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.)

Monday, 25 July 2011


I forgot how good it is to edit on paper! I just printed the novel out for the first time in at least six months -got myself a luminous pink biro and covered the novel with pink ink. I've cut out swathes of beautiful description, phrases I loved and it feels great!

Two of the three agents who saw the complete MS of this novel have rejected it, one with detailed comments. The third, thank goodness, hasn't read it yet. I asked her to wait to read a new version and she said yes.

So here I am, editing a new, improved version. I even re-wrote the synopsis. For the billionth time. I've been working on this novel since March 2010, thought it was finished about ten times and sent the outline to almost twenty agents.

I just finished editing. I destroyed ten thousand words!

Sunday, 3 July 2011


I decided to go back and do another edit on the novel. Yes, I know I already sent it out to agents and two of them are still considering it. But one of the agents who rejected the complete MS said she didn't like the narratorial tone.

I have been super-busy with work, but have been thinking about this. I wondered if the most recent re-write made the book quite grim. When I found time to re-read it, I realised the main character does seem to have a bit of a thing for wanting to punch his sister. It's a pretty dark book - what with it being about a post-apocalyptic landscape populated by cannibals and a Hitleresque villain. There's not a lot of joy in it.

Today I had a big chunk of free time so I decided to do something about the tone of the book. It's quite a subtle thing to change. Though doing a 'find' sweep for the word 'punch' seemed a good place to start - that and 'blood spattered', 'terrible' and 'horror'.

I put more joy into the book - in the start at least, with more of a sense of wonder at the amazing locations. I've also made my main character gentler and now he hardly ever thinks about punching his sister. I think it works well, though in my experience of my own kids it's not exactly realistic. They're mostly adorable, but do seem to spend a lot of their time punching each other.

Thursday, 9 June 2011


I have my first, very polite, rejection from one of the three agents who are currently considering Out of Time. Rejection is never pleasant, though I've definitely gotten used to it by now. So at least if I do have a bruise on my head from repeatedly banging my head against a wall, I've been doing it so long now that it seems normal. Which is probably the most positive thing I can say about it!

I have done some new writing lately, though not much on this blog. In the new novel, I've got 22,000 words beautifully polished, so far. The quality degenerates through the current 52,000 word total into segments that I hacked out of a previous version and shovelled into a heap ready for editing. This book, I should say, has seen forty agents (at least) in its previous incarnations. Two agents requested the full MS and in both instances rejected it - one within two days, the other in two weeks. The lesson I think is that in writing, patience, optimism and maybe a bit of wilful stupid determination is required.

Monday, 2 May 2011


Over the years I’ve written novels with no plot and done no research whatsoever. I’ve mixed romance with thriller with satire with sub-lit-fic with kitchen sink. I’ve planned sequels on top of novels that couldn’t even support their own weight.

My advice to you is simple. Do not under any circumstances do any of these things. Certainly do not do all of them in the same novel. It’s a recipe for disaster – aka, the first novel I ever wrote. This is the one I’m editing at the moment.

I spent five years editing Bad Romance – and having kids, which added to the confusion. Each edit added more layers of wrongness. The final draft was a gnarled mass of words that looked like it ought to make sense but didn’t. In the course of time and hundreds of revisions, I must have sent this novel to about forty plus agents. All of them rejected it. Two, in the later stages of editing, asked to see the complete MS – which was exciting – until they too rejected it.

When I’ve finished editing Bad Romance this time, I already know one of the problems I’m going to have. I discovered this recently when reading Miss Snark’s blog. And thank goodness I did. Miss Snark writes that although agents are sent thousands of manuscripts each year, they will remember if you send them the same manuscript twice. And if you do, they will hunt you down and kill you.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011


Today was my first day at work. It's a proper job - full time and everything. Before this, I stayed at home to look after my kids, and spent some time writing. Once they were all at school full time, I spent a lot of time writing - but only in the day - almost like a proper job in fact, but with no pay and more biscuits and cake.

So two interesting things happened today. I have a day job to bring in actual money, while I pursue my mad hobby. And now my hobby feels like a hobby rather than a job. And I have a lot less time to do it in.

I do think I realised this would happen. I made sure to finish all the novels I'm writing before I started work, as detailed in the blog. Now, I'm sitting on a lot of finished projects (mostly in submission) and nothing to do but wait to hear back. It ought to be relaxing. Certainly it gives me the space to enjoy my new job. It was great today to remember how much fun teaching can be.

But then last night, I just couldn't help myself. I pulled out an old, terrible, tangled novel and now I'm thinking... it could be really great, if only I edited it.

Friday, 15 April 2011


I can't believe I'm still editing. I could feel my mind going numb half way through so I took a break and created a contents page. After all that editing, putting my chapters into a list felt like the peak of fun. I got even more excited (relatively speaking) when the new material I'd written meant I had to create a new chapter. The new chapter three is now called 'Heaven'. The last chapter, in case you're curious, is called 'The End'.

I'm not that great at names. In all but the most recent versions of the novel, Frank's dad was called, simply, 'dad'. I think I used up most of my creative energy coming up with the bizarre locations and plot.

Thursday, 14 April 2011


Today, with the last bit of energy and willpower I could summon up, I tried to write my plot outline. It's only supposed to be a page long - which is where the problems begin.

The book I just wrote is full of alternative future and past civilizations, and shifts between different kinds of reality. Getting all that boiled down into 700 words that make sense is unbelievably difficult. Each new version seems to reach whole new levels of of incomprehensible gibberish.

I didn't finish the outline in the end. But I did manage to squeeze out a blurb. But that's probably because blurbs don't generally make much sense anyway.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


I can't work out whether I'm finished or not. I think I am. Or at least, I've decided to stop writing. I've been hard at work editing for three days solid. This probably doesn't sound like much but editing at this level of detail is one of the hardest parts of writing.

It started when I got comments back from the editor. In essence, this is a list of problems. So far so clear. It's working out what the solutions are that causes the trouble. Then I have to work out where and how to introduce these solutions.

One solution I came up with was:
'demonstrate that the main character is in a state of quantum flux'

This is kind of tricky to do. The novel is (now) 57,000 words long. I have to weave this idea through the entire novel - slotting it into the appropriate places. This wouldn't be too difficult except quantum flux is a tricky idea to convey and I have to do it seamlessly in a text which is already surface polished.

I worked out that I had about seventeen editing problems in total (including quantum flux). Some of them were interlinked. Most of them were concentrated in the ending: but I couldn't only make changes at the end. They all had to be prefigured earlier in the text.

It was impossible to tackle the seventeen problems simultaneously, working from the beginning to the end of the text. I had to do each one separately: starting at the beginning of the novel and working through to the end seventeen times. To make sense of the scale of the task, seventeen times fifty seven thousand words is almost a million (969,000).

So right now, I don't care if I've finished. I don't care if it makes sense. At this stage of editing, it's impossible to 'read' the text. The words are so familiar they don't 'go in'. I'm dropping changes into the text without even reading it. It's kind of terrifying. I have no idea if the changes work. Though I'm really, really hoping they do.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011


I've talked a lot in this blog about how I'm 'editing' a novel. Looking back I think it's probably fairer to say I did a re-write. I reckon I must have written 20,000 words of new material and deleted 10,000 of a book that was only 42,000 words long when I started.

I massively expanded ideas that were hinted at in the old version and created a totally new ending. Even the major villain and his evil plan are new. The whole process took about ten weeks of intense re-thinking and re-writing. I think I was fooling myself to imagine that when it was re-edited, I'd only get typos back.

I got comments back yesterday. Guess what?

I've got to edit the damn thing again! The 'problems' are nowhere near as big as last time, but it's got to be done. Except this time, I have less than two weeks to do it. Luckily I'm not working at the moment and don't start my new job until two weeks hence. But I've got to prepare for that too.

The best analogy I can think is if a person had just run a marathon, heaved up half-dead at the finish line and some bugger had moved it ten miles down the road. Then when they crawl there, knees bleeding, three-quarters dead, they've moved it again, just a few miles down the road.

Don't worry though. I've got a plan. I've decided to re-write the clock and create totally new, extra hours in which to do this work, while deleting my need for sleep.

Friday, 8 April 2011


I LOVE meeting other people who write. It's rare to find anyone else who understands what it means to grapple with dialogue, endlessly re-write a first chapter in the first person, third person, present and past tense in every possible combination.

Then I discovered Authonomy. There are ten thousand (unpublished) authors on the site, all with a novel, true-life story or poetry/story collection. You can read people's profiles, but will often learn more about them from what they wrote. People will write the most intimate (and sometimes deranged) personal memoirs, about how they were a low-class hooker, drug addict, or journey to Jesus.

Some of these books are excellent and have gone on to be published. Others aren't. But they're still riveting. The writers hang everything out: their dirty secrets, their personality disorders, their heartfelt, not necessarily well-constructed writing. It's touching, hilarious, and disturbing by turns.

Reading it feels almost too intimate at times, but often, like a car crash, it's hard to look away. It isn't just a morbid curiosity - it's the force of the human drama. In a way these people seem more interesting than well known authors, perhaps because they are less immaculately packaged.

Thursday, 7 April 2011


I've been writing for too long now. Unpublished, alas. For the first few years, I didn't tell too many people I was writing: close friends, but it wouldn't be something I'd shoot out there at random. Or not much.
Partly, I think it was because the thing that I was writing was so embarrassing. (Of which more later...)

As hobbies go, I like to think writing is probably more interesting to most people than, say, stamp-collecting. On the fun-o-meter, I imagine, it's one of the better ones. Like bungee jumping. Or rummaging through other people's underpant drawers. When I first tell people, their eyes often light up (or they run away fast). Really? they ask. So what do you write? They almost always assume it's been published.

Then I get all pink about the face, and wonder whether it might be more socially acceptable to claim that was a mistake and what I meant to say was that my hobby is not writing really. It's celebrity-stalking.

The answer for why people react with such shock/or surprise only came to me recently. They're thinking: if you aren't published, how could you have the audacity to indicate the existence of your novel (aka no-doubt-dreadful heap of dog's droppings) let alone trumpet it to all and sundry.

I find the best approach is to smile, as if to say, yes, I have no shame. And not offer to reveal mind-numbing details of plot that make sense only to me. That's what this blog is for.

Monday, 4 April 2011


I have run round the house yelling 'I'm finished! Hurrah! I'm finished!' about six times in the last fortnight. It would be embarrassing, except I have an unusually high shame threshold. But this time, I think I really am finished.

I've filled in all the plot holes, sorted out the bits that made my husband angry/confused when he read it. I explained things that made no sense. Though I didn't do a great deal to improve the description, I did massively expand the scope of the Clockwork Empire. I already knew I'd skimped on this, but had decided it would be fine. Apparently, it was not fine.

There's nothing quite so stimulating to the imagination as hearing your reader say 'not the same bloody laboratory with the same bloody 'parquet' floor and gas lights hissing' about six hundred times as they read your carefully crafted tome. So I added a massive series of warehouses, a family home, an Admiral, several ministers and a scarlet and gold throne room (see picture above).

When I'd done, I didn't much feel like dealing with the dialogue - varying it for Victorians, super-powerful atemporal beings etc. What I really felt like was a nice nap. So I lay on the carpet (so as not to enjoy it) and had one. When I woke up, I got on with the dialogue and guess what?

I am actually, really, truly, genuinely finished.

Until the next time I read it...

More on Life as a Writer...

Friday, 1 April 2011


Yes, I'm really finished (mostly).

I worked all day yesterday and the day before. One day I worked from nine am to midnight (not including biscuit breaks). It's done. Pages 58 to 82 no longer read like a three year old wrote them. Now they're more the level of a five year old (joke). The ending makes sense, and that's a big relief. When I started this book didn't even have an ending.

So I am actually, really, truly finished this time. Except all the characters talk the same. I'm going to deal with that one later. Either by going over every piece of dialogue with a fine-toothed comb and flinging in a few 'what ho, jonnys' and 'odd bodkins!' and 'lawks!' to add a bit of colour.

Or I might leave it alone and hope no one notices...

More about Life as a Writer...

Wednesday, 30 March 2011


My last post said I was finished. I'm not. I think I have three more days' work to do. How do I know this when the novel is now safely locked away in a drawer, unread, I hear you cry?

Because I didn't manage to put the novel away in a drawer for a week. I was flipping through it barely twelve hours later. Thank goodness I did, as I discovered three tiny problems with it:

1. Everything between pages 58 and 82 reads like a three year old wrote it.
2. The ending still makes no sense becuase I haven't set it up properly (see 1.)
3. All the characters speak with the same vocab, same tone of voice, no matter they're present day teenagers, a mad Victorian inventor, a megalomaniac and a woman from a civilization so strange normal physics doesn't apply.


More on Life as a Writer...

Monday, 28 March 2011


The novel is finished!

I'm not going to look at it again for a week. I'm hoping I closed up all the major plot holes, logical inconsistencies and miscellaneous things that made no sense at all. So next time when I read it, there won't be much to do.

The best way I can explain how I feel now is 'good'. But also like someone squeezed out the inside of my brain.

More on Life as a Writer...

Friday, 25 March 2011


Out of Time is a thriller. It has long action sequences and the characters' situation goes from bad to worse. Just when I think I can't think up any ways to make it any worse, something else occurs to me.

For instance, the main characters discover their father is trying to kill one of them. They escape using a time travel device into a desolate ancient landscape and are captured by cannibals. More cannibals attack the first cannibals. Then the main characters discover they aren't in the past, they're in the future. Civilization collapsed. Then they lose the time-travel device. Then cannibals attack and kill one of them. (it gets worse...)

Is this exciting? Or does the horror get monotonous after a while? I thought I might read it over and see if I couldn't inject a bit of fun into it. The trouble is, getting chased and killed by cannibals doesn't offer too many opportunities for fun.

More on Plot Structure...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


Can't remember who it was who said - if there's a gun on the mantelpiece in act one, by act five, someone has to get shot. I'm dealing with this at the moment. Except I'm doing it backwards.

In the new ending of the novel, I decided to 'shoot' one of my characters. It was a last minute decision. Then I realised I hadn't put the gun on the mantelpiece. So I went back to the beginning of the novel and planted the gun. Then I realised the character who shoots the other character has no good reason to do it. So I went back again and gave them a reason. I ended up writing it backwards.

Obviously I don't really shoot my character at the end of the novel - it's more of a metaphor. Though I do in shoot one of them earlier, literally, with an arrow. In the arrow-shooting scene, the bows and arrows came first. Then it occurred to me that if the characters were being shot at, one of them would get shot. In this case it happened in the right order.

Sometimes I write in the right order. Other times I do it back to front. The right order is better. But sometimes you really, really want to shoot someone.

Or maybe that's just me...

More on Plot Structure...

Monday, 21 March 2011


If you don't want to know how it ends, look away now!

I'm currently editing the ending of the novel. I say editing. What I really mean is 'writing'.

The major problem my editor picked up with Out of Time was with the  end. It didn't have one.

I sprained my brain thinking about it, and came up with something that works logically. The thing is, it isn't enough for it to make sense. It's supposed to make the reader go

OH MY GOD!!! AAARGH!!!! OH MY GOD!!! repeatedly.

The problem was my ending comes in two 'chunks'. One in a white space place, the other in the real world. It worked, but seemed a bit anticlimactic. When I thought of a way to make it more exciting, I ran into another problem - how to make it not like The Matrix (this has been a nightmare the whole way through).

Right now, I'm supposed to be writing this earth shattering finale. Instead I'm blogging about how I'm going to write it.

I read somewhere that Flaubert vomited repeatedly when he wrote the ending of Madam Bovary. I know how he felt.

Read more about Plot Structure...

Friday, 18 March 2011


In the course of researching Out of Time, I thought I ought to improve my philosophy knowledge, so I picked up A History of Western Philosophy. I'm still part way through. It reads well, makes sense of a lot that I kind of knew but didn't really understand and is an easy way into a big, and frequently mind-boggling subject.

I also got hold of A.N. Wilson's coffee table book, The Victorians. As I was writing about an alternative Victorian, 'Clockwork Empire', I thought I'd better find out a bit more about what the real one was like. It's easy to read and has a distinctive take on the period.

The book I enjoyed the most was probably The Birth of the Modern 1815-1830. At 1,000 pages it's a hefty tome. It covers a fifteen year time period in incredible detail, taking in all of Europe, Russia, America, South America, China, the pacific rim, art, music, literature, politics, science and just about anything else you can think of. This covers the time period the Professor begins his machinations.

Read more about Research...

Thursday, 17 March 2011


I thought maybe I ought to explain the reason for the weird, tattoo-like markings on my characters...

Take a deep breath.

The Dreaming writes it into their DNA when they're incubating in the Invisible City. The markings can be read. They tell the past and future history of the Invisible City.

No one in the Invisible City put the markings there, so it's not really like a tattoo. Past and future history is coded in the Citizens' DNA, so they never forget. This is done by the Dreaming itself, which is coming alive!

Needless to say, past and future history is BAD!

If you want to know what any of these things are, or what these words mean, go read the book!

Read more about Plot Structures...

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


I knew I wanted to have weird tattoo like markings on a lot of my characters. Why? Because it would be cool. Apparently this is not a good enough reason.

The editor asked about these markings. I thought about writing back, 'because it's cool', but decided against it. I put 'thinking about why the characters have these markings' on my To Do List. It stayed on my List for about seven weeks.

Then I was in the car and my husband asked the same question. There's something about being put on the spot that adds a sense of urgency. I thought hard. My face contorted. Cogs crunched and clunked. I think I started speaking. I'm not sure what I said.

'You're making this up, aren't you?' my husband said. This is almost his favourite phrase where I'm concerned, writing or not.

I surprised myself. The reason came to me as I was thinking about it. Even my husband was forced to admit that my explanation made sense. (Or at least, this is my recollection of what happened. Find the reason for the markings here)

I like to think this is the work of my unconscious brain, chugging away when I'm wandering about the place, looking confused with a blank expression on my face.

Monday, 14 March 2011


It's so obvious I wonder that it didn't occur to me earlier. Or, it did occur to me, but I thought it wasn't important. It is.

Characters need  reasons for doing what they do (apparently). Especially if they've decided to do something that might unravel reality. Or destroy civilization. It took me a lot of time and pain to come to this realisation. Insufficient motivation is a huge problem for plot, and I had it in spades.

In life, people start with the reason that impels them to do what they do. When I was writing it ended up the other way round. I thought - what would be really cool here is a city made of flesh and characters getting shot at and one of them gets killed (in a children's novel!!!!) and they should phase through furniture in slow motion!!!! And the apocalypse should happen backwards!!!!

I had about a hundred four-exclamation-mark ideas for this novel, and barely one reason why. Putting the motivation into the novel meant smashing up every polished four-exclamation-mark scene I had, and a lot of four letter words.

Friday, 11 March 2011


Editing the novel
For the last seven weeks, I've been heroically trudging through (i.e. editing) the bog (aka 'the novel').

At first it was quite fun. I read through the editor's notes. Then I spent the next week thinking about them. It's worth watching when I'm thinking because it doesn't happen very often.

I walk about, with a blank expression on my face. Occassionally I say sentences that don't seem to make sense. Or, less sense than usual.

After a week of this, I had a plan. I carefully picked over the first five chapters. This was quick, but meticulous - improving description but completely omitting - I realised later - to solve the massive gaping plot problem of The Cellar. I'm going to do that the week after next.

As I waded deeper into the bog, the plot totally unravelled. I had to delete characters, transform peaceful village dwellers into cannibals, make reality unravel more noticeably. These were seismic shifts. I ripped out huge chunks of text and killed characters. I deleted a thousand words for every thousand I wrote - hacked at some sections and picked over others with a needle.

As I waded deeper into the bog, the slower and stickier it got. The end was nowhere in sight. Without warning, I picked up speed. I crossed the chasm of gaping plot holes and motivationless actions and suddenly I reached the other side. I don't have any words left over to describe how good this feeling is.

I used them all to stuff up the plot holes.

More on editing Plot Structure...

Thursday, 10 March 2011


(some poems I thought of using in the Preface...)

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
          from Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
         from Auguries of Innocence, William Blake

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixéd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken
         from Sonnet 116, William Shakespeare

What nudity as beautiful as this
Obedient monster purring at its toil;
These naked iron muscles dripping oil
And the sure-fingered rods that never miss.
This long and shining flank of metal is
Magic that greasy labour cannot spoil;
While this vast engine that could rend the soil
Conceals its fury with a gentle hiss.
      from Portrait of a Machine, Louise Untermeyer

Anyone got any more ideas? (Alice, you know I'm thinking of you!)

Read more about Research...

Wednesday, 9 March 2011


Before I started writing sci fi, my knowledge of science fiction books was limited to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four - the last two of which are barely sci-fi at all (they're dystopic fantasies).
I haven't even read The Time Machine. I did start reading it recently, as I thought that I should, but got bored and abandoned it after the first ten pages.

I often ask myself what I was thinking when I decided to write science fiction. I've started reading in the genre since I decided to write it. With each new book, I have a mini-nervous-breakdown as I come across ideas I've used, which I thought I invented, but obviously didn't.

Imagine my horror when I came across Stars My Destination, goggled at the incredible plotting, the sheer brutal force of the main character and realised that Alfred Bester came up with the tattoo idea in 1956 and the only way I could claim credit for it would be to build a time machine.

Sometimes inventing and building a time machine seems like it would be easier.

More about Writing Sci Fi...

Monday, 7 March 2011


The best answer for why I write Sci-Fi is this:

I've watched so many science fiction TV shows over the years, the ideas all got mashed up in my brain. I took up writing as a hobby and one day all this sci-fi spewed out as the plotline for a seven book series.

About 99% of my science fiction knowledge comes from television. I won't say I was forced to watch these programmes, but I will say I wouldn't have watched them if I hadn't been married. I have watched:
99% of all episodes of Doctor Who ever made since 1963 (on DVD, not by travelling in time back to 1963), all of Battlestar Galactica including some of the 1970s version (again, DVD not time machine) and some very bad disco robots (see right), every episode of every series of Star Trek including the films and the cartoon series, all of Star Wars (obviously) and the Clone Wars, every episode of Babylon Five and all of Red Dwarf including the bizarre 2008 comeback.

I think it warped my brain.

More on Writing Sci-Fi...

Friday, 4 March 2011


I learned to write. I made mistakes, corrected them, made some more, but generally felt as if I was starting to get the hang of it. Then I decided to write a science-fiction novel for children. I'm not sure why. Normally I write women's romance. It's a bit of a mental leap from one to the other and I do try not to get them confused.

Romance has its own rules. Science fiction has even more rules - on top of the usual writing rules - and they're completely different. It's daunting. Science fiction readers read more, are better educated and more critical than the average reader. They can choose from a vast array of hyper-intelligent, cleverly plotted novels. Even trying to explain what happens in these novels can turn a person's brain inside out.

Sometimes I wonder what possessed me. I don't read science fiction for fun. I only started reading it once I started writing. Basically, what happened was this: the idea for a seven-book series dropped into my brain almost fully formed and it was science fiction. I liked the idea and didn't think too much about the fact I was in no way qualified to write it. For why I tend to think this way, see When Confidence Tips into Madness.

More on Writing Sci-Fi...

Wednesday, 2 March 2011


Sometimes I think it would be worth renaming my files. Then when I sort them into 'date created', I'd know what's in them. In theory, it's great (I think). But I must have over a hundred files and always seem to have something more interesting to do.

So I came up with a brilliant, quick solution. I put each 'type' of document in a separate folder. The only problem was it wasn't exactly clear from the names of the files what was in them. Not to worry, I thought and I did it anyway.

I couldn't find anything. Worse, it took forever to put it all back.

A cow could have done better.

Yet More Chaos and Confusion.

Monday, 28 February 2011


Once I started writing science fiction, I decided I should read some. Some of the novels that really struck me were:

The Stars, My Destination: I was horrified first, to see the tattooed hero on the front cover and thought people would assume I stole the idea (I came up with the idea before I heard of the book). The thing that most struck me about this book was how brutal the world was, the sheer force of will of the main character and the beautiful, surreal descriptions as the hero, Gully Foyle, learns to travel through space.

A Wrinkle in Time: I found this after googling children's science fiction, and had a small nervous breakdown as its plot sounded alarmingly similar to mine. It isn't too similar, and is science fantasy rather than science fiction, but I did love the attention it pays to describing the 'vortex', and the main character is so well realised.

Supertoys Last All Summer Long: I do have a robot that doesn't know it's a robot in Out of Time. The idea is so powerfully done here and in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I saw the films, A.I. and Bladerunner first.
More on Writing Sci Fi...

Saturday, 26 February 2011


Image: Terry Border 2011
Editing is like an onion. It's got lots of layers, and will make you cry.

The first layer is sorting out first draft. First draft isn't supposed to make sense. It's all incomplete sentences, random words like '+reaction' or '+wibbly wobbly explanation?'.

The second layer is more subtle. You might add more descriptions at this point, increase the richness of the characters' emotional world. You may repeat this a few times, essentially building up layers. When you can't think how else to improve it, stop.

At this point, you might not want to look at what you wrote for a while. Maybe you'll be able to find a dear and trusted friend who can read it for you. The longer you go on with editing, the harder it is to find your dear and trusted friends as they start to hide when they see you coming. The whole process of asking other people to read your work is probably worthy of a post in its own right.

So let's assume you've put your novel away for a while. With eager, trembling excitement, you take it out.

This is the part where you start crying.

Knowing what I know now (I've been banging my head against this particular brick wall for an embarrassingly long time), the moment I've just described is about ten percent of the way through the editing process. When you realise this, you will start crying again.

For those of you who have ever wondered, this is why I have that mad look in my eye. See Where Confidence Tips into Madness.

More About Writing...

Friday, 25 February 2011


I'm editing at the moment and for a long time it was fine. Then I got to chapter ten. The description I discovered here wasn't as much patchy as bald. There was a light dusting of adjectives. But that was it. The 'world' I'd created seemed mundane.

Mundane wasn't quite the effect I was aiming for when I planned my post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. It wasn't helped by the plot problems that developed at about this time, leaving the action moribund. Again, not the effect I'd sketched out in my mind when I was wondering whether I'd allow Stephen Spielberg to direct the motion picture. Motion and moribund being pretty much on the opposite ends of the action spectrum.

The first thing I had to do was made my plot move. So I added some cannibals. Once the human flesh-munching tribe hove into view, my main characters start moving at speed. To keep the momentum going, I had a second set of cannibals attack the first set of cannibals. Then I described it.

A spear sped out, then another and a hail of arrows. One of the men was hit and crawled behind the hut, dripping blood as he staggered away. The invaders held men down thrashing, bleeding. Then they slashed them across the throat. Red gushed onto the earth. Frank could taste the iron spattered in the air.
It's disgusting, but least it's not mundane.

Read more about Improving Description...

Thursday, 24 February 2011


Writing starts slowly. Squeezing words out of my brain is like trying to get juice out of a dried up grapefruit. It's all pips and dribble. 
Today I'm editing, which is about a hundred times worse.

The text looks like it's 'finished'. My job is to rip it out, smash it up - rearrange the deep structure, work out character motivation, more realistic details for my 'worlds' and put it back together.

When I've done, it ought to read as if it had never been touched. It is extremely finicky work.

I spent about three hours yesterday rearranging sentences, deleting whole chunks of gorgeous description and subtle emotional moments because they no longer make sense in the story. I also deleted a character called Iggy. According to my editor he made no sense in terms of the plot and was completely over the top.

So goodbye Iggy. No more 'malodorous farts'. No more 'picking food from between his teeth and flicking it at the wall'. No more trying to stab my main character, Frank in the neck.

I replaced Iggy with two sets of cannibals and a murder scene. And then I remembered I was writing a book for age 9-12. I had a bit of a think about this.

I added more blood and made it so Frank could 'taste' it in the air.

Children like to be scared. Apparently.

More Plot Structure...

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


The more I write, the easier it comes. I build a momentum that carries me along.

Usually I try not to worry about wordcount. I worry about keeping my backside on the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. On a good day I can do about a thousand words per hour. I have been known to write a thousand words in thirty minutes though I won't claim all of them make sense.

The trick, I find, is not to edit as I go along. I write and don't look back. Later, when I do edit it - on the same day or even the next day, I may add another thousand words in an hour, to make the first lot make sense.

What I can't do, is work six hours and write six thousand words. I frequently stop when I've reached a thousand. My 'safe' limit is probably about two thousand, three if I'm really on fire. This may have happened once or twice in the last year.

Any more than the safe limit and I tail off in a stream of gibberish, I'm ready to throw my laptop at the wall and stamp on the shattered remnants.

More Ways of Working/Drafting...

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


I'd like to say this is a frequently asked question. It ain't. Non-writers don't give a stuff how long novels should be. Experienced writers know already. Some novice writers think the rules don't apply to them.

So for those of you who care, the average adult novel is 88,000 words long. Chapters, in my experience, work well up to 4-5,000 words, but are often better when shorter - especially at the beginning of a novel. A 'scene' (i.e. a continuous dramatic unit) should be a minimum of 1,000 words, and can span several chapters.

Some category fiction (Harlequin Mills and Boon) has a maximum of 55,000 words, some chick lit imprints (Little Black Dress) are 60-80,000 and not a word more. These publishers are VERY STRICT about this.

Children's novels are different lengths. In the 9-12 age group, 50-60,000 seems to be about the limit, but 40,000 might be a more comfortable read.

Some novels are much, much longer. English language Indian novels all seemed to be about 250,000 words in the 1990s. This seems to have gone out of style, however, and would be a hard sell in today's climate.

A novelist might write 250,000 words in the course of producing a novel, but many of them would be edited out, or written over, to leave an 88,000-word highly polished gem.

I had a furious argument with another novice writer about this. He insisted, quite violently, that his 250,000 word megabrick would buck the trend. I had to give way in the end. His novel didn't get published, but I'm not sure if that was because of the length or the fact it didn't make sense.

More Ways of Working/Drafting...

Monday, 21 February 2011


Writing a novel is a big task (about 88,000 words big). It helps to be able to touch-type. It also helps to be able to find time each day to write. Some people aim to do 1,000 words each day. Others do much more. If you're writing after (or before) work, you might do 500 or simply write for half an hour.

There are two issues, I think.
- how much you write (wordcount)
- how often you write
I've tried writing every day. But I started to go a bit strange. Considering I was quite strange to begin with, I had to be careful about this. These days I write five days and take two days off. Writing every day of the week tends to send me mad.

If you have a deadline, however, you may feel differently. You might want to write every day and all night until your editor stops hitting you with a big stick.

More Ways of Working/Drafting...

Friday, 18 February 2011


When writing I go through many drafts. I find it helps to save them in separate word documents, so I can go back to a previous draft of the novel if necessary. Then I save them in a totally useless naming system which jumbles the files as effectively as if someone let a cow loose in my study.

I don't have a study, by the way. I write on the dining room table, surrounded by detritus, so it's not a big push to imagine a cow-induced jumble.

Some bright spark pointed out that my operating system would let me sort my files by 'date created'. Brilliant, I thought. But I have files on 'Character', on 'Ideas', 'Thoughts', 'Letters to Agents' and I name the main text things like 'Out of Time FINAL' 'FINAL Out of Time' 'Out of Time this is really it now' - not to mention the versions where the novel had a totally different name (The Boy Time Forgot).

So I sorted my files into dates. In a way it was great. For the first time, all my files were in order. I knew exactly when I'd created each one. I just didn't know what was in it.

More Useful Structures for Writers...

Thursday, 17 February 2011


Would-be writers need a certain amount of confidence (or madness). The task is HUGE. The rewards are likely to be small or none. Getting published is bloody difficult. Staying confident in the tide of rejections is almost impossible. Sensible people would get the message, give up and go home.

If you don't believe me check this seriously depressing clip.
This, in my opinion, is where the madness comes in handy. So I was cheered to find this article by Neil Strauss in the Wall Street Journal about how famous people, get (and stay) that way.

'Musicians who believed that they were destined to be famous, that being a celebrity was "God's plan" for them, were more likely to get famous and stay there. Those who felt like they got lucky tended to fall out of the limelight pretty quickly.'

In other words, you don't have to be mad. But it helps.

More on Life as a Writer...

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


I try to write as if it's my job. I work at it, set goals and look at areas I can improve. At the moment I'm working on two main projects. I have a third in a drawer.

To make things even more interesting, yesterday I got a job. It's a proper, real full time job and I'm very excited. I've been finding it increasingly difficult to justify staying home eating cake (and writing) now that all of my kids are at school full time. I also learned how little authors get paid, read the phrase 'don't give up your day job' a few million times and thought I'd better get one so I could 'not give it up'.

So now, I guess, writing is my hobby.

More on Life as a Writer...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


When I'm writing, unnecessary words creep in that don't really add anything. Like the word 'really'. It's quick work to get rid of them (if I remember) with a global search and delete.

Sorting out dull description is another matter. I have no idea how to use a thesaurus properly and can't be bothered to learn. I spend forever in search of perfection, spend hours on 'writing' without actually getting any writing done.

Then I discovered the thesaurus facility on my wordprocessor. It's more basic, but fast, intuitive and seems to give me words that 'fit' better. Maybe that's because I'm writing a novel for age 9-12, and not the kind of novel that has a title like 'The Ineluctable Discomobulation of Being'.

Don't think I got those words from a thesaurus, please. 'Ineluctable' comes to me courtesy of Ulysses, a book I was forced to read for my degree, 'discombobulation' from Blackadder (and also the recent Sherlock Holmes film) and I'm frequently accused of having made it up.

Sometimes I wonder whether I would like to write 'literary fiction'. I think I probably wouldn't.

I'd need to learn to use a Thesaurus.

More on Improving Description. Grab my one page guide to all the describing words you'll ever need.

Monday, 14 February 2011


I tend to write in layers - drafting, editing, working up the detail as I go along. I've 'finished' the novel, but even in the editing process I find myself writing in rough, first-draft style where I have to produce new material.

'First draft' is a sort of stream of consciousness brainstorm. The whole point is to get something down on the page, pick up the big ideas and the main characters' reactions. It's better not to think too much. (I've noticed this is a recurring motif in my blog).

After I've done this, I go back and fill in the blanks, complete the incomplete sentences, improve the detail so it makes more sense, remove repetition. I like to call this 'second first draft'. It's easier than the first part but more meticulous.

Even when I've done, I find my use of language is still pretty basic. That's where redrafting and editing comes in. I have to do it or the main character, Frank, would always be 'terrified', 'staring' with 'eyes wide' - a few stock phrases that roll off the fingertips as reactions to whatever new horror Frank comes across.

If I'm feeling really lazy, I might just write +reaction. The + is there so I can search the + symbol in find/replace when I'm editing. It means I don't have to keep a list of page references that I need to go back to. When I edit it I can search for +, then replace it with, 'Frank stared, in wide-eyed terror', or possibly, 'Terrified, Frank stared, eyes wide.'

More Ways of Working/Drafting...

Saturday, 12 February 2011


Sometimes I listen to music when I write. Plenty of people find they concentrate better in a noisy environment. I can't exactly say I'm one of them. Most writers are introverts, and benefit from total silence - or they start writing gibberish. Maybe this is why I keep writing gibberish and falling down huge plot holes.

I don't listen to music all the time. I do it when I first start, to get my brain warmed up. It stops me thinking too much. No matter if I'm churning out gibberish, as long as I'm writing something. If I'm struggling to start, I write in rough, partial sentences that don't make sense. Then I edit it later.

I tend to listen to the same tracks over and over. I can't make up my mind if I think of this playlist as the soundtrack to my book. It's probably best if I don't. Most of it's quite weird - accompanied by ukelele, Marilyn Manson in stilts and brass goggles and some fabulous pop too embarrassing to mention.
I like to kick off with Beastie Boys, Sabotage.

In more mellow moods, I enjoy a bit of ukelele in Florence and the Machine's Beirut cover, Postcards from Italy, or the nonsensical wailing of Wild Beasts, This is Our Lot.
I won't put a link in to the pop. I'm too embarrassed.

More Useful Structures for Writers...

Friday, 11 February 2011


I started editing my novel at the beginning. It was cosy there. The writing was fairly polished. So I got my fingers on the keyboard and polished it up a bit more. As I ventured deeper, the writing got fuggier. I pulled it together as best I could.

After ten thousand words, the plot completely disintegrated. I, the writer, disappeared into a plot hole of my own making. I'd like to say I'm clawing my way out. But I'm not sure I am. I'm at the complication dangling from a plot precipice with no idea how to get out.

I like to think of writing as the safest extreme sport there is. The biggest danger is it might send a person mad. I think about that sometimes, as I write about cities made of living flesh, dreams bleed into reality, and I wake up trying to work out how to kill the mechanical woman.

More on Life as a Writer...

Wednesday, 9 February 2011


I'm trying to stop my plot unravelling as I write. So far, I've introduced all the characters and am about to reach (I hope) what my editor calls 'the complication'. Trouble is, I've already tied myself up in knots with the two main strands and I'm not even at the 'complication' yet.

The two strands are:
evil menacing character, with possible murderous intent
evil menacing character number two, also with possible murderous intent

Either one is dramatic. The problem seems to be that the two strands cancel each other out. Switching from one to the other is more confusing than sinister. In this case, one plus one (murderous character) doesn't equal two times the fear. It seems to equal 'none'.

More on Plot Structure...

Monday, 7 February 2011


I tell myself I don't need to describe my characters - then readers can imagine them however they want. A chunk of description would slow down the story. My husband tells me it's because I can't be bothered. I suppose if I can't be bothered to describe my characters then it's highly possible readers won't bother to imagine them. So today I spent some time improving my character descriptions.

I've got a thing for hair. More even than eye colour, I think the reader likes to know. Frank's hair is 'bushy' 'dust-brown'. Eris' is dark blonde and looks as though she 'ironed it'. Miss Minnis has hair like rusted wire wool and Mr Fairs doesn't have any. I'm particularly pleased with the Headmaster's hair. It's wiry, black, and it 'curled from his nose'.

More About Writing a Novel...

Saturday, 5 February 2011


My editor said she thought I should add more description into Chapter ONE. So today I wrote this:
    The Learning Support Unit was a smallish room with fuzzy carpet and six wipe-clean desks, arranged in rigid formation. The teacher charged with keeping the demented element out of the way was Mr Fairs, the Learning Support Mentor.
    Toad said Mr Fairs had kicked a boy down the stairs once, and that the Learning Support Unit was actually set up to keep Mr Fairs out of the way. They only put students in there with him so he didn’t get suspicious.
    Frank wasn’t sure he believed Toad. Though there was something about Mr Fairs' expression that suggested he would like to kick a person down stairs. Frank felt it distinctly as he approached the desk. Mr Fairs looked up, eyes narrowed as the strip-light glinted off the top of his head.

Now, the thing is, is this a bit wrong? Learning Support Units are set up to promote government schemes like 'Inclusion', and 'Every Child Matters', and surely nothing like this could ever happen.

Except I did know a teacher who once kicked a student down the stairs. All the witnesses to the event swore they didn't see anything (the boy who got kicked was a menace). Which makes my imaginary Learning Support Unit sound like a beacon of 'Good Practice'.

Friday, 4 February 2011


Writing can be like flying, when it's going well, a seemingly undending flow of brilliant, witty words. Or that's how it seems at the time. When I read it back, it isn't usually quite as brilliant as I remember. Sometimes it doesn't even make sense.

I think it was Sol Stein who said the blank page is God's way of showing us what it's like to be God. Creating something from nothing is terrifying. But it's not nearly as frightening as fifty thousand words that aren't as brilliant as you remember. This is where editing begins, staring at the same words in endless combinations, character unravelling as fast as plot as you pick it apart then try to put it back together.

If you don't write, and want to know how it feels - just imagine picking apart your cat and putting that back together.

More About Writing a Novel...

Thursday, 3 February 2011


When I wrote Out of Time, there was a lot of mystery in my mind. Why do the characters do what they do? How does the timeline work? What do the whirly bits on the characters' skins mean?

I had a dim plan to work it out later, believing that the mystery in my mind would create a delightful riddle for the reader. Apparently, this is not the case. Apparently it's like telling a joke without the punchline. Like, what's brown and sticky? ... It's liable to cause dismay, or possibly murderous rage.

So for anyone who's thrown the first draft of my novel at the wall in dismay, here's one mystery solved. The biohazard symbol on my main character only becomes visible half way through the novel because... I only thought up the biohazard idea half-way through writing the novel. And for anyone who wants to know the answer to the joke, it's - well, it's not what you think.

More About Writing a Novel...

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


Writing a novel is a daunting, terrible process. It's too big to think about without going mad. This is where the To Do List comes in handy.

I try to start small. Item one, 'write to do list' usually works well. I haven't even got that far today. I'm building myself up to writing my 'To Do List', warming up my fingers on the keyboard, as it were.

Often I find more exciting things to do. Like cleaning the fridge (which seemed infinitely more interesting yesterday morning than working on plot). Or taking the bins out, which I did just now. I used to have big problems getting motivated to do housework. Not any more.

So I'm just off to write my To Do List. I could have three items ticked off within minutes.
1. write blog
2. take bins out
3. write to do list

Then maybe I can clean the toilet while thinking about getting round to some work on character.

More Useful Structures for Writers...

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


It came as a bit of a blow to realise that my plot had no 'resolution'. Apparently, without knowing it, I managed to write the never ending story. After two hours of hard thought, I came up with this:

The main character travels back in time using his 'magic saucer' and stops the apocalypse from happening. In other words, 'a wizard did it'. In case you're not familiar with the phrase, it's used in Sci-Fi and Fantasy circles to describe unutterably poor plotting.

I want those two hours of my life back.

If only I had a magic saucer.

More About Writing a Novel...

Monday, 31 January 2011


Today I started researching my novel. I probably ought to have done this before I started writing (the novel is currently 'finished').

As part of my research, I read some articles written by Nick Bostrom. In case you're not familiar with Nick, he lectures at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford and writes articles with titles like:
How Unlikely is a Doomsday Catastrophe?
Existential Risks: Analysing Human Extinction Scenarios.

I felt like I learned a lot today, all of it upsetting. As Nick points out: 'there is no trial and error opportunity to learn from these risks' (i.e. we all go extinct).

I also learned people have an, 'aversion to thinking seriously about a depressing topic'.

And yet, none of my researches into the possible (probable) end of human civilization was quite as depressing as this:

More About Writing a Novel...

Saturday, 29 January 2011


Sometimes this is harder than writing. I get itchy fingers at the weekends. Characters mumble at the back of my mind. I get brilliant ideas and when I write them down, realise they make no sense at all.

I'm writing now, of course. I tell myself this doesn't count. Except I just looked up and saw my kids have build a fort three metres cubed using every piece of soft and hard furnishing in the house, one of my sons is inside a 'robot' made of chairs and the other is trying to decapitate him.

Wait a moment. That gives me an idea...

More Life as a Writer...

Friday, 28 January 2011


I didn't always research my novels. In one of them, I decided Antwerp was in Holland and made one of my main characters Dutch. (It's in Belgium). Now I'm writing science fiction, I often think I ought to pay some attention to science.

I started out by reading the first paragraph - or possibly sentence - of a Wikipedia article on quantum physics. Then I read a really excellent book on the history of science, and forgot most of it instantly.

I made the mistake of mentioning my in-depth scientific researches to my husband. He pulled himself up straighter, looked me in the eye and said, so what is a quantum then? The pause went on too long, as I held his eye ('gaze' not eyeball). And then it came to me. 'Quanta are bits. Of stuff,' I added triumphantly. He gave me one of his dark, withering looks. 'Yes,' he said. 'Yes, I suppose so.'

More about Research...


I like to make 'notes to self' when ideas come to me. I have to do it there and then or I forget.

This one came to me in a fit after midnight:

Imagine different temporal locations as 'islands' one travels to in a boat. But travelling there changes that island and the location of the one you just came from.

Which all sounds kind of profound. If only I knew what it means.

Learn more About Writing a Novel...


Woke up feeling dazed, not knowing what timeline or part of reality I was in. I knew I shouldn't start trying to work out the temporal mechanics of my plot late at night. Actually it wasn't the timeline that was causing me the problems. That was the bit where I had to explain why the mad professor wanted to destroy the civilization. Apparently 'because he just does' isn't a good enough reason. (Well, tell that to the Professor, I thought and then maybe we could avert the collapse of civilization).

My husband likes to get involved in this process. He tends to notice when I'm looking pretty traumatized. So I sit there, getting more traumatized as he tells me things like 'you're making this up as you go along, aren't you?' He gets a particularly grim look of satisfaction on his face, you see.

So I say, 'of course I'm bloody well making it up'. I'm writing a novel aren't I?

More About Writing a Novel...