Writer's retreat

Writer's retreat

Monday, 13 June 2011

Novel writing: hints and tips

Like every writer, I have several stories on the go at any one time. Some sit around for years until I feel inspired to take them up again, others live with me either from day to day or week to week.

In my writing group we have a novel sub-group which meets every other week in a local pub where we read out our latest chapter or part-chapter to our peers. One of the group is transferring her novel into a radio play, so we all get a chance to play with the characters and interact with the story. It’s great fun and gets us all laughing.

I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve already had two of my novels published by Loveyoudivine. You can see all the covers here with accompanying blurbs. I’m now exposing “Gofannon” to the Pub Clubbers and they’ve raised a lot of useful pointers showing how to improve it. My biggest problem is making the time to do the revisions!

This weekend I’ve been putting together my various stories about my shapeshifting cat people just to see how many words I’ve already written and how much more I’d need to write before revising and submitting. I’ve posted a single story on Literotica if you’d like to see what the characters are like. It’s a stand alone story, not central to the plot, but don’t read it if you’re averse to adult content! I’m waiting to see if they upload another story about the cats submitted yesterday which is part of the main book. (You can find it here.)

Trying to shape a novel brought me back to the novel writing workshop Sue Johnson put on for Solihull Writers Workshop at the beginning of May. Sue is a lovely person and a gentle and inspiring speaker. The advice she gave was sensible and sounded achievable, although she had us all gasping when she told us she had forty pieces of work out seeking placement at any one time.

I guess the difference is that she’s a full time writer, with a long track record of successful article writing and poetry publications and has just landed her first romance novel contract called Indigo Dreams with Samhain Publishing. She attributed her success to knowing her characters inside out, so she could describe the leading male as a “Rum truffle” (apparently the publisher use this as a test for all aspiring authors!) and was clear about her marketing potential through Facebook, blogging, twitter and workshops.

Sue said there were five main reasons why novels fail.
1. Insufficient conflict – conflict needs to be in place right at the beginning.
2. The characters are not gripping or convincing e.g. a TSTL heroine (too stupid to live!)
3. Settings are unbelievable – this can be rectified by having pictures or recordings of the place you have in mind and you must engage all the reader’s senses to take them to that setting and keep them there!
4. Unconvincing dialogue – all dialogue must be gripping and must move the action on. Don’t include every word, summarise and remove slower scenes.
5. Insufficient use of senses – must include colours and smells within the action.

A plot emerges from the motivation of the characters but must have enough conflicts within the story. A friend of mine likened a plot to a journey, but there must be threats and points of learning along the way.

My problem has always been that I don’t plot a novel before I start. I usually play with the characters – often with a writing partner online and let the characters decided their own stories by their interactions together. This is really good for understanding your characters, but can make deciding on the beginning, purpose and ending of the story really complex. One of these days I shall be disciplined and plot my story first!

I can understand what Sue means about conflict. I have a very gentle story I’ve played with on my own for a couple of years but apart from the characters heading towards a significant argument, they spend most of their time preparing food and looking after animals which really doesn’t help the story along!

Sue recommended conflicts should be included on three levels. Most stories are actually based on fairy tales and myths. She cited that twelve novels in the top two hundred best sellers are built on the fairy tale structure. James Bond is an example of a mythic plot.

If these structures are followed, you can see that conflicts come in threes.
1. The character’s battle with one aspect of themselves
2. The character’s battle with someone else
3. The character’s battle with some aspect of the environment e.g. weather/disease – something which causes a problem thereby isolating them.

If you are working with things happening in threes, foreshadow, but don’t let things happen immediately. If you have two false alarms, it heightens the tension.

The numbers three and seven are the most popular numbers in all cultures. If you are engaged in persuasive writing, emphasise the point three times.

Sue told us that Jane Austen included a plot twist every six or seven pages, which keeps her readers surprised and wanting to know what happens next. She said you need to have background information available about each character to ensure you keep everything consistent.

There is nothing more disconcerting in a story if you have decided to change the name of a character half way through but forget to make sure all the changes have been made in your word processor.

We had this problem in The Strongest Magick. The hero’s name originally was Agravaine, but his nickname used throughout the book just didn’t fit, so my collaborator came up with an older form of the name, Agryffan, so the nickname , Gryff , made more sense. I cannot tell you the hassle it was to go through the entire text and ensure everything had been changed correctly. You cannot trust a word substitution programme!

When you’re plotting a novel, Sue suggested you should decide the opening and the ending and twenty key scenes. These can be developed into chapters on a postcard. Chapter lengths should be varied. Cliff-hangers are good because they keep the pages turning. You need to have enough happening, possibly with events set in threes.

Prologues should be not too long and punchy. Use them to give an overview. The purpose is to give an idea of what has happened before providing any foreshadowing needed.

Similarly, an epilogue should sort everything out, but to achieve all this, the reader must care about the characters.

If you are writing heterosexual stories, Sue said the male and female parts of the novel should be developed equally. The same could be said if you’re writing about same sex couples – i.e. each partner has to be developed to the same extent. You can’t be captivated by Lavonia and have Count Leverhulme remain a cardboard cut-out.

What does he like for breakfast? How did he get the scar on his little finger? Why does he always groan when he hears Beethoven’s 5th Symphony played yet cannot stop drumming the opening sequence on any surface with which he comes into contact?
Sue suggested writers should not plot too tightly. It was more important to get to the end of your novel before tinkering. Don’t worry about perfection; get the bones of ideas down.

An interesting point Sue brought up which publishers are requiring to a much greater extent than before is what is the author prepared to do to promote their book? Sue recommended such things as building websites, offering promotional material, writing competitions, offering workshops, reading in libraries and all the social networking sites. To those can be added giving readings, attending conferences and book fairs.

All these examples are possibly less trouble if you are living and writing in a niche market. It would be much easier for me to write books on herbs or healing because I know where the gaps are and who might be interested and the subject matter is one which can be discussed over the dinner table with friends. It’s more challenging if you write for “adult” markets and can’t publicise your work perhaps as much as you’d like for fear of alienating family, friends or even losing your job!

Sue told us that most publishing contracts for novels often include the need for another novel within twelve months. If you follow her advice to have a minimum of forty pieces of work submitted at any one time, this can be made up of short and long versions of the same short story, articles, poetry, flash fiction, competitions etc. She advised us to have a database tracking system so we knew what was happening to any one piece of work at all times.

When submitting a novel, Sue advised getting the synopsis as good as you can get it, making sure you look at the publisher’s website as well as the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook. It is also advisable to ensure the first two pages have NO mistakes on them. If they do, no-one will read any further.

A one page synopsis can almost be considered as a blurb (the writing on the cover back page). You must make sure the synopsis includes the ending – a publisher does not appreciate surprises!

Publishers will often have blogs giving their pet hates. It is worth reading these so you don’t fall foul of such formatting issues as not having the first paragraph indented but making sure you indent all subsequent paragraphs. Sometimes publishers have enquiry forms and these should be downloaded and completed.

The workshop left me with lots of ideas and hopefully some new skills. Sue told us there is a market for everything. We should go for what inspires us and keep going until we get a result, at the same time looking for every opportunity you can find to promote yourself.

Now I have to follow her advice and push myself into action!

Thursday, 9 June 2011


It can be difficult to come up with an original idea when you're writing to a given theme. The subject of storm seemed to bring out everyone's darkest fears of death and destruction. I count mine as a true story from 1995, when my Oregonian friend and I were playing with the story of a Celtic healer. While Chris held a meeting in our front room, I sat in the lounge and imagined the story's finale as the thunder rolled around the garden in front of me. It was a very surreal experience.


“Come in, come in. Looks like you made it just in time.” David welcomed his two fellow Beaver leaders into the house and took them through to the front room.

“Would you like some tea?” Janet hovered in the doorway, trying to be hospitable, but wanting to keep her distance from this planning meeting for the next term. Her suggestions for ten weeks of tree projects had not gone down well. Five year old boys were not interested in trees, she was told. They needed more interesting topics to hold their attention.

David took the drinks through into the front room from the kitchen leaving Janet to occupy herself in the lounge. The children were upstairs asleep. Normally she would sit and watch television but the large screen was blank and she felt no desire to pick up her knitting needles and concentrate on yet another Thomas pattern.

Janet stared out into the darkening garden. Even with the French window wide open, there seemed to be no air. Black clouds hung low, hugging the top of the apple tree while thunder rolled in the distance. A single blackbird called an alarm from the top of the neighbour’s fir tree, but there was no sight of the other garden dwellers.

“They must all be hiding in the hedges,” Janet thought, as she caught sight of a slender forsythia branch swaying in the stillness. A robin or bluetit must have landed on it briefly before seeking shelter amongst the green hawthorn.

Sheet lightning danced across the clouds, the flashes mesmerising her. She waited, counting silently for the thunder to crash overhead. Nine seconds before the sky cracked. It was almost overhead. Sudden sounds on the concrete slabs heralded raindrops as the storm arrived, bringing with it swirling air currents which ruffled the curtains.

“Should I shut the French window?” Janet wondered, but she was tied to her chair by her terror of the storm. Her fingers gripped the armrests as her mind took her back to another time, another storm where summer rain lashed the bracken around a large stone dwelling.

It had been a disastrous year. Savage frosts burned the fruit blossom. Spring planting was difficult with many fields of seeds rotting where they were sown because of incessant rain.

“The God is angry with us,” people muttered. “No sun will shine until the land is nourished with blood. No crops and we’ll all die this winter.”

“Have you seen the Laird?” Ygraine asked, passing through the kitchen in search of her aged husband. Many decades had passed since they accepted the clan leader’s torcs. Ygraine’s once raven tresses were streaked with grey and Angus’ gleaming golden mane was now as white as snow on winter hillsides.

“I saw him walking down towards the stones before the storm broke. He took the knife with him.”

Ygraine whirled towards the speaker, a dour man with grizzled hair who was hanging pots and pans on their hooks in the wide oak beams. “What do you mean he took the knife?”

“He said it was time and you were not to worry.”

An anguished scream tore from her throat as she flung open the thick wooden door and ran out into windswept moorland.

“Angus, Angus, where are you?” but her words were lost to the thunder as she ran along the narrow track leading to the ancient stone circle. She stumbled many times in the darkness, but as she reached the brow of the hill a sudden flash of lightning lit up the fateful scene below her.

Angus was kneeling behind the altar stone, the sacrificial knife held high in front of him. His long white hair stuck to his clothes, drenched by pouring rain.

“No!” screamed Ygraine, but even as her cry echoed around the glen, she saw Angus plunge the knife into his chest and a tell-tale stain began to seep across his white shirt as he slumped forward onto the ground.

She flew down the track, throwing herself to her knees and cradling his body in her arms.

“Why you?” she sobbed, wiping the rain from his face.

“The king must give himself for the land,” he whispered. “I’m old and tired, Grainne. I want to go home. Better now, herein this sacred space, than a living death inside stone walls.”

Her sobs gave way to heart-wrenching cries as his body went limp and the spark died within his eyes. It was there they found her, their children and the rest of the clan. Tenderly they took him from her, laying his body on a horse drawn bier, their sons supporting her, their daughters arms wrapped around each other as they slowly followed along the track.

As the Laird’s blood seeped into the soil, the wind dropped. Against a departing wall of clouds the emerging sun threw a double arc of rainbows across the sky. The man leading the horse stopped at the top of the hill, the bier suddenly alive with colours.

“You’ve done enough,” he spoke to the corpse. “We’ve hope again.”

The front door slammed, dragging Janet back from her reverie.

“Storm’s gone now,” David said, closing the French window and drawing the curtains. “We managed to get everything sorted. Do you want some tea?”

Janet looked at him, wondering if the tears she felt running down her face were really there or just stray raindrops blown in through the open window. How could she tell him what she’d witnessed?

“I’ll make it,” she said getting up from her chair just as he put the light on. “It was an amazing storm.”