Listen to my writing retreat diaries…

The highlights of my audio diaries from my recent writing retreat were aired on the Dominic King show on BBC Radio Kent these last couple of nights.

You can hear me interview Marcus Sedgwick (in a hot tub!) here. Skip forward to 1 hour 29 mins.

And I spoke to YA author Dawn Kurtagich (not in a hot tub) here. Skip forward to 2 hours 10 mins.

The full-length diaries will be on the Bestseller Experiment podcast soon, so for more hot tub action (and insight into the writing process, of course) don’t forget to subscribe to that here!

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Writing retreat – day 5 – Climb Every Mountain…

Bet you expected a photo of a mountain, didn’t you…? Well, there’s been a few of those this week already, and I heard somewhere that cats are popular on the interwebs, so I’m heading this blog with a pic of Napoleon the cat* in a craven attempt to be down with the kidz.

Today was the final full day of this writing retreat at Le Chant de la Cascade and there’s a bit of an end of term feel to proceedings. I was up at around 6am, and by 10am I had done all I set out to achieve. The first five chapters of my middle grade book have been thoroughly rewritten and I have a road map of how to finish the rest of the book. Just having the head space to ruminate on this story has been invaluable. Note that I said ruminate and not concentrate. Concentrating is what I do during my regular working week; grabbing an hour here and there and focussing intently on the story. Here I’ve been allowed to let it drift in and out of my head as it pleases and we’ve been getting along better than ever as a result.

After my session, I went for a walk and found myself clambering up a very steep path, stopping every twenty minutes or so to avoid a coronary. I was eventually treated to this…

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Yes, another bloody photo of Mont Blanc… but look at it!

This has been an extraordinary week. A leap forward for a writing project, great company with my fellow writers, and wonderful hosts in Marcus and Maureen. If you have a project that needs some rumination and you like an environment that’s tranquil and inspiring, then check out the next retreat in May. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

*Not his real name. He asked for anonymity.

Writing Retreat – day 4 – mind groove

The best thing about this retreat is the space it gives you to think. Work emails are off on all my devices, I’m not worrying about catching trains, or getting to meetings on time. I’ve been given the luxury of time to let this story float around in my head and take shape.

I’m still working on streamlining the opening, which has meant chunky rewrites, but I’m really happy with how they’re coming out and I now feel like I have a roadmap to finish the next draft of this book before the end of the year, if not sooner.

It also helps that my fellow retreaters are night owls and I’m up first thing in the morning, which gives me the run of the place all morning.

After the morning session, we became tourists and visited the market in Les Gets and Morzine and I think I’ve bought chocolate, cheese and beer than will actually fit in my luggage. Our host, Maureen also took on a diversion to Lac de Montriond (pictured above) which is depleted after a drought. Everywhere you look here, there is epic scenery and I know I’ve banged about this already, but it really does get the synapses sparking.

We’ve been discussing author intent all week, so tonight we watched Room 237, a wonderfully bonkers documentary where various writers/conspiracy theorists outline their thoughts on Kubrick’s intent for The Shining.

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Most of them start with intriguing hypotheses, and then eventually go off the deep end because they just don’t know when to stop. My theory about The Shining is it’s just about a poor writer who wants to finish his book, but his wife and kid keep interrupting him… maybe he should go on a retreat?

All work and no play… something… something…

For more details about the retreat click here.

To read about the final day click here

 

Writing Retreat – day 3 – Taking out the trash…

Another early start with a little bit of light podcasting for next week’s episode, and a good morning’s writing. I’m realising that a big problem with this book is I’m setting too much up too soon, and a lot of what I’m setting up doesn’t even need to be there in the first place (retrospect is a fine thing and this is why we have rewrites). So my first four or five chapters might only need to be three chapters with clearer intent so that the reader’s expectations aren’t muddled and I have a greater chance of getting them engaged with the story.

It’s all about focusing on what’s important and taking out the trash… Speaking of which, Marcus asked if we fancied helping him take the trash up the road to where it’s collected, because when you get there, this is the view…

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Mont Blanc… which, on the hour, every hour, rumbles and ejaculates a new overpriced fountain pen from its summit.

 

I mean… blimey… that puts our local recycling centre into perspective. I couldn’t stop staring at it, and these photos don’t do it any justice whatsoever. It’s magnificent and gets something ticking over in my excitable little brain.

Fired-up once more, I returned to the chalet and worked harder than ever. This is the nook that I’ve been writing in. A little mezzanine level in the chalet with a not-remotely distracting view of the trees gently swaying outside…

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After a walk and an incredible dinner, we gathered for this evening’s session with Marcus, which was on endings, twists and readers’ expectations. This all came from conversations we’d each had with Marcus during the day, which is such a nice way of tailoring the group sessions to our own needs. I also got to interview one of my fellow retreaters Dawn Kurtagich who has been to a number of retreats and now even runs her own (subscribe to the podcast to make sure you don’t miss out on that!).

Once again, this retreat has defied all expectations and I can heartily recommend it. Check out more details of the May retreat here, and if that doesn’t convince you then this is the sort of food we’re getting…

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I mean, come on…

For day 4 click here.

Writing Retreat – day 2 – hot tub writing machine…

I was up pretty early this morning and got straight into my rewrites, working solid for an hour or so before I hit a crossroad. One of those writing moments where your choices can end up taking you down all sorts of blind alleys. 

Last night, our host Marcus Sedgwick talked us through a mapping method that he uses to sketch out his outlines on a large sheet of paper. I gave this a go, but my bum had been stuck in the same spot for too long, so I decided to take a walk to get the oxygen flowing through my beleaguered noggin. Marcus thought this was a good idea, pointing out that the Romans had a phrase for this: Solvitur Ambulando! (Yes, say it out loud and make a Harry Potter wand action, good, yes, now sit down, well done). It means, ‘It is solved by walking.’ Well, I’m all for that, especially when the views are like this…

These photos do this place no justice whatsoever. It’s incredible. Sheer cliffs, mossy boulders the size of a house, the distant clonk-clonk of cow bells, deep, impenetrable woods echoing with the sound of mysterious creatures… if you’re not inspired by this stuff, then there’s no hope for you.

After a couple of hours going up-diddly-up, I came down-diddly-down, staying close to the stream to ensure that I didn’t get completely lost. Returning to the chalet I was fired up and ready to write and had a very productive afternoon completely and utterly rewriting the second chapter of my middle grade book.

Part of my suspicion of writing retreats is the thought of having to read out my stuff to a bunch of other writers who will then rip it to shreds. I embrace a bit of healthy criticism, but I’ve ever thought that’s the best way to go about it. However, our session with Marcus this afternoon was partly inspired by my switching from third person past tense, to first person present, and so it made sense to read a bit of both versions out to make the comparison, and I’m glad to say it went down very well. We also discussed character, opening pages and how shifting the perspective of your narrator’s voice can make a dramatic difference to the tone of your writing. This was an easygoing hour or so with a small group and it was inspiring stuff.

I can’t recommend this retreat enough and there’s another one next May if you fancy it. Click here to check it out.

Oh, and tonight I got to interview Marcus while we were both in the hot tub. Another first for the Bestseller Experiment. Please subscribe on iTunes or your pod catcher of choice to ensure that you don’t miss out!

Click here for day 3.

Writing retreat – day 1 – Good news, bad news…

I’ve always had a healthy, working class suspicion of writing retreats: do you really need to go to a nice country house in Dorset to work on your novel…? Really?! Really??! Oh, get over yourself…

But then I stumbled across Le Chant de la Cascade over on Instagram. A retreat run by Marcus Sedgwick, an award-winning children’s author whose books I used to sell when he was published at Orion Children’s and someone whose writing I like very much, and he’s a very decent chap… and as I’ve said before, in these trying times I try to only work with nice people.

I dropped Marcus a line and he explained that the retreat is a small affair, just a handful of writers, and it’s all very relaxed and easygoing. No enforced jolliment or systematic abuse or ritual humiliation (you might think I’m confusing prison with writing retreats, but I have heard horror stories…).

After an incredible drive from Geneva through some truly stunning countryside we arrived in approximately the middle of nowhere, and it’s perfect. The only sound is the gentle hiss of the wind through the trees and the occasional cock-a-doodle-doo from a laid back cockerel.

I’m here to crack a middle grade children’s novel that I’ve been working on. I sent a draft to Karen Ball over at Speckled Pen and she gave me some excellent notes, which I plan to tackle while I’m here. The main note was about the authorial voice of the book. It’s currently in the third person past tense, and she noted that it just sounded too much like me (a bloke in his forties) and not the protagonist (a child), which can really hobble a children’s book. Karen advised that I read Joanna Nadin’s Joe All Alone – an excellent example of a first person present tense children’s novel – to see if it appealed… and it does. My first task today was to experiment with my book and see if that worked for me… and it does. That’s the good news. The bad news is I now have to rewrite the whole book in the first person present tense, which is a bit of an undertaking, but y’know what? What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, and that applies to rewrites.

Tonight, Marcus, myself and the other writers here discussed plotting, outlining, story, and we had fun sorting lyrics from ballads and synopses from films into order. This has put us all in an excellent frame of mind for the rest of the week… More tomorrow!

Click here for day 2

To find out more about the retreat click here.

Put these in your ears…

Safer than Q-tips and a lot more educational and edifying, you can hear me waffle on not one, not two, but three podcasts this week!

First up, of course, is the Bestseller Experiment where I speak to the wonderful Pernille Hughes about her road to publication, why she shared a photocopier with La-La the Teletubby, and we play a game called ‘Getting to know you’ where there are no right answers. You can listen here.

Secondly, comes the second part of an epic three-part trilogy on The Hero’s Journey that I’m recording with the wise and learned Julian Barr. We look at tricky middle acts, inmost caves, and that sort of stuff with examples from The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars and The Notebook. But the best part of these is the thoughtful, polite noise Julian makes when I say something stupid… These are for our Patreon supporters, but if you’re not one of them (and if not, why not??), then you can listen to a sneaky peek here.

And third is this interview with Tim Clare on the Death of 1000 Cuts podcast. This is especially fun as Tim laughs at most of my jokes, I drop some truth bombs about marketing and publishing, and then a fire alarm goes off during the interview and Tim keeps it in. You can listen on iTunes here, or the thingy below…

 

“Stick a bloody great sword on the front…” and other fantasy fiction cover art thoughts

To distract myself during the edit of The End of Magic, I’ve been indulging in cover art fantasies, wondering what wonderful images might grace the cover of my novel.

I’m quite old-fashioned in my tastes, so if it were down to me the cover would look something like this…

magicians gambit

Cover art by Geoff Taylor

Look at that! I mean look at it… You could just step through and join the adventure.

I have very fond memories of escaping into the Belgariad series in my youth and these covers for the UK Corgi editions blew my tiny young mind, but it’s not the ‘80s and I need to think commercially and not indulge in nostalgia.

But if you fancy a wallow here’s my Pinterest board…   

The key retailer for fantasy fiction in the UK is Waterstones who, along with the indies and libraries, are great for spreading word-of-mouth so my cover art will need to appeal to them. I just happened to be near Waterstones in Piccadilly with my daughter Emily and we decided to see what covers had been picked by the staff to adorn their tables. What follows is a fairly random selection of covers that caught my eye…

GODSGRAVE

Design by https://www.micaelaalcaino.com/

Illustration by https://kerbyrosanes.com/

There’s a lot going on here – there’s a wolf, there’s a crow, there’s a sword, ooh, a cat! – but it’s very striking and the combination of black and blue on white works really well, especially on a table piled high with mostly black and red covers. You want your book to jump off the table, catch the eye, and this one certainly did that. I particularly like the bold shoutline, “Conquer your fear… buy one get one half price.” It’s rare to see such brazen marketing in fantasy these days.

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A DEMON IN SILVER

Design by http://cameroncorneliusdesign.com/

Who doesn’t love a glowing sword (that’s got tangled in some curtains)?! Again, this really caught my eye, though it maybe a little too YA for my book

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THE GREY BASTARDS

Cover illustration by http://rostant.com/illustration/

Design by Duncan Spilling https://uk.linkedin.com/in/duncan-spilling-39a0a05

Ooh, he looks mean… and a bit pale and peaky. Oh no, wait. He’s an orc! Excellent. It’s a little too moody for my book and feels more of a US cover than a UK one though not too American for Waterstones, clearly…

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Here’s the US cover for the curious…

grey bastards

A GATHERING OF SHADOWS

Design by https://twitter.com/julialloydJLD

There’s lots to like here: The placing of the author’s name and title could have been a right old mess, but it really works here along with the review “Fantastic”, which is exactly what you want for a fantasy book! I want to avoid swords and daggers on the cover of my book (there’s a fair amount of swordplay, but it’s not that kind of book), but I loved the combination of red, black and white.

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NEVERNIGHT

Design by https://twitter.com/ccbookdesign?lang=en

Illustration by https://kerbyrosanes.com/

Same series/author/illustrator as Godsgrave, but I can’t resist that black on white styling. Looks great on the table and we all love birds, birds, birds on the cover…

 

… okay, maybe there are too many at the moment. Maybe lay off the birds for the time being? My book has a few messenger pigeons, but not crows or ravens… Hey, maybe fantasy pigeons will be the next big trend? … No, maybe not…

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THE CORE

Bloody hell! The stuff of nightmares looking straight at you on this one.

Another illustration from http://rostant.com/illustration/ though this was based on a “Demon model” by http://millenniumfx.co.uk/ who make models for Hollywood movies.

I bet that wasn’t cheap!

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ASSASSIN’S FATE

Design: http://www.dominicforbes.co.uk/

Illustration: http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/cover-story/

Calligraphy: http://www.stephenraw.com/

Much more like it, but all those specials like gold foil cost a lot of money – only the big brand authors get that kind of treatment – and they credit a calligrapher! Pricey and most likely way out of my budget…

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THE DEATHLESS

Design: http://www.dominicforbes.co.uk/

Illustration: https://www.artpad.org/

Striking in its simplicity and memorable. I keep noticing it in stores and online. Too sombre in tone for my book, but great cover art with a sense of epic scale.

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A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS

Illustration: https://www.toddlockwood.com/

I really like the tone of this one. A classic case of I would buy this book just on the basis of the cover… and we all want a cover like that, don’t we? And the diagram points make it feel like a book that may exist in the world of its own fiction. I have griffins and wyverns in my book, but they’re not as central to my story as they are here.

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ROTHERWEIRD

Design: http://www.leonickolls.co.uk/

Illustrations: http://www.sashalaika.com/

I’m getting a Rivers of London meets The Witchfinder General vibe from this, and a great sense of location. It’s not quite right for my book, but I’m filing it away for another project.

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LADY OF MAGICK

Design: Christina Griffiths http://www.bookdeluxe.net/section216431.html

Ooh, a book with the word ‘Magick’ on the cover (albeit spelled differently). Emily picked this one out. It may be a bit too YA for me, and there’s another bloody bird on the cover, but this is simple and striking and not the usual swords and dagger stuff.

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BLOOD OF ASSASSINS

Design and images: https://the-parish.com/

I like this a lot and yes that’s the author RJ Barker on the cover! (I’ve since learned that this is a lie, but I’m going to leave it here to show the world that RJ Barker is a great big fibber!)

Again, a bit too moody for mine but I really like the design.

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Conclusions…

I’m thinking something bright and clear with a lightness of tone. Maybe a cross between Godsgrave and A Gathering of Shadows. A lapis moon plays an important role in the story, so I like the combination of blue on white, but I also really love the dragon on the Marie Brennan… Maybe I should just shoehorn a ton of dragons in….? Gah!! So much to think about.

However, fancy-schmancy covers don’t just design themselves and to get something amazing will require a budget, so if you want to help me top-up please pre-order The End of Magic here.

Of course, there are plenty more books out there by amazing designers. Which are your favourites? Let me know below…

The Benefits of Being a Squeaky Hinge (as opposed to being unhinged)

What a week… firstly I went with the Gollancz gang to Secret Cinema’s Blade Runner, an incredible immersive experience that I’m still thinking about now. You can read about what happened (including my arrest and interrogation) here!

I also had a great time at the Herne Bay Sci-Fi By The Sea convention at the weekend. Not only was I with my brothers-in-ink Kit Cox and Thom Burgess, but it had a wonderful family atmosphere and I sold and signed quite a few books. I hope to return next year.

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Some of you might understandably cry, “You jammy sod, how do you get those cushy gigs?” Well, one thing I’ve learned over the years is to be a bit shameless and make a bit of noise, and I’ve tried to apply this to every avenue of life, and generally it works. Back when I was starting out as an actor, a friend put me in touch with the film director Vadim Jean. Vadim was hot off Leon the Pig Farmer and, incredibly, he returned my call… but I was out. He left a message with my dad to call back. I had already summoned up all my courage to have left a message for him in the first place, and a weird crippling shyness and fear prevented me from calling him again, and so I never did… God only knows what opportunities I missed because I felt that I was being a needy pain. It’s something I did a few more times in my youth, and I never really remedied it until I had a bit of success and younger writers started contacting me for advice! I was delighted and only too pleased to give whatever encouragement I could to steer them in the right direction… They weren’t being a pain. They were starting out and were bold enough to ask for a bit of help. Ever since I’ve overcome any doubts and been the first to volunteer myself for all sorts of endeavours. It’s one of the reasons I’m presenting a podcast, it’s how I got my agents, it’s how I summoned the nerve to invite myself to various comic cons and pretend to be in Blade Runner.

The world will not come to me, so I need to make a bit of noise to attract its attention.

The same rule applies for my agents and work life: book, TV and film people already have far too much to do, but if you want their attention you need to be a bit of a squeaky hinge. Not too taxing, not rude or obnoxious, but the squeaky hinge that can be sorted quickly so they can get on with their other stuff. Just this week, I politely chased a TV production company for an update and, as a result, I have a meeting with a director next week that could prove to be life-changing (or it could just be a nice chat over coffee… who knows?).

As I discovered with the Blade Runner experience, the more you put into something, the more you’ll get out. Be bold!

Speaking of bold, if you haven’t pre-ordered my fantasy novel, The End of Magic you can do it right now and still get your name in the book. Click here!

And you can download a short story set in the same universe. In How Drust Krax Lost Two Fingers you meet the novel’s main antagonist and it’s all seen from the POV of a defeated warlord who awaits execution, but also really, really needs to use the privvy… It’s available exclusively for my newsletter subscribers, and you can sign up for that here!

Until next time!

Mark

Son of a Beach

It’s been a fun week with a trip to the beach at Whitstable to interview Julie Wassmer. I had hoped to get some lovely audio atmosphere with waves lapping on shingle and gulls screeching overhead, but the tide was out so I had to settle for a gentle breeze buffeting the microphone. Fortunately, Julie is great fun to chat to and she told me all about working on EastEnders, bumping off the locals in her novels, and why all writers should live in fear of a cup of tea and bacon sandwich. Listen here.

I finished the John Yorke Story for Screenwriting course. 16 weeks of pretty intense work. Was it worth it? Check out my thinkings over here…

I also got to visit Hachette’s new warehouse in Didcot. While this may not sound like everyone’s idea of a fun day out, I did get to ride on one of their pickers, which went some 25 metres in the air and the queues were shorter than Disney…

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Getting a lift in the new Hachette warehouse…

A post shared by Mark Stay (@mark.stay) on

Also, if anyone’s concerned that print books are on the decline, this vast palace of storage and hi-tech distribution should allay those fears. This place was built to pump books out into the world and they’ve left plenty of room for expansion.

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I finished a short story this week. It’s a prequel to The End of Magic in which we meet our antagonist. My agent Ed read it and enjoyed it, though he did have one note: “Maybe the humour could be a little less lavatorial…? But that’s probably my shit to deal with.”

I do seem to have a thing about bodily functions… What do you say? Should I take this crap?

Also, I’m going to be on the new Dominic King arts show on BBC Radio Kent next Tuesday 12th at around 8pm. He asked me to put together a montage of voices from the podcast, which I did, but I’ve also made a “Guess the voice” quiz, which you can play here

Till next time!

Mark