Saturday, 30 April 2011

Writing a Novel (Part Two): A Place to Write

Welcome to the second part of my series looking at the process of writing a novel. Part One: What to Write? can be read here.

One of the great things about writing is that it doesn’t require a lot of equipment – something to write with and something to write on, and you’re sorted. If you're really stuck, you can breathe on a window and write with your finger! Obviously if you’re going to attempt to be published, eventually you will need to get your words typed-up, but there’s a lot of writing required before getting to that stage.

A common excuse for not writing, along with not having the time (which I’ll look at in a later post) is not having a quiet space. I know that some writers need absolute silence and solitude in order to work. Bill Hussey locks his door, and sometimes even uses ear-plugs; by contrast Frank Cottrell Boyce has talked of finding the clamour of a house full of children inspiring.

Miriam Halahmy wrote much of Hidden in cafés
Most of us are somewhere in-between, and try to write when and where we can. Miriam Halahmy and Candy Gourlay are just two writers I know who are part of a long line of café scribes, following in Ernest Hemingway’s espresso stained footsteps. Some of us write in libraries or on trains – I’m drafting this longhand in my notebook while walking, during my lunch break. Sometimes, in order to write anything at all, we have to adapt and learn to get the words down where we can.

Having said that, I think it is useful to find a more permanent space to write. This doesn’t have to be a beautifully designed bespoke writer’s study, though that would be nice. Stephen King wrote his early novels with a typewriter balanced across his knees in his laundry nook, Roald Dahl famously in his shed, and I read somewhere that Michael Morpurgo writes in bed. What’s important is finding a space you will associate with writing, so that as soon as you enter, your brain recognises it and thinks, ‘Ah, so this is what we’re doing now!’

My corner of the attic

I've written in libraries, on a laptop balanced on a drawing board in the bedroom, but about two years ago I cleared a space for a makeshift desk in the corner of our attic. It’s cold in winter and besieged by wasps in summer, but I love it. And when I climb the ladder each evening, by the time I sit down and switch on my computer, my brain already knows what’s required. It doesn’t always comply, but that’s another post altogether …

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Writing a Novel (Part One): What to Write?

I'm not sure about that title – I don't wish to mislead anybody arriving here hoping to find a guide to writing a best selling novel. If you were, then I apologise and wish you well in your search for wisdom. I will however direct you towards Stephen King's excellent book On Writing, and Nicola Morgan's website – you will find many nuggets of writerly advice available from both. Other than that I would suggest you switch off your internet connection, open a new word processing document and simply start to write. Do this every day and you'll be surprised how quickly the words build up. I don't mean to suggest that writing a book is easy, it isn't, but you can read as many how to books as you like, it is the act of sitting down and actually writing that will get you there in the end. 

Okay, now that's out of the way, for those still reading, I thought it might be interesting to look at the process of writing a novel – at least my experience of it, which is all I am really qualified to talk about. You never know, a few scraps of useful information might emerge along the way. 

One of the most common questions asked of writers is where do you get your ideas from? It's a question that many will struggle to answer. Not me. I know exactly where my stories originate. I'll let you into the secret, but don't go spreading it around – this is just between us, OK? On my desk there's a metal box, 18cm wide by 9cm deep and 8cm high. I call it the Word Tin, and it contains all the words I need, stamped into small strips of metal, like dog-tags. To build a story, I simply delve into the box, pull out a handful of words and put them in the right order – easy. OK, see you next week for part two … 

The Word Tin – where stories come from!

Sadly, I’m joking (but imagine if such a tin existed – now there's an idea for a story!) The tin is real though, if not magic, and I have once or twice tried to conjure a story the way I described and produced some interesting, if not exactly publishable, results. 

So where do ideas for stories come from, if not a magic tin or mail-order story depository? The answer to that is – everywhere and anywhere – a memory, an overheard snippet of conversation, a location, a news story, the list goes on. But as Philip Pullman said, 'the initial idea is much less important, actually, than what you do with it.' Often a single idea isn't enough to make a story, but combining two seemingly disparate concepts … that's when you strike gold. However, I believe there's another important consideration – the reason most of the ideas I scribble on scraps of paper will never become stories.

The late, great Robert Cormier
For me, Robert Cormier explained it perfectly when he said, ‘to work for me, an idea must be attached to an emotion, something that upsets, dazzles or angers me and sends me to the typewriter’. The spark that sent me to my notebook to scribble the start of the story that became 15 Days without a Head, came from an incident I witnessed in a pub one afternoon. A very drunk woman arguing with a stranger at the next table – much to the embarrassment of her sons. It made me wonder what life was like for those two boys, what would happen when they got home. 

It takes time to write and revise a novel, and I find that if the characters and their story don’t mean anything to me, they won’t sustain my interest through the months of writing. If you care, it also brings with it a sense of responsibility, a desire to do justice to the characters and their story, which can be a great motivation – especially in those dark hours encountered with every novel, where the story won’t come and you find yourself reaching for the Word Tin. 

You will often hear writers speculating what the next big thing will be, asking what publishers and agents are looking for. The answer that usually comes back, is that they don't know. What editors want is something special, something captivating and original, and the best chance of writing like that is to be honest – write what excites you. If it's fun to write, chances are it will be fun to read. 

So maybe the place to look for inspiration is not here, or in the next how to book, but inside yourself. Work out what it is that excites or unsettles you, which are the ideas that gnaw away at your subconscious, disturb your daydreams and keep you awake at night. Find out what it is that drives you to the typewriter … and start typing!

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Edge: Cutting edge fiction for teens

A few weeks ago I mentioned the inaugural meeting of the Edge, a group of like minded authors ganging up to talk books and stories in schools, libraries and at literary events across the country. The Edge website is now up and running with an introduction to the gang and some of the books currently available, plus a great kick-off post from Bryony Pearce exploring the question 'What is edgy fiction?' 

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Undiscovered Voices 2012 open for submissions

Nearly two years ago I received an email from Cornerstones Literary Consultancy about a competition organised by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI or Scooby to its members). I didn't often enter competitions, but this one looked good. The prize was inclusion in a published anthology that would be sent to agents and editors in the UK and United States. The honorary chair was Melvin Burgess and the judges an impressive panel of agents and editors. I was an unpublished writer at the time and had just completed a revised draft of my novel Fifteen Days without a Head – it couldn't hurt to send it in. I wasn't expecting to win … but I did. Within six months of entering the competition I had an agent – six months later, a publisher. So in some ways you could say Undiscovered Voices changed my life. 

13 of the 24 authors have books out already
Last Tuesday night, SCBWI announced that the 2012 Undiscovered Voices competition was now open for submissions. This edition will be the third anthology in a series that is proving to be highly regarded by the industry as a showcase for talented, but as yet undiscovered, children's writers. The facts speak for themselves: at the time of writing, 13 of the 24 featured authors have publishing contracts or books already out, many more have signed with an agent. So far, Undiscovered Voices winners have been nominated for and won a number of literary prizes, including the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize, Branford Boase, Blue Peter Book Award, not to mention inclusion on the prestigious Carnegie Medal long-list.

Once again this year's list of judges makes impressive reading, and the honorary chair is the highly respected, award winning author Malorie Blackman. So, if you're reading this as a children's writer yet to be published or acquire an agent, but you've got a great story ready and waiting to be discovered, it might be worth submitting it to Undiscovered Voices 2012. You won't win a cash prize, or a book token, or even a year's supply of chocolate, but it might just change your life.

For more information and full details on how to enter please visit  Also check out the Undiscovered Voices Facebook page and keep up to date with all the latest news and announcements via Twitter @UndiscVoice2012

Finally, here's a sneak preview of The Truth about Celia Frost by Paula Rawsthorne, which  will be the first of my fellow 2010 winners onto the bookshelves. It was fantastic to see the cover already on Amazon for pre-order and the trailer below.

Here's to discovery!