Monday, 20 February 2017

Restless Legs of the Mind - Joan Lennon

(image Middlesex Hospital, found on this blog)

Anybody else get this?  Restless legs, keeping you awake at night, insisting on twitching and fidgeting no matter how tired you are?  I'm lucky in only having RLS (Restless Leg Syndrome) from time to time, and in that it goes away of its own sweet accord. 

But lately I have been struck down by a ferocious case of RBS (Restless Brain Syndrome), and not just at night.

(image Wiki Commons)  

All day as well my thoughts fidget and twitch like the flanks of a horse with a swishy tail and lots of flies bothering about and in this comparison I am the horse AND the flies AND the tail ... I am also like a computer screen with a gazillion tabs open all at the same time.  With the attention span of someone having a quick visit to Facebook.  Which, as I just dotted off to find out, is less than that of an average goldfish.  

Why a goldfish? 

Why Facebook?

I hope to get better soon, because I have books to write.  One book to write.  Not the three that are currently buzzing about like flies, stirred up by the flailing tail of ... Nope, can't remember what that comparison was going to be.  


Any advice from fellow sufferers gratefully received but keep it, you know, brief ...

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Literary Marmalade -- Lucy Coats

Before the magic happens
It must be said that, so far, the question of marmalade has not greatly exercised the literary mind, other than the honourable and obvious exception of Paddington Bear, who is the arch example of profligate marmalade eating. D.H. Lawrence maintains that: 'It's amazing how it cheers one up to shred orange and scrub the floor.' How right he is about the one, though not necessarily the other. And of course, in other children's literature there is A.A. Milne who asks in The King's Breakfast, 'Would you like to try a little Marmalade instead?' (The King rather grumpily doesn't -- he just wants a little butter on his toast.)  Other than that, marmalade is of rather more interest to lexicographers, who squabble over whether the word has its roots in a Portuguese mess of fruit (mermelo is the word for a quince), or whether it was a queen's cure for seasickness (a corruption of Marie est malade). Personally I prefer the romance of the latter, however questionable. I like to think of the pale, listless queen lying about in the state cabin of her armed and dangerous dromond or carrack, being coaked into eating morsels of dry toast and orange jam by her worried ladies-in-waiting. It makes a much better story for a writer's mind. 

My 2017 batch of marmalade
The rôle of marmalade in my own life is inextricably bound up with the rhythms of the seasons. The beginning of any given year is brightened immeasurably but the sight of the first misshapen, mottled green-and-orange fruits which, if eaten raw, would pucker the mouth into immediate disapproving maiden aunt shapes. But combine them with water, sugar and heat, and an almost magical alchemy occurs. That opaque, sour ugliness turns to pots of clear, sparkling beauty which bring to your kitchen a blaze of the sunshine which ripened the original fruit. There is also something about the ritual of scraping and shredding and sieving and boiling which is deeply comforting to the soul -- and the glorious smell permeates the house for days. It's a different kind of creativity to that which is needed for making a book -- but for me, this alchemical act of creation is satisfying in a way I can't quite explain. Perhaps it's the making of something beautiful and delicious out of a combination of simple ingredients which gives a similar pleasure to my brain that taking a few ordinary ideas and turning them into a book that will delight readers does. Who knows?

What are your favourite foods that show up in books? I'd love to know.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy blogs at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure (No. 1 UK Literature Blog) 

Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram

Saturday, 18 February 2017

What would you save from your burning house?

by Lu Hersey

On Boxing Day, we had a house fire. It happened fast. Scarily fast.

I’d gone round to a friend’s place, and my daughters were settled in the front room, watching a film on Netflix. Twenty minutes into their film, there was a noise like a heavy bookcase falling over, followed by an indoor hailstorm. My freezer had exploded. Who knew that was even possible? 

Racing out to see what the hell was going on, the girls were confronted by a wall of fire in the hall, which was spreading quickly up the stairs, massively helped by the sheets drying over the banisters (think about this - you probably dry your sheets over the banisters sometimes too…)

Leaving the house so fast they didn’t even take their coats, bags or keys, they called the fire brigade (of course they had their phones – they’d probably burn to a crisp before they left their phones…) And then they called me.

I got back home within five minutes. By that time, firemen had broken down the door (the girls’ keys were locked inside) and were stomping all over the house spraying water everywhere. Fire engines filled the entire road and ALL the neighbours had come out to see what was happening.

At this point my son returned with a friend, both carrying a few beers, to collect an Xbox game – they'd planned a night of retro gaming.
‘Er, street party?’ he asked, looking slightly bewildered.
At least he made me laugh.

The firemen finally put out the fire and said it was safe enough to go back in to collect any urgent stuff we needed, before they secured the door.

The house was dark, because the electricity had blown in the fire, and it stank. The staircase was badly burnt, and there were puddles of water everywhere.
My son found his zombie apocalypse game.
My daughters went and got their bags.
I spent a quite a while looking for the cat, seriously worried he might have died in the blaze. (Fortunately he hadn't. He turned up the next day, covered in ash and looking very sorry for himself)
When I couldn't find him, with a heavy heart, I grabbed my macbook (practical choice - all my work is in there somewhere)…and a Neolithic grinding stone.

Yes, I know. Frankly, I’m not sure either. Obviously I should have rescued irreplaceable photo albums, my notebooks – or even something sensible like pants and socks.

But the grinding stone…

What can I say? It was given to me by a bored attendant at a Neolithic site at Antequera in Spain when I was seven years old. Even then, it felt like a very special gift. I loved it.

When me and the kids last moved (20 years ago) I thought I'd lost it for good in the chaos. At one point I even snuck back to the old house to check it hadn't been chucked in the rockery. Then recently, thinking I was about to move again, I found it buried at the bottom of a trunk in the attic. It felt like being reunited with a long lost friend.

The stone fits perfectly in your hand. Surfaces worn smooth by years of Neolithic use, it gives you a direct link to a point some 5000 years back in time.

Since the fire, the new book I've started writing has a strong Neolithic theme running through it - so maybe it wasn’t such a weird choice after all?

Okay, imagine your house is on fire right now – what are you going to save? 

Lu Hersey
Twitter: @LuWrites
Instagram: luwrites
Wordpress blog: Lu Writes

Deep Water, published by Usborne, out now

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Creative Insight - Heather Dyer

©Nevit Dilmen

If only we could summon creative insights at will. Then we could solve our plot problems - and our life problems, too. But insights tend to surprise us when we least expect them: when we’re stepping off a bus or getting out of the shower or dropping off to sleep.

There’s a reason for this. Creative insight requires that we momentarily let go of thinking, of clinging to what we already know - and even of caring about the outcome - so that the brain’s unconscious processes can make new connections. The mind needs to be open and exploring freely, without judgement and without attachment to a set goal.

©Nevit Dilmen

Creativity, therefore, requires a mindful state of mind. Ellen Langer has written more about the parallels between creativity and mindfulness in her book On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity. In fact, Langer is of the opinion that mindfulness and creativity are the same thing.

But there’s a quick way to trick the mind into a mindful (or creative) attitude: freewriting. Freewriting is writing steadily without stopping and without knowing where you’re going. I recently trialed some freewriting exercises with a group of fellow writers at a Royal Literary Fund conference, with interesting results.

I describe some of the prompts I used on the RLF consultant fellows’ blog today. (If you aren’t already familiar with the RLF, their website and blog are really useful resources created by and for writers.)

Try the exercises yourself – or with students, if you’re a teacher. Failing this, you could always take an 8-week mindfulness course. I highly recommend it, both for writing and for life. I frequently receive insights or remember things I’ve got to do when I’m supposed to be meditating …

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Eureka! Nailing epiphanies – by Rowena House

I’d planned to start this blog by diving straight into the Big Five personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness & neuroticism (acronym: OCEAN) – and extoll their virtues as the best tools ever for crafting character arcs.
But during a FB discussion about the Big Five earlier this month for WriteOnCon (an online conference well worth catching next time, btw) I remembered why I’d found them so helpful when redrafting my debut novel:
OCEAN had nailed the problem of how to make an epiphany work.
The anatomy of epiphanies had bugged me ever since James Scott Bell’s Writing Your Novel From The Middle persuaded me that a Midpoint Epiphany was a great plotting device. John Yorke’s Into the Woods expands on them at length, but story structure alone wasn’t enough to make mine seem ‘organic’ so I turned to psychology for help.

The Big Five
After millennia of debate about how many aspects there are to human personality, current psychology has (broadly) settled on five categories: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness in fulfilling a task, the multiple facets of extraversion plus all the variations of agreeableness & neuroticism.
Taken together, they express the myriad permutations of personality.
These categories aren’t binary. People aren’t Open or Not Open. Each is a sliding scale from more to less, and encapsulates aspects of personality that tend to go together.
For example, being sociable, talkative & assertive are manifestations of extraversion, while being systematically late, lax and indifferent indicate a low level of conscientiousness.
Under sufficient stress these traits are mutable, evolving in response to major life events – events so important they make us step up to the mark and decide what we’re prepared to do to achieve our greatest ambitions or defend that which we hold most dear.
Which seems to me a reasonable description of a character-based plot.
There’s loads of stuff about OCEAN on the web if you’re interested (and a bunch of online tests if you don’t mind some random organisation knowing who you are) but here’s a quick summary of each for ease of reference.

OCEAN definitions
Factors associated with openness include curiosity, original thinking, insight & creativity, openness to new & unusual ideas. Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas. Those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.

Examples of low-score behaviour
Examples of high-score behaviour
Someone who prefers not to be exposed to alternative moral systems, has limited interests, down-to-earth attitudes, non-analytical, narrow-minded.
Enjoy seeing people with new types of haircut, body piercing, curious, imaginative, non-traditional.


Conscientiousness: being organised, systematic, punctual, achievement-orientated, dependable. High levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, goal-driven. Tendency to be mindful of details.

Low score
High score
Spur-of-the-minute decision-making,  unreliable, hedonistic, careless, lax
Never late, hardworking, persevering, punctual, self-disciplined, dutiful.

Extraversion: outgoing, talkative, sociable, high energy, positive emotions, urgency, a tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others. Extraversion is the factor most strongly associated with leadership.

Low score
High score
Prefers a quiet evening in, reading rather than parties, sober, aloof, unenthusiastic
Life of the party, active, optimistic, taking charge,

Agreeableness: being affable, tolerant, sensitive, trusting, kind & warm. A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic. Weakly related to leadership.

Low score
High score
Quick to assert own rights with confidence; irritable, manipulative, uncooperative, rude.
Agrees with other’s opinions, good-natured, forgiving, gullible, helpful

Neuroticism: tendency to be anxious, irritable, temperamental, moody. Inclined to experience unpleasant emotions easily, including anger, depression or vulnerability. Sometimes called emotional instability. Tendency towards sadness.

Low score
High score
Not getting irritated by small annoyances, calm, unemotional, hardy, secure, self-satisfied.
Constantly worrying about little things, insecure, hypochondriac, feeling inadequate.

Constructing a basic profile incorporating these traits seems to me a more efficient way to create realistic, rounded characters than answering one of those long questionnaires about the colour of their favourite t-shirt & TV shows they watched as kids etc.
Better by far (imho) to know how open they are to new experiences or if they’re vulnerable and anxious.  Not only will this knowledge signpost how a character is likely to react to unexpected events but also what actions they might plausibly initiate at each stage in their emotional/psychological journey.
And once you know their deepest, repressed fears, you can merrily create the kind of obstacles which will test their underlying weaknesses to the utmost.
Think Snakes On A Plane. Who’d give the air marshal in that film a phobia about spiders?

Retrofitting character arcs
For me, OCEAN really came into its own when I had to rework a First World War coming-of-age script after receiving a development advance from Walker Children’s Books. The elements I needed were already in the backstory; I just hadn’t developed them enough.
So, in the rewrite, I took my protagonist step-by-step to a more mature place, one where she could – plausibly – reverse her deepest feelings about members of her family.
Spoiler alert: the worked example below is based on an Openness subplot of this novel, which will be out with Walker next year. (Hurrah!) I hope it’s detailed enough to make sense without giving too much of the plot away.

Act 1
Pre-story trait to be transformed
Stubborn loathing of family member X (a soldier killed in the Battle of Verdun).
Initial openness behaviour
Down-to-earth, non-analytical, limited life experience, defensive about her opinions of her family
OCEAN traits permitting transformation
Openness: a vivid imagination
Agreeableness: capacities for empathy & kindness
OCEAN traits preventing transformation
Openness: refusal to accept alternative points of views about her brother
Neuroticism: an unconscious desire for a substitute father
Act 2
Transitional behaviour
Aroused curiosity about the outside world as she starts her journey; fails first test by focusing narrowly on her quest rather than the suffering of others
Pre-epiphany behaviour
Forced to consider profiteer’s point of view, forced to consider strikers’ PoV; forced to consider the suffering that led to ex-soldier Y’s disabilities.
While assimilating her feelings about Y, she recognises the narrow self-interest that prompted her quest, but remains resistant to re-examining her feelings about X
Post-epiphany behaviour
Being more open, she observes the world more closely, leading to true empathy for others.
Act 3
Completion of consequences of EPIPHANY
On eve of the ‘final battle’, makes her peace with X
Final Openness state
In epilogue, evidence of new open attitude to disabled soldiers


Twitter handle: @HouseRowena


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Names, Names, Names by Lynne Benton

I was interested in Emma Barnes’s blog earlier this month, about the problems of having the same name as other writers who may write in completely different genres.  When she was born her parents couldn’t possibly have foreseen this problem!

As writers we can choose names for our characters, though the criteria are not necessarily the same as those we use when choosing the names for our children.

When we name our own children, we have to consider so many things: Will it suit them?  Will it give rise to unfortunate nicknames or initials?  What sort of person do we think/hope they may become?  Should we name them after someone we know?  Will they spend their schooldays being teased about their name?  Not all children want to stand out from the crowd – many, if not most, want to blend in – so while a child with a very unusual name may like it, he is just as likely to loathe it, at least while young, even if when he grows up he decides he likes it after all.  Alternatively he may change it as soon as he is old enough.  Celebrities are notorious for giving their children fantastic, and sometimes unfortunate, names, such as Apple, Blue and North (West).  Will all of these keep their given names into adulthood?

When inventing characters for our books, however, we don’t need to worry about these problems – unless the character’s feeling about his name is an important part of the story.  Many children’s books have characters with very unconventional names, such as:

Toseland (Tolly) in "The Children of Green Knowe" by Lucy M Boston

                       Beezus in "Beezus and Ramona" by Beverley Cleary

                                                                        and Owl in "A Girl Called Owl" by Amy Wilson

This is not necessarily a modern trend - how many girls have you met called Scout?  ("To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee)
Or Tyke?  ("The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler" by Gene Kemp)
 Names like these will hopefully ensure that the character will stick in the reader’s mind and be remembered afterwards.  Which is what every writer wants.

Alternatively, some writers like their main character to have a fairly ordinary name, so that there will be many of their child readers who share the same name and may feel “this is a story about ME!”  Anne of Green Gables leaps to mind, by L.M.Montgomery (though Anne always wished she’d been called Cordelia!)

                                   There is also Sophie from Roald Dahl's "BFG"

and of course, the very ordinary-sounding but now anything-but-ordinary Harry Potter by J.K.Rowling.

Sometimes characters seem to name themselves, almost without the writer having any say in the matter.  One story I wrote didn’t gel until I changed the name I’d given the character (Paul) to the name he wanted to be called (Ben).  After that it flowed.  Very strange.

I did hear a story about a well-known crime writer who, giving a talk about writing crime novels, said she had given a nasty character in one book the same name as her grandchild, and was surprised that the child's mother was not happy about it.  When someone in the audience suggested that the writer could have changed her character’s name, she said, “Oh no, I couldn’t do that!”  Hmm.  There are some names that are definitely out of order, especially those of your nearest and dearest – unless, of course, your character is wonderful in every way!

I have many books of Baby Names, all slightly different, and when I’m writing a book I often go through them searching for a name that feels just right for a particular character.   
Some of these Name books give the origins of names, which is extremely useful, especially for historical novels.  At the moment I’m in search of more Roman names for the final book in my Roman trilogy, having already used up the most likely ones in the first two books.  I also like each character’s name to begin with a different letter, especially if the names are a bit unfamiliar, to avoid the reader forgetting which character is which, so I can’t have both Marcus and Magnus, for example, because they look too similar on the page.   And it certainly wouldn’t do to have a Roman matron with a name not used until the 18th century.  Someone would be bound to notice and complain!

It has been said (by Shakespeare, no less!) that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  But when I discovered that Scarlett, the heroine of “Gone with the Wind, was originally going to be called Pansy, I wasn't quite so sure…