Monday, 17 February 2020

An attack of the adverbs by Tracy Darnton

Ah the joy of getting out the red pen! 

I taught a session to new writers on building up an editor’s toolkit this week. We thought about the ‘tics’ we all have as writers and the merits of a list of our overused words or bad habits - and how to employ the Find and Replace (I prefer Seek and Destroy) function in Word.

I issued red pens and everyone enjoyed ripping to pieces a page which I’d managed to cram full of problems with voice, pacing, tense etc as well as a healthy dose of typos and style errors.  It’s always easier to spot mistakes in other people’s writing than your own – and much more enjoyable to red-ink them. 

Get out that red pen yourself and slash and burn your way through my Attack of the Adverbs exercise below. Think about how adverbs can weaken a meaning or make the whole section annoyingly tentative and wishy-washy, but also how that might be exactly what’s required for characterisation or effect. 

“Well, as always, it’s basically down to you and the sort of style you truly want to achieve but it’s also kind of a useful exercise somehow. Suddenly your writing might seem really tight or indeed it might just appear somewhat bare. It’s utterly your choice,” the editor pleaded defiantly.

And now do the opposite. Use your red pen to add to this writing which is very tight (or bare, depending on your point of view):

“It’s up to you,” said the editor.

Somewhere between the two you might find your sweet spot. We’re making these stylistic choices in every sentence we write. So fish out your red pen and analyse your own prose once in a while and notice the choices you make.

And don’t get me started on speech tags …

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies. Her next novel, The Rules, is based on her short story in I'll Be Home for Christmas. She has an MA in Writing for Young People and a wide selection of red pens.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Writers in their Landscape by Steve Gladwin

My Interview with Sue Purkiss

Over the next few months and basically as long as there are people to involve, I will be conducting a series of interviews on the theme of 'Writers on their Landscape', (basically what is says on the tin. Over the next few months you can expect authors as varied as Kit Berry and Stonewylde, Scott Telek and the first few books of his massive new Arthurian saga, Elen Caldecott on her exciting new novel, The Short Knife, and John Dickinson on his own trilogy.

Before we begin our wanderings with Sue Purkiss, however, I'd just like to make clear, as I hope is clear in this interview, that landscape is merely a stepping off point for the authorial musings of many things, and that there are many varieties of landscape to me found, whether it be the created landscape of Stonewylde, Sue's own views on the landscapes of home, birth and fiction, here in this interview, or both the outer and inner landscapes of Arthurian fiction in Scott's work. I hope you enjoy them all. And without more ado, here's my interview with Sue Purkiss.

Now, Sue,  as you know, this is the first in a new ongoing series of interviews with writers which has the loose title ‘Writers in their Landscape’. I’d just like to begin by saying that you’re one of the people I might call the facebook snappers. You have this in common with our March interviewee, Kit Berry, and others in that you seem to take genuine delight in just in taking but also in your sharing photos – and I’m sure it’s not just to show off your photography skills!

Having said that, you clearly have some skill in it, as well as a love for it. So perhaps you could tell us how photography started for you and perhaps what your first picture was, if you can remember it?

My mother had a black photograph album filled with small photos from a box camera, which she’d kept since she was a teenager. I used to love looking through it, and I think that’s probably where my interest in photography began. When I was about twelve, I saved up and bought my first camera. It was from Boots and it was called a Koroll 11. I don’t remember what my first picture was – maybe it was of our dog, Whisky, who was a rather grumpy West Highland White terrier. I’ve been taking pictures ever since.

Now this is something I’m going to ask people to do every month. I know you live in Somerset and indeed we first me in the English office at Kings of Wessex school in Cheddar. However, I have no idea where you were born. So, could you please describe the place of your birth to us as if you were looking at it. You can tell us where you are at the beginning, or after if you prefer.

I’m in Cotmanhay, which is a sort of suburb of Ilkeston, a former mining town in Derbyshire near the Nottinghamshire border. I’m looking at our house, which is on a council estate. The streets are all named after Derbyshire beauty spots – Beauvale Drive, Monsall Avenue, and so on, but it’s not in truth a very beautiful place. Our garden is lovely, though: Mum is an excellent gardener. Round the back she grows chrysants, very carefully. Sometimes she even shows them.

Cotmanhay Farm Estate, with the primary school I went to in the centre.

So, Sue, we’ve established where home was, but is it a place or area that has given you much in the way of inspiration.

So far, I haven’t used the area I’m from in my writing very much – although it does form the background to the first part of a book I’ve been working on for a while. It’s based on my father’s experiences as a prisoner of war, so in that case, it’s fairly incidental – the setting, unusually for me, wasn’t part of the inspiration.

What is clear is that Somerset and all its contrasting landscapes, from the levels and the marshes of Athelney, or the Mendips where you live, has inspired two of your books,  Warrior King and The Willow Man. Does Somerset have a particular magic, do you think, or perhaps several different kinds?

I think Somerset is a very magical county. It has several quite distinct landscapes. I live on the Mendips, and I’ve always thought I preferred hilly countryside. But there’s something very special about the Levels. They can be quite eerie, specially when a blanket of mist settles close to the ground, and the tops of the trees float above it like disembodied wraiths. The Willow Man is set mostly in Bridgwater, but the characters are, in different ways, seeking to be free of the situations they’re in; and I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but maybe the references to the willows on the levels, and the climactic scene on Brean Down, reference my own feelings – that the countryside represents freedom, and cities are places where you feel trapped.

The evocatively named Avalon Marshes, on the Somerset Levels.

Of course, people experience different landscapes throughout their life, whereas others remain forever in love with the place or area they started. Do you think you have a particular favourite type of landscape, Are you more at home in woods than mountains, or whatever?

I like open hillsides, with heather and gorse. And I love the sea – perhaps partly because I was brought up about as far away from it as you can get in this country.

On the Mendips.

Your most recent book, Jack Fortune and the Hidden Valley, which my partner and I thoroughly enjoyed, I would describe as a good old-fashioned yarn. But it also has real heart in it and a central constantly developing relationship. All this however is enhanced by Jack’s actual travels with his uncle, to begin with just in the Himalayas, and later with Jack’s solo venture into the hidden valley in search of the fabled blue rhododendron. Are you a frustrated Himalayan explorer?

Well, kind of. But, like Jack, I’m not good with heights. I’d definitely rather write about mountains than climb them. But I am fascinated by them.

Now it’s time for our next bit of landscape visualisation. Could you describe the hidden valley for us and Jack looking into it? I’m sure no-one will notice if you cheat and use the book!

One of the best things about the valley is the contrast between the approach, which involves snowy precipices and a terrifying ice bridge, and the valley itself, which is sheltered and full of glorious rhododendrons – white, scarlet, lemon, purple – and perhaps even the elusive blue one which Jack and his uncle have come so far, and gone through so much, to find.

And in total contrast we have the eerie, and potentially deadly marshes of Athelney, where King Alfred and the hero of your book, Warrior King, his rather amazing daughter, Aethelflaed go pretty much underground in full knowledge that the next battle might be their last. I have some knowledge of that area, as I used to live on the levels for three years. It’s a very specific area, isn’t it – a bit like the Norfolk Broads have come to Somerset! I can imagine your wanting to write about Aethelflaed as a character, but having the levels as a background must also have been tempting.

On the original Isle of Athelney, reading Warrior King to a group of school children.

 Yes, Warrior King, of course, is about Alfred the Great and his daughter Aethelflaed, and he had close ties to this part of Wessex. I first became interested in him when I went to Athelney one day, where he took refuge in the marshes, and I realised that the landscape I was looking at was not very different to the one he would have seen. There were lots of other atmospheric places associated with him too – an important battle took place near Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, and another near Eddington – Ethandun – in Wiltshire. Interestingly, there are white horses carved in the hillsides in both those places.

Can you tell us about any other landscapes you have used in your books and what specific qualities they might have? And are there any tricks for writing about or creating a landscape and making it feel real?

I used Axbridge, the next village to Cheddar, as the background to my first book about a school for ghosts. And the classroom was based on one in the first school – a lovely old room with a beamed ceiling. I’ve written short stories set in Brittany and Seville. As for making it real – the easiest way to do that is to describe a place you know, especially if it’s the sort of place that gets under your skin. If I’m writing about a place I don’t know, I use photographs, diaries, books – anything. I need to be able to ‘see’ it.

So will Jack Fortune be exploring again? Can you give us a clue where he’s going and why you picked it?

Well, he might. And if he does, he may well venture across the Atlantic…

Finally, is there anywhere left you’d still like to write about?

Lots of places!

Thanks, Sue, for sharing all your favourite landscapes.

Absolutely my pleasure!

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Why bother writing historical fiction? - by Rowena House

Embarking on a new historical novel, this one set even farther back in time than The Goose Road, I have been confronting a perennial question asked by (and of) storytellers of the past: why bother?

What is so important about this particular story that makes it worth spending years of one’s ‘wild and precious life’ re-imagining the dead?

Double-Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel offers a rich mix of answers to this vexed question in her 2017 BBC Reith Lectures. I’ve downloaded them onto my laptop and listen to her unique voice through headphones while cooking or cleaning, or drinking coffee and watching the wild birds on our feeders.

There is a mystical quality about her reasoning, a deep, personal connection with her own resurrected dead; they speak to her across the centuries; she is comfortable in their company.

But however authoritative and astute, Dame Hilary’s viewpoint isn’t enough on its own. If the response to why bother is, essentially, ‘because Nanny said I could’, that’s not going to keep me going through the long, difficult (and, doubtless at times, dark) days ahead.

Fortunately, a cross-section of today’s writing elite who either dwell in the past or visit it from time to time provided their thoughts as to why to the editors of the Writers’ & Artists’ Companion’s guide, Writing Historical Fiction.

Naturally, these experts contradict one another, so we lesser breeds are free to pick and choose, ponder and reject.

Among those I choose as a guide on this quest is Ronan Bennett.

Author of Havoc, in its Third Year (what a brilliant title) and The Catastrophist among other historical novels, TV and film scripts, Bennett rejects the notion that the past is such a ‘far country’ that its people were fundamentally different to us.

Instead he quotes the 1st Duke of Newcastle, William Cavendish (which ain’t something yer average contemporary novelists gets to do, ya boo). Cavendish apparently told his pupil, the future King Charles II: ‘What you read, I would have it history so that you might compare the dead with the living; for the same humours is now as was then, there is no alteration but in names.’

Boom! We’re just like them. Some duke said. Resonance between past and present rules.

Bennett continues: ‘The best fiction prompts self-interrogation. Historical fiction can bring us up with a jolt, like an eerie deja-vu. This is what I tell myself. I hope it’s true.’

Amen to that, Mr Bennett.

In the same Writers’ & Artists’ guide book, Michael Faber drew this useful distinction between two types of historical novelist: members of a first group, he says, set their novels in a particular era because they find it thrilling or romantic; they research every nook and cranny of their favoured period, and satisfy like-minded fans with full and telling details.

The second kind of historical writer wants to explore a ‘specific clutch of themes and human conflicts, and … realises that a particular era, which happens to be in the past, is right for this story.’

Novelists of this latter type ‘don’t have to worry as much about over-employment of research. You’ll be so preoccupied with characterisation and getting to the heart of human complexity that you’re unlikely to get distracted by crinolines or flintlock pistols.’

Boom. And there I am, freed from Dame Hilary’s edict that you can only start to write an authentic historical novel after you’ve plumbed every depth of your period and know it off by heart.

Rather, as Michael Faber says, ‘Use whatever historical details help you illuminate your characters’ soul and ignore the rest.’ It’s a motto I plan to pin to the wall of my writing room.

Not that I intend to skimp on research; it’s one of the joys of this hobby/writing life. Research is fun and exciting, with the weave of half-told history unravelling before your eyes and myths presented as fact disintegrating along the way.

But how can you know what you need to know from all this lovely research unless you already know your story? How can you avoid getting lost in the byways of a period when time is precious?

Personally, I think research is an iterative process, a conversation between the story as you first imagine it and the credible details (AKA facts to the unwary) which modify or overthrow these expectations.

My work-in-progress is, at one level, based on solid ground: a published pamphlet, lavish in its details of events. But it is also shifting ground since the story told is preposterous to our modern mind despite being presented at the time as truth.

Why did my protagonist write it? Why did people believe him – or pretend they did? Why are false narratives so compelling throughout time?

As a journalist of the old school as well as a teller of tales, this last question has never seemed more alive.

@HouseRowena on Twitter

Friday, 14 February 2020

Writing a Series by Lynne Benton

As an adult reader, I really enjoy reading series fiction.  There’s something very comfortable about reading about a central character you feel you know and like, and finding out what happened to them next.  And as a child I enjoyed reading series fiction about the same central character too, but now I think about it these were mostly “timeless” stories, ie the central character/s never grew any older while he/she had all these adventures (Just William, Jennings at School, The Lone Pine series etc.)  

There were some in which the main character grew up, such as Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did, Little Women etc., but on the whole series books for children retained the protagonist/s at the same age throughout the series.

And now I’m a writer too I can appreciate the reason why this is the case.

When writing a book for adults, the adult central character/s can age from, say, 20-50, without the reader finding much discernable difference in their lives, or their ability to do their job, other than maybe the “addition” of marriage and/or children.  They can continue to do their main job, whether as a detective, amateur or otherwise, or as a writer, doctor, archaeologist or whatever.  Over the years they can have various things happen to them, but still they can retain the reader’s interest in their activities.  I’m thinking here of characters like Hamish Macbeth, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Gamache, Maisie Dobbs, etc.

However, it’s not the same when you write for children.  The enormous changes in a child's life between the ages of, say, 9 and 15, mean that their stories will be completely different, and, crucially, will appeal to a completely different readership.

I think it helps if you decide before you start to write the first book what sort of series it is going to be.  Will their adventures continue to appeal to the same age of reader?  (I’m thinking Horrid Henry, Dougal Daley etc, as well as the Famous Five who had umpteen summer holidays while they remained the same age!  The same goes for series such as Skating School, Rainbow Fairies and Magic Ballerina, in which several different characters have adventures at the same time.)


Or will time proceed through the years, so that the children grow older in each successive book?  (Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did, and of course Harry Potter.)  Sometimes when you've written a book, the editor/publisher wants the story to continue.  And that can make things difficult if you hadn’t actually thought of a sequel to your original story.

When I wrote “The Centurion’s Son” I had no thought of it continuing.  As far as I was concerned it was a one-off, about two children aged 11 and 12.  But by the time I’d finished it I had a few ideas about what might happen to them next, and, as I recall, my agent agreed.  So as I began to plan Book 2 I realised that it would be a sequel rather than another book about the same children set at the same time.  Because of what happened in Book 1 that was impossible anyway.  So Book 2 had to happen one year after the first book.  By then the two protagonists were 12 and 13, which was still okay.  But by the time I realised I wanted to write a sequel to that one the children would be 13 and 14, so I knew I would have to finish the series there.  It would have to be a trilogy rather than a series, or the children would be too old for a children’s book, and their priorities would have changed dramatically once they were both in their teens.  As would their readers’ priorities. So I finished with Book 3, giving it an ending that I hope made it clear there were no more books about those particular characters to come.

When J K Rowling came up with the idea for Harry Potter, she knew right away that the stories would follow him all through his senior school life, so she always knew there would be 7 books in the series, and I gather that from the word go she worked out roughly what would happen in each book.  Which is why they all hang together so well.  

And she reckoned on her readers growing up at the same rate as Harry and his friends, which, of course, they did. (She may not, however, have reckoned on her books being read by such a vast age range that the publishers decided to have different covers for all the adults who wanted to read them but didn’t want to feel embarrassed by being seen reading a children’s book!)  Similarly, once the films came out many children once considered far too young to read the books were keen to do so – which can’t be bad!

So while writing a series can be a really good idea, since it can be a great way to gain and retain a vast collection of enthusiastic readers, it certainly helps if you know from the start what sort of series it will be.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

In which we find the author in contemplative, nay, romantic mood by Sheena Wilkinson

Today I’m snowed in, which means I’ve had to cancel the five things I was meant to be doing. 

view from my desk today

It’s just me and the laptop, a good chance to catch up with admin. Top of the To-Do list was to send invitations to my forthcoming book launch. Hope against Hope is my first novel for two and a half years, which isn’t that long, but it’s the longest gap I’ve had between books. I’ve joked on Twitter about this:  

Of course I have been writing since Star by Star was published in October 2017. Apart from Hope against Hope, I’ve written an adult novel, which I promise (agent, if you’re reading!) to submit … soon. I’ve blogged here and elsewhere at least once a month and right now I’m writing articles and responding to interview questions to help promote Hope against Hope – and very glad of the opportunity to do so. I’ve got a tentative idea for a new teen historical novel, which I hope to discuss with my editor soon. I’ve also put a lot of words into some reports for writing-related, actual-money-earning activities for the Royal Literary Fund. 

proof that I have not been slacking this last decade
But honestly? Actual writing? Actual immersion in a fictional world so that you blink when you come back up to earth and can’t believe three hours have gone by writing? Actual dreaming up scenarios for your characters in the liminal time before sleep takes over writing? Actual having conversations with your characters as you drive home writing? Actual thinking, as you wait in the supermarket queue, Look, there’s [insert name of character in WIP] writing?

Not so much. Well, actually, just no. And I didn’t think this was possible for me. 

Like Keren David, who wrote about the tenth anniversary of her first novel, the superb When I Was Joe, last week, I’ve been published for around ten years. Hope against Hope is my eighth novel, and there have been several published short stories and a couple of novels that were abandoned, as well as a few that never sold. (I hate admitting the latter but I’m in a confessional mood, and I’ve just read Kelly McCaughrain’s post on the excellent podcast How to Fail.)

For nine of those ten years I was single and not only did I have a fair amount of time to write, but I also didn’t have many emotional outlets or indeed demands. I was free to give all the love to my characters and didn't care that they couldn't love back. I could write all day and nobody minded. There was nobody to mind.  Other writers commented on my work ethic and that pleased me because I've always been a swot.   

When writer friends talked about not writing for a time, because of the demands of family or partners, I would think how lucky I was only to have myself to answer to. I was a woman with, in Virginia Woolf’s words, five hundred pounds a year and a room of my own. (If I’d relied on only royalties, that five hundred pounds wouldn’t have been far off the mark.)

But you know what? I wasn’t that lucky.  I look back at my schedule over the last few years and I see so many weeks when I worked seven days. Some of those days were travelling; many of them were certainly spent in wonderful retreats with supportive and lovely fellow writers; most days involved restorative walks in beautiful places. But it was rare for me to take a day off writing. I didn’t want to; I didn’t feel I needed to. Often, when I was supposed to be taking a break, I’d find myself buying a notebook and filling it with ideas. I needed to write. Writing was what I did; writer was who I was. Without my words what was I? Yes, I had lovely friends and parents and a busy, fulfilled life, but I wasn’t that important to anyone. I didn’t even have a cat because I travelled so much. I wouldn't have said I was lonely but not being lonely had to be worked at. You can have too many days alone with your characters. 

And then it all changed because last year, aged 50, I fell in love for the first time in twenty years. Not with a book idea, with an actual person.  You know, a live human. Not a paper person, but a real, complex, loving, wonderful man. Who also, luckily, fell in love with me. And suddenly I got it. I got why you didn’t have to be writing every day. Why you might not want to. Why real people take precedence. 

I still work pretty hard. No self-employed person can stay solvent without it. But I don’t work weekends. And I take time  off during the week. I don’t always have that room of my own, sometimes I work at his house -- it helps that he's also writing a book -- but mostly I just  work smarter. I haven’t shirked. I have met all my deadlines; the novel coming out in a few weeks is – my editor thinks, and I hope – my best. (And yes, it does contain a love story, funnily enough.) And I’m eager to get that adult novel off to my agent and to clarify my thoughts about the new teen historical with my editor. I’m still, and I always will be, a writer. But days like today, when I’m completely alone with my words and my paper people, are the exception rather than the norm. And I have to say I like that.  

Soon I'll be writing again, in that immersive, intense way that only another writer can understand. Soon I'll have a new cast of characters to demand my attention and keep me awake. But they won't get all the love. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Enjoy! by Vanessa Harbour

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend the Debut Author’s Boot Camp run by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I am not quite a debut author in that my book came out a little while ago, but I wasn’t able to attend the camp previously as had a prior University engagement. That didn’t matter. I left the session feeling revitalised and focused.

The camp had three brilliant tutors: Sara Grant, CandyGourlay and Mo O’Hara. I highly recommend it if you get an opportunity. They covered many things such as life as a debut author, social media and school visits. I gained so much knowledge from these three but something that Sara Grant said really hit home.

She simply said, ‘Remember to enjoy it.’

Sara was talking about the journey you undertake when you are a published writer. It was a reminder to stop and take a breath. Look around and remember what you have achieved. This is something I had lost sight of. It is so easy to get lost in the whirlwind and pressures of being an author that you forget to stop and smell the roses. You have no doubt worked incredibly hard to get to this stage. It is a rollercoaster at times, but I am determined to enjoy it!

Focus on those special moments:

1.     1. The moment you sign your contract initially with your agent maybe then your publisher. We all
Photo by me
thought we’d never get there so it is well worth enjoying and remembering. That first meeting with Janet and Penny at Firefly is etched in my memories. When it is announced the outpouring of love and support is incredible. Don’t forget to hold onto these moments and those feelings. Store them away safely in your memories.

   2. That moment you first see your cover. I was sat in my office at University when Firefly sent through potential covers, asking for my thoughts. I confess there might have been a few tears as my cover was so perfect. The illustrator, Anne Glenn had really summed up the story. I still look at it and smile.

3. Book launches. A moment of joy when you get to celebrate with so many wonderful people. I will never forget mine for Flight. It is up there with the birth of my children as one of the best days of my life

Book Launch
Photo by Candy Gourlay
 4.  Reviews, bloggers, shortlists and longlists. Suddenly you find people are reading your book and they seem to like it. I know Meg, who does the marketing and PR for Firefly, laughs at me because I always seemed surprised when a good review came in. I loved my story but when you send it out into the world you do wonder if others will like it too. Being longlisted and shortlisted for awards is always a good feeling. Children’s Lit bloggers are amazing they write with such passion, we are lucky to have them support our endeavours.

5. School visits. There is nothing better than engaging with your readers at a school visit. Those excited faces watching you, waiting for you to perform (it is also terrifying). Hearing their thoughts on Flight is always magical. Also finding out what work schools have done with your novel. Schools have performed Flight and others used it as inspiration
for art. This picture is an example that was sent to me by Jo Young, a brilliant TA from Broseley CE Primary School. 

These are just a few of the important moments in the journey. There are many, many more. From a simple tweet to hearing that one of your author friends has loved your book.

We all have our own journeys and our own highs and lows but do what Sara suggested, remember to enjoy it along the way.


Dr Vanessa Harbour