The Madness and Brilliance of Writing

Writing's a funny game. You make things up, put 'em down, and then hope other people will want to pay to read them. If it all works out, you make enough to get by. Even if it doesn't, you've been validated. Your stuff was good enough to get out there, to be read and liked (by some). To matter.

Like anything, as time's gone on, it's got more and more complicated. Authors used to write their books. Now they have media appearances and Twitter (and blogs) and need to understand marketing, to a degree, and publicity. And with all that, there's still no shortage of people writing / scribbling / typing through the night, through stolen evenings when the kids are asleep, during lunch breaks, on grey, wet mornings before the sun's up, just to get the stories down and send them into the world.

It's not the definition of madness, but it's a certain ordered lunacy.

Of course, plenty of writers have been mad, just like plenty of artists. Maybe the excess of the mind that leads to great writing tends to make mush of other things.

But it's fun, still, to reach to make books, like so many others, and to take all the modern twists - the blurbs and the queries and the cost benefit analyses - in your stride because you still think it's worth it. Beyond all the covers and editors and submissions and seeming like you need to jump through hoops is the belief - arrogant maybe, but concrete nonetheless - that you want to write, and to have it out there, in the world, and that makes it all worth while.

It's a good belief to have, and it has to be solid as a rock to ensure that the ordered madness - the one that means you're staring at a computer screen at 3 a.m. while all the respectable folk are asleep - doesn't become just a little bit too unordered. A fine line, perhaps, between a writer and a loon.

But it's still brilliant. So keep on, type away, and tr to convince yourself that, hey, all the really important things in life happen around 3 a.m. anyway.


The Three Kinds of Editing

It's been a while since I put up a 'nuts and bolts' piece, so I thought I'd remedy that today. Writing about writing (for me) tends to fall into one of two camps: the more generalized / inspirational / philosophical pieces (Why do we write? Where does it come from?), and the pickier, more technical stuff (Dialogue tags that aren't 'said' - always bad? What's so wrong with adverbs?).

And, of course, there's always the issue of editing.

Editing isn't fun, but it's where bad writing becomes good, and good writing becomes great. Nobody gets it right first time. A composer doesn't just jot down a tune and leave it at that - he works over the whole thing again and again, finding the flaws and smoothing everything over. Insert whatever further analogy you'd prefer here; the crux is that after you write, you edit, or you're fooling yourself and putting out low quality work.

So, yes. Editing. Seems to me there are three different things you're looking for in editing. For ease, and to make it seem like what I'm saying is totally true and not at all made up by me, I'm going to call them Sweeping, Sifting, and Sticky

Let's have a look, shall we?


By sweeping edits, I mean just that (of course). It's a big picture, all-encompassing kind of thing. It's reading through the story, cover to cover, and seeing if the whole thing works as a single unit. It's a bird's eye view of the book, and the things it shows you are pace, narrative voice, tension, and conclusion.

Pace is easy. When writing, you take sections at a time, then stitch them together. Read the whole thing, as a sweeping edit, and you might be surprised. Does hardly anything actually happen for the first 200 pages, and then everything important in the last five? Or were you so excited when you started that you swept through the opening and the character introductions, and now they seem rushed and too thin?

Narrative voice here means checking for consistency. A novel of more than 30-40,000 words means you probably wrote it over a couple of months, at least. Things chance. The last chapters especially, where you've gotten comfortable with the voice you're in and know how it should sound, can end up very different to the more hesitant opening lines. Seeping through. Does it morph and change? Sometimes that's OK, if the plot requires it. Does it seem odd? Edit.

Tension goes along with pace. Something needs that happen that's not in the final chapter to keep people interested - this is the hook that agents and editors want. Except there has to be more than one in an entire book. Are enough things happening for people to be invested right through to the end - remembering, of course, that unlike you, they don't know there's a satisfying ending coming, and they need to inspiration to continue.

Conclusion? Well, it's the end. It's the end of all major things, though - not just one. Have all the questions you raise throughout the entire book been answered? Are the characters all accounted for? You'd be amazed how easy it it to completely forget about Stanley, the lovable but haunted postman, who you had wander into the woods in chapter five and forgot about. Readers probably won't forget. Where did he go? Conclude!


We're coming down from our bird's eye view now to look at what actually happens per page. It's time to take narration, dialogue, exposition, etc., and see how your writing actually holds up. Look for clunky phrasing, speech that would never sound natural if it were actually spoken, word usage, and paragraph breaks. Particular turns of phrase that seem so right, so genius in the early hours of the morning, on your fourth coffee and your ninth whisky, may shock you into a rude awakening when you read them a few months later. Did you write that? Really? Why? Kill it.

Speech is a hard one. Dialogue has to be natural enough that people don't think it sounds forced or robotic, but filled with meaning, and not just filler, or editors themselves will wonder why it's there. Try reading it out loud, if you don't feel silly. Make sure you didn't use characters names too often - in real life conversation, how often do you use friends' names when you're addressing them? And remember that people rarely get through three or four sentences without someone interrupting. It's not rude - it's how conversation flows. Character who get to monologue in a book are being too forceful and it's your job as much as other characters' to cut them down a bit.

Sifting edits is a good time to make sure you're not either using the same word over and over, or using words that are a tad incongruous in their setting. I have no problem with adverbs - some do - but there still has to be a limit before the reader gives up and drowns, lost to despair. Make sure words work for you; the right one, in the right place, at the right time.  After this, you can look at things like paragraphs, chapter breaks, etc. The book should flow, with changing scenes and locations easy to follow.


Not the 'I dropped my jam sandwich on my manuscript' kind - though that would need dealing with. No, this is the least fun of them all, sadly. It's punctuation, grammar, spelling, consistency checking, and fact checking.   Ones where you need to get stuck in.

Go through your book with a fine tooth come, and find those tiny, annoying things, and fix 'em. The good news here is that there is a right and a wrong answer. Unlike voice, or tension, where you need to feel it, and treat it as art, these sticky edits are objectively correct or incorrect. Commas work a certain way. Colons do, too. If you're using ' or " to mark speech, be consistent. Don't change halfway through. Ditto place names, or the weather. If you start the novel in winter, forget that, and have a character in the next scene in shorts, you've slipped up. If they need to travel to London, hop on the train, and it takes half an hour from Edinburgh, you've slipped up. (Some would say if you're writing about Britain and the trains work at all, you've slipped up, but let's not go there right now...)

Fact checking's on you, too. Is the capital of Portugal really Barcelona? Seems suspect. Can you really buy a house in cash? Would that will have been publicly available the day after she died? These things can matter. Things that happen unrealistically only for the sake of plot - because the plot needs them to, with no discussion about it - can be a mark of lazy plotting. Lazy writing isn't worth people reading, a lot of the time. Make sure you world is complete and works within its own rules.

So, yes. Some ways of editing. Some will work for some writers, others won't. The key, though, is that writing gets better the more you polish it.

And who doesn't want better writing?



Wednesday's Inspiring Books

It's been a while since I did this, but it's Wednesday, and I have some spare moments, so the moment has come round once again. Wednesday's Inspiring Books is meant to be a list / celebration / record not just of my favourite reads, but of the books I read when I was younger that inspired me to become a writer myself - those books I still remember reading with a mixture of excitement and jealousy that some people, somehow, got to do this for a living.

Today's book is NORTHERN LIGHTS (or, THE GOLDEN COMPASS) by Philip Pullman.

My younger bibliophile sister owned and read this book before me, and perhaps it was the cover, or the satisfyingly heavy feeling, but even without knowing too much about it I was intrigued. This is one of those books where I can remember to the exact spot and position I was in when I first read it. From the very first line -  which, by the way, deserves to become one of those oft-quoted and well-known opening lines (a la REBECCA) - this book draws, drags, and whispers you in to another world and another way of thinking. I can't decide if it's a sad distraction or a worthwhile talking point that this trilogy got bogged down in theological argument on and off page, but for kids, those things don't matter anyway. The images, the characters, the amazing world building and terrifying odds - that's what mattered, what still matters, and what  makes this book a keeper for me.

I ended up doing my bachelor's dissertation on Milton's Paradise Lost, and I wonder if that's due in no small part to Pullman's association of the poem with this book. Possibly. Probably. Either way, NORTHERN LIGHTS manages to balance genuinely insightful and clever concepts with story telling and action enough to keep anyone hooked. Pullman's definitely one of those writers to use if you ever want to challenge the view that lids books should be easy, or simple, or patronize the reader.

As for that opening line ...

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

And that's what I have to say about that.



AW January Blog Chain - Thirteen / The House

The House

There was a thirteenth month.

Not that he was ever invited. It had been agreed, long ago and by some common consent, that he would stay away. It was best for all, it was thought. Especially for the young ‘uns.

‘He's trouble,’ said December, rough and old, his beard of twigs. ‘Mark my words. Best kept away. Hmph.’
‘Oh, yes, pet,’ said September, a thin, skittish woman in a pale blue dress. Her arms, covered in silver bracelets, always seemed too thin, somehow. 

October grunted. He rarely spoke. June and July giggled in the corner and whispered, their shoulders bare and shaking as they gossiped. They were young and silly, easily offended

‘You know, he might come this year,’ said February. He blew smoke across the room, white tendrils in the sunlight. Eleven faces turned to him. He shrugged and stubbed out his cigar.
‘What? What’s that?’ said December.
‘I heard rumours. He might come, is all.’
April smiled. January slapped her hand. 
‘And how would he know where to come?’ asked December. ‘Pah. Rubbish!’

February nodded, just once.

‘He could,’ said November. ‘If he wanted. You think he couldn't?  The House of the Meeting of the Months – that’s what this place is. Don’t forget the old names. And he is a –‘
‘He’s not,’ said March. ‘He left, long ago.’

October clicked his tongue.

‘You see?’ said December. ‘Trouble. Even when he’s not here he’s upsetting the order and the young ‘uns and … and things.’
‘You’re so right, darling,’ cooed September. 

They were silent, those who had come to the House. Outside a bird sang. Outside a car raced. 
‘In my land,’ said August, placing an empty glass of scotch on the table, ‘I heard whispers. That he is moving. That he’s back.’
‘And what land is that, love?’ asked September, smiling, showing teeth. She winked at April. Her bracelets jingled as she moved. 
‘Don’t patronize me…’ said August.
‘Oh, I’m just having a bit of fun,’ said September, holding up her hands in mock surrender. ‘You have a very nice land, so full of … well, whatever the weather’s like in August.’
‘You know full well what August is like,’ said January. ‘Intolerable woman.’
‘Well, you are.’
‘And what is January?’ spat September. ‘Blandness and new nothings! Oh, yes! Very nice, I don’t think.’
‘Quiet!’ said October in a voice of smoke and iced. The room was silent. 
‘He’s here,’ he said, and he turned away, bored.
The door knocker sounded, once, twice. June whimpered. February laughed. 
‘So he’s really here,’ said March. ‘He’s still alive, after all.’
Outside, someone scuffed their feet.
‘Hmph!’ said December. ‘Thinks he can just –‘
‘You have to open the door,’ said someone, and afterwards no one could quite say who. ‘You know the rules. He found the House. That gives him the right. He has to come in. The right of entrance. You know that.’

There was the just the slightest of pauses.

'Yes,’ said December. ‘Yes.’
Even he would never question this. Some rules change, can be questioned, can be broken. Some do not, cannot, must not. He grasped the handle, a well polished brass, turned golden by years – by centuries -  of use. The door swung open. The man stepped in. 

There is a thirteenth month.

For some there always has been. 


Other writers in the chain:

orion_mk3 - http://nonexistentbooks.wordpress.com (link to post)
Ralph Pines - http://ralfast.wordpress.com (link to post)
SRHowen - http://srhowen1.blogspot.com/ (link to post)
areteus - http://lurkingmusings.wordpress.com/ (link to post)
angyl78 - http://jelyzabeth.wordpress.com/ (link to post)
Amanda R.: http://www.twoamericansinchina.com/ (link to post)
randi.lee - http://emotionalnovel.blogspot.com/ (link to post)
ConnieBDowell - http://bookechoes.com/ (link to post)
writingismypassion - http://charityfaye.blogspot.com/ (link to post)
Briony-zisaya - http://fantasywriterwannabe.blogspot.com/
Kewii - http://kellyneeson.blogspot.com/
katci13 - http://www.krystalsquared.net/


Write On

Revising is a funny thing.

You go over words you know so well, but you change them, make them better, try to cut away the bits that don't work.

And sometimes the story has to change, too. Entire scenes need to go, or be added. Characters change their minds, or their reasons, or they don't get away with quite so much.

I'm revising tonight, as you can see. I have Domo-kun to keep me company, and various other knick knacks and books.

Sometimes it can be helpful to remember why we put in all this effort late in the night.

For me, it's because good books - great books - had such an impact on my life. Have such an impact.

David Almond's Skellig. Alan Garner. Philip Pullman. Michael Morpurgo and Kensuke's Kingdom. They meant a lot to me.

And I'd love to think that one day I can have books out there, too, trying - just trying - to do the same.


Query Tips from #Askagent

I posted in December about the wonder of Twitter's #PubTip hashtag - a collection of industry insiders and experts sharing thoughts and common mistakes as they come across them. It's an ever moving conversation that you don't even have to take part in to learn from - brilliant for introvert but inexperienced writers.

Well, today's post is a quick homage, if you'll excuse my French, to a slightly different but as widely used tag - #AskAgent.

AskAgent sessions work differently to #PubTip - they're usually slightly more organized (though often still spur of the moment), meaning two or more literary agents get together and agree / announce that they'll be doing an #askagent for a certain time. Then, you just Tweet your questions about agents' habits, preferences, industry standards, submissions, etc., to them, with the hashtag at the end. They reply - and bingo.

It's a brilliant way to get the answers to your specific questions, from the horse's mouth as it were. Except in this analogy, the horse is an agent. Yup.

Just a quick search shows up some good ones:

Only unethical agents. > RT : Do agents ever reach out to gauge editors interest in queries, before signing author?


  1. Well I can't sleep. So that's awesome. I'm open to a midnight sesh of to anyone who's awake.
  2.  Re: age groups. I write in Adult and YA. Should I be looking for an agent that reps both? Or would I potentially need 2 agents?
  3.  what age group does your querying ms fit into? 
  4.  I have completed ms's in both age groups that I've queried at different times. My most recent is YA.
 query agents who represent the genre of the book you are pitching-- and mention in the query that you write adult as well.

  1.  When should I follow up on a partial request? I've heard 3 months, but should I give the agent more time because of holidays?
  2.  I think 3months is fair, whatever's happened in that time 


 What's the rule for re-submitting? If you've rewritten entire novel (taking over 6m) do you say so or make like it's new?

mage will appear as a link
  1.  We might recognise it so always tell us if extensively revised and offer afresh 
  2.  If you just queried and book is completely different, I wouldn't worry. But if agent requested material, say so. 


And that is a tiny percentage. You can keep an eye out for a new session - following a few agents on Twitter is the best way to get plugged in - and from there, remove all the confusion and worrisome problems from the querying process.

In other news, my agent Molly has a new blog post up with her own 2013 wishlist - you can find it here and I'm sure she would much appreciate you reading it before you send anything to her. Though, of course, if you have any doubt - #askagent



Doing Nothing but Writing

I had a weekend this weekend.

Or, more specifically, I actually got to do what I wanted with Saturday and Sunday. A lot of weekends get booked up, get busy, get filled with fun and brilliant and unique things, but then it's Monday before you even think about relaxing.

Where I am in my life right now - with a day job, sneaking in my fiction writing when I can - that can be a bad thing. Cause at the end of the day, I think what makes a writer is that you really want to do one thing more than any other; write.

But life is real, and for most, that is not. So, having a writing schedule is important. It doesn't have to be rigorous - 0600 hours, write powerful confessional dialogue, 0645, produce volume of brief but illuminating poetry, 0715, capture ennui using haiku and rhyme - but it should., essentially, leave room in your week for doing what you love:

Making things up and writing them down.

Well, this weekend, I did that. I get these days every now and then, when the wind blows the right way, and the augurs raise no objections. I get my wife's blessing to be an anti-social sod, and I write, and write, and write.

It's great. Oh, I have to stop every now and then and remember to be lovely to my increasingly patience spouse, but I also blitz through (without rushing) so much stuff.

The edits of my second novel, THE STORY BOY, have come on leaps and bounds. The bare bones of my new short story for the AW Blog Chain is written. This blog post is done, and if you're reading it, then that's another thing I've got ticked off my list.

Writers write, and you shouldn't feel bad about it - but it is a pretty isolating thing to do. It's good to have some time to do it and not feel like you're shunning people. If you're a writer, I can't recommend it strongly enough - just put a day in the calendar, as if it were a business meeting or a trip with friends. Lock yourself away and type - scribble! - scrawl! - and don't look back or at the time.

See how productive we can be. See how we fly.

So I'm on a writing high, right now. The edits for TSB seem so right, and in a month or so I can't wait to see what other people think.

For now, though, they're mine to read, to work on, to think about, and to write.



Write a Story, Not a Novel. Or, Write a Novel.

The new year is full of well intentioned, not-really-intended, and downright jokey resolutions. Most of them have something to do with health (I will get fit!), a hobby (I will take up climbing!) or an achievement (I will climb EVEREST!). They're usually pretty innocent and there's no real bind to actually follow through with them. They're easily forgotten, too.

Wrong type of Magnum, usually.
I'm sure the resolution to write a novel is nothing new. For both authors and those just starting out alike, it's easy - and great - to get swept up in the new year / new you mentality and announce - even believe - that you're going to write that magnum opus.

But maybe that misses the point.

A novel - 40,000 words for kids, 90,000 for the grown ups among us - is just one form of story. Literary, genre, trendy stream of consciousness po-mo... beyond that, a novel is a block of prose with a moving plot, dialogue, and characters who find resolution.

A story is different, though. You can tell a story in a novel, of course. But you can also tell a story in, well, a short story. Clue's in the name. Or in flash fiction. Or blog posts. Or Twitter. Or poetry. Or even a poetry slam, though you've probably got more problems that need dealing with if you're going to poetry slams.

Music - songs - can tell stories. Even pictures. Video, of course. Youtube has some fantastic narratives on it.

My point is that if you want to do something great in 2013, write a story - but make sure that's what you're doing. 80,000 words for the sake of 80,000 words, but with no heart or love, is just a textbook in time wasting. A poem of 100 written with care and craft and courage can change the world. Sometimes it's why you write, and not what, that makes writing art.

NaNoWriMo will, sadly, make you go mad.
If you're writer, it's fine. No one will notice.
If you need inspiration or prodding, how about this: Sign up for a blog chain - fiction, non-fiction, it doesn't matter. Or you can enter competitions; New Pages has great calls for submissions listings and it can be a solid way to build an audience. Hey, why not start a blog? Do prep - admittedly, a lot of it - for NaNoWriMo.

Just write, write, write. Tell, tell, tell a story. Anyone can. It might be pants, but it'll get better. It might be genius, and then you'll really have something.

So go on. Write a story. Write one and remember that beyond all the clever style things, beyond agents and trends and literary criticism and technique and format is just you, a reader, and a tale that's worth the telling.


Back! Books! Biography! Blogging!

Merry 2013 to all who read this. I am now safely back in NJ, USA after a brilliant two weeks in England and Wales.

Travelling always means more time for reading, and with Christmas adding quite significantly to my reading pile I feel like I've had quite a book-ish fortnight. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's THE LONG EARTH was a surprisingly clever read (and not a comedy) and I'd recommend it for the ideas alone. That they're executed so convincingly is just testament to these two great writers. Next to be read is Alan Garner's BONELAND - the final part of the trilogy. Described pretty much universally as 'long awaited' (The Guardian reviews it here) I'm looking forward, albeit with some hesitation. He's a brilliant writer, but it's a lot to live up to after such a long time.

Other unexpected gifts from family included Terry Pratchett's collection of short stories, A BLINK OF THE SCREEN, Stephen King's ON WRITING, and plenty more not mentioned here. All in all, a fantastic haul sure to keep me busy.

So, yes. England was busy but fun. Continuing the theme of literary tourism, we visited Samuel Johnson's house in Lichfield (if you're an English major and you don't know who he is, shame on you) and then the village of Hay-on-Wye in Wales - the bookshop capital of Britain, don't ya know. Both places I would happily go back to. Especially as the birthplace museum had a fun dressing up box with three-cornered hats. What isn't made better by three-cornered hats? Nothing, that's what. Great times.

Also popped by Shrewsbury Abbey, and my wife and I have recently started watching Cadfael avec Derek Jacobi. 

A very wordy beginning to 2013, then. Met with my agent in London to discuss books and plans. Still have the Modern Grimmoire anthology to look forward to - I'm supposed to send biographical details back to them soon. Intend to lie to make myself seem more interesting. 

Good to be back here, blogging away. Here's to a whirlwind of a year, with books, and stories, and creativity for all.