I meant to return some kind of comment about Frank lying on the cellar floor thinking it was bad that they stopped Sally but never mind because Umar and Eris would figure out how to solve climate change, but try as I might, I couldn't find a place to put it without making a mess.

The solution: restore the old ending - just before the real ending - and add a coda.
That’s how it was supposed to end. But the police came and they looked inside the cellar. Then they looked inside us. And what they saw made them afraid.
I love the idea that you think it's over and there's a happy ending. Maybe, like Sara, the reader will feel that not all the questions have been answered. Then we go into the real ending. After the unsatisfying happy ending, reality comes as a shock.

What I also liked about the new ending - apart from how much more real it felt - was the massive outrageous cliff-hanger. It slams all the characters into an abyss from which there seems no way out. I'm still not totally sure if this qualifies as an ending. Does it give closure? It certainly brings Frank full circle back to where he started, trying to be normal.

The last line made me realise, nowhere in the book do I actually describe Frank. In most novels, the writer gives a few clues - even if it is first person, there's the obligatory scene where the main character stands in front of a mirror.

Frank never describes himself. Except for here.
Find me. Show me. You’ll know it’s me.
I’m the one who looks just like everyone else.

Thursday, 28 November 2013


So I started the final edit yesterday. I bribed myself to do this by linking it into my new blog about English GCSE. I've got a new to do list system so I used that to break down the epic task into tiny pieces, like: find document; open document; find editor's remarks, read same. You get the picture. It really helped! I'm doing another fairly big re-write/edit, so I need to pull apart the mid-section. This means a new plot sequence, which means back to Freytag's pyramid, but this time I'm not going to do it on paper, I'm doing it on Corel.

Then I decided I simply must write a textbook on Freytag's pyramid for my alternate blog, which involved a day of animation/drawing on Corel/Quicktime/iMovie:
Video is here.
Then finally, I managed to plot a new freytag's pyramid.

Monday, 24 September 2012


Maybe I watched Tangled too many times. This is the idea exactly as I wrote it when it came to me:
Dad refuses to let them go more than a certain distance from the house in case 'it' starts and they are too far to get back. 
There's frustrations of parental overprotectiveness but also parents fears things which children can't understand.

Saturday, 8 September 2012


So I know already that I tend to have an issue with plots. It's dogged everything I've ever written, bar the category romance and the less said about those the better... I've just come up with a story (at about 6am this morning) out of the wreckage of one of these conjoined triplet plot monsters, which is less plot than 'jumble of ideas', and I know it's a story because it feels ridiculously simple, I can explain it to someone else and they look like it's making sense, maybe even interesting. I think I had a bit of this idea yesterday evening.

It must have festered in my brain overnight. Kids' dad is rying to train them for the Apocalypse like it's a dead cert and nothing else matters - which is causing all kinds of mayhem with school. He says he knows because he's from the post-apocalyptic future but unfortunately his time machine broke - and during the entire length of the book, none of them can get it working. Dad is very weird, feeding the kids algae and mungbean sprouts and teaching them to shoot down the last, rabid survivors - which will likely include their classmates.

The boy isn't very good at it, and prefers metalwork, striking up a friendship with his metalwork teacher. Dad says metalwork is pointless as there won't be any electricity or metal after the Apocalypse. The kids don't believe him. But they're having disturbing dreams that may actually be memories. What seemed like a joke starts to feel worryingly real. The kids start to realise, what about the others? Dad permits has struck up a friendship with a fellow eco-warrior, Sally, who's also extremely concerned about the future fate of the planet. The only thing is, the kids come to realise, Sally's the one who causes it.

She's going to save the planet by wiping humans off it. The Apocalypse is real and it is due in a day. Sally's already set it in motion, and they can not get the time machine working...

Propp's Character Types MC/sidekick: Kids Mentor: Dad Villain: Sally Blockers: Toad (school bully); Deputy Head; History Teacher Helpers: Metalwork Teacher; Sally (at times); Prize: don't have one! (Sally? for Dad's romance), maybe the kids' lost mother.

It came to me in a dream. What can I say?

Thursday, 6 September 2012


I've done a monster edit (still in progress). I cut 30-40,000 words out of a novel that was only 50,000 words long in the first place. If I'd realised this was what I was going to end up doing, I probably never would've got started. I'd still be clutching the old, soggy version, pretending it was 'just fine really'.

I slashed and burned the novel in two chunks. First, I stripped 15,000 words of subplot out of the novel. Why? Sub-plots tend to bubble up within my novels that don't belong. I've moved the section I removed from Out of Time exactly as is to another word document, and it works perfectly as the first 15,000 words of a separate novel (The Clockwork Empire).

Actually it didn't take too much discipline to do this as I still get to keep the wordcount. There are strong psychological motivators for keeping word count high, and for a long time, it stopped me from editing with a clear head. It's better to delete the offending thousands of words (even if some of them might be salvageable).

Clean pages burn a lot better and quicker than ones that are muddled up with things you might or might not want to keep. With dirty pages, it's more about decision making (keep/delete), which seems to clog up creative flow. On a clean sheet, I can, sort of, write 6,000 decent words in a day - if I know where I'm going with it. Which by now, I ought to. And I really think it flows better.

This time, I was super-disciplined and didn't go back and endlessly edit. I just kept going till I reached the end of the novel. This took a week of full work (7am to 7 or 8pm, working in two/three hour blocks, with two hour rests), plus three half days. I now have 58,000 words, over half of which is half-sentences, ideas, events, raw dialogue which now needs to be fleshed out into properly nuanced and paced writing. I had a go at this yesterday, but I think I need more distance. Now, I'm working on the second novel (the 15,000 I stripped out), and ideas for the first are still coming to me. Awesome!

Monday, 4 June 2012


It's a long time since I did any proper writing. I've been researching. Properly. Not merely dipping into the odd (odd) book, but devouring books, filling actual blank pages with miles of spider scrawl.

Recent reads include: Understanding Jewellery, A ton of Dickens, Ditto George Eliot, How Mind Works, The Stuff of Thought, The Language Instinct, The Industrial Revolution Explained, Victorian Engineering, Dickens' Victorian London, and some book by Gavin Weightman that I can't remember the name of. Very good though. I've been to the Science Museum and filled my camera's memory with video clips of engines moving, photographs of analytical engines, Bessemer converters, Stephenson's rocket, Newcomen engines and other items I'm embarrassed to know the name of.

And why? For the fifth novel in the series. Lunacy!

Friday, 23 December 2011


The new job has interfered somewhat with my writing schedule. I find myself getting up at six and trying to put an hour in before work. Or writing for hours after I put the kids to bed. Not often though. One upside of visiting the book infrequently is that I get a clearer perspective on what's wrong with it.

One major problem, I have is that I don't spend enough time researching and planning. This week I have discovered the joy of diagrams, plot graphs and pulling apart someone else's novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) to see how it ought to be done.

Something I've always wondered about is how to run two 'plotlines' parallel, then merge them. I mean, do you have alternating chapters? Do you put the same ideas in both stories, or contrasting ones? Can you have close focus POV in both, or does that make it difficult for the reader to work out whom they ought to identify with? Then how do you bring the stories together?

I can't say I found answers to all these questions. What I did do was make a list of chapters and work out which plot line they belonged to. There are twenty two chapters in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Fourteen or Fifteen belong to Richard Deckard (RD), Six/Seven to J.R. The lines are unconnected at first, except that both explore the 'world'. As the plotlines continue, it becomes clearer how the stories will merge, which they do in chapter 19, where both RD and JR appear - though they only exchange a few words. The beauty of this is that for the first time we see RD from the outside, from JR's POV.

Having two POV characters gives different points of view on the world. It isn't a bit confusing. It's brilliant.

The way Philip K. Dick does it is this:
1. RD 2. JR 3-5. RD 6-7. JR  8-12. RD 13-14 JR 15 has scenes with both JR and RD, though they don't meet. 16-17. RD  18. JR  Then in 19. told from JR's pov, RD also appears. POV shifts to RD half way through the chapter. 20-22 RD.

It needs to be totally clear which character will be the main character. RD appears first and has 2/3 of the chapters.
POVs alternate quickly at first, then there are longer sequences to develop that character's story without interruption.
The stories' themes merge first. Then it becomes clear that the story will merge. Then it does merge. Though only briefly.
RD contemplates what will happen to JR in the future, but the author doesn't show JR's story beyond the point where he meets Richard Deckard.

Once I'd broken down Androids, I decided to rebuild my own novel on similar lines. I had made a poor choice of storytelling device to skip between plotlines. It wasn't working and I needed something better.

First problem: which character should I choose to tell the story of the secondary plotline? It needed to be someone with access to major events, but not the villain.
Second problem: in its current incarnation, my secondary plotline wasn't a line, it was more of a jumble of ideas and impressions. I had to turn it into a story.

All of this is bloody technical and probably only makes sense to me, but there it is. (There's more but I've virtually written a novel on this already. More later.)