Giveaway! Just Add Writing

My new book will be out in February – it’s a small volume of writing tips to lift a writer onto the next level.

Front JAW
Just Add Writing. 150cm x 15cm, 100 pages

I run writing workshops for groups of writers and several other organisations. I’m guest lecturer at our local University and have been NaNoWriMo ML for Wales for a decade. And I get asked the same questions time and time again. So I thought I’d put my answers into a book that people can take away with them.

Many writers find it hard to scale up their work – they can handle short fiction, but it’s too big a step to write a coherent novel. It’s not just a case of producing more words – it’s a very different animal to write. A short story may only have one dimension, a timeline with little or no character development. More usually it has breadth as well, a second dimension in which characters can move at right angles to the main plot, generating interest for the reader. But a novel needs depth, too – the third dimension which keeps the reader turning pages right till the end.

Okay, that might be pushing an analogy too far, but it’s one way to visualise the step change between the different media. I’ve read novels that were really just short stories padded out in the first two dimensions, lacking in any depth. A novel like this will only succeed if it has something extra, something that captures people’s imagination and taps into the zeitgeist. In other words, it takes luck – and that’s not a good thing for a writer to rely on.

There are also writers who produce a novel-length manuscript and don’t know how to make it “work”. They don’t know how to turn a draft into a completed novel. In this day of free e-publishing and print-on-demand paperbacks, all too many of these get released into the big, wide world without proper consideration.

And so, my little book. Just Add Writing is designed to help those writers to write a novel that people will want to read. To focus on the aspects that keep readers turning the pages, bring them back for the next book. We live in a world of free ebooks and throwaway fiction, and this is a guide to making you novel stand above the swamp of the mediocre.

No, I’m not promising you’ll write a bestseller – only that I’ll help you write the best novel that YOU can. There are ways to maximise the return from the time you can spend on writing – many of them learnt the hard way by your humble writer. (Me!) There are tips I can give you to improve your writing, but the hard work is down to you.

Hence the title.

Enough waffle. Just Add Writing will be published on 17th February and available through all good booksellers, online and even in the real world!
You will soon be able to pre-order a limited edition pack with a few extras.

Watch this space.

Meanwhile, to win a copy (including worldwide P&P), simply post a picture of yourself reading one of my books and tag me in the picture. If you have an ebook, show the cover of my book on your ereader’s screen and point that towards the camera. 🙂 Closing date 10th Feb, 2014. The three best pictures will each receive a signed copy of Just Add Writing.

(I’m also presenting a workshop in Barry on 15th Feb. See you there?)

NaNoCoDo #13 A Writing Space and Time to Write

This is my tenth year of doing NaNoWriMo. I have written at least 50,000 words every November for the last nine years and I plan to do the same this year.

I have other commitments, other demands on my time. I have writing that’s promised to magazines, family problems, health issues, computer glitches and all the other things that get in the way of a good month’s writing. We all do. I was even packing our house ready to move one November. NaNoWriMo is all about being the one who produces 50,000 words in a month despite everything else that’s going on in your life. If it was easy, what would be the point of doing it?

One of the great benefits lies in finding out how much time you waste in a “normal” month. Ten minutes waiting for someone to get ready. Half an hour while dinner’s in the oven. An hour in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. Yup, I’ve written in all of those timeslots. And that’s the key to NaNoWriMo.

People tend to assume that writers have a set schedule, that they type all day and then have a normal social life. The reality is often more to do with holding down a full-time job and squeezing their story into tiny snatched moments during their day. NaNo is great practice for just such a life. If you’re hoping your work will be discovered by a publisher someday, get used to the idea that you’ve got to spend the next few years earning a living in the mundane world before that happens. Sorry, but that’s reality for you!

One other useful point to NaNoWriMo is that you can use this month to train your family / friends not to interrupt when you’re writing. My long-suffering Hubby knows the dangers of speaking to me when I’m typing and he has the bite-marks to prove it. You can explain to everyone that it’s only for November – they’ll be happy to humour you for a month and then they’ll have got used to it so you can continue writing (although not as frantically) afterwards. By the time you’ve done this for thirty days, you’ll have trained yourself to write (or think about your story) at every opportunity. And your family / significant other / friends will have learnt that you’re serious about this writing lark.

You don’t need to be sitting at your favourite desk to write. You don’t have to wear your writing undies. You don’t need silence or solitude.

You’re not trying to produce deathless prose, just a novel-length piece
of work you can be proud of.

Write when you can, think about your plot when you can’t write. Hold conversations (in your head) with your characters when you’re on the bus. Make sure you take backups!

All you need is a computer, imagination and the will to succeed.

See you in December, Writers! <<– Sign up here.

NaNoCoDo #12 Begin at the Beginning

Oh no – November is fast approaching. Now is the time to think about types of writing style. First person or Third? Past tense or Present? And if Past – which one?

Simple answer – don’t get hung up on any of these details. Try telling the opening of your story out loud, as if you were telling a mate. Do you find yourself using third person? Then write in third. Do you talk in a past tense? Then write in that one.

If all else fails, just start writing. If you find you’ve changed point of view (PoV) after a couple of chapters, don’t panic. Just keep going.
You can sort it all out in an edit later – if the book’s worth polishing. I’ve advised a lot of writers to change their PoV and their stories have been much stronger after that edit!

Likewise character names. I don’t always know what my characters are called when I start a story, so I just give them a label I can change later. That’s what “Find – Replace” is for in your word processor. You could call them AAA, BBB, CCC and so on. I tend to name them according to their role in the tale – Donna was the daughter, Frank her father, Simon the son – and so on. Your characters will tell you if they want a different name, or you will come across one you think is perfect. Find – Replace. Simples!

I’ve known writers complain, “No-one reads novels written in the first person” and try to force their narrative into the third person, even if that fits like a shoe on the wrong foot.

Or “My heroine needs a really cool name” and then spend weeks trying to find the ideal name before they write a word.

My advice is always the same – just get to work writing your first draft. You can make those decisions later and edit what you’ve written.

We’re all procrastinators some of the time.

But writers write!

NaNoCoDo #11 Endpoints and Sequels

You have to end your book by wrapping up the story it started with. Sounds simple, but if you’re writing the first books in a series, you don’t want to end your plot. You want to leave things open for the sequel. And if you’re writing the middle of a five-book saga, it’s even worse – because you don’t even have a clear point to begin your tale.
But you have to.

If you look at books that form a series you’ve enjoyed, each volume has its own identity. Yes, there are threads which pass from one to the next, but there are more that get tied-off.

In television terms, this is the difference between a continuing drama and a soap opera. Drama may have plots that carry from one episode to the next, but there is character development and an overall structure that you can see if you stand back from the action. Soap opera may have development of some characters, but there is no overall plot. I’m not knocking soaps, millions of people enjoy them, but they are a different type of drama. And many series sit somewhere between the two extremes. So if you’re going to turn out books in a series that doesn’t go anywhere, you’ll be alright as long as you produce two a week for the indefinite future.

Think of sci-fi series. Good old Star Trek had no overall plot. Each episode was contained in its own little bubble. If a character was aged by fifty years at the start, they were miraculously restored by the end of the show. Whereas Babylon 5 had a plan, there were plots setup very early on that didn’t come to fruition for years!

More examples.

James Bond can get married in a book / film – but she’s bumped off at the end, leaving him free for the next one.

Doctor Who can be on trial at the start of an episode, but he’s free by the end. (Unless the story runs over a few weeks, but the same rule applies.)

The way to check this is to imagine reading / watching the stories out of order. Do they still make sense? Then there’s no overall story arc.

But what if you don’t have a plan for your saga? You just want the same characters to have a series of adventures, each of which is self-contained. Then you simply tie off all the threads at the end of a book and very little is carried forward. You’re writing a soap opera – and that’s fine.

But if you want an overall plot and don’t actually know what it will be, you’ve got the toughest job. One good tactic is to use a different viewpoint character for each phase of your story. So:

Book1: Tom’s Story – ends when he dies heroically, saving a younger man.
Book 2: Dick’s Story – starts when he’s saved and ends when he falls in love with a woman he’s only just met.
Book 3: Harriet’s Story – starts when she’s being stalked by an admirer and ends when she marries him.

You get the idea.

This may be more structured than you want for NaNoWriMo – but why not use this month as a practice run for a novel you actually want to sell someday? Even if you don’t have a detailed structure at the start, think about it as you’re writing and look out for the point where you can wrap up the plots you want to, even if you leave some open for next year.

NaNoCoDo #10 Subplots and Plot Shapes

So you have some idea what sort of story you’re writing, who your characters are and you’ve been living in your setting for the last month. But what is actually going to happen in your book? Is this a love story, a quest, a horror slasher? Whatever you plan, there are certain shortcuts to plot structures that will leave your reader happy at the end of your book.
More to the point, there are easy ways to leave them unhappy and your job is to avoid these!

Each plot or subplot has a definite story arc – it begins, things happen, it resolves. Even if a particular subplot is left open at the end, you still need to round it off ready to pick up in the sequel. Or in the reader’s mind.

And your book needs to have a single story arc that starts as close to the beginning as possible and ends climatically at the close of the book.

This is important.

If you begin with a character’s lousy love life, you end with them snogging the man (or woman, or alien) of their dreams. You do not end with their city being blown up – that’s a different story arc.
There is a contract with the reader. You will signal the end of your story by the beginning. You promise that you’ll end by wrapping up the tale they bought in to at the beginning.

Your subplots can start and begin in a convoluted way during the book – but your final paragraphs are to close the story you began in the first chapter. That’s how the reader knows they’ve finished your book. That’s what makes them happy.

The only time you can really dodge this rule is with murder mysteries. Your reader knows someone’s going to get killed fairly early on, so you can build up the tension for a few chapters. Otherwise, you must start by setting up your major plot. And finish with the same plot’s ending.

Okay – this might be too involved for a NaNoWriMo book. But there’s no harm in knowing what to aim for.

Sounds trivial, but I’ve seen stories which open with the heroine looking for love and close with her finding the hidden treasure. Gold is no substitute for love! If your story opens with a ghost being sighted – it doesn’t end with the hero and heroine walking away hand-in-hand.

It sounds trivial, but this is essential for a good story – whether it’s a book, a film or whatever. Even if you’re continuing for a ten-book saga, each volume must end with some sort of closure that relates to where it began.

Think about it.

NaNoCoDo #9 Supporting Cast

By now, you should be on good terms with your Main Character and their partner / sidekick / love interest. But you’re gonna need more people to make a decent book of their adventures. Each of these needs you to keep some records of them.

As a rule of thumb, the bigger a character’s part will be, the more details you need to keep a note of. The two henchmen may not have names, but you need to remember the tall, skinny one’s ginger and the shorter one sweats when he runs – if these details are likely to crop up again. But the retired knight / policeman who’s teaching your heroine to fight needs a lot more description, as he’s going to stick around for a few chapters – and may sneak back in towards the end, too.

Don’t assume you’ll remember all the details without making a note – even if you do, what happens if you make a change? To remember everything in an up-to-date way would require a freakish memory and scrupulous attention to detail.

Similarly, don’t ever think it doesn’t matter – your readers WILL notice. They always do. It’s not just me!

It doesn’t matter whether these notes are in a notebook, electronic file or written on your bedroom wall – so long as you can refer to them all the time and update them when you need to.

As well as physical and character descriptions, you need to keep track of the relationships between your various characters. This could be a list of who’s going out with whom for a High School Romance story, a family tree for your inter-generational saga or a detailed hierarchy of both military and civilian characters (as in the great Russian epics).

If you’ve got multiple threads going on, you may want to use sticky notes to keep track of who’s in each group. Try colour-coding them for clarity.

Or you may have a better idea that works perfectly for you.

National Novel Writing Month starts on 1st November but the site is open for sign-ups now. If you don’t know what it’s about, have a read of my NaNoCoDo posts. If you think you’ve got a novel in you, why not sign up? What have you got to lose? <<– Sign up here.

NaNoCoDo #8 Baddies

I can’t think of anything more boring than a story where only good things happen to your Main Character. They set out on a quest, find the treasure, meet the love of their life and live happily ever after.


That may be a life to aspire to – but it’s never going to be a book worth reading.

Readers want conflict, difficulties, trauma, drama, suffering, blood – and that’s just for a light romantic read!

Seriously, your hero(ine) needs obstacles to overcome so the reader can see them at their best. This is your baddie. It may not be a person – it could be a group of people, fate, the weather, a computer, an alien civilisation – whatever you like. It could be the Sheriff, if your “good guys” are outlaws! The Opposition. But let’s refer to it as your baddie.

Baddies need motivation (I mentioned this in my previous entry). If it’s a person (or alien or computer) then it must be sentient enough to have its own wants and needs. Even the giant wolf that’s hunting your character has needs – DINNER.

Non-sentient baddies don’t have conscious needs, but they have set patterns of behaviour. If your characters are battling to build a shelter before the monsoon, they know roughly when it’s likely to start. It may come a week early and wash away their undried mortar, but there will be warning signs.

Natural disasters may appear to be random events – but they can trigger each other. In European history, the Black Death killed a large part of the population and the survivors were not up to preventing the Great Fire of London the following year. (Which was a good thing – fire really kills all those lingering germs!) Look at the Plagues of Egypt in the Bible (Exodus) and the Q’ran. Each plague could have caused the next – the plague of frogs die and then there’s a plague of insects, presumably springing from the frog carcasses. You need to think like this for your fiction, too. Cause and effect makes the sequence more acceptable to the reader of your book – and helps you structure a crescendo of danger for your characters to overcome.

So give some thought to the way your baddies will interact with your good guys. Think about how their actions will escalate, forcing your heroes to ever greater trials to win through. And make sure you understand their motivation, so they aren’t just a collection of random obstacles on the hero’s way to win the crown.