28 June 2012

Woman or Girl?

Rosa and Kate are two main characters in Lives Interrupted.  I didn't specify their ages in the book as their lives and problems should give enough clues, and I like to leave things up to the reader.  In my character outline Kate is early twenties, and Rosa in her early thirties.  Kate is single, while Rosa is married with a young son.

I struggled for a while over whether to call Kate a girl, or a woman.  I didn’t have the same problem with Rosa, as I felt she was definitely not a girl. Was this because of her age, or that she was married and a mother.  Rhetorical question really as I don't know, it was just how I felt about these two particular characters.  Obviously someone of Kate's age, or younger, can be married and a mother.  Would this change my conundrum of her being a girl or a woman?

I was reminded of this through a Twitter conversation I had earlier with a writer friend, and I asked her at what age she thought someone was no longer a girl.  She said eighteen, which sounds reasonable. What are your thoughts?

27 June 2012


On Twitter last night one of the trending hashtags was Things not to say to a writer. One tweet was along the lines of - 'At least you don't need to do research for a novel.'

Definitely not something to say to a writer.

The research for novels is interesting, and of course some genre's need much more research than others. I doubt whether I'll ever write a historical novel.  I think there is a real gift involved in getting the voice correct for the time period, while not making it impossible to understand now.  But even ruling out historical novels there is still a lot of research required for different topics.

I had a few funny looks when I asked what I would need to do to car brakes to cause an accident. Cue a hasty explanation that it was for a scene in Driftwood.

Lives Interrupted is about a group of people coping with the aftermath of the London bombings. I did a lot of research about the bombings themselves, but also on various types of injuries and rehabilitation.

My current work in progress starts with a suicide, and so I've been researching the police procedures around that.

Don't need to research to write a novel - huh.

What topics have you had to research while writing your novel, and did you find it easy?

25 June 2012

A Professional Writer...

A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit - Richard Bach.

How true this is.  There are things I've tried and given up very quickly, coming to the conclusion it wasn't for me.  Obviously I wasn't that compelled by the activity in the first place.  The writing equivalent are those who say 'Someday I'll write a book', or people who have three or four first chapters sitting on their hard drive and never progress them.

To be good at anything you have to work at it.  With the Olympics coming up I will no doubt marvel at the speed people can run, and how graceful and talented the gymnasts are etc.  I'll daydream how it would be to do those things, and push away the thought of the hours of practice and training required.

Writing is just the same.  To be any good at it we need to write, and keep on writing through the rejections, competitions not won, and manuscripts returned with (possibly) a compliments slip.

I look at some of my earlier writing and shudder.  How could I have thought it was so great?  Today I can see where it's weak, the places I told the story rather than showing, the clunky dialogue and - well you get the picture.

Some of them had a good idea at their heart, and those I've taken and worked on and improved.  A couple of them have since been published.

I am just as certain that in a few years I'll look back at the things I write today and will see how they can be improved.  That's the nature of the business.  We have to give ourselves permission not to be the greatest when we first start, but also not give up on ourselves, and keep on learning and practising.

18 June 2012

What Makes a Great Story?

My earliest memory is of a book.  I would have been about three or four as I remember my brother being in his pushchair.  A couple of years ago I mentioned this to my mother and described the book.  It was taller and narrower than average, and had eight small square pictures on each page - two across and four down, each with a sentence or two under the picture.  My mother said it sounded very like 'The Robber Foxes', which had been my favourite book as a toddler, and the one I always wanted my dad to read at bedtime.

What makes a great story?

For me the magic ingredient is that I need to care.  Care about the protagonist, and what happens to them.  I've started books that didn't make me care, but I don't usually finish them.  What is the point of reading to the end if I don't care whether the character lives or dies.

A character must have something that draws me in.  I don't mean they have to be the best at everything, that can be a real turn-off, but there must be something in their character that compels me to keep reading.  I don't have to agree with their choices, but I do need to understand what drives them and makes them act as they do.

Another thing I hate is when every little thing is pointed out to me, several times.  I can work things out myself from clues dropped enticingly along the way, and when I do, it pulls me deeper into the story.  

I listened to a good TED talk recently by Andrew Stanton (writer behind Toy Story, WALL-E).  He talks about giving people 2 + 2 and not 4 which is a great way of describing it. 

One of the things I learned as a trainer is that if you have an important piece of information, a statistic etc. that you want people to remember, then make them work for it. Don't drop it into the presentation among a lot of other information - ask them to guess the percentge of people who were…. Or the amount of…

We are far more likely to remember it, or become involved in the story when we are using our problem solving skills, and when we are involved with characters we care about.

15 June 2012

The Roots of a Novel

A couple of years ago, while waiting to hear from publishers about Lives Interrupted, I did what every author should do - start another novel.  I was about halfway through the first draft when I started getting replies from the publishers.  Ultimately the replies ended with 'not for us', but several gave me valuable feedback and so I went back to Lives Interrupted.

Fast forward a couple of years and I am working on this novel again. It is still without a title.  I've been calling it 'The Cornish Novel' as much of it is set in Cornwall.

While I was originally working on the first draft, the story took a change of direction and so I've decided to go back to basics and re-plot it.

There are a number of scenes that have been attacked with a machete and no longer exist.  I've vigorously pruned others, and some I delicately trimmed. Reading this you'd think I was a gardener - not so, just a bit indulgent today with the adjectives.

I had fun coming up with the name of the village in the novel.  My village is based on a real one, but I wanted to use a different name.  Mainly because it had been a number of years since I'd visited the village, and I wasn't sure how much I could trust my memories, but I also wanted to make some changes to the local geography.

I did some research on Cornish words and came up with a list that I liked, both for their meaning and sound.  Then I put different words together until I came up with pairings that worked, that I could pronounce, and that I couldn't find in a Google search. The first two points were easier to meet than the last, but finally my village was named - Poldrayth.

11 June 2012

My Desk

The past few months I've been working for a couple of companies in the city centre. It's been good meeting new people as working from home can be solitary, though I think that's why I enjoy it. Today I'm back at the dining table, which passes for my desk. To be honest we rarely eat at the table as it's usually piled high with paperwork for my paying projects, receipts I need to enter for tax, and research stuff for the book I'm trying to finish, as well as articles that have interested me etc.

I love the dining table; it's the type of table I've always wanted.  A solid (read heavy) piece of real wood. About six or seven years ago we walked into a cafĂ© for something to eat (obviously), and sat at a table, when I realised this was the type of table I'd always wanted.

I asked the girl at the counter about them, and found out that the chef's brother was a carpenter, and had made them. Lady luck, good fortune, whatever - I rang him and a few weeks later I had my dining table. He makes them in Kauri, which is a treasured wood in New Zealand, and which unfortunately we couldn't afford, and also Macrocarpa. The Macrocarpa is lovely, and when it was new it had the most amazing smell.

I'm writing at my desk and I'm very happy.

09 June 2012

Happiness PS

As I walked through Aotea Square to work yesterday morning I passed a lady I didn't know, (not an unusual occurrence I agree), she smiled as we passed and said, 'Happy Friday.'

I was already feeling quite happy (well it was Friday!), but it made me smile.

Such a simple thing, but I hope it made her feel as good as I did.

Try it out on Monday!   

04 June 2012


I'm just back from a few days away. Very restful days - walking on the beach and lots of reading. It was great, maybe not everyone's idea of how to spend a long weekend, but I enjoyed it.

Happiness can be elusive. One of those things we notice when it's not there, or when we experience it to an extreme.

While walking along the beach yesterday, we came to an area of channels running down to the sea; some were deep enough to mean wet feet, and as I watched I noticed how fast the water ran in those deeper channels.

Very like us I guess. Unless we make an effort it's easy to settle for the same thing - a feeling of not quite unhappiness, but definitely not close enough to what we should be feeling.

There are some things that maybe we can't change - we need to go to work etc.  But there are things we can change.

The past couple of months I've been working in an office in the city centre. I drive to the Park and Ride each morning between 6.30 and 7am to catch the bus. I made a deliberate choice from the beginning to smile and wish the bus driver a good morning as I took my ticket, and to thank them as I got off. Do you know what? Most smiled back and said something nice, but even if they didn't I felt much better for smiling. Not a great scientific experiment, or even original, but I don't care. It makes me feel good.

A few weeks ago I saw this article on where the world's happiest people are.  I did have an irreverent thought as I read the third paragraph - I spend a lot less than two-and-a-half hours a day doing housework!

Finishing on a positive note - reread the last paragraph of that article. The way to have positive experiences is to be positive, be aware of how you're feeling, and how you're projecting that emotion to others.

Okay lecture over!  Just make sure you have a GREAT week.