Friday 31 December 2010


DONALD MAASS photographed by Richard Mabry

Donald Maass on the Writer Unblocked Blog  wrote about the evolution of a character: the growth they make, and their transformation during the course of the novel. 
Create challenges, and obstacles (internal or external) which make achieving the goal difficult: this is not news. 
Donald Maass made the observation that for the transformation to have meaning, the character must mean something in the first place. 
The questions he said to ask your main character are soul-searching. I found today was an ideal day to ask them of myself:
  • Why do you matter? 
  • To whom do you matter? 
  • How would the world be poorer if you weren't in it? 
  • What are you better at than anyone else? 
  • What do you see or understand that no one else does?
  • What was the last thing you learned? 
  • What was the last thing you learned about yourself? 
  • What is the worst thing about this moment? What’s the best?

It is hard to live up to the expectations we have of our fictional characters. 
When you've finished self-examination, Donald Maass suggests picking several points in your story where your character gets to answer, on the page, the questions above. You are measuring your character’s development so the answers should be different each time. 
It is good job no one is taking a taking the measure of me, I'm afraid I still have some growing to do. With the first three questions in mind, my New Year's Resolutions have a very focussed feel.

Thursday 30 December 2010


In the journey towards publication, economy and clarity are the satnav and the roadmap. Without both you will be wandering in the wilderness, I don't know about you, but I don't have forty years to spare. 

That is my dramatic concept, all the rest is the tarmacadam that levels the perilous road to writing success:
  • Dramatic Concept

          This is the place to start the journey of 30,000 to 130,000 words. Can you sum up your idea in a few sentences? Once you can, it is the time to start.
  • Outline

          This can be as detailed as you need it to be. Create a framework. Know your start and the end. The planning isn’t set in concrete; feel free to modify it as you go along.
  • Point-of-View

          Limit the number of brains you expect your reader to enter. Like Buffy, in Earshot, following everyone’s thoughts can drive a person crazy. Decide whose point of view you are going to use in a particular scene and stick with it.
  • Dialogue

          Writer Beware! Do people really talk that way? Stilted conversations – especially ones that dump information, from a distance – should be rewritten. Read the dialogue aloud. Make sure it sounds real.
  • Conflict

          Every story needs conflict: internal or external tension is what makes people turn the pages in the first place.
  • Escalation

          Your novel should read like a map of the Himalayas. Claw your way up to a critical peak, then push your character over the edge.
  • Show it (then you can tell us why)

          Neve was too tired to stand?

          Sickly resin glued her cheek to the tree. Tinny ringing filled her head. She encouraged it. Let it swell until it was the only sound she heard. The forest faded to milky-white in the grim dawn. Neve’s legs tremored. Her knees unlocked and she shattered.

I've been trapped into a loop of family and DIY projects, then Neve turned up; she is my one writerly achievement of the holiday. The idea is adult fiction. A rare thing: a dream idea - what a cliché ;)


Tuesday 28 December 2010


The key ingredients I look for in a fully formed breakout premise are (1) plausibility, (2) inherent conflict, (3) originality and (4) gut emotional appeal.
— Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

I wrote this song two hours before we met.
I didn’t know your name or what you looked like yet.
Oh I could have stayed at home and gone to bed.
I could have gone to see a film instead.
You might have changed your mind and seen your friends.
Life could have been very different but then,
something changed.
Do you believe that there’s someone up above?
Does he have a timetable directing acts of love?
Why did I write this song on that one day?
Why did you touch my hand and softly say.
Stop asking questions that don’t matter anyway.
Just give us a kiss to celebrate here today.
Something changed.
When we woke up that morning we had no way of knowing,
that in a matter of hours we’d change the way we were going.
Where would I be now if we’d never met?
Would I be singing this song to someone else instead?
I dunno but like you said
something changed
Pulp - Something changed

I love the song almost as much as the premise, it is a story  I'd love to write. 
On the Donald Maass Literary Agency website they post what they would like to find in the inbox. This is considerate. Someone goes to a lot of time and effort to generate ideas.

Monday 27 December 2010


The aim of this charity was to provide free books for children from the age of nine months until their first term of secondary school when they are 11. BOOKTRUST: a free book scheme that benefited 3.3 million young people every year has been scuppered by the government. 
Booktrust started a small-scale project  in 1992. When it was awarded government funding in 2004, the scheme become UK universal. 24 other countries now run a similar scheme.

But - Merry Christmas - 10 days ago, the charity was told it was to lose 100% of its government grant. The Guardian Book Blog suggests the government is anti-reading; I wonder where they got that idea.

The decision to end Booktrust's funding is thought to have been taken to finance the education secretary's U-turn on sport: to provide the funds to have the School Sport Partnerships restored. I didn't realise it would come down to a choice: Fit or illiterate. Perhaps we should hold a referendum?

The Deputy Prime Minister is noticeably invisible again. As the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, championed Bookstart. I understand he is is in a difficult position: it cannot be easy being tied up in a quest to riddle your CV with bullet points. 
The government may be working on another partial U-turn. Planning to put poorer children in a queue for some free books. Instead of Booktrust being a positive influence, and open-to-all, they are looking for ways to stigmatise the joy of reading.

Sunday 26 December 2010


This photograph was one of several taken in London, on Christmas night. On the blog, the gentle author gives a new meaning to the word venting. 

Sleeping in the street, beside The Savoy Hotel?

Not my idea of heaven.

At this time of the year, I am thankful for everything I have but more thankful for the charities, and individuals, who offer an alternative to this.

Slipping in,
Under all conciousness, 
Homeless is where the is heart is, 
So walk on by and I'll be fine,
This cardboard cover,
Keeps away the gales of the night,

And I know it's late and you're thinking I'm crazy,
I share the same dreams as you, yesterday,
You think this is a world away,
Beware of darkness 'cause this could be you could someday,
Under this cruel moon.


Thursday 23 December 2010


Read everything you write out loud. This takes a lot of time but it is time well spent. Only when you read it aloud can you read like a reader. Scanning over the text, writers often read what they think it says there.
There are five reasons to read aloud:

1      Mistakes are hard to spot, whether they are typos, improper punctuation, incorrect words; they are easier to find when the work is read aloud.

2      Language is lyrical but it shouldn’t turn into a full-blown musical. Assonance and alliteration are poetic but they can drag the reader out of your novel. 

3      Reading aloud helps to develop a consistent Voice: your style of writing.

4      Characterisation is enhanced when you read your work aloud. The main characters can be portrayed more effectively when they have a recognisable voice too.

5      Reading aloud to yourself or others; making videos to listen to your delivery from the perspective of your audience: are all great preparation for the readings you will asked to participate in, when you are a published author ;)

Whether you are at the start of your new WIP or in the final stage of editing: reading aloud is an effective tool.

I spent yesterday - when I should have been blogging - reading. I love it when a book sucks me in. I love Charlaine Harris' writing.

    Tuesday 21 December 2010


    Charles Dickens' is joining in the Be Jolly Blogfest ;)
    The Dickens’ family has a few Christmas customs we enjoy, each year, at 48 Doughty Street, London. As you can see, we deck the rooms with greenery and cover the tables with decorations or china ornaments and novelty items. The new Christmas crackers have proved to be very popular, with all generations of the family. At Christmas time, we especially enjoy card games and share a few hands, with our friends. Lastly, we gather to sing Christmas carols together. 
    Our seasonal drink-of-choice is mulled wine. I know it's a little old fashioned, but that is how we like it here.
    Our treat is harder to narrow down to one: mince pies or a steaming Christmas pudding: both are delicious and best enjoyed at this festive time of year.
    No; really:
    There is a Museum in London open on Christmas Day but this was not a case of: We always open on Saturday; what do you mean it’s Christmas Day?
    After researching though his work, the organisers identified the Dickens’ family’s Christmas customs.The rooms have been decorated. Best of all, the museum will have classic movie versions of A Christmas Carol running throughout the day. Visitors will also be able to listen to readings of his most famous – ly appropriate – work. ;)
    The museum is in Bloomsbury, just north of Holborn in London. The admission includes entry to a complimentary Christmas delicatessen, a gift pack, access to the Christmas exhibition and special events.
    This is such a great idea; Dickens and Christmas go together like hot chocolate and iced cookies - I've seen the evidence on lots of Blogs ;) There are more details about the Christmas Event at the Dickens Museum website.
    Merry Christmas.

    Monday 20 December 2010


    Jen Daiker at Unedited and Melissa at Through the Looking Glass are hosting the Be Jolly by Golly Blogfest! Thanks to this idea I have the opportunity to share  a little flavour of my Christmas.


    The Smith family Christmas-at-home is eccentric, eclectic - and loud. A Christmas-toon-time celebration: the Christmas karaoke out-malling the shopping centre smaltz; six versions of A Christmas Carol topped off with A Wonderful Life; board games; books and being together.

    My favourite Christmas drink is a glass of chilled, slightly-sweet, sparkling Cava served with cranberry ice cubes. To make the ice cubes fill an ice cube tray with cranberry juice and a cranberry or two, and then freeze. Serve the sparkling champagne with a couple of cranberry ice cubes for the look, smell and taste of a Christmas celebration.
    When it comes to turkey, I follow Jamie Oliver’s advice with biblical ferocity: I "stuff between the turkey’s skin and breast to increase the thickness so they take the same time to cook as the legs!" Using sage leaves, pancetta strips, garlic cloves, onion, celery, lemon zest, nutmeg, lots of salt and pepper, ending off with an orange in the cavity: Jamie does everything except throw the Christmas tree at the turkey to ensure it tastes the very essence of Christmas .

    Watching England take on the Aussies, at Cricket, has gone from thrilling to terrifying. As we all support Man Utd - and Watford FC too - the holidays should produce a mixed bag of excitement and a variety of results! 

    Happy Holidays!

    I hope everyone experiences peace and joy this Christmas. I wish everyone more successes than challenges in the New Year. 

    Sunday 19 December 2010


    Writing with vigour. In The Elements of Style,  William Strunk Jr. created sound advice for authors. Originally written in 1918, this book has been mined for information for a long time. The  11 Elementary Principles of Composition are the keystone of good writing. 
    “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” – William Strunks
    Of the 11 elementary principals, there are 6 absolute elements:
    • Write in paragraphs - change when you introduce a new person, place or time

    • Use the active voice.

    • Put statements in positive form.

    • Use definite, specific, concrete language.

    • Omit unnecessary words.

    • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

    I have learned so much during the writing process. I only really understood one of these key principles at the start.

    Heading into the season of excess, it is the best time to remember to be vigorous: have fun, shape up and write! 

    Wednesday 15 December 2010


    When I love the book I’m reading, that alternate reality can occupy anything between 40% and 100% of my real life. This could not happen, unless I cared. 
    • Plan strengths
    • Consider weaknesses
    • Weigh them down with expectations
    • Give them goals
    • Nothing should ever be easy 
    • Make them moral - so they care
    • Light the path to evolution

    When the characters are well-written the reading experience is so intense it can make real life seem an intrusion. Real characters can do that. 

    Last Friday, I went to Chalfont St Giles.
    I said to my son, “Do you want to go to Rickmansworth?”
    This is shorthand for go to buy second hand books and a sausage roll from the bakery.
    He answered, “No, I want to go to Chalfont St Giles.”
    I took time to unpick why. There was a signpost my son drove past each day on his way to school. He had complex ideas about seeing the name but never being able to get to the place.
    I resisted the need to panic - because the SATnav was in the other car – considered it an adventure and we set off.
    I didn’t know Chalfont St Giles was where John Milton wrote Paradise Lost (school made me study it.) The author crafted Adam’s struggles and Satan’s ranting in a beautiful cottage at the top of the hill.
    Reading Paradise Lost was the first time I’d learned to appreciate Archangels. Raphael, in Near Edgware, was named for his form and function – fiery protective, his role was to argue for truth in every situation. Blast. I still love that book.

    Tuesday 14 December 2010



    Dickens is at his best when his voice creeps into the narrative. Paragraph 1 is Dickens the author at work. Paragraph 2 is 90% the man. 

    This was the first of Charles Dickens' books I decided I had to read. I was given a Ladybird abridged classic. After sludging through Dombey and Son, I marched into the library with my thin version of A Christmas Carol and announced,  "Excuse me have you got a real copy of this?

    Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

    Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail. 

    When it comes to movie and TV versions, I'm a tough audience: The Muppets' Christmas Carol is my favourite                                                                     

    It's in the singing of a street corner choir
    It's going home and getting warm by the fire
    It's true wherever you find love
    It feels like Christmas
    A cup of kindness that we share with another
    A sweet reunion with a friend or a brother
    In all the places you find love
    It feels like Christmas 

    It is the season of the heart
    A special time of caring
    The ways of love made clear
    It is the season of the spirit
    The message if we hear it
    Is make it last all year 

    It's in the giving of a gift to another
    A pair of mittens that were 
    made by your mother
    It's all the ways that we show love
    That feel like Christmas
    A part of childhood we'll always remember
    It is the summer of the soul in December
    Yes, when you do your best for love
    It feels like Christmas 

    Now I'm off to skip and dance my way to the market to buy some holly and order
     a prize turkey from the window ;)
    How are your holiday preparations coming along? 

    Sunday 12 December 2010


    Ellie Garrat is hosting a Christmas Tales' Blogfest. I love a tale at Christmas time: this got my creative juices... wagging ;)


    Bent was surly. Even well-oiled by the bottle he carried in his inside pocket, he was morose. Every tentative smile, each polite greeting: he met civility with a range of expressions designed to keep the world at bay. The most common of these were his scowl or a sneer.

    Twilight on Christmas Eve, the sky was still pink streaked, the sandstone buildings glowed warm orange. Bent saw no beauty in the sunset, he leaned low over his silver-topped cane. His constitution though was sound, his health was robust, so no helpful mucus dripped from the downturned end of his hook-nose preventing the scent of early roast dinners from teasing his senses or reminding him that in his old house the only odours ready to greet him were dampness sprinkled temptingly over mildew. 

    The melted snow had changed the pavements from damp to blackly dangerous. Bent glared at the children who hurried past and slid their races home. The days when he could hurry were long gone. He placed each careful footstep, willing fractured ankles, heads or coccyx to the lot of them. 

    He wished no such thing to the young lovers whose lips were glued while they danced a side-stepping, merry-tangled tango towards him. His finger itched upon the cane. Sliding it on the glistening pavement he aimed to bring about a painful separation as divorce was beyond his grasp of space or time.

    The slick puddle got there first. Thin heels picked the surface, loafers thought to lie. The hero twisted to protect his sweetheart who would have been broken, when his feet shot backwards. The injury doubled, if her soft form cushioned his on the impervious path. His shame turned to joy when the hand and stick proved close enough to save more than his face.
    “Bless you, Sir. What a hero.” Both kissed his cheek and shook his hand and mistook his rosy glow for modesty. “Merry Christmas to you sir. We owe you more than gratitude. “

    Bent shook his head, unsure how his intention had been so misconstrued.

    “No, Sir. We will not embarrass you further. We will show our kindness to a stranger, as you did. We will spread this Christmas lesson.” 

    A pearl flake landed soft upon Bent’s dark coat. The chill air trapped it there. Bent’s anger made him pat the offending droplet, but too hard. His agitation disturbed the bottle of rum that had fortified his reluctant journey home. He staggered a few more steps: jiggled the bottle, joggled it, until it fell into the hand he'd wormed inside his overcoat.

    The drinkers crammed against the window of the disco pub, where jolly tunes thumped haunting scenes and ghosts of Christmases past, watched Bent struggle with his daemon drink. Saw him tug it from his coat, admired him when he let it fall and scraped together the shards of glass littering the path. 

    The air around Bent warmed. Encircled by many whose outfits would not keep a summer breeze at bay, Bent’s confusion won, not sympathy but devotion from the throng - and visions of delightful thongs - when the bevy of beauties bent to help him up. His view was more hilly but no less welcome to Old Bent. He remained completely befuddled when they kissed him.

    “You're right, Sir. Drink is no answer.” 

    Pushed around the circle in a way Bent remembered from party games when he was small, they  hugged and kissed him until Bent hardly know which way lead to home.

    “We wish everyone could have seen you refuse to give in to temptation. Truly, you are a saint.”

    Pearls of snowy white descended with a flurry, as the group rushed to spread news of Bent’s good deeds to all. The sight of so much good will, put Bent into a spin. He staggered into the street, forgetting caution, unaware of danger. He saw the light, but too late.

    He gazed into a white sky: fearless, weightless, but not alone. No matter how he struggled, no matter what he said, they pulled him up towards the light... to glory. He had died in such a state of grace that he was allowed only one destination. 

    Bent cursed, “Oh Mary! Sweet mother of God!”

    Every doubt his angelic guardians had dissipated. They dragged the old Sinner upwards, to his just deserts. 

    What the Dickens?!  It turned into a right-moral Christmas story. ;)
    Do you think Charles had a plan - had any idea where the initial character would take him, when he started his story?   I created Bent from his name, I had no idea - in the first paragraph - where Bent's journey was going to take him. 

    Writing vs. Telling: Thank you Nicholas. SHOW DON'T TELL

    There is a world of difference.

    I can't postpone Christmas. I am going shopping before they've sold out of shops too :)

    Friday 10 December 2010


    Flashback, and foreshadowing, play with narrative time. 
    A good flashback:
    • weaves complex themes into the plot
    • creates sympathy for the worst of characters (Professor Snape)
    • confirms why we were right to despise them (Voldemort)

    Flashbacks in flashback have more cyclonic action than a Dyson – no reader want to be sucked into one of those.
    Convenient flashbacks, the ones enabling you to include the non-dynamic scene you pictured as your opening - the one any literary agents’ eye would glaze over - should be avoided. Every flashback must contain essential information or it will slow down the action but contain nothing that propels the readers’ understanding forward.
    There are ways to avoid the flashback technique:
    1. Dialogue
    2. Narration
    3. Dropping in details

    Inference is a powerful tool: with a word or a look, a lot can be implied. Sometimes you have to trust your reader to do the thinking. Engage their empathy and intuition. Supply just enough information, at the right moment, to balance the needs of the plot and your characterisation.
    Do you have a favourite writing technique
    Flashback or foreshadowing? 
    I avoid the first and am addicted to the second. 
    My advice for my favourite technique is to watch out for being too subtle or the  foreshadowing will be smudged over in the reading. ;)

    On a serious note:

    How can this be the twenty-first century when Steven Neary can be treated with such appalling insensitivity, cruelty and permanency? 

    Steven Neary has effectively been imprisoned for being autistic This cannot be allowed.

    Please read this account of his treatment. Spare a few minutes. Do more than CRY. 
    Sign and see if, together, we can make a difference. Robbers, thieves and those who have killed through reckless driving have served less time.

    Thursday 9 December 2010


    Remember to start on top of a peak ;)
    If in doubt, I ask Alan Rinzler. I found, then lost, his Blog last year: it was like gaining superhuman strength then losing a leg. He is a genius. 

    Writing any novel is a journey in time and space: the characters take a simple path through time as they know it; the author’s trip is through a more complex realm: there are no limitations when control of time is fluid. Scientists call this Chaos Theory.  

    When it comes to writing, I'm not a big fan of chaos. There are five steps to avoid wandering in the wilderness:
    • Prepare. 
    • Plan. 
    • Navigate carefully. 
    • Adapt only if the prevailing conditions demand it . 
    • Don’t rush.

    Pre-writing  ;) 

    A comprehensive-kind-of plan:
    1. Ideas – these appear from sources as varied as labels on a jam jar through to a line in a lyric 
    2. Imagining – spend time writing nothing: imagine the characters, settings, conflicts, outcomes
    3. Research – read a lot, don't be afraid to go off at a tangent. Research the back history of the back history.
    4. Prepare a Working Wall: photographs of places and people, maps, words, phrases, sentences 
    5. Calculate the time scale and plot events based on a calendar – there is nothing worse than having a lunar month every second week
    6. Write post-it notes or cards for your characters – more detailed if the novel is longer
    7. Draw a grid – 12 boxes each approximately equal to a chapter. This grid is a working document. Jot down the main scenes or points you want to cover. This is a notated storyboard. They could contain sketched images to cut down on the number of words you need to write. Plan where to drip feed important back-history and refer to your smoking gun. Feel free to move elements around in the planning stage - it is a lot easier to do here rather than later. Develop the story and the characters as a skeleton. This can be fleshed out while you write. It is a complete over-view of the novel.

    Before I write, I like to see the landscape spread out before me. I create a contoured map and a prepared route. Unexpected obstacles are rare opportunities. I’ll stop and smell the daisies, but I always need to know where I’m going. 

    The Three Peaks Run makes an excellent graph, or a novel plan ;)