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.

Where I got the idea for The Crow Folk

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.

You can listen to the whole podcast episode here.

Discover more about the Crow Folk and the Witches of Woodville here.

TRANSCRIPT:

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.

I’m Writing A Sequel (no, not that one)

I’ve got my writing groove back. After finishing a screenplay at the end of March I was feeling pretty knackered and then along came a certain pandemic (you may have seen some mention of it on the news) and it fairly took the wind out of my sails… but then I got some news that got me going again.
I can’t really say much about it other than it looks like I will have a book out next year — the beginning of a brand new series! — and it will be the first of three, if not more. And if you want some clue as what it’s about, here’s a pic of some of the books I’ve been reading for research…
Magic, war, pubs… this book will have it all!
The first book in the series is written and is currently getting the red pen treatment from the editor. In the meantime, I’m writing the sequel and, in a departure from my usual method, I’m writing by the seat of my pants. I’ve always been a big planner, but this time I decided to just, y’know, make it up as I go along… and I’m loving it! I blogged about it recently and you can read more here.

What’s Keeping Me Sane…

Books

I’ve re-read Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, which I pretty much picked at random off the shelf. This is Discworld at its peak for me. Effortless to read, very funny and full of wisdom. I’ll be going back there again soon.

I’m about to start Gray Williams’ second novel Strange Ways. I really enjoyed his debut, The End of the Line, which was a cracking supernatural thriller and this promises to be even more intense, I mean look at that cover with the lightning and the fire and the pointy things…

Music

Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is one of those albums where you can’t wait to learn all the lyrics so you can sing along with the same conviction she has. Righteous stuff.

For writing music, I’ve tapping along to Torin Borrowdale’s score for Locke & Key, and Anastasis by Dead Can Dance.

Film & TV

I’ve been re-watching long movies over two or three nights: MidsommarAmadeusOnce Upon A Time In Hollywood all benefit from an early night and regular loo breaks. I’m trying to convince Claire to watch The Irishman with me… that might take a few nights.

TV has been less challenging. Schitt’s Creek has been a comfort-watch. If you’ve tried and given up after the first season, do persevere. It’s a joy and the finale had me grinning like an idiot. And the most recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm is a major return to form. I know Larry is an acquired taste, but I love his wry and excruciating way of never knowing when to just shut up.

Oh, and I watched Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker for the first time since seeing it at the cinema (remember them?). I have thoughts here.

More News To Come…

Apologies again for being Captain Vague Pants, but I’m hoping to have more details on the book thing soon, as well news about a movie and a TV show. It’s all exciting stuff and means I will be a very busy boy for the next year or so. If you want to be the first to know, then make sure you sign-up to my newsletter here.

Till next time, stay safe, healthy and keep being groovy…

Mark

One Year On as a Freelancer… and a Confession…

I’ve been at this freelance malarkey for a year now and I’m somehow still solvent. The principles of what I learned earlier this year remain the same, but I have a confession…

I started applying for jobs.

Y’know, jobs with salaries and pensions and commutes and all the stuff I had consigned to the past when I found myself suddenly self-unemployed. Why? Because the banks insist I pay back this mortgage thingy, and suppliers will insist that I pay for goods and services. Unbelievable, eh?

Around mid-October I started to panic. It was very clear that the money was draining faster than it was being replaced and that I would run out of dosh just in time for Christmas.

Here’s the thing: I have a TV show in development, a feature film script with a great director attached, I have three novels published and one about to go out on submission. I’ve had my best year ever as a writer since Robot Overlords was released but, crucially, none of these gigs are paying anything like a living wage.

If the TV show happens I’m off to the races, but TV is high-risk business. Big budgets mean slow progress. I’ve been paid an option plus renewal (a couple of grand). The same risk and speed applies to the film script, though this is a spec script and it hasn’t paid a penny yet. Books move marginally faster, but the advances and royalties have a long way to go before they pay the bills.

I’ve tried getting TV writing work, but still have a long way to go before I have the kind of contacts who will hire me (a lot of it word-of-mouth/who-you-know). Again, there’s a high risk factor. TV is expensive, and me having made a movie and a stack of spec scripts doesn’t seem to be enough for TV producers to take a chance.

It was becoming clear that writing — the thing that took up most of my working day — wasn’t going to keep me in the manner in which I was accustomed…

I believe the word is “louche”…

And so my mind defaulted to the thing I knew was safe and certain: a job with a salary.

I began scouring the Bookseller and other publishing work agencies for jobs. Preferably for some sort maternity/paternity cover that would tide me over till the TV/Film/Book big time happened (stop sniggering at the back – it’ll happen). I applied for a number of jobs that I was perfect for. I had the experience they needed and I was ready to start immediately. What could possibly go wrong?

Warning: the next few paras will make me sound like a grumpy old man, but I can only speak from my own experience as a grumpy old man…

Nobody wanted me! I had interviews, sure, but the language of job vacancy copy is quite revealing. They blurb excitedly of dynamism and enthusiasm and pro-active-ness, but when you get to my age that all sounds exhausting. Whatever happened to a safe pair of hands? Someone who will come in and do the job to the best of their ability with a smile on their face and not set fire to the place??

Also, middle-aged folk don’t come cheap. We expect to be paid well, unlike the poor Millennials who have all been duped into taking a pittance and expected to work all hours. In the interviews I was treated like a curiosity. A survivor of the digital wars of the early 2000s, and one that would probably answer back occasionally, take an hour for lunch, and leave on time every day. Okay, yes, I guess it was my attitude that lost me the jobs, but there’s also a definite bias against middle-aged-grumps-who-don’t-take-any-crap in publishing. I’m shocked, I tell you. Shocked.

I also had a couple of replies telling me they’d read my CV and that I was a successful writer and grossly overqualified. If only they knew.

I think this was all publishing’s way of telling me that it was done with me.

Rant over.

The mind begins to reel when confronted with a black hole of uncertainty.

I’ve been skint before. I’ve been unemployed before, but not when I’ve been the one paying the mortgage. I’ve been massively overdrawn and in debt before, but I had the security of a monthly salary to at least rob Peter to pay Paul (with interest). I’ve never been in a situation when there was literally no more money coming in and yet here I was. Bear in mind, while all this was going there was a disastrous election, Brexit loomed like a cloud of poison gas, and humanity’s inability to get to grips with climate change made one entertain thoughts of selling-up and digging a large bunker in the Outer Hebrides.

What can you do but persist? I kept applying for jobs and touting for editorial work. The editorial stuff started coming in and that was good, but it was a few hundred quid here and there. Not enough to keep my head above water.

And then, quite unexpectedly, I got a job! It’s a book sales job, it’s dealing with Amazon and it’s with a fun indie publisher called Rat’s Tales selling some very cool thrillers (seriously, if you like a bit old-school Bond-meets-Jack Higgins-style adventure, check these out!). The wage is about half what I need to keep the wolf from the door, but it’s fun, they’re a great bunch and I can work from home.

I’m learning to live with uncertainty.

I’ve been scared of it for too long and now I’m challenging it to an arm wrestle in a crowded bar. Wish me luck…

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A few words on writing endings… with MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES

The following blog post has MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES

Have I mentioned the MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES?

Still here? Good. You’ve been warned…

Endings are a bugger. There’s no getting around it. Often, writers are advised to start with the ending and work back from there. Though the problem with that is as you get to know your characters you’ll start changing their story trajectories. And that’s where things can start to get muddled and how endings can end up making no sense whatsoever or just fizzle out into nothing.

I’ve just watched the finale to Game of Thrones for the second time and, for all its flaws, I found it immensely satisfying and for me it illustrates a great principal of storytelling:

Characters will get what they need (or deserve) and not what they wanted…

Dany gets to defeat Cersei and at least touch the iron throne (though she doesn’t actually get to park her bottom on it), nor does she get the satisfaction of seeing Cersei die, which may be why she still thirsts to bring the rest of the world under her heel, triggering Jon to (eventually) grow a pair and stop her.

Jon’s ethos of honour and duty at all costs sees him banished to the Night’s Watch, which is where he was off to in the pilot episode anyway. He could’ve saved himself an awful lot of trouble and stayed there in the first place. Bless him, he tried. Though he did stop Dany from turning other cities into dragon-flamed barbecues, so we should all be thankful for that.

Arya doesn’t get to tick Cersei off her list, but on seeing the bodies of children in the streets of King’s Landing she’s realised that her childhood has been spent pursuing empty vengeance, and so she’s off on the Westerosian equivalent of a gap year exploring the unknown.

Sansa wanted nothing more than to be a princess to a handsome king, though Joffrey the Bellend, first of his name, was enough to put her off that ambition and now she’s Queen in the North with a neat line in costume jewellery and she’s taking crap from no one (see how she tells Edmure Tully to sit down).

Bran was just a little boy who wanted to climb and have adventures and now he’s the fricking king with second sight. Betcha never saw that coming in the pilot. Oh, wait, you all did? Okay…

And Tyrion has the most satisfying arc of all. He has come a long way from his whoring and drinking, and his final scene opens with him arranging chairs in order to make a good first impression. He’s gone from an irresponsible smart arse with zero responsibility to someone who, as Bran says, will spend the rest of his life atoning for his sins.

These, along with dozens of little callbacks to the opening episodes, close the circle of the Game of Thrones story, as well as giving all our surviving characters new beginnings.

So, if you’re stuck on your ending or it doesn’t hit you in the feels hard enough then think about your characters’ wants, needs, new beginnings and… er… uhm… y’know what? I don’t have a proper ending to this blog. I… oh, this is embarrassing. Er… BUY MY BOOK!

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Seven Books on Writing…. by Women!

There I was, feeling all kinds of smug about my new blog post on seven books on writing, getting all kinds of lovely clickthrough action, when I woke up this morning to discover that I was called out on Twitter…

Gah! Typical bloke… In my defence, this wasn’t supposed to be a definitive list of the best books, but the ones that I had found to be the most helpful over the years and for some reason I find myself – a middle-aged, flabby man – reading books by other older (and dead) flabby men . But that’s no excuse (well, it’s the only one I have), and here in a craven attempt to redress the balance are some excellent books on writing, from my shelves, written by women…

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

This was on Julie’s Tweet above and I’m kicking myself for leaving this off, because I recall devouring this when it first came out. This book should be handed out to anyone who opens a social media account, with its clear and concise approach to punctuation there’s simply no excuse for getting anything wrong after this. With the exception of semi colons; no one knows what to do with those anymore. I also had the pleasure of driving Lynne from bookshop to bookshop to promote her book Going Loco and she’s completely delightful and not the grammar Nazi that people might think she is.

Dent’s Modern Tribes by Susie Dent

I bought this just a couple of days ago when I was lucky enough to meet Susie at the Whitstable Literary Festival. I’m reading it at the moment and it’s hugely entertaining. Susie – who folks will know from Countdown and Eight Out of Ten Cats do Countdown – has an encyclopaedic knowledge of words, but is no stick-in-the-mud. The English language evolves and twists and turns and that’s one of the reasons it has endured this long. With Modern Tribes she investigates the languages used by bankers, DJs, Hells Angels, Soldiers, Politicians and more. If you have a character that inhabits these worlds you will want this book to hand to add that extra snap of authenticity to your dialogue. Susie has written about a dozen other books on the English language and they’re all a feast.

The Pitch by Eileen Quinn & Judy Counihan

I definitely should have included this one because it has actually got me writing gigs (though sadly it appears to be out of print with no sign of an update). Eileen and Judy have decades of experience in film and TV production and this was the first book I found that dug deep into what producers and development executives are looking for when a writer pitches their work. Even if you’re not a screenwriter this will sharpen your pitching skills. I have a permanent bookmark on page 73 for the PFC: the Pitch Format Card, their essential ticklist for any pitch document.

How Not To Write A Novel by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark

Yes, yes, Howard is a bloke, but this also should have been on my blog the first time round, because this is essential reading. It covers the perspective of both the author and editor when it comes to novel writing and the most common mistakes that authors make and it’s very, very funny and frank and for the first time I felt like I was reading a book by people who had sat in publishing meeting rooms and had heard the kind of despairing comments that publishers might make about some of the submissions they get. Don’t make it easy for a publisher to reject you. Buy this book.

A Feast of French and Saunders.

Barmy by Victoria Wood

I’m going to do these together as I bought these when I was in my late teens and was writing comedy sketches with friends after school. These books were some of the first sketch comedy books I ever got and I can’t begin to tell you how much learned about comedy dialogue, timing, pace and character from these. Both have moments of surrealist humour, but it’s the back and forth of dialogue that has filtered into my work. Like the Pythons, Victoria Wood and French & Saunders rarely had punchlines in their sketches, but unlike the Pythons their characters were recognisably human and incredibly funny for it.

Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

Okay, I confess I haven’t read this one yet, because after this morning’s Tweets I figured I owed it to my sisters in words to go and bloody well buy a book on writing by a woman. There were a number to choose from, but I went for this because it covers everything from Plato and Aristotle to fairy tales and tragedies, and because the bookseller raved about her writing, and she lives up the road from me in Canterbury, so once I’ve read it I will do my darnedest to get Scarlett on the podcast to talk stories.

I hope that goes some little way to redressing the balance and I shall definitely look into the recommendations from Margaret and Julie as should your good selves!

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Seven books on writing

I’ve just finished reading Will Storr’s book The Science of Storytelling, the latest in a long line of books that will be snatched up by storytellers like myself in the hope that they will finally find in these pages the secrets to writing a bestselling masterpiece that will be admired until the heat death of the universe.

Here’s the thing: I’ve read enough of these books to realise that there are no secrets, there are no absolutes and there’s no right or wrong way of doing this (unless you’re eating crayon and vomiting it onto your laptop, that’s probably not as productive as it sounded when you thought of it in the shower), but some books are better than others and here are a few that I’ve found helpful over the years.

Poetics, Aristotle

This the grandaddy of “How to Write” books, written no doubt because he was fed up of hearing clichéd Homer rip-offs at his local writers’ group in Macedonia. In here you will find ground zero of Western storytelling, with clear observations on plot and character that have stood the test of time. It’s only about 150 pages long and you can find great translations for free on Project Gutenberg.

Story, Robert McKee

After Aristotle, no one had anything interesting to say about story until Robert McKee arrived (at least, that’s what he would have you believe). There’s been something of a McKee backlash since I first picked up my copy in the late ‘90s, but this was the book that first fired my imagination and even though he’s basically taking Aristotle’s ideas and illustrating them with examples from Chinatown, Casablanca and The Godfather, he is a great teacher and he makes the craft of storytelling accessible in a way that few others have managed.

On Writing, Stephen King

This came along at a great time for me, and a bad time for Mr. King. He was hit by a van while out walking in an accident that very nearly took his life and this was what he wrote while in recovery. Here, finally, was a book on the craft of writing by someone who had actually written and sold one or two novels. He talks about the craft, the language, characters and he keeps it concise and — more importantly — he treats it as a job. This is his work. Up till this point, writing had always seemed mysterious to me, on a par with alchemy and necromancy. The advice that still lingers from reading this book nearly twenty years on? Shut the door and write. And y’know what? It works!

On Film-Making, Alexander Mackendrick

Okay, so the content of this book existed before McKee but it was only in 2004 that Paul Cronin and Faber brought together the teachings of the mighty Alexander Mackendrick for the world. Mackendrick was the director of some of my favourite Ealing comedies including The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit. But, crucially, he’s a director, not a writer. This book gave me the clearest understanding of the craft of film production and how to effectively tell stories in a cinematic way. Mackendrick spent twenty-five years teaching film-making and storytelling at the California Institute of the Arts in LA, and it’s all distilled in these pages. (I can also recommend Conversations with Wilder, by Cameron Crowe who patiently ekes out nuggets of gold from Billy Wilder, director and sometimes writers on classics such as Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard).

Save the Cat, Blake Snyder

The only book here where its title has become part of screenwriting jargon, “Where’s the Save the Cat moment?” Snyder had worked in the Hollywood mire for some time and had pitched and sold more screenplays that most of us can ever dream of. This is a largely practical book, with exercises designed to not only build your story but to also sell it. It’s unashamedly commercial and bullshit-free, inspiring and huge fun. (I can also recommend Writing Movies For Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon which is fantastic on the harsh realities of writing for film, though you can tell it’s written by overexcited screenwriters by all the EXCLAMATIONS IN CAPITALS!).

Into The Woods, John Yorke

The likes of McKee and Vogler will instruct us on how stories work, but it was only when I read Yorke’s sublime book that I began to discover why we react to stories the way that we do. A veteran of British television, Yorke writes in a clear and no-nonsense style and digs much deeper into the beats of story and character than anyone before. Full disclosure, I’ve interviewed him for the podcast and I’ve been on his screenwriting course and if I could I would have him on speed-dial twenty-four hours a day.

The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr

What is there new to say on the craft of storytelling? I must confess that I was sceptical when I first picked this up (Science?! How reductive! This is an art, don’tcha know!) and the first few chapters made it clear that I would have really pay attention as there is some proper science going down in these pages. Storr starts by looking at how our brain perceives the world, giving me genuine chills by reminding me that my brain is stuck in a dark bone box and relies rather heavily on eyes and ears that have received much abuse from me over the years. He explores the role that story has played in our evolution and why it is so important and gives examples as to how we can use this knowledge to improve our own writing. And he makes comparisons between The Epic of Gilgamesh and Mr. Nosey (both lessons in humility), which makes the book both highfaluting and accessible. All I can attest is there were severable times I had to put the book down and made notes on my current work-in-progress and for me there is no higher recommendation.

Notable omissions

And that’s that. My favourite books on the craft writing… But wait, you cry! What of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Vogler’s Writer’s Journey? Surely these are the the sacred texts of storytelling? Well, if I had written this blog ten years ago I’m pretty sure they would have been at the top of my list, but when I look back I think that ne plus ultra perception of them probably did me more harm than good. Campbell and Vogler are great on structure and myth, but less so on character and this led to me writing scripts and novels that had perfect structure but characters that were bland, passive and dragged along by the plot. And yes, that’s my fault, but the accepted wisdom of these books as the be-all and end-all of storytelling blinded me to that, and if I had a time machine I would go back and slap the younger me and tell him to focus on character first. That’s what it’s all about. Humans trying to make sense of the world with stories. Right… back to work!

What?! No books by women?? Uh, yeah, about that…

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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.

 

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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.

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