Talking Scary Things with the Talking Scared Podcast

I had a great time chatting with Neil McRobert of the Talking Scared Podcast about how my writing has been influenced by a warped childhood of Bagpuss, Camberwick Green, Chorlton and the Wheelies, Dennis Potter and more. You can listen on all the usual podcast providers here.

ICYMI: The Babes in the Wood Launch Party

If you missed the launch party for Babes in the Wood on Thursday you can watch the whole thing again right here.

Me and the wonderful Mr Caimh McDonnell dig into the new book, I also talk about the trailer for Unwelcome in a bit more detail, I announce the winners of the book/choc giveaway (and announce a whole new giveaway), and I drop far too many hints about the third Woodville novel

Me Chatting to Olly Smith

I had a great time chatting to the delightful Mr Olly Smith for the Media Lunch Club podcast. We discuss the differences between writing novels and screenwriting, how Star Wars ruined me, and the thing that Olly and I have in common. Listen here…

How Long Can You Write For? And When Should You Stop?

How much writing can you get done in a day before your brain starts to melt? I’ve picked up a few tips over the years that might help…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks. We writers talk a lot about writing habits, writing every day or writing regularly. But let’s have a think about when to stop writing. Now, to be clear.

I don’t mean stopping altogether and jacking it in. I’m talking about how do you know when you’re done for the day? First drafts I could write all day and collapse in a heap. But I’ve discovered that my daily limit is about 2 hours. After that my poor little brain turns to soft fudge and it starts to leak out of my ears.

Either that or I’ve got an ear infection. Anyway, because my brain goes soft, the writing suffers. It’s just not as good as those first 2 hours. For edits, I find that it’s even more important to set myself limitations. Now I was really in the zone this morning, knocked out a little over a thousand words, which might not sound like much, but I’m editing and this was a whole new chunk that I was grafting on to the beginning of a chapter and it was my allotted task for that morning’s writing session.

I’ve left myself a note, you know, fix this by doing X, Y and Z… And I did it.

I was happy with it and I was so buoyed up that I just wanted to keep writing. But I stopped. Well, the truth is, I didn’t have much of a plan beyond my alotted task. I could have carried on, but I would have been blundering about with no idea what to do. And as I said, if this was a first draft I might have sat down and made some notes or maybe carried on writing blind. And that’s okay with the first draft, but when editing I like to stick to that plan. I’ve been through the book, I’ve made tons of notes, done my edit triage, figured out what needs fixing and I’m tackling those tasks one at a time. Have a look at some of my earlier videos on how I prepare for an edit in more detail. So for the next few days I’m focused on one particular character.

After that I’ll switch to the next problem on the list because when editing, the temptation is to try and fix everything at once and then you end up making a right old mess, and there’s a chance you can do more harm than good. So when editing, make a plan and stick to it. One fix at a time. The other thing I do at the end of a edit session is make a few notes for tomorrow’s session. So here… Just 50 words.

I’ve told myself I need to change the POV in the next chapter, and I’ve reminded myself of the changes I’ve made and what consequences they will have. Better to do that when it’s fresh rather than tomorrow morning where I might sit at my desk — and it’s 7:30 in the morning, don’t forget — and wonder just what the blimmin’ heck I’m supposed to do. On weeks like this, it’s also important to set limitations because I’m working on two projects simultaneously. Not ideal. But it happens.

One is the next Woodville books edit. The other is the second draft of a screenplay. They are sufficiently different for me to separate them in my mind, but also having alotted time and tasks really helps, as does having a bit of time between them. I’m lucky enough to work from home. So it’s those between times that I get bits of housework done, which also gets me off my bottom.

Very important for a writer. So that’s just what works for me. Have you discovered your writing session limits yet? Pop something in the comments below. Of course, you might be like Chet Cunningham.

I was reading about this legend the other day, from the publication of his first book in 1968 to his passing in 2017 at the age of 88, Chester Cunningham had something like 350 books published. Westerns, adventure novels, military thrillers. He also cowrote the “Penetrator” books under the pseudonym Lionel Derrick. This is what sent me down this rabbit hole. I saw the covers on the Pulp Librarian Twitter feed, and they are extraordinary. Chet comes from that pulp tradition where a writer was expected to knock out a thrilling adventure weeks, if not days.

I think at one point he was doing one Western per month. Why the hell not? And here’s the thing. Chet never stopped. Here’s a quote from the FAQs on his website when asked about Writer’s Block, he says, “I came from a newspaper background. When the editor assigns you a story, you write it now. No ifs, buts, or I-don’t-feel-like-writing-today. I usually write from eight to 10 hours a day when I’m a roll on a book. Researching is another thing.”

And then he was asked about Writer’s Block. Do you ever get Writer’s block? He said, “I never use the term. I don’t believe it exists. Ever heard of a Carpenter not going to work because he has Carpenters Block?

If a writer can’t write it’s because he doesn’t really want to, he isn’t ready to get it on paper. Or he’s just plain lazy. There’s no such thing as writer’s block only writer-dumb-dumb-dumb.” Well, Chet, we may disagree on that, but I salute you. Me.

I’m going to have a cup of tea. Until the next time, folks. Happy writing.

Words To Cut To Make Your Prose More Punchy

Want to make your prose more punchy? Try cutting a few of those filler and filter words. Note: these aren’t hard and fast rules. Of course you can use adjectives and adverbs whenever you like. But if you’re editing, it’s not a bad idea to trim as many as possible.

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks. Want to make your prose a little more punchy? When editing, look for those adjectives and adverbs that can really make your writing drag. All those filler and filter words. Find them and get rid of them. For example… Deep breath… “Thought”, “touched”, “saw”, “he saw”, “they saw”, “just”, “heard”, “he heard”, “they heard”, “she heard”… “Decided”, “knew”, “noticed”, “realised”, “watched”, “wondered”, “seemed”, “seems”. That’s one of mine. “Looked”. That’s another one of mine.

“He looked”, “she looked”. “Could”, “to be able to”, yeesh. “Noted”. “Rather”, “quite”, “somewhat”, “somehow”. Although I think these are OK in dialogue, if used sparingly. “Feel”. “Felt”. Now this… this one always starts alarm bells ringing. Don’t just tell the reader that Bob is feeling angry. Try and describe his rage in a way that is unique to Bob. Which is easier said than done, of course. But no one said this would be easy. “And then” — paired together. Cut one or the other. “Had”. If you have two hads in the sentence, one of them has to go. Hads: two hads together… “had had”, which does happen. See if there’s a better way of writing around that. You might have to completely rethink the sentence. “He looks”, “she looks”. “He turned to her and said”, “she turned”, “they turned”… All this turning can make the reader feel dizzy and you can have whole conversations with people turning around and it goes absolutely nowhere. “Supposed”. “Appeared to be”.

“Apparently”. All of these can be weak and they can make your characters feel passive. If you’re writing the first person, these filter words can be doubly harmful. So… “I turned and looked up and saw the elephant raise its foot to squish me” is, well, it’s fine. “The elephant raised its foot to squish me” is a lot more direct. Keep those physical movements to a minimum. All that turning, twisting, looking… Give the reader just enough to animate the action in their own head. You’re not choreographing a musical.

So when you’re editing, look out for these filter words. Do a “find and replace”. Most of the time you’re better off simply cutting them. Other times you might see an opportunity to replace them with something a little more dynamic. What I mean by that? Okay. Add a bit of movement or action or texture. Instead of the “look to”, “turn to”… have them raise their chin, look down their nose, scratch their ear, run their hands through their hair, drum their fingers nervously.

Action that underlines what the character is trying to say or might be thinking. I find it useful sometimes to act the scene out. We’re all writers, spending far too long sitting on our backsides, so a little exercise won’t do us any harm. Get up, move about, film it, film yourself. No one ever needs to see it but you. But seriously, most of the time just cut the buggers. You’re better off without them. Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes we need these words to add clarity to a sentence, but too often I find myself relying on them when I should be trying to be a bit more zippy with my prose.

But hey, that’s editing is all about. Hope you found that useful. Until next time. Happy writing.

You’ve Written “The End”… Now What?

I finished the first draft of my novel this week… but what happens next? Jump right in to edit? Or…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, I typed these beautiful words earlier this week… (The End) Of course, this is nothing like the end. This is a raggedy mess of a first draft where three quarters of the way through I realised there were two characters that were completely redundant. So they were left by the wayside. The antagonist had almost completely changed in their nature. And there are several strands that have been left dangling in the wind. Still so far to go. But why not allow yourself this little moment of triumph?

Most people who want to write a book never get this far. So, hurrah! Cheers. I… I don’t drink. So this American champagne will have to do in lieu of actual champagne. But, I hear you cry, if I know what’s broken, why don’t I just go back and fix it right now? Well, those problems I mentioned, those are issues that occurred to me as I’ve been writing. Experience has taught me that there’s going to be a ton of whole new problems that I’ll discover.

And if I were to jump back in now, it would feel like an insurmountable heap of problems and my brain will probably melt in the process. It’s time to take a break from this book, at least. So here’s what I recommend… Leave it for six weeks. Six weeks!? Yup. Especially if you’re new to this. You need to come back at this draft with your eyes as fresh and objective as possible. And you do that by not even thinking about the bloody thing for at least six weeks.

Excuse me. Windy pops. Coke. Fizzy pop. So what to do in the meantime? Read. Read all you can. Refill the tank. Read in your genre, read outside of your genre, read good books, read crappy books. Read to remind yourself what a finished narrative feels like. Also, I’m editing a client’s book… Did I mention that I edit and offer reader reports…? Visit my Writer Services site here.

Doing this, reading another writer’s text in such a way that you want to give them a constructive critique, will exercise all kinds of new synapses in your noggin. Sparking up the same part of the brain that you’ll be using when you come to edit your own text.

It’s good exercise. Limbering up for the main event. That doesn’t mean you have to be like a professional editor or anything like that. This is where you go to any writers you know, and offer your services as a Beta Reader. Ask if they have any finished novels that they need reading, and offer your eyes and brains… In a… Brains, not ears… In a quid pro quo agreement, because you’ll need a beta reader once you’ve finished your next pass. Why not cue one up now?

You’ll learn so much by reading another writer’s work in progress. You’ll see the same kind of issues that you will encounter. You might, even in the process of offering your own notes, come across a solution for your own problems. Happens to me all the time. I’m very lucky in that I have a couple of trusted readers for my stuff and I’m happy to read their stuff at the drop of a hat. It’s a great arrangement, and by the time you’ve read their book — or books — you might get through two or more in those six weeks, you’ll not only find that you’re ready to return to your own work, but what once seemed insurmountable will simply be a bunch of problems to be solved. But that’s a whole new video. Until next time. Happy writing… Or reading… Or critiquing. Cheers.

How To Write Satisfying Endings

How can you write a really satisfying ending to your story?

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks. I’m getting to the final few chapters of this first draft, and that’s when I tend to find that my daily word count starts to drastically go down. Why? Well, up to now, I’ve been getting ideas down on the page, putting my characters into tricky situations, given them terrible dilemmas. And they’ve all made choices with consequences. And it’s all been driving the story forward. But sooner or later, that story has to end and endings are hard.

Just ask George R.R. Martin or J.J. Abrams or anyone who’s had to wrap up a story with a neat little bow. So the creativity brakes tend to start screeching as you realise that you just can’t keep piling on story. If you see my previous videos, you’ll now I’m big on using theme as story fuel, and that’s definitely worked for this first draft. Having a thematic argument has really helped give me focus on how to make things work and I’ve never found myself stuck or blocked.

And just for reference, my thematic argument for this story is: Are we better off working alone or working with others? And I always like to pose it as a question. And I’ve enjoyed this as a thematic argument because there are times when it’s worked for both my protagonist, antagonist, and all the supporting characters. But the problem with a thematic argument is that you have to resolve it. That doesn’t mean you should come down hard on one side or the other.

Ideally, what you want for your resolution is some kind of synthesis. So if you think of your protagonist as the thesis of your argument, they stand for this thing here and your antagonist represents the antithesis over here, then your ending should resolve into a synthesis of both, or something new and unexpected. And that’s what makes for a satisfying ending. Think of The Godfather. So the argument is: can Michael be part of a crime family and maintain his moral high ground?

Well, Michael starts the story essentially disowning his family, but the family’s business tests him, and by the end he’s running the family the way he wants it run, but he’s also defending it with violence by ordering hits on the other families. A synthesis of ideas there. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Can a grave robber prove himself worthy of a great prize? Indy starts the film dismissing the Ark as superstitious nonsense. But by the end, his growing understanding and belief in its power is what saves him and Marion.

And don’t come at me with that Big Bang Theory crap about Indy not affecting the outcome of Raiders. Those people are confusing plot with story and are completely missing the point. Finding Nemo: Marlin, the overprotective father. He crosses a dangerous ocean and finds himself proven right again and again. Yes, the ocean is a dangerous place, but he realises that he has to let his son save Dory. Pixar, frankly, are masters at this kind of thematic storytelling.

Take the time to watch a few Pixar “making of” videos and you’ll get all this good stuff in great detail. This thesis/antithesis stuff is all horribly simplistic, of course, and easier said than done. But keeping this in mind, as I write these last few chapters, has really helped me figure out how to bring my story train to a stop and keep it on the rails and hopefully give the reader a really satisfying ending. Of course, the tracks behind me are a complete disaster, but, hey, that’s what rewrites are for.

OK, till next time, happy writing.

Six Tips for Writing Action

Six tips for writing engaging action and fight sequences in your fiction…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, as I get closer to the end of this draft and I start ramping up the tension and the stakes and the action and, well, I’m about to embark on a big old action sequence. Here are six tips for writing action in fiction. Number one, don’t just have action for the sake of it. It needs to advance the story. By that, I mean it needs to create change and have consequences. Your characters will have to make choices in the heat of the moment that will affect what comes afterwards.

If you can just take that action sequence out of the story, and the scenes that sandwich it still work together, then maybe the action sequence isn’t earning its keep. Remember, we had two big action sequences lined up for Robot Overlords. A chase in an ice cream van. And later, a chase with our heroes pursued by a new robot called Octobots. And these were fun sequences, but ultimately they had zero effect on our story and characters and they had to be cut.

That said, I’m still keen to try out an ice cream chase one day. I always file these things away for later. Two. Let the reader do the work. This is where, strangely, action sequences have something in common with sex sequences. Don’t feel the need to give the reader a blow by blow account.. Oh, behave. We don’t need every punch, kick, swerve, stab and parry. It gets tedious pretty fast. Give the reader just enough detail for them to create the action in their head.

And if there’s some sort of skill involved with a sword or a gun, then it’s worth doing a little research to make it feel real. Again, we don’t need to know the inner workings of a Glock whatever to know that it goes bang and that bullets hurt people. I rail against a lot of modern thrillers where the author seems to get sexually aroused when talking about guns. In fact, I try to put mistakes in my stories just to wind up NRA members. Ha! Three. Pace.

That is, don’t just give us big blocks of action, mix it up with some dialogue, write in short, punchy (ha!) sentences and keep the internal monologue visceral. This is not a time for ponderous reflection. That can come later. This is a time for panic, fear, anger, fight or flight. Use all the senses, the crunch of the bone, the taste of blood, the sweat and filth of battle. That will really help put the reader in the middle of the action.

Four. Think of the setting. Is it a chase down narrow streets in Paris, or the skies above the Grand Canyon? When your hero falls, is it on sand? Tiles? Stinging nettles? Can they hide in the jungle, or are they exposed in a wide open desert? What weapons are at hand? I love those unconventional fight scenes where Jason Bourne uses a rolled up magazine or John Wick uses a book. Use the setting and its props to make the sequences as fun and inventive as possible.

Five. Give it a beginning, middle and end. I’ve used the word “sequence” a few times already and I find that it helps to think of any action beat as its own little short story with a beginning, middle and end. One where the stakes are continually raised with a growing sense of urgency. Compacting all that story into a frenetic action sequence can make your hero make bad decisions — creating those consequences I was talking about earlier — and it will leave the reader breathless and wanting more. I’m quite breathless myself.

Six. Aftermath and keeping it real. In too many stories, the hero walks away from a fight with nary a scratch, and even if they do get wounded, they often bounce back with superhuman speed. That may be appropriate for some stories, but readers will better relate to characters who hurt, who get the shakes, who mourn the deaths of their friends — and enemies — who regret having to do terrible things. This is, again, where a little research will help as well.

What does it feel like to break your ribs, be shot or stabbed? I bet it hurts a lot more than we might imagine. I speak as someone who stubbed my toe recently. Well, I hope that was helpful. Any questions or comments? Then please pop them below until next time. Happy writing and stop fighting.

Here’s One Way To Write A First Draft

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…

TRANSCRIPT:

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.

The First Round of Edits Are Away!

Why do I love editors? Because they help me create a better book. I’ve spent the last week or so in the first round of edits for my next book Babes in the Wood, and here’s what I learned…

Apologies in advance for… the wind…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, Mark Stay here. Last time we talked, I’d just started the edits on book two of the
Witches of Woodville: Babes in the Wood. Well, after a week and a bit
of intense editorialising they’re done.
They’re off to my… Well, I say “done”. This is probably the first round, but they’re off to my editor, Simon & Schuster, Bethan, for her to have a look at. Lessons learned? Well, um, this took longer than the first book. Now, the first book was Alpha-read and Beta-read up the wazzoo. Lots of eyes on that before it went off to any publisher. So it was in very, very good shape.
This one was in good shape, too. But, uh, there is a murder mystery element to it.
Which… Writing any kind of mystery like that is, is storytelling with the hood off, you know, everyone can see the working parts because you put them there on display for people to… To notice things. And if everything doesn’t quite make sense, then it really stands out in a way that other stories, you know, you can probably get away with the odd teeny weeny plot hole. So this one, most of Bethan’s notes were just little clarifications. Can you make this a bit clearer? Can you hang a lantern on this? You know, can you emphasise this a bit more? Uh, of course, during, uh, during my edit, I realised one massive plot hole was that I have a murder and never once explain how the murder was done. Only I could do that. Um, this is why you have editors, folks. So, uh, that was handy. I was able to… The thing is I’d written it down. I put it in my notebook. This is one good reason why you should have a notebook, folks, for each project that you’re doing, because I had actually written it down. I just hadn’t put it in the actual novel. Small point. But, you know, we always catch it in the end, which is good.
So, yeah, really happy with it.
And it gave me the opportunity to add a few extra layers, a few extra flourishes that… Particularly towards the end I wanted to ramp up the tension a little bit more. So I’m really happy with it. Really happy with it. So that’s gone off to Bethan. She’s in the middle of editing another book. So it might be a few weeks before I see it again.
But until then, I’ve got a short story to edit. I’ve got a short story to finish. These are the Miss Charlotte Quartet stories. So, I’m gonna spend this weekend… Beautiful… I’m gonna spend this weekend rereading that and giving that a final polish, and getting that ready. So if you subscribe to my newsletter, you can get these stories for free. Free! Number one’s out already.
I know.
Good, innit?
Number two is coming on the fourth of April in ebook and audio… Got to record that too. And then
three and four are on their way. So that’ll keep me busy. That’ll keep me out of trouble. So yeah. If I hear any more on the edit…
I’ll let you know. I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, I’m just going to pop into my local library.
Happy reading.
Happy writing. See you again soon.