Why a book is like a loaf of bread

I accidentally used this metaphor while speaking to a student the other day, and the more I think about it, the more it holds true. When you make bread, something miraculous happens. A bowl of lumpy gloop is transmuted into an entirely different thing- different state, different matter, different texture and taste and smell. When you write a book, the process is something similar. Chuck random elements in, apply time, apply heat, and the result will always be a small miracle (OK, sometimes very small). Most of us have the elements – though do you have enough story yeast?? – and the heat of actually doing it, but sometimes we can skimp on the time stage.

I don’t mean by this that writing a book has to necessarily takes lots of time. The faster you write, the hotter your oven is. What I mean is that it needs time to rise. When you’re leaving the loaf to ‘prove’, you don’t keep taking it out from under its tea-towel and fiddling with it. You don’t start kneading it until it’s risen. Then you knock the air out of it and leave it to rise again (I shall rise again!, it cries). But for a certain length of time, it has to sit alone in a warm dark place.

What on earth does all this have to do with writing? Well, I think your book also has to sit in a warm dark place for a while. Keep adding to it, but don’t start kneading until the dough has a chance to prove (don’t be kneady). Let the idea bed in a little and that story-yeast have time to…I don’t know, what does yeast do? Ferment? So this means- don’t talk about it too much. Don’t take on board feedback until later. And absolutely don’t delete things or make changes. Give the loaf a chance first!

This week I’m giving away a free sampler with extracts of my next two books, plus some never-seen extra scenes! To get it just sign up for my newsletter here – www.ink-stains.co.uk 

For some slightly more coherent writing thoughts, you can check out this video of my top ten tips.

The Silent Dead

Silent Dead TPB.inddToday I have a book out. When my first book came out, in 2012, it was one of the most exciting days of my life. Today will be a largely normal day, except for that I hope people will be able to start reading The Silent Dead. I think there’s some essential part of being human that means you can get used to anything!

The Silent Dead is the third Paula Maguire book. It picks up four months after The Dead Ground, and sees Paula still looking for her long-missing mother, still embroiled in a difficult love triangle, and still trying to find the lost and bring them home. Only this time the missing people are brutal killers. Here’s a bit more about the story:

1 May, 2006 – a small town is shattered by a devastating bomb. 16 people die – yet the suspected bombers walk free.

2011- as the fifth anniversary approaches, the five terrorists disappear. And start turning up dead, killed in the same ways as their victims. Buried alive. Beheaded. Burned to death.

Paula Maguire, heavily pregnant and struggling, has to ask herself: does everyone deserve justice? And what does justice even mean when the victims are remorseless killers?

The third book in the Paula Maguire series sees her pushed to her limits, both at work and in her private life. Can she find the missing before it’s too late – when she’s not even sure if she should?

Next week I will be giving away free exclusive scenes from the book, and also the start of the next Paula, A Savage Hunger. This will be out in March and I’m pleased to say the cover is now available (and it’s brilliant). Proofs will be out soon – stay tuned for more next week!

PS The Silent Dead has by far the highest body-count of any book I’ve written- seven by my reckoning – so hang on to your hats. You can get a copy here. 

How to just keep going, and going

Step in to my office...actually wait, no, don't!
Step in to my office…actually wait, no, don’t!

It’s now November 13th – how are all you NaNoWriMo-ers getting on? (That’s National Novel-Writing Month to those not in the know, which happens to be NOW). I have 15,000 words, which is not up to NaNo standards but ahead of my own target of 1,000 a day, and I’m pretty happy with it. Already I can see the way ahead emerging from fog, in a way I just couldn’t when I tried to plan things out. All I ended up with was a dry and rather bizarre list of scribbles. So, not planning is definitely what works for me. When I just write, it becomes totally logical what the characters should do next (for now anyway – I await the 30k crash with trepidation. It always comes).

I’ve also been spending time with my students, puzzling out the issue of where to find time (and energy) to write if you go to work early, don’t get any breaks, and come home frazzled. This is a problem that never really goes away but some things that work for me are:

-write before you do anything else. That means get up, make tea and whatever you need to do that takes less than five minutes, then back in bed with the laptop or notebook. Certainly DO NOT look at emails or Facebook first. I didn’t stick to this today and though I did write, it felt much harder.

PS it doesn’t matter what time you get up. I HAVE TESTED IT.

-turn off the part of your brain that says ‘that’s not good, you made a typo, you’ll have to rewrite that bit, wait, that plot point wasn’t there before!’ So, you can rewrite it. It’s very hard to turn this off but at this point, change NOTHING. Do this by:

-pretending you don’t have a delete button. At this point, once you go back at all, like Orpheus and Eurydice, you will be lost. Just keep going, fix it all later. At the moment I know I have a character who has three different surnames. In only 15,000 words. So what – I’ll fix it later.

-obviously, do not show it to anyone at this point. Even to get praise. imagine it’s a terrible furtive secret you must stop at nothing to conceal.

-protect that laptop, or USB, or notebook, as if it contains nuclear launch codes.

-why are you still using USBs?? It’s 2015! Get on Dropbox or One Drive! Avoid the horror of lost docs and fried hard drives.

-if the bed-office (the boffice, as I like to call it) doesn’t work for you (back pain, kids, non-understanding partner etc), then bribe yourself with a trip to a cafe on the way to work, or a nice coffee for the train ride in, or a muffin.

-if the computer thing doesn’t work, try longhand with a really nice notebook and pen

-if that doesn’t work either (no seat, commute too short, can’t work that early in the morning etc), try lunch breaks, or try to get to some NaNo write-ins (see their website for this). Write-ins foster an amazing sense of productivity, and if they have timed writing sprints it’s excellent for turning off the inner editor. Or write at the gym or wherever you can find 15 minutes.

I know it’s hard to find the time. But the best thing you can do, NaNo or no NaNo, is get into a daily writing habit (or at least 4/5 days a week if you can). Even 300 words is good. Just to give the story light and food inside you, and let it grow. GOOD LUCK. What are some of your tricks and treats for keeping going?

Bucket lists, and how to set any goal

At the New York Public Library, ticking off one bucket-list item, and adding another...
At the New York Public Library, ticking off one bucket-list item, and adding another...
At the New York Public Library, ticking off one bucket-list item, and adding another…

What’s on your bucket list? Running a marathon, visiting Macchu Piccu, buying a house? Some goals take ages to achieve. There’s no way I could run a marathon unless I trained for a year, and probably not even then. And I couldn’t get really good at Spanish without some serious study or immersion. Could I do that in a month? Maybe. What about losing five pounds? Yes, that’s probably doable in a month. Losing five stone – less so. I’m an incurable list maker, with lists of things to do for the day, week, month, year, and next five years (and beyond). Some of these things are quite possible (like going to New York, which was on there for ages and I just did last week. Turned out I just had to book it, who knew?). Some are less so (like becoming really good at swing dancing. Not sure I have the time or focus or for that matter, the dancing feet).

Many people have the goal, secret or otherwise, of writing a novel, and luckily enough we find ourselves now in National Novel Writing Month (or NaNo, to aficionados). Can you even write a novel in a month? At first glance it might seem ridiculous, like me signing up to do that marathon in four weeks’ time (please don’t make me I will die). But if you have a goal, the first thing you need to do is clarify what you mean by it. Do you want to write an amazing polished novel with time for several edits in a month? That’s probably a stretch, for those of us with other work and lives and who really need to watch The Walking Dead season four. I think it’s probably possible, for people with a great idea and lots of time (and maybe lots of recreational drugs; cf Kerouac writing On the Road in a month).

However. Is it possible to write 30 or 50 or even 60 or 70 thousand words in a month? Of course it is. Most people doing ‘NaNo’ aim for 50k, or around 1700 words a day. When I’m in a writing phase (and I by no means do this all the time), I aim for 1,000 and I will sometimes do as many as 7,000 (I said SOMETIMES). Is it possible to write 1,000 really good words every day? Maybe not. Is it possible to scribble down 1,000 words of any thing you can think of, without editing or spellchecking or even reading it back? Yeah, it is. You can do this in 15 minutes if that’s all you have (try a timed NaNo writing sprint and you’ll be amazed how much you can get done).

You can use this process of clarification and simplification to set any goal. Remember the irritating acronym you learned on that pointless training day your work sent you on, and you went because it was a day away from the office and there were free biscuits? Cast your mind back to that dusty overhead projector. A good goal should be SMART, ie:

Specific – ie, ‘I will write 50,000 words this month’ instead of ‘I will write a novel’. Or if that’s too many, 30,000, or 10,000.

Measurable – can you measure how many words you’ve written? Yep, that works

Achievable – see previous discussion. I can’t train for a marathon in a month, but I could maybe train to run a few miles (I’m VERY unfit guys). Likewise, it’s achievable to write a certain number of words in a month. You decide how many.

Realistic – is it realistic for you? It’s definitely possible, but have you cleared enough time, and dealt in advance with your likely obstacles (family, work, illness, traffic jams etc)? What’s the most likely thing that will hold you back? What happens if your laptop carks it on day four (they’re helpful like that) or you lose your document or you end up having to work late because Samantha in Accounts has messed up the purchase orders yet again? Can you add in catch-up periods? Can you cut back on other commitments for a month? It’s only a month after all.

Time-related – use a month, or six months, or set weekly goals too. That huge ‘I will write a novel’ will never get done, but break it down and it will.

So seen in this light, writing a novel in a month (or a good chunk of one) is totally doable. Just don’t aim to write a book that will instantly sell without any edits (because that’s unlikely). (though also not impossible). If you manage 50,000 words, a typical commercial novel nowadays is at least 80,000, so you’ll need to add to it (though some ebooks are shorter now). GOOD LUCK. I know at least two writers who sold their NaNo novels (with editing), so why not you?

Why you shouldn’t talk about your writing (sometimes)

There are two types of writers. Some do it in secret, as furtively as shoots pushing through the earth in spring. They don’t like to talk about it, and if pressed will give some vague answer about ‘getting there, making progress, pleasedon’taskmeanymorethanks’. They nurture the idea inside them until it germinates. Think watercress in the airing cupboard and you’ll have got it.

The second type is very comfortable discussing their ideas . They go to writing classes and groups, they get feedback, they talk about their ideas. They may even post bits online as they’re writing. They’ve weathered the terror of people seeing their work, and found it’s not so bad after all.

I’ve been both types at different times.

I do think we need a bit of secrecy in our work. That idea might be so ill-formed, such a tiny wisp of a thought, that if you try to explain it and see baffled looks, it could put you right off carrying on. You might also feel silly when your amazing idea starts to be ruined by, you know, actually writing the damn thing. There are points in the writing process when it becomes about practice, not inspiration. The discipline to keep plugging away in the dark, hoping light will flood in. At these times it’s good to keep your work a secret even from yourself. Keep going, don’t look back, don’t question, don’t second-guess. Don’t even tell yourself you’re writing a book. Try writing in notebooks, ideally with indecipherable handwriting. It’s why I sometimes suggest students ignore my feedback until they have a first draft. Talking about your book a lot can also make it hard to edit. It’s already out there in the world, crystallised. How can you then tear it to pieces?

There’s another issue. If you’ve talked about your work a lot, you’ll also get well-meaning (or not) friends asking how it’s going. Finished that book yet? You know, that novel you’ve been working on? When’s it coming out? Where can I get it? Oh what’s that, it can take years to write and publish a book and that’s only if you sell the first one which you might not even do? You don’t need that kind of pressure. Carry on serenely, with your secret book germinating away.

Of course, if you leave that cress in there too long it’ll rot, so if you’re very much on the furtive side, there will come a time when you need to get feedback, have eyes on your work, and drag it out into the light. Then you should take a cue from the other type of writer. It’s just important to know which stage you’re at.

Why we really need a montage- working with pace

This week my MA novel-writing students at City University are covering pace. Often, people assume that this simply means going as fast as you can. A lightning- quick story with lots of running around and many things happening. But actually, pacing is about controlling the passage of time in the story- and for your reader. It’s about making them turn the pages feverishly, or stay glued to every word.

The most common pacing error I see in new writing is too much summarising. Telling us what happened instead of letting us see it, moment by moment on the page. (At the weekend I taught a class with Erin Kelly, queen of the psychological thriller, who suggested thinking of the book as a series of scenes, like in a film. This is so much easier, especially for first-time writers) Writing moment by moment is vastly more engaging than telling, and allows the reader to infer things and have unanswered questions, which builds suspense. So if you’re struggling with writing that is concise, clear, and flat, go moment by moment instead. It’s essentially the opposite of what we learn in school, which is why fiction is sometimes harder for people who are good at other types of writing (eg journalism). You’ve got to unlearn all those habits that got you an A in Mrs Smith’s English class.

Nb- this doesn’t mean you have to show us every single instant from the scene, such as ‘I opened the door. I crossed the room. I picked up the cup’ etc.) if you start sounding like a Dick and Jane book, vary your sentence length and structure, and use some dialogue or direct thoughts. Or skip over it altogether by using a jump cut, which I have talked about before.

Of course, sometimes you want to summarise the passing of time in a concise way, but as we tragically don’t have access to the montage (see below) in narrative writing, we have to find another way.

Try writing ‘it was a year later’, then jumping into another moment by moment scene. If we need to know any other information, slip it into the scene via thoughts, dialogue, or telling details the reader can observe. Or even start with some dialogue:

‘I hate Christmas,’ said Mary, toying with the angel from the tree. It was a year later and during that time Santa hadn’t called her at all, or replied to the letters she put up the chimney. She told herself she didn’t need him, but how could she forget him when his face stared out of every shop window and Christmas card? 

*rushes off to write Santa-themed erotica*

So, to summarise, if you’re having issues with your pace, try

  • jump cuts
  • moment by moment writing
  • cutting out backstory, info dump, and summarising
  • starting the scene with dialogue or action, then explaining afterwards where and when it is  (this also creates a bit of mini-suspense if we’re not totally sure how we got here for a paragraph or two)

Think of different ways to get from A to D, without going via B and C. If all else fails try to invent the narrative montage. Please.

Get started in writing – a six-point plan

At the weekend, I took part in a writing Q&A at Henley Literary Festival. There were many interesting questions – should I have a website? (yes, crucial for interested agents and other parties to find you and is easy and free); do I have to use social media (publishers might ask you to but it’s only worth it if you like it, as it really shows otherwise); do you plot in advance (big no from me, big yes from Tasmina Perry). But the one that stood out for me was from one lady who simply asked: ‘How do you start?’

I wasn’t sure if she meant how do you get started in writing/publishing, or how you start a book. How to start a book is a whole other question so for now I’ll answer the first part. Here’s how I got my ‘break’.

  1. I decided, after years of starting novels I never finished, I had to actually write a whole one, or I’d always be cross with myself. I was 25 at this point (but was somehow convinced I was already too old and had failed….)
  2. I wrote a book (three years on and off, deleting, adding, circling back on myself, agonising). I also took a writing class at City Lit.
  3. I sat on the book for six months as I was too scared to send it out
  4. I bought the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and I sent the book to an agent. I chose them because they were based in my town, and they took email submissions (this was five years ago when you still had to sneakily use your work printer to make loads of copies of your book, and I imagine they nearly all prefer email now). I also started going to some writing events
  5. The agent said no. My first rejection. Not as awful as I’d imagined – after all there was still a whole book full of agents to try.
  6. I sent it to one other person, who also said no. Then I sent it to a friend’s agent, who liked it and requested the full MS, but felt it wasn’t for them. They suggested another, quite big agent. I sent it to them. They asked for the full manuscript within a week. Brilliant! I thought I had made it.
  7. Six months went by. (I was pretty dumb about my submissions strategy, as in, I didn’t have one, and I didn’t realise it was OK to send out multiple submissions as long as you kept the agent informed). So I got impatient. And discouraged.
  8. Because I am impatient, and a bit dumb, and also quite a fast writer, I wrote another book. It was started in April and finished in August. I was working full-time at the time – yes, this is entirely possible if you have a good idea of your story and like to write quickly.
  9. A friend emailed to let me know about a competition for unpublished novels. This is now sadly defunct but there are some others around, such as Mslexia and the Debut Dagger. I debated which book to send – just-finished three-monther or bled-and-sweated-over three-yearer? I had about five minutes to decide, as the competition closed that day. I could very easily have talked myself out of entering it, with such a short deadline. I sent off the new one.
  10. I got long-listed. Brilliant! Much joy! Then I got short-listed. Even more joy. Our names were printed in the Bookseller. And I started being contacted by agents and editors. Just imagine how exciting that was.
  11. I signed with an agent and she sent the book out (again this was five years ago. I imagine now it would be edited before submission.)
  12. It sold. There was some to-ing and fro-ing but I had a deal within eight months of starting the book. Yes, of starting. Again, this is entirely possible.

I think novel-writers are fortunate in that there is still a very clear path into writing, even if you know no-one and are the world’s most terrified introvert. Most authors will have variations on that story – deals lost and gained, changes of pseudonym, first and second and third books (and more) that didn’t sell, agents left and publishers ditched and ditching, twists and turns in the road. The journey will never be as straightforward as it seems. So how do you get started?

  1. Write book (simples, of course) >>
  2. Start going to writing events, following publishing types on Twitter, and maybe take a submissions class (the W&A yearbook do them). Work out from these methods which agents are actively looking for new writers and like your kind of stuff >>
  3. Really work on your pitch, letter, and synopsis (should be done after all the creative hard work of the book is complete) >>
  4. Send to agents >>
  5. If you get interest, establish if the agent wants to take you on, and if they are planning to send your book out now or after you’ve done some work on it, or whether they’d want to wait longer>>
  6. If this doesn’t work, write another book. Or take an MA or other writing class. Or get a manuscript critique. Or self-publish.

It’s almost like a flowchart – work out where you are and what your n
ext step should be. There will of course be ups and downs – agents who are not clear as to whether they’ve signed you or not is one possible issue I’ve noticed – but I promise you it can be that simple. The key is to keep each stage of the process moving, and not get stuck. Good luck!

(image taken from this useful post – https://litreactor.com/columns/8-signs-its-time-to-scrap-your-writing-project)