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...