I’ve been working on a new way of writing the first draft of my novel. And it’s been working really well… so far…
Hello, folks. Apologies for the hair. Still in lockdown and two weeks till I get a haircut, so this is going to get worse before it gets better. Anyway, I’m working on the first draft of Skyclad, the third Witches of Woodville book.
Regulars will know that I used to be a big outliner when it came to writing, but I’m becoming more and more of a pantser or discovery writer, whatever you want to call it.
That is, I’m making it up as I go along. Well, sort of. I do have a rough idea of where I’m going and I know how I want the story to end. And I have a few key notes on a few key moments, but I thought you might be interested to know how I’m working with this one. Again, regulars might know that I have a different notebook dedicated to each project. Here’s the one for Book Three of the witches of Woodville, Skyclad.
This was bought at the National Trust Gift Shop at the White Cliffs of Dover, which is a little clue as to where some of the book will take place. What I’ve taken to doing with this story is switching from day to day between paper — the notebook — and the screen — the laptop — and it’s really working for me. So to give you some idea… On, say, Monday, I will start noodling ideas for what happens next in the story in The Notebook.
So here I’ve written in big letters, “How can the Poltergeist exorcism go wrong?” Slight spoiler, but it’s the opening scene. I’ve made notes on what can happen in that scene and they are imperfect notes. I’ve given myself permission to wander off, and noodle and try different scenarios, and scribble stuff out, and put other things in boxes and underline them, and highlight them. And what I find is that by the end of the writing session, I have a really good idea of how that chapter pans out.
The level of detail varies from session to session. But the next day, Tuesday, when I open up the laptop, I’m not victim to the tyranny of the blinking cursor. You know that feeling when you look at a blank page of Word or Scrivener that bastard cursor is flashing at you, “Go on, write something. What are you waiting for? Call yourself a writer?” Well, now I just go to my notes and start typing, and before I know it I’m up and running. I used the less formalised version of this with The Crow Folk and the second book, Babes in the Wood, available to pre-order now.
And it worked really well. So this is an evolution of that. A few caveats. I’m only 10,000 words into this novel and, in my experience, openings are pretty easy when compared to the rest of the book… not least the middle section, which can lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. So I’ll check in with this in about a month’s time and see if I’m feeling quite so smug still. Also, I’m writing the third book in a series.
I know the characters and situations really well. I have a very good idea of how people will react when presented with challenges. And that makes a writer’s life much, much easier and makes me wonder why it’s taken me so long to write a series. This is so much fun. Anyway, I hope you found that helpful. How is your writing going? Does this sort of method work for you? Pop a comment below or drop me a line. In the meantime, happy writing.
We had a special episode of the Bestseller Experiment this week and Mark Desvaux asked me a bunch of listener questions about The Crow Folk. I’ve broken them up into short videos, and in this first episode I talk about how the idea developed from a contemporary TV pilot into the Second World War novel that’s out now.
MARK STAY: Hello folks, it’s here! Look! Finished, gorgeous. Thanks to everyone who bought the book, read the book, said lovely things about the book, a huge thank you to all of you. It really means a lot. What you’re going to see today… We had a special episode of The Bestseller Experiment where I answered a whole bunch of listener questions and rather than one big lump of video I’m going to do them in little chunks over time, in more digestible chunks. So the first of these, people ask me where I got the idea from and how it developed. And this has been in development for some time. Be warned: this video contains gratuitous bellringing.
MARK DESVAUX: But let’s let’s dive in because there’s a lot there’s a lot of things people want to know about this book. And the first thing the first question is from Jan Carr, and Jan asks, where did you get your idea from?
MS: Classic, classic, and just to reassure listeners, so I’m going to try and make the answers as helpful for writers as possible, and it’s not just going to be me blowing smoke up my own bum for an hour, I mean, maybe for just forty five minutes. So hopefully we’ll get some insight into working with agents, editors, development, ideas, writing for series historical fiction, stuff like that. So Chris asked the same question. Chris Lowenstein: Where did you get the idea? Matt says, of all the story ideas you likely had before you started this book, why did you choose this one? Tanya says, How do you decide if it’s a book or TV thing? What made you a great idea for a novel? A lot of variations on that. But here’s the thing. I’ve got files going back on this idea going all the way back to 2008. So it’s… and it probably dates to before that. I mean, this has been mulling around for a long, long time. And it did, weirdly, it started out as a TV idea, but it was very different. First of all, I think the big problem with it was I had the point of view completely wrong, and it only took me about 10 years to figure that out. And the period was wrong too, because it was contemporary. Set in the here and now. So a few things had to change to sort of make the idea fall into place. And for me, it really started getting momentum in its current form when we were visiting friends in Chiddingtone in Sussex. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Chiddingstone. It’s on the border of Sussex and Kent. And it is your archetypal English village. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Weirdly, I work with the chap who lives there called Mark Streatfeild, who is kind of Lord of the Manor at Chiddingstone castle. He’s related to Noel Streatfeild who wrote Ballet Shoes. And they have… The family have their own coat of arms and everything. And Claire was down there, bellringing And while she was ringing, me and the kids sat outside a pub and the kids challenged me to come up with an idea for Doctor Who. And I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a whole session of bellringing? But they do something at the end. They ring down the bells because the bells have to be put in a position where they kind of put up and then they’re rung down and something happens to the bells, the bells and ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. They start ringing very, very closely together, really, really closely together. And it creates this incredible sound, an absolutely incredible sound. It’s like the lost chord from the beginning of the universe. It just creates this incredible magical hum and… And I got something from that I thought that could be that could be something magical, but that’s a good MacGuffin. I could use that. And of course, we’ve been using bells to fight off evil since time began. So bells…. Bells was something… Going to be very important and also Claire hosts… The bellringers will go on journeys. They’ll go from Surrey to Kent and back for the day back or whatever. And they they use us as a base for a couple of days. So sort of twice a day they come back and I’d have to make 40 cups of tea and then double up 40 lots of sandwiches or whatever. And I joked to them, oh, this is just after The End of Magic came out. I joked that I would make bellringers the heroes in my next book. So so the whole bell ringing MacGuffin was coming together. And it does play a really important part in The Crow Folk and then the time period thing put it into place, because it was still a TV idea. My TV agent, my script agent said, why don’t you set it… Instead of making it contemporary, why don’t you set it in the Second World War? Because that period England… Downton Abbey is an easier sell to Americans and overseas people than contemporary England. And that just… Another sort of thing sorted into place. Okay, great: World War Two and… I’ve moved to Kent. Moving here made a big, big difference because… Moving to the country made a big difference. And World War Two, I mean, it happened here with the Battle of Britain right above our heads. So moving here made all the difference.
MD: I got to say…
MS: Slotted into place and then.
MD: I was going to say, yes, that’s kind of like and it’s an extreme case, isn’t it, of a book research is to actually leave leave the suburbs of London and buy a house and therefore you’ve immersed yourself in it. Must have changed a lot because immersing yourself in kind of a village kind of environment must have given you an amazing kind of sense of backdrop for the book. Right?
MS: Completely. Completely. I mean, one of the nice notes I’ve got from someone who read the book said they said you write nature really well, and it’s just being here. You become a lot more aware of the nature and the surroundings. And then the big thing that clicked into places I got the POV right. In and the original version had been the monster’s POV. With this, I created a created a character called Faye Bright. She’s this young girl. She’s your classic, you know, hero… ingenue, kind of, you know, of character. And it all kind of started to click into place. And going back to I think it was Matt who said, why choose this one? It was just the idea that just would not go away. And I couldn’t figure out why… I’d write other things. And whenever I finish those things, I came back and this idea just kept coming back: a magical wood, a village. And, you know, the other thing is I knew this had series potential, you know, that endless well of story. And for years I’ve been trying to think of a series idea, something I could come back to. Well, could it be a science fiction idea? Fantasy idea, what have you? And this it all clicked into place about a character that was able to grow with the series. You know, she’s 17 in this book, but she’ll grow as it goes on. And it just took a really, really long time to see what was right in front of me. But, yeah, that’s a very, very long answer. But it had a very, very long gestation. It’s been around for 13 years. And ten of those it was kind of swimming about and it was completely wrong. So if anyone out there is thinking, you know, I’ve got this idea and it just won’t gel, just be patient. Just if it keeps coming back, if it keeps nagging you, there’s something in there. There’s there’s gold in them thar hills. And you just have to have the tenacity to hang in there because eventually it will reveal itself.
MD: I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant testament really to that idea. And we often call it signposting where you get to you know, you get an opportunity in life where you can start something new or you can try something and you look at the signposts and the different things that you could do at that point in your life. And if there’s a signpost is always there, it’s always like this is this I’m not going away. I’m not leaving you. If you see that enough times, you really have to follow up. And it sounds like intuitively you went right now. But it’s also about timing, is it? Well, I mean, you couldn’t have written this book five, ten years ago, right?
MS: Well, I did. I did write the book. I mean, that’s the thing. I mean, we’ve got questions about development later on. I finished many, many drafts of the wrong book, you know, that eventually kind of and scripts, you know, TV pilot scripts, feature length scripts that I got to the end of. And they still didn’t work. So, you know, it’s I did write it, but it was it was just wrong. It was it was wrong, wrong, wrong era and not the right character for you to write the right book as well.
If you enjoyed that, folks, there’s more to come. I’m going to be talking about future episodes, things like development, the writing process, writing historical language, historical dialogue and comparing my experiences in crowdfunding and indie publishing and traditional publishing, all that good stuff. So subscribe and don’t miss an episode. See you soon. And happy writing.
Are you a debut author or seasoned writer needing to know HOW to market your book? Or HOW to promote your book on YouTube?
In this in deep-dive, they talk candidly about WHICH video marketing strategies have worked, and which have not been as successful. WILL they hit their 1000 target for pre-sales before Feb 2021? WHICH digital marketing techniques will they enlist? WHICH book marketing strategy will be put to the test next on their ambitious (some may say foolhardy) quest?
In Episode 6 you will learn:
The definition of a blurb and how a few words on your book cover can make all the difference.
How to run a blog tour (or get someone to organise it for you).
Why categorisation is important, but ultimately it’s the reader who decides.
The kind of pre-publication publicity that a publisher can organise for you, including features in trade magazines like The Bookseller, and interviews in store magazines like Booktime.
Why an author should be a “squeaky wheel”!
And we take a look at other AuthorTubers and why they are so successful.
Or, How I Learned to Write Without a Massive Outline
For as long as I’ve written, I’ve loved a good outline. It comes from my screenwriting where outlines are something of a necessity when dealing with agents, producers, directors, etc. They like to know what they’re getting for their money upfront and it’s not unusual for the writer to put together some kind of pitch, synopsis or beat-by-beat outline ahead of actually writing the thing.
Since the Great Bollocking I’ve had two novels published, Back to Reality and The End of Magic, both heavily outlined and people seem to like them. But… both were well in progress when Ben gave us an earful, so I figured what the hell, I should just finish what I started with them.
I listen back to our old podcasts fairly regularly. Not out of any vanity, but I really do believe we got tons of amazing evergreen advice from some of the best authors in the business and it would be daft to ignore them. One thing that became clear is there’s no single method of writing a novel. Lots of writers love to outline, plenty of them are pantsers (writing by the seat of their pants… a term I had not heard before starting the podcast), many do a little of both. There’s no definite, step-right-this-way-to-success system. You have to figure out what works for you and build on that.
I was happy outlining, but I’ve prided myself on never writing anything the same way twice. Every time I start a project, it’s a little different and I learn something new. I figured it was time for a big change, so why not try and pants a full-length story?
But what about that fear of getting lost? Of getting halfway through a story and not knowing where to go next?
It was another podcast that had a nugget of advice that unlocked it for me. I’m a big fan of Scriptnotes, a podcast for screenwriters (and things that are interesting to screenwriters). In it, screenwriters John August (Big Fish) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) discuss craft and the industry, and I find it invaluable. Last summer (2019) they released an episode featuring just Craig who gave a talk that he’s given to screenwriters at festivals over the years.
It’s a brilliant episode, crammed with terrific advice. It’s behind a paywall now, but you can read a transcript of the full episode here.
The advice that stuck out for me was this…
“If you can write the story of your character as they grow from thinking “this” to “the opposite of this”… you will never ask what should happen next ever again.”
A little lightbulb went off in my head. It was the same question I would ask myself while writing an outline anyway, so why not apply it to the blank page of a fresh draft? Would it be any different? Would it be any better?
I’ve been using and adapting this method for one screenplay (written on spec, no outline necessary) and one-and-a-bit novels and I’m loving it. I’ll start with a one-page outline, but with a bigger focus on character and theme. Who is this character? How will they change, and what’s stopping them from doing it? With those two polar opposites in mind, I rough out a very basic story and then start writing. It can be hard at first as you test the water. When I get stuck, I put the laptop aside and start scribbling in a notebook with Mazin’s advice in mind: What’s what the worst thing that can happen? What will stop this character from getting what they want? How will they overcome it?
If I can’t figure it out right away, I might stop writing altogether and get on with my day. More often than not I’ll have a solution come out of the blue while I’m washing dishes, in which case I dry my hands and email myself the note ready for the next day.
It’s working so far. The screenplay has a director and producer attached and looks like it’s a goer, and the one and a bit novels…? I’m hoping to have some good news about them soon.
I’m not saying this is going to work for everyone, but I’m enjoying living on the edge. If you’re a big outliner, why not give it a go? All you’ve got to lose is your word count…
After a bit of a lull over the summer, my new fantasy novel The End of Magic has survived the edit and is now with the copy editor Lisa Rogers.
“What the hell is a copy editor?” you may ask… Well, after working on structural and character stuff with Simon, we now move onto what is sometimes also called the line edit, where another editor goes through the book line-by-line and looks for errors in grammar, punctuation and continuity. Even the most diligent author will miss stuff and we all go wordblind after a while, so it’s essential to get a fresh pair of eyes to give it a thorough going over.
I was determined to get Lisa for two reasons.
I worked with her on Robot Overlords and she’s blimming amazing and has incredible knowledge of science fiction and fantasy and has a brain roughly the size of a planet.
She’s a wonderful human being and we should all work with wonderful human beings whenever we get the chance.
This should all be sorted in the next month or so, and then we move onto the proofread and maybe… just maybe… we might have news on a release date.
In the meantime, if you’re keen to dip in before the main event I have a free short story/prequel to the novel available when you sign up to my newsletter here.
And if you haven’t pre-ordered The End of Magic, you can do it here and there’s still time to get your name in the book along with some other cool extras! And here’s me pitching it on a windy day…
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.
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!
December 1992: Charles and Di announced their separation, the NET book agreement was still in place, Amazon was still just a river to most people, and a fresh-faced bookseller started a temporary Christmas placement at Waterstones in Dorking.
I’ve been selling books for 25 years (I only meant to stay for Christmas!) and I thought I could share a few of the things I’ve learned on the way, though I suspect the final tip is the only one of true practical use…
25 things I’ve learned from 25 years in books:
1. Be professional and courteous to everyone you meet and work with. It’s a small industry.
2. Amazon is all about the customer. Keep that in mind with every dealing you have with them.
3. Formats may change, genres will wax and wane, but people will always want good stories.
4. Never confuse ubiquity with popularity. I can’t tell you how many celeb biogs I’ve seen crash and burn just because publishers thought that being on the telly meant that people liked them.
5. Meeting your heroes can be awkward, but you’ll be fine if you keep it short and sweet. Don’t expect them to be your best friend and invite you on holiday. And remember that they have good days and bad days like everyone else.
6. Authors who have a clear idea of what kind of career they want tend to last longer.
7. Series characters that move with the times stay the course: Rebus, Noddy, Batman.
8. The best editors combine passion and integrity, but aren’t afraid to make a few quid.
9. A big advance can be a curse and a blessing. If you don’t earn out, you’re screwed.
10. Authors can’t sit back and leave it all to the publisher and agent. The successful ones get out there and make it happen.
11. Never respond to bad reviews. Just enjoy the good ones and screw the haters.
12. Never badmouth another author. We’re all in this together and we don’t need to be flinging shit at each other.
13. And be pleased for their successes. Bitterness helps no one.
14. Never stop learning. There have been more changes in this industry in the last ten years since the invention of the printing press.
15. Survival is one part cynicism, two parts optimism.
16. Be loyal to people, not companies.
17. Always make time for a proper lunch break.
18. Write for yourself. Not the market. Trends come and go. You’ll always be you.
19. Changing an author’s name or adding an initial rarely makes any difference to sales. The reading public only care if it’s a good book.
20. Don’t believe your own publicity. Publishing, like any creative medium, is great at creating monsters, and it always happens when the writer starts to believe it when people tell them they’re a genius.
21. Success is not a bestseller, it’s writing what you love… though the money would be nice.
22. Of course people judge a book by its cover. And its title. And its review average on Amazon.
23. Tenacity is everything: keep writing and you can only improve.
24. Balance modesty and confidence and don’t get cocky.
25. And finally, and this is really important, when confronted with a multi-storey car park, always park on the roof. You’ll never forget where you parked (five years on the road as a rep!).
I had a great seat for a Squeeze** gig at the Royal Albert Hall the other night (courtesy of publicist and gentleman Mark McGinlay). I was so close to the stage I was able to offer some constructive criticism as they played…
I love watching bands play. Not necessarily the lead singer, but the rest of the group as they interact, keep the beat and, most crucially, stay in the moment.
You might think that writers want to be in a band for that sense of camaraderie, and, yes, there may be some truth in that. But they don’t want to join a band to meet people! Especially people they might be forced to share a tour bus with. Yikes. No. If they want to meet people they can invent their own and keep them on the page where they can torture them like the control freaks they truly are. Writers wants to be in a band for very a different reason.
Squeeze played for two hours straight, and the musicians closest to me — the drummer, percussionist and bassist — never missed a beat. They were relaxed, smiling at one another, having a great time, but they never once forgot that they were playing before over four thousand paying punters at the Albert Hall and any mistake would be laid bare to eight thousand eyes staring at them.
If only we writers could sustain our concentration for that long.
So, today, when you’re writing, make your hero Yolanda Charles, bass player. She was the musician playing closest to me and she never lost concentration once. She was always in the moment. She never even contemplated leaving the moment. She kept the moment in its place. And she knew that the moment was a living, breathing thing that had to be constantly fed or it would leap up and push her off the stage.
Happy writing – now get back to work… and concentrate!
*Sportsmen want to be in bands too, but that’s because they’ve spent so much of their lives getting up at the crack of dawn to run/swim/drive in circles that they’re boring and don’t have any real friends and are looking for a sense of belonging… but that’s a rant for a future newsletter.
**And if you don’t know who Squeeze are, you’re in for a treat: catchy songs with the most sublime lyrics that are able to summon up characters, places and tell stories in a way that many novelists struggle to evoke in ninety-thousand words. Listen and learn. The use of tenses in Up The Junction is a masterclass in how to break the rules and make it work…
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