Inspirational Women Writers: An Essay

In honour of International Women’s Day this week (March 8th) I’ve decided to do something a little different with this post. I open this with a warning. Very rarely will I use this blog to talk about “politically charged” issues. This is not a post about writing tips or how to best edit your latest draft. Today is a post about being a woman in a male dominated market. It is about being a writer, a female writer. And it is a dedication to the amazing women who have paved the way and keep me inspired to keep going, keep fighting and keep believing that one day my name will grace the spines amongst them.

I am a woman. I am very proud of this fact. I guess I’m a feminist too. I believe in equality. To me, Emma Watson summed up my feelings pretty well in this short clip.

I do not believe in using feminism as a weapon against either other women or men. I simply want the field in which I work to be fair, just and equal.

And I don’t think that is too much to ask for.

I want to be able to wear ribbons in my hair, stiletto heels and perfume and not be judged as weaker for it. But equally I do not believe in getting dressed up in a power suit and becoming “one of the lads”. To me, that is not the point of feminism either. I want to be respected and be feminine.

VIDA is a website dedicated to women in the literary arts. Most people won’t have heard of it. Every year, they conduct a survey called “VIDA Counts” where they look at the representation of women in the arts. They look at statistics like the number of female reviewers at a given magazine, or the percentage of female to male authors reviewed. To pick, Harper’s Magazine, for example, only 34% of book reviewers were female and only 30% of reviewed authors were female in 2015. The London Review of Books, only 22.5% of reviewed authors were female. New York Book Review was more positive. Women actual swing the vote when it comes to writing reviews (albeit marginally) but still trail men in featured reviews (40%). The Times Literary Supplament made for grim reading with only 25% of reviewed books having been written by women. (Please see link for full stats)

But it isn’t all bad news. Firstly, these figures are improving (believe it or not). And second, women are getting noticed. The Guardian released its list of top selling books in 2016. 4 of the top 10 were written by women (JK Rowling, Jojo Moyes x2, Paula Hawkins) and one of the ten was the Guinness Book of World Records, so it’s really 4 to 5 and here’s the best part, JK and Paula are one and two and when you add up the number of books sold, women outsold men at 55% of the sales. And if we are in the mood to be pedantic, the only three “adult fiction” books on the list were written by women. The men counted for children’s fiction and healthy eating.

So what’s my point?

Women are making their mark in the fiction world. I could, for example, talk about how that same top sellers list looks sickeningly like a “usual suspects” list. It was so refreshing to see Paula up there. Someone new. Someone breaking into the club. But that is not a problem exclusive to women and so a rant for another time perhaps. The point is, we are represented and this post is a celebration of that. It is a thank you and an acknowledgement to the amazing female writers out there, past, current and future.

I turn my eye to those who have made it. Who are flying the flag and paving the way for those of us to follow. We each have our own sources of inspiration. On another day, in another post, I could talk to the male writers (equality after all) that have inspired me to be the writer I am today but today, this week, is about women. And these five amazing women have helped light my literary fire.

1. JK Rowling

I imagine this entry is no surprise to any regular reader of my blog. I fangirl over Ms Rowling. A lot. To me, she is amazing. She wrote a series that inspired an entire generation and she did it when she was at her lowest point. She risked everything and took a chance. And it wasn’t a smooth ride. The story of her numerous rejections is now infamous as is the story of how she finally got her deal. A little girl picking up a book about a boy wizard and telling her dad he simply had to publish it.

JK and her universe are the reason I write. My parents bought me Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone when I was seven years old. Before it became anything. Before anyone had heard of it. And I fell in love. With the world. With the characters. But also with the idea of magic. It made me realise the true joy in reading and it made me want to give that joy to others. Within a year, my by-then eight year old self had finished her first fan fiction adventure. It was terrible. But I don’t care. It lit the spark. I still have it. In some ways, it is one of the works I am most proud of even now.

JK has done so much for writers, especially female writers. She has made being an author “cool” again. She is a Cinderella story for us all to aspire to. She is a lesson in perseverance and holding your ground when it matters.

2. Martina Cole

I had the immense pleasure of meeting this amazing author last year. I don’t know what I expected but the woman I met was so amazingly down to Earth and approachable. Here was this multi bestselling author chatting away to me about my (literally a week before) published debut novel. Giggling as we shared stories of writing disasters and sharing our gripes with the writer’s problems we all face. I will never forget her grabbing at my hands and grinning at me in nervous excitement as she waited to be called up onto the stage for interview. I just remember thinking “wow”, she had no airs, no graces and she was all the more charming and worthy of my respect for it. I remember thinking, “I hope I’m like that. If I ever find success in this. I hope I am just like her.”

She is a UK crime fiction giant. If ever there was a man’s world that’s it. She took them on, and she beat them into submission. According to wiki, “she has achieved sales of over fourteen million in the UK alone and her tenth novel, The Know, spent seven weeks on The Sunday Times‘s hardback best-sellers list.” She’s also a massive campaigner for women’s rights in prison.

3. Emily Bronte

She only wrote one book. Just one. And yet her name is a household feature. Wuthering Heights. The beautiful, heartbreaking, deliciously dark and wild love story of Heathcliff and his Catherine. It has spawned more pop songs than I can name (perhaps most famously Kate Bush’s hit of the same name), at least a dozen movie remakes, leaving generations of mothers and daughers arguing who is the best Heathcliff and more than its fair share of retellings. It was a book that shocked and appalled readers and critics alike when it was first released. It defied convention. She defied convention. Some commentators would go so far as to say she was the first female author to dare write about the same passions and powers as the men of the time. She wrote a book in which women were not just damsels. They were strong. They were passionate. They were an equal to their male compatriots.

One book. She did all that. Pretty awe-inspiring if you ask me.

4. Enid Blyton

I know she isn’t without her controversy but I doubt there was a single English kid in my generation who didn’t have at least one of her books on her bookshelf. Beside Harry, these were the books I grew up with. These are the adventures I went on as a kid. And I loved them. She wrote an astonishing amount of books (762 according to wiki!). And she stood strong as a bestselling author in a field that was undeniably male dominated at the time. I agree that her later works had their… issues, about which I won’t say any more but this does not take away from her achievements.

5. Shonda Rhimes

Don’t worry if you have no idea who this is. I used the word “writer” at the top on purpose. Shonda is not a novelist. She writes TV shows. I’ll bet you’ve heard of her headline, ten seasons and counting show “Grey’s Anatomy” or perhaps her more recent “Scandal”. “How To Get Away With Murder” is under her production banner, ShondaLand. Oddly enough, I’m not a huge Grey’s fan. It’s okay if it’s on. It has some nice moments but it doesn’t overwhelm me. I do not include her on this list for my love of her shows. I include her for the impact she’s had on an industry ruled by men. She is one of the women forcing Hollywood to listen. To stand up and tell our stories too. Twenty, even as recently as ten years ago, would a woman have truly believed it possible that a woman would not only be writing and producing these huge productions, but have a production company in her own name behind her.

If that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is.


What’s In A Name: Things to Consider When Titling Your Novel

We all know the old adage. “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. And we all know that we are all guilty of doing exactly the opposite. Not just its covers either, but its names too. Think, for a minute, about the process you go through when picking a book off a bookstore shelf. Not when you are looking for a specific novel or specific author but just when you are blind browsing, just looking for something new. Perhaps you have a genre in mind, or maybe a single criteria (e.g. female lead character) but mostly just a want to read. What do you look at?

The cover? Sure. Everyone does. I cannot tell you the amount of rubbish books I’ve been conned into buying just because they were so damn pretty to look at. But it’s not just the aesthetics we consider on the cover. We consider the words too. We are writers after all! We look at the author. Maybe the publisher. But definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, we look at the title.

For me, it is girl’s names. I will, without even thinking about it, categorically avoid any contemporary book with a girl’s name in the title. Odd, particularly given that some of my favourite classics are exactly that – Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Emma, Alice in Wonderland – but I will not pick up their modern equivalents.

And sitting here, writing this, I’m thinking how terribly unfair that is of me. I am casting off a whole library of books on the unbased grounds that girl’s name = disappointing reading experience. And yet, even knowing that, I will still avoid them. I can’t help it. It’s instinct.

Where am I going with this you cry?

Titles are important.

In some ways more so even than character names, covers are the power suit but titles are your first verbal contact with your reader. You need both to get the job. They need to make a good first impression.

So no pressure then?

It’s not like the success or failure of the novel you’ve spent the last decade cultivating lays in the balance? Right?

Okay, okay, so I have a flair for the melodramatic but the point remains. Titles are important. So how the hell do we go about deciding them?

Tips for Crafting the Perfect Title

Titles are funny things. In my experience, they always happen one of two ways: instinctive, or like pulling teeth. I’ve never had to name a child but I imagine it is not too dissimilar. Sometimes it’ll be obvious. Known for years or just known in the moment. Never questioned. Never doubted. And sometimes you can spend the entire nine months (or years) musing and wrangling and wordplaying and still have no idea what to choose. And it isn’t an author by author thing, it’s a book by book thing.

Both my current fantasy projects – The Butterfly Children and The Magician’s Apprentice – came to me without a thought. Right at the beginning of the process and have stuck like gum on the bottom of a shoe. But White as Snow, my published novel, must have gone through at least a dozen title variations. And I’m still not happy. Love the series name (In the Mirror, Darkly) but the individual book name still makes me wonder if I could have come up with something better – and it wasn’t something I really realised until after publication.

Whether you are forming your title or testing the one you already have, what follows are a couple of things to just think about:

1. Length

I’d say seven words is my limit. Modern life is fast. People want quick and easy titles. Books are sold on word of mouth. Don’t start yourself at a disadvantage by choosing a title that is such a mouthful people either forget it or just can’t be bothered. I’d say six is the most, most people will bother with (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)(The Men Who Stare At Goats). After that, people get a bit fuzzy or start chopping bits off (Goblet of Fire)(Order of the Phoenix).

A quick check of the books on a single random shelf of my bookshelf (mixed genres): 21 books. Average number of words in the title: 2.5 (median was 2 for the record).

2. Focus

The title is the first signpost for the reader. It’s our way as writers of going “this bit. this bit is important.” So what focus do you want to pull in?

Is your focus your lead character? What about them? Their name? (Carrie) Their job? (In my case, The Magician’s Apprentice) Their role in the story? (Sophie’s Choice). In the case of Dracula, the title is used to warn the reader that their principal character isn’t actually the first, second or even third that you meet. It is, in its own way, a builder of suspense. You find yourself turning the page waiting to reach this character you’ve been promised from before page one.

Is it your world? (Jurassic Park) Or a specific setting? (The Night Circus)

Do you want it to give hints as to what the story is about? (The Time Traveller’s Wife – the story about the wife of a time traveller, likely a romance of some kind, certainly science fantasy; The Martian – particularly with dear ole Matt Damon smiling off the cover, once little green men are ruled out, you have a good idea of what you are in for) Or be completely enigmatic? (Death of an Owl)

My personal favourite titles tend to be those that tie to the theme of a book. For me, Wool, is one of the best named novels of all time. It resonates on so many levels. And the best part is, you can’t fully explain this to someone without spoilering the book (see my review if you want my full commentary).

Telling someone the title and asking them what they’d guess it is about is a good way to test this.

3. Genre

Books, given their nature, are oddly formulaic things these days. I always thought I was pretty observant about books but I tell you, nothing sharpens your eye like suddenly having to worry about cover art and titles. Suddenly you find yourself pulling book after book off the shelves, critically assessing every inch of each cover. Colour choices. Image choices. Font choices. And title.

In my young and naive days as a reader prior to really taking my writing seriously, I didn’t really think about titles. I mean, I’d know which ones I liked, which ones I didn’t but I didn’t really think about them. They were just… there. Since choosing indy publishing, they’ve become an obsession. I notice patterns, trends, repeated words.

Each genre has its own character. Though I caveat heavily with these are only trends. These are not rules. I am sure anyone who cares to can come up with a hundred exceptions.

Action/crime novels tend to be the shortest titles. One word, up to a maximum of three. Less likely to start with “the”. I like to think of these titles like firing bullets. Sharp. Noisy. On point. Action words are popular. “Get Even” “Trigger Mortis” “Mayday”. Words like revenge, blood, killer, murder as well as weather pop up quite a lot.

Mysteries and thrillers tend to be more cryptic. Almost vague. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. “The Girl on the Train”. “The Abortionist’s Daughter”.  Also have a tendency to lead with the word “the” but not always “Flowers in the Attic”

Woman’s fiction tend to have soft titles. Often frivolous. Sometimes sappy. Most likely to use slang or popular phrases. Less likely for word play. Most likely to contain humour.  “Fangirl” “Watermelon”. “PS I Love You”

Fantasy and science fiction are more diverse (as a general rule). It’s easy to get caught into a “box” though. Beware any word puns involving vampires. You will be automatically relegated to that kind of fiction. A lot of titles will reference at least one element that warns the reader of the genre (Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or a reference to the world itself (Neverwhere). And sometimes can get a tad… well pompous (Lord of the Rings)(A Game of Thrones). Oddly, a lot of the titles are actually quite self descriptive as to the plot. Both the above two more or less sum up the various goings on between their covers and Harry Potter tells you right from the outset the key adventure of the year.

Ultimately, ask yourself, does your title “fit” your novel?

4. Sell-ability

It is a sad, but inevitable, truth that at the end of the day, if you want to be a successful writer you have to sell your books and to do that, trust me, you need every advantage going. This is where I fall down. Particularly with titles I’ve fallen in love with, I’ll become stubborn as an ox and just refuse to change them, no matter what the consequences. And that, in my personal opinion, is entirely fine but I have to be prepared and know what consequences I’m invoking.

Things to think about here.

  • Is it easy to spell? JK had to rename the first book for the American audiences (make of that what you will). How many of this generation only know how to spell philosopher because of her? And how many people still call it “the first one” because it’s easier?
  • Has someone already used it? There is no copyright on titles of work (so long as you aren’t using a registered trademark (though please if you are concerned, take legal advice. I am not, in any way shape or form a lawyer and this is only my opinionated ramblings. It should not be taken as advice). The same title can be used over and over again. But that also has its downsides. Firstly, it’s hard to brand something against something else with the same title. People will mix them up. It’s only natural. It is that much harder to create your own individual footprint for your version.
  • For series writers, how are you going to brand? Do you want to be Harry Potter 1, Harry Potter 4? Or do you want Twilight, Breaking Dawn? Pretty sure the Twilight Saga was a series umbrella adopted afterwards for ease. Also, beware of similar titles. Sure, the ever increasingly darkening hues of the 50 Shades series is a lovely progression but honestly, does anyone remember what order they are supposed to come in? Or is that the point? Do you want them to blend into one another?
  • Accidental ghost words? In this world of web domains and hashtags, run your title into one long string and make sure nothing unwanted is spelled accidentally in the middle!

5. Like-ability

Do you like it? Does it feel right?

This is the single most important. You are going to be saying those four, five, six words over and over again. You are going to be hashtagging them, instagramming them, blogging and billboarding them until they are branded on the back of your eyelids. They are going to become your identity for so long as you are promoting that novel. You need a string of words that make you proud. Something that feels right for your work. Does your title give the first impression you want to give?

If it was you, stood in that bookshop, would you pick it up?

7 Tips for Writing Romance Readers Fall In Love With

In honour of Valentine’s Day, I thought I would turn my attention to all things roses and glitter and take a look at romance writing. It is perhaps a sad but inevitable truth of modern literature that it is rare (not unknown, but rare) to see a best-selling novel that does not, at some point, in some way, in some form, involve a romantic storyline. Even crime fiction these days seems to require the mandatory Castle-Beckett relationship.

It means that writing romance needs to be a part of every writer’s arsenal. Whether you are planning to keep it to the periphery (like Harry Potter for example, where the romance story lines had very little impact on the plot) or dead centre (Twilight. 50 Shades of Grey – or for a better example, The Fault In Our Stars) chances are you are going to come up against writing romance.

And you’d think it was easy.

We all know the blueprint – Boy Meets Girl – They fall for each other – They suffer through a series of unfortunate events that keep them apart – They end up together. It should be easy.

But romance is one of those things that is so easy to get wrong. It is so easy to go too cheesy, or too saccharine. (I’m sorry but I’m putting anything ever written by Nicholas Sparks here). We feel the compulsion to add a love triangle but doing that without it seeming both contrived and also a waste of time as she is clearly going to go with choice a) leaves us stumped (Twilight **cough** **cough**). And then there is the compulsion to add conflict. To add danger. Which can result in just ridiculous story-lines. See Divergent. See Twilight. And then there are the books where the romance storyline is meant to be background, it is meant to just be soft character development and yet somehow ends up hijacking the book and stealing the limelight (Doctor Who – Season 8 – and the title character wasn’t even involved in the romance *she grinds her teeth noisily*).

So when even the pros are struggling, how are we, the breakers-in, supposed to get it right? Well, there is no simple how-to to follow but there are a few easy steps you can take to at least help you along your way.

Romance Tips

1. Choose your players

Is this going to be a linear romance (which I’d recommend for background romances) or is this going to be trifecta? Or are we talking quadrophenia? If you are going to try for a love-triangle, do that from page one. Don’t realise when your book contract is renewed that you are running out of “they are so perfect for each other” plot and need to add a second man to the mix to eek out another three pointless books only to get back to the ending you wrote in book one because that was always the ending you wanted. It cannot be someone out of the blue. Or a random secondary character that you yank out of their mid-novel obscurity to drag them kicking and screaming into the limelight. The readers have to care about all involved for it to work.

2. Give them a ‘why’

“Because they want to be loved” is cliché and two-dimensional unless there is a back story that gives it depth. If I read another damn story about a ‘plain girl’ that steals the heart  of the ‘local hunk’ I may scream. Romance needs variety. In real life, love is not conventional. It doesn’t work like that. People get into relationships for all sorts of reasons. Love at first sight is rare (it does happen, I’ve seen it) but rare and these days makes people roll their eyes in books. Every character needs a motive for everything they do. It beds the romance, stops it being only surface deep and allows it to have real gravitas in your story. So whether she is an orphan who has never had someone and just wants to know what it feels like to be ‘loved’ or he is a serial playboy trying to go straight after his ways got someone hurt badly and so he is choosing the straightest arrow he can find, make them interesting. This is one of the many reasons Game of Thrones is so popular. The relationships might be bitter, and twisted, and often plain disturbing, but they are still 100 times more believable that Edward and Bella.

3. Don’t make it easy

Love is not simple. Love is not straight forward. So don’t write it that way. Let them fight. Let them hate each other at times. Give them conflict. Romeo and Juliet is a classic for a reason. But don’t feel the need to go Mills and Boon. I have known marriages that have honest-to-God broken down over the dishwasher. It is the small things that break people apart. Don’t look at conflict like a giant hammer. Look at it as a ream of tiny cracks.

4.Keep it natural

This is a rule in any kind of writing but worth repeating. Don’t have things happen for the hell of it. Readers can smell it a mile off. Divergent is a great place to look for things that happen for no good reason other than to set up forced ‘romantic’ moments. Some readers go for that but I’m not one of them, and I consider it lazy writing. Let the characters lead. Ask why at every step. Ask would he/she actually do that. And don’t let the plot be driven by the need to add romantic moments. Let the romantic moments take you by surprise. There are always moments. And if they surprise you, they will surprise the reader as well, making each moment more poignant, tender and stronger.

5. Be open to all eventualities

Because if you are, the reader is too. If you go into your romance story already absolutely decided on how it is going to end, the readers will feel it. It takes the shine off the romance. In this case, I refer to Hunger Games. I never felt like she was going to **spoilers** end up with Gale. It was clear from the start that Peeta was always going to be her eventual choice. The problem with that is you can never really convince the reader that anything else is going to happen. I knew Peeta was not going to die. Katniss too **spoilers end**. It was in the tone, in the inflections, you just sensed that happily ever after was coming. GRR Martin is the polar opposite, and in recent times, taken the theme a little too far in the other direction in my humble opinion, now just killing off his characters for some rather flimsy reasons that could be summed up somewhat easier with “because that’s what I do”. If you have a triangle, be open to both endings. Actually all three endings, be open to her ending up alone. Let the characters lead the story. I want to be on the edge of my seat. If romance is your leading story, you have to keep it alive by keeping the reader convinced that it may not happen. That there is a chance anything could happen. The Fault In Our Stars is a master class.

6. Keep it flawed

Another writing basic. No one is Snow White. No one is Prince Charming. No one is perfect. We fall in love because of our imperfections. So give her morning breath. Give him an inability to articulate his feelings. Uncertainty of self is not a flaw. It is a cliché. It is something everyone suffers from so don’t lean too heavily on it. The “oh he could never fall for someone like me” has been done to death. It bores readers. So give it depth. Same with looks. Everyone wants their hero to look like Dean Winchester but there is a reason Dean looks the way Dean looks and unless you are writing a soldier or a hero who spends a lot of time working out, people won’t buy it. So give them flaws. Give them big ears. A crooked nose. A weird laugh. Make them interesting. Again (and promise this is the last time I worship the Master but…) The Fault In Our Stars is a perfect example. Before they got Hollywoodised for the movie, Grace and Augustus were flawed. And when he likens her to Natalie Portman, it makes it all the more powerful because you realise that is how he wants to see her, that he doesn’t see all the flaws that we know she has.

7. Make them both better people for being together

This to me is the single most important thing. Love changes us. If they fall in love but at the end of their journey are still the same two people they were on page one, then the romance has been cheapened to a gimmick. Love has to be a journey. Romance, at the end of the day, is a very public form of character development. The pair at the end should be different people to the ones you started with. Their relationship, their partnership should have a personality of its own and they need to have grown. The boy becomes a man. The cynic learns to trust. The villain learns to love.

Writer’s Corner: First Chapter Advice

“When it comes to selling your book, the most important words you’ll ever write are those on page one.” –Jodie Rhodes, President, Jodie Rhodes Literary Agency.

So no pressure then?

Tips to Writing the Perfect Beginning

So… with the turning of another new year and the beginning of another twelve months of frantic writing, inventive procrastination and trying to build a place for myself in Authordom, I thought now might be a good time to go back to the start and have a look at beginnings. A lot of us, right now, are embarking on a shiny new project. We are going to be sitting down in front of that daunting blank page and think “now what”. 

First sentences, paragraphs and even chapters have never been my forté and yet they are so important. Most people decide in the first three pages if they want to read a book. So it’s a vital part of the book to get absolutely right. Even the pros struggle.

I recently visited the writer’s museum in Edinburgh where they have a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on display covered in notes from JK herself. The day I was there, it was page one that was on show and with it a confession from the lady herself that she was never happy with the first chapter. It’s well-known that she revised it many, many times but even now, she says she gets people commenting on it and she’s not necessarily inclined to totally disagree with their comments. If even JK Rowling can’t get this right, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Actually, I take this as a bit of a confidence boost. Here is an author who wasn’t completely happy with her beginning and yet, I think it’s fair to say, the book did alright despite it…

She does however note that she is rather proud of her first line. Bringing me neatly to element one…

1. the ‘Hook’ AKA the first sentence

There was a forum thread on the Camp NaNoWriMo community where writers were posting their first sentences. I remember reading some brilliant ones (‘Being dead is not as fun as they promise’), some less brilliant ones (‘When I woke up it was dark’) and some downright bizarre ones (‘I woke up this morning as a cat’). I remember looking at mine (‘It had been the first day of Spring’) and thinking, “oh dear”.

There is a lot of talk of hooks. As far as I can work out, it’s a balancing act. Yes you want it to catch people, but you don’t want it to stand out. The hook has got to fit in with the rest of the feel of the book. There is no point having the most literarily genius sentence ever written, tagged on the front of a Hunger-Games style novel as it just wouldn’t fit. You read a lot of posts about how to write the perfect hook and they often include wonderful descriptive words such as “acerbic, intriguing, bizarre, enigmatic, epigrammatic, poetic, unexpected” and all those are great things to keep in mind but don’t overload. If your book is not poetic in style then don’t swamp your hook with it. If your book has a matter of fact tone to it, a bizarre hook would be just that… bizarre.

For example, the hook “Have you ever wondered if cows go to heaven?” definitely fills a lot of the tick boxes. And if it is followed with a novel with a bovine theme and underlying feeling of discussions of philosophy on heaven and death, great. If it is followed by a romantic chick-flick style novel that never mentions said cows again, it is what I refer to as ‘a headline grabber’.

A trick I picked up a few years ago that works really well for me is starting a paragraph earlier. So wherever I plan to start the novel, I start writing from a moment earlier. It takes the pressure off that first hook. And then I chop away the unnecessary dressing at the front and at least have a starting place from which I can craft a hook that will flow a little easier into the book.

Some excellent hooks include:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell (1984)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen. (Pride and Prejudice)

“A single line of blood trickles down the pale underside of her arm, a red seam on a white sleeve.” Kate Mosse (Labyrinth)

“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.” Anthony Horowitz (Stormbreaker)

A good general rule: try to include just a hint of trouble plus some kind of question/intrigue (advice from Les Edgerton, Hooked)

Some things to avoid include;

The weather. It’s cliché and overdone (that said, I’ve also seen books that use it excellently (as perhaps Orwell above), it’s just a bit of a taboo these days)

He/She woke up. Actions of the mundane hold no intrigue for the reader.

He/She looked in the mirror. It does work but it’s a bit of a cliché again. Such openings as “Rosie looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise the woman staring back at her” are a bit overused. It works in paragraph two or three but overuse has weakened it as an initial hook.

One final thing to note, the hook isn’t the be all and end all of your novel. If you can’t find one that fits, chances are your story doesn’t lend and so make your first paragraph your hook. Not all books have powerful hooks;

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” JK Rowling (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) – see what I did there…

And some books defy the rules;

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games)… what was that they were saying about mundane activities…

2. the ‘Tone’

I hate books that start with an out-of-place action sequence just because it’s an exciting start. For example, someone tuning into Gossip Girl would not expect it to start with a car chase and proceeding gun battle. It doesn’t fit the style. The beginning of a book has to fit. The beginning has to be sharp and exciting but don’t force a sequence just to get that because it will feel contrived.

3. the ‘Moment’

Choosing where to start is one of those odd things. Sometimes it comes completely obviously and naturally, other times it is a real battle. A few questions to ask include:

Why now? What changes in this specific moment that makes it the beginning of a new story?

Why her/him? Why should your reader care about your characters and engage in their story? Choose a moment that shows your character off. Is she brave? Is he ruthless? Is she wise? Is he depressed? Show, don’t tell.

Why should I care? What about that beginning moment will persuade your readers to engage with your characters and be interested in reading their journey?

And things to avoid include:

The Humdrum. Reading about someone waking up in the morning is neither exciting nor gripping…. mostly. Confession, my latest novel, White As Snow, starts this exact way… twice. I’d like to think it works because the situation around her waking is anything but humdrum but I know it is a risk. Has it paid off? Answers on a postcard…

Long description. Personally, I disagree with this one. One of the things I love about old classics is that long beginning setting of the scene but in today’s commercial market this is looked down on as too slow. Descriptions of both characters and places in length are considered a bad choice for a beginning.

Pre-padding. Start with the action. Don’t describe the gun first. Start with the shot and work backwards.

4. the ‘Scene’

First chapters are about setting the scene and tone for a book. Herein I have some measure of disagreement with common instruction. I agree that first chapters laden with heavy description can be too slow but I think to say that it should be all pushed to a later chapter is too cut and dry. A sprinkler approach is the best one in my opinion. Don’t go for block paragraphs of description, but dribble it into the prose as you go along. Likewise with back story and exposition. Where you can, show, don’t tell. Readers want to be intrigued. Don’t hand it all to them in neat little packages but drip it across the dialogue and action, forcing them to work and thus get drawn into the world and the story.

I read some excellent advice that has stuck with me now and become my mantra when it comes to openings.

A lot of us like to think big. Like the first shot of a film, we love to start with that big wide pan shot and then slowly zoom in until we find a singular point of focus (as a general rule, our character). Set the scene, then find the action. First chapters should be viewed as the absolute opposite. Start with the smallest, tightest focus possible and slowly work out. Draw a reader straight to the centre of things and then slowly grow the world around them. Again, the prologue of Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, is an excellent working example of this style of opening.

First chapters are always going to be hard. They are those first impressions that will either make or break your book. And like everything else, they are subjective. The best advice I ever got was to get people reading. I send my first sentences, lines and chapters out to as many people as I can and ask them for their feedback. What tone are they expecting? What do they think of the character? Do they want to read more? What story are they expecting to read? As always, readers are a writer’s most powerful asset.

Tips and Musings For Defining “What Kind Of Writer” You Are

There is a question that we as writers are often asked:

What do you write?

You’d think this would be a nice simple opener. It’s a natural response after “hi, I’m a writer” but I dread this question. Hate it indeed. For starters, it is impressively vague. I won’t lie – there have been times, normally at social gatherings that have inflicted upon me their prerequisite small talk, that I have flippantly responded “books”. Chances are, in that environment anyway, the other person is just relieved not to be forced into listening to a twenty-minute monologue on my latest bestseller idea. For the particularly judgmental (you know, the ones that raise their eyebrow and metaphorically pat us “struggling artist” types on the head), I reserve the wonderfully obtuse “words”.

(Warning: Rant in progress: If you want to skip my opening rant *cough* I mean musings, and go straight to the tips, scroll down to the main image)

But that is not the reason that I hate this question. I hate this question because it demands a specific answer and I just don’t have one to give. And for a long time, that made me feel like I was doing something wrong. It took a lot of soul-searching and depressing dinner parties before I realised that the flaw wasn’t with me, it was with the question.

Suppose for a minute that JK Rowling was posed this question (because yes, I suspect there are actually people living on this planet who have no idea who she is). How would she answer? “Urban fantasy fiction adventure novels for children”? Except well… by the end they are sort of for adults too. And then there is the play. Oh and that screenplay she helped on. Oh and those pesky Galbraith novels. Those are contemporary detectiving for adults. And I have absolutely no idea what to call The Casual Vacancy. Social Commentary? Human drama? A four-hundred page rant on why modern life sucks?

But you see my problem with this question and moreover the question generally where writers are expected to place themselves into nice neat three hundred word summaries. If we assume for the moment that the inquirer is not seeking the vague or obtuse, and something a little more expansive than “fiction” – then it demands that we, as writers, put ourselves in a definable category – not our books, but us as writers. To put a label on our lapel that makes us nice and conformist.

Writing just does not work that way.

I find this approach, amongst other emotions, highly amusing as the one thing writers are typically not, is conformist. And yet you see it again and again on advice on how to get published. Stick to a genre. Find your niche and stay there. Publishers like consistency. Which brings me onto my main topic –

How to answer "What do you Write"

It was something I was advised of right when I first started exploring publishing options and namely the so-called traditional route. Agents like consistency. Publishing houses really like consistency and marketing departments love it. They want writers to be a brandable commodity. Not just our books, but us as people. It isn’t enough to just write any more. You are the “Detective Smith author” or “Surreal Fantasy Novelist Mr Smith” or “the one that writes the war books”. We see it on covers all the times and hear it in interviews. We are boxed up before the end of the first sentence.

Now, of course, each individual book must have a clearly defined genre, but the author? Nora Roberts (JD Robb) and JK Rowling (Robert Galbraith) are not alone in creating entirely new personas to carry their crime genre books while writing fantasy under their given names. It is said we form our opinion of a person within the first thirty seconds of contact. Books and writers faster. We quickly become defined by our work until bizarrely it is our own work that is suddenly trapping us in a given genre and defining our future work. Arguably indie publishing has lessened this impact but whether we like it or not, it is something we have to think about.

So here are just a few common talking points to think about when considering genre and “what you write”…

1. Write What You Know:

This is an overused idiom you hear all the time in writing blogs and advice books. “Write what you know”. To me, this is a bastardisation of a more general idiom “Play to Your Strengths”. Most people (and I emphasise most because there are many writers out there who can change genre like clothes and do each with ease and finesse) have a particular genre at which they are strongest. For me personally it is fantasy. Why? Because I’ve been writing it for years and years. Because it is my favourite genre as a reader and viewer. Because I grew up on a healthy diet of local folklore and Disney. Or maybe just because I have an overactive imagination. My strengths (or so I’m told) are world building and a writing style that has a poetic, lyrical edge (not my phrase) to it. Both lend well to fantasy.

Sticking to one genre allows you to focus on your areas of strength. You are giving yourself a natural advantage and in the brutally competitive book market, we need every edge we can get.

2. Practice Makes Perfect:

Another idiom and a fairly self-explanatory one. The more you do something, the better you get at it. Writing is an art. It is not something learnt once and then applied. It is something that is constantly evolving. We are always learning and the best way to do that, is practice. Sticking within one genre allows you to spend time honing skills. Each time you try something and it doesn’t work, it makes the work that follows stronger.

3. Consistency boost Commerciality:

I touched on this above. At the end of the day, it is easier to sell yourself as a brand if you have one coherent message. Promoting a fantasy writer has a very different feel to promoting a crime novelist. Chances are you won’t really be able to discuss both in the same interview. They appeal to different audiences. A Sci Fi writer is going to be perfectly placed talking at a ComiCon but a Romance novelist is much better suited to bookclubs and female dominated events. The more genres you write across, the more work you will have to put in. Even if you don’t give yourself different personas, each marketing campaign will need its own personality, own audience, own requirements and demands.

Equally, beware of confusing the audience. People think in soundbites. “That Sci Fi dude” or “the one that does those Tudor books”. It sends a confusing message to go “Tudor book written by that Sci Fi dude”. Normally the first question will be “are there space ships?” It’s human nature. We are creatures of habit and routine. Be braced for a few “huh” faces.

4. Plot Bunnies Must Be Free To Roam

I don’t know about you but my plot bunnies are very definitely free range. They go wherever they want to. I spend half my time retrieving them from the most unexpected of places. I have started books on such basis as “I want to write something with a steam train in it” or “ooh a tiger, how cool would it be to have a tiger”. And for me, this is the joy of writing. It is the challenge of musing, “what story can I come up with that features a steam train” (ended up being a steampunk fanfic of Night Circus). Plot bunnies should be tamed only when they are given a home. But this does mean bunnies of all shapes and sizes, which can result in broad spectrum genres.

5. The Broken Record Phenomenon

Consider Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks for a moment. When I picked up my first of each of theirs (My Sister’s Keeper and The Notebook) I loved what I found. The books were engaging and surprising and emotionally devastating. The writing was refreshing and innovative. So obviously, I reached for more. Nowadays, I rarely pick up either author. Why? Because I got bored. Now, I am aware I chose two authors who are particularly formulaic in their stories – with Picoult in particular, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all – different story, different characters, different moral dilemma of the week but all the shock and awe is gone because you can predict each turn. As for Sparks, I go back to my favourite jpg.

Image not mine. Please click image to go to source.

They are both, very much, single genre writers. And very specific at that. They have found a niche and they are working it (to death). I’m actually somewhat impressed both are still coming up with new variations upon their themes. That is not to say, in any way shape or form, that their books are bad. They aren’t. They still write now with that same engaging, exciting voice they wrote then, my problem is I’m not surprised by them any more. I’m bored. I like books that surprise me. That’s what keeps me engaged. It isn’t enough for me to have just great characters and a strong story, that story will only be compelling if I can’t predict the ending from chapter three.

I should caveat this strongly though with the note that there are authors who stick with their thing and keep it fresh. For example, Torey Hayden has never (to my knowledge though I haven’t read her full back catalogue) moved away from her, what I like to think of as, “tortured children” model but each one I pick up still hits me with the full force of a sledgehammer. But I do think this is why I’m not a big fan of crime books, particularly series, as they get very formulaic. This is a very personal opinion but I regularly speak to other readers who have similar feelings, so it is something worth keeping in mind.

6. Hard to Break Free:

I go back to Ms JK for this one as she is a perfect, if heightened, example of this. She wrote Harry Potter. It became a global phenomenon and made her very famous. She became “the woman that wrote Harry Potter” but then the series ended but she still had other stories in her. She wanted to try new things. Now, I don’t think many would dispute her ability to write or come up with engaging stories but she felt the need to create a whole new persona to get her crime fiction launched. Now, yes, I know there are lots of contingency factors (like she wanted to be successful for her writing etc. etc.) and I do find it hilarious that some agents and publishers turned down the Galbraith novels – bet they are kicking themselves now – but I truly believe that at least part of this choice was her attempting to break free of the “Harry Potter” label.

Once you are known for something, it is hard to kick the stereotype. Things I’ve noticed over the years: it’s much easier to transition from adult to kids books than VV, particularly if you are trying to move from YA to A; fantasy and crime seem to be a popular/unpopular mix, with the most examples of authors writing under two names to cross that bridge; generally speaking, not always, but generally speaking, whichever genre comes second, does less well.

Again, there are always exceptions but just something to keep in mind when you are seven book down in an eight book fantasy series and suddenly you realise you want your next novel to be a spy thriller.

7. Practice Makes Perfect:

Yup. I know I’ve already used this one but I wanted to separate out the two variations as they directly contradict. This time, I mean it in the simple sense of if you don’t try something you’ll never know. If I only wrote fantasy, how do I know that actually I’m a secret regency romance genius but I’ve never given it a try? Plus the more genres you play around with, the more you hone different sides of your craft. Crime and thrillers are great for working on suspense writing. Sci Fi and Fantasy are the obvious choices for world building. Psycho thrillers are excellent for character work. The more you write, the more you can write.


This post was not written to draw to any particular conclusion. I have my own opinions but I think on this matter, it is up to each writer to decide where they sit and what is right for them. But whether you agree the debate should exist in the first place or not, I think the above are some things to just keep floating in the back of your mind. If you are writing for pleasure, then feel free to ignore this whole post, but most of us are writing with a commercial path in mind and that means turning ourselves into a brand. Whether we want to or not.

10 Motivational Quotes from Walt Disney To Get You To Happily Ever After (AKA Published)

This week I did something insane. Something I never thought would actually happen. Something I was pretty sure by the end the odds were never going to be in my favour for.

I published my debut novel!!!

White as Snow is officially on sale on Kindle and I can officially call myself a published author. In many ways, I just hit Happily Ever After. If this was a Disney movie, this is where the prince and princess would ride off into the distance as we fade out to credits while some Disney starlet we’ve never really heard of attempts to re-sing the signature song.

But I won’t lie. There have been days (months, nah scratch that, years) that I thought this day would never come. This book has been ten years in development. It has had four complete rewrites, most of the characters have changed name at least once, it even had a genre swap at one point – and let’s not even get into the sheer number of drafting and editing versions it went through. And on the days when I hit my low points, I needed all the motivation I could get.

Finally seeing the word “LIVE” on my Amazon bookshelf filled me with a mix of emotions. Ecstasy. Disbelief. Oh-My-God-What-Have-I-Done. But most of all, I felt pride. I felt a sense of sheer accomplishment. Even if the whole world hates it. Even if I never sell so much as a single copy. It is mine. I did it. It’s been a hell of a journey and I survived. I saw Happily Ever After and I did not stop fighting dragons until I got there. I might be bruised and scared, but I’ll tell you something, it was 1000% worth it.

Therefore it seemed only apt on the eve of my first great step into authordom and given my novel is indeed a fairytale retelling, that I turn to the Godfather of them All. The Master of Magic and the Man who proved Happily Ever After is out there for anyone willing to fight for it – Mr Walt Disney.

Disney is a huge part of what made me the writer I am. There is no doubt that my fascination with fairytales and all things magical came from a steady childhood diet of the best of the Mouse. And as I grew older, and came to appreciate things beyond pretty princesses and catchy tunes, I came too to admire the sheer craft of his unique ability to bring such startling storytelling from those around him.

In a very personal sense, his imagining (namely Walt Disney World Florida) is also to thank for me having the courage to pick this project up and take it from the (awful) story it was back then and turn it into the (I’m pretty proud of it) novel it is today. In my second year at Uni, I had the fortune of working in Orlando for three months in Magic Kingdom. I left the UK that summer just another graduate resigned on her path to a nice sensible little job in an office to pay the bills who didn’t even give her writing a second chance. I came back three months later a writer. A lot of that was to do with the amazing people I met out there but some of it was also about being inside one man’s dream. Though I always did find it heartbreaking he died before it opened. I remember sitting that day in induction training at the University of Disney (because yes there is such a thing – I have a diploma and everything) and thinking how terribly sad it would be for your dream to come true and you never knew it.

His background too, is inspiring. This is a man who came from nothing. The boy who used to do the paper round in worn out shoes in the snow. He was told time and time again that it wouldn’t happen. To give up on his dream.

But he never did.

Sometimes (when I really want to depress myself) I think about what the world might have been like if Disney had listened to the naysayers. If he had just thrown his hands up and gone “screw it” and given up on his little mouse. Whatever you may think of Walt (because trust me I know he wasn’t all candy floss and chalk paintings), his determination is one to be admired.

So here are my favourite Disney quotes – the words of wisdom that have kept me on track this past decade and remind all of us, no matter where we are in our journeys, that Happily Ever After is out there – we just have to keep fighting.

1. THE gentle reminder that imagination is not something only for children

Disney Quote2. the PEP talk we all need to hear every once in a whileDisney Quote

3. THE “Chill It’s not as bad as you think it is” Motto


4. THE remember why we do this in the first place reminder

5. THE “Anything is Possible” BOOST




7. THE “Get on with it” prompt


8. THE “BELieve in yourself” vote of confidence


Important to remember when you are staring at your draft in week three hundred and twenty-one and despairing.

9. THE disney equivalent of “if it doesn’t scare you, you aren’t doing it right”

Disney Quote

And the moral of the story. I am scared witless if I’m complete honest about the next phase of the journey I’m on. To use another old adage, we create our own luck. Happily Ever After isn’t an accident, it’s the result of years and years of hard toil, pain and tears. Never ever let it be said that writers aren’t courageous.

10. the Tribute

Finally, not a quote but I watched this documentary years ago and this final two minutes will always stick in my mind. I’d like to think Walt is out there somewhere and he can see that the vision that started as one man’s dream, is now one shared by the world.


All that is left to say is…

Have a Magical Day!!



Sprint Writing: The Dos and Don’ts

As CampNaNoWriMo season begins, it seemed appropriate to return to the matter of Sprint Writing. It always surprises me how little actual advice is out there (outside of the NaNoWriMo society who offer fantastic advice) on how to go about Sprint Writing. So this is a quick and easy guide of the few bits and pieces I’ve picked up along my merry way to help you survive the month.

dos and donts of sprint writing

Firstly, what is Sprint Writing? It is hereby thus defined as…

Writing quickly or to a deadline that requires more average word count per day than is normally produced.

Okay… so I made that up right now but it seems to work. Some people will get all niggly and say that Sprint Writing is when you go mental and write like 5K in an afternoon but for me, it’s any writing that is faster than to which you are familiar. Everyone has their own pace and if you go faster than it, thus you are sprinting.

So here are my dos and don’ts…


1. Plan Ahead

I’m not a big plotter. Some people (famously JK coming to mind) love plotting out every small detail before they start. To quote a popular Pinterest theme… “ain’t nobody got time for that!!!!”

But I don’t go in blind either. I always have a rough idea of where it’s going. Whether (as in this case) it’s key events and the order in which the principle characters are introduced, a more calendar style of plotting, a document full of character backstories… or indeed a plot document longer than the novel (don’t laugh – I know people who do it), it is a case of whatever works. But the key thing with Spring Writing is not getting stuck, so plan ahead enough to know where your next marker is. Always have somewhere to write for next.

2. Give Yourself A Target

I have learnt this recently. For years, my rather helpful and specific target has been “finish the darn thing”. It has taken CampNaNoWriMo to teach me that actually, I’m much more productive when I get down and dirty with the details. Again NaNoWriMo resources are brilliant for this. However, that only happens three times a year so I set up my own Excel version. I am not a computer genius so I’m sure it isn’t fool-proof but it works well enough. You are welcome to give my Word-Count-O-Meter a go.


It allows you to set yourself a desired total over ‘x’ amount of days and gives you a count to reach each day. Which leads me to…

3. Hit Said Target

Self explanatory. If it says you need to write 1754 words and you are stuck at 1500, make up two sentences, pad like a crazy person. Skip a bit and leave a note to yourself in unspaced capitals (so it doesn’t mess with word count) to go back to it later. Whatever it takes, keep to your target. It’s harder than it sounds, trust me, I know, but it is the only way I got to my target. This is the one time it’s quantity over quality. Which again leads to…

4. Be Reasonable with your aims

No one (besides maybe Hugh Howey) can write 120,000 words in a month. Put an aim that works for you. That’s why I like the Camps more than the main NaNoWriMo event. You can choose your own target. A popular one was 30K. I wrote for 60K (about a 2K a day average) both of which were doable. I had a cabin mate who wrote to 85K and finished before the lot of us, so I’m not saying that large word counts aren’t doable, I’m just saying tailor them to that which you are capable.

4. Have Fun

Chances are, if you are launching yourself into a Sprint Writing, you actually enjoy this whole writing lark. So don’t forget that bit. I love that rush when you are just creating. When no one cares how many adverbs you use, or if your prose is so repetitive it hurts or if your conversations are all plastic and full of woffle (non-plot related content aka padding). It is all about the story and not so much about the telling first time around. What I really love with Spring Writing is the added bonus of living the adventure. It helped I chose first person present for my narrative style  last time out but because I was writing so fast, I felt like I was living the story real time. If you feel like you want to jump off the nearest bridge, then you probably either ignored step 4 or you are writing a story you don’t actually want to write.

And the Don’t…

1. Stop

The biggest and most important no-no. Do. Not. Stop. By this, I am not implying that your fingers should be glued to the keyboard. You can eat and sleep and go to work. I just mean, make progress every day. Don’t let yourself get stuck. Write your way out of blocks. Sprint Writing is about not taking breath until you reach the ribbon. If you lose momentum it is that much harder to pick it up again.

2. Stay Inside The (Plotting) Box

Everyone in my cabin that finished to their deadlines had to get creative at one point or another. In other words, don’t hold yourself hostage to your own plot. I know one girl ended up having her character spontaneously arrested. That is the sort of stuff that happens. Just let it happen. It’s part of writing around blocks. If you get stuck in one direction, find a new path. Add new characters. Kill people off. Go wild. You can always undo it again when it comes to drafting.

3. Treat it as a Final Draft

Hell, don’t even treat it like a first draft. The 60K I wrote was some of the roughest work I have ever produced. But it was never about the writing. It was about laying out the story. Don’t let yourself edit as you go along. You’ll get tied in knots and never finish. If you can help it, don’t read it back either. That helps stave away the editing bug. It is not meant to read as literary fiction. Don’t worry about colouring inside the lines, there will be plenty of time later to take the rock and polish it into a diamond. The masterpiece will come in time. But every masterpiece needs a rough outline underneath and that is what this draft will be.

4. Get tied up in the details

Say goodbye to continuity. (Unless you are one of the afore mentioned, detailed plotters then you have a better chance than us fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants types). Last time out, I had a tiger whose gender changed so often I honestly didn’t know whether it was male or female anymore. I’m pretty sure I changed how I spelt my lead characters name at some point since the beginning and I’m pretty sure they referred to conversations that hadn’t actually happened. But it’s all part of the Sprinting. I have since gone back and neaten all that up. I knew what I need to neaten up. I added those conversations, I tied down the spelling (pretty sure that’s spellchecker’s fault, the red lines were driving me nuts so I surrendered to its vision) and I finally gave my tiger a calling. In short, let it be messy. Messy is good. Messy is fun. Messy is where you find creative genius (or so I tell myself).

And finally,

5. Think It Won’t Need Editing.

It will. Lots. Resign yourself now.

Sprint Writing is a lot of fun for me. I would really, really recommend the camps for anyone who enjoys writing and sharing writing with people. I love having like-minded people with me and the tools for word count tracking are excellent. As far as I can work out, the key to Sprint Writing is disengaging the brain and going to that part of the mind that creates our dreams and just living there for a while, linking it up directly with the fingers. It is about writing. It isn’t about anything more. It is about telling a story in whatever manner you can. It is about, at the end of the day, having fun.

8 Tips to Prepare for Camp NaNoWriMo

So… earlier this week I talked you into joining Camp NaNoWriMo (hopefully) but with less than two weeks to go, how do you prepare for such a journey into the wilderness? I’m a bit of a NaNo veteran. As those who follow my blog regularly will know, I’m not much of a planner. I prefer the panstering style of novel prep. So the two-week point is usually the point at which I start putting together my NaNo survival kit. I don’t believe in over planning but I also know if you go trampling around in the woods without a map you’ll probably get eaten by a bear.

So here are my top tips for what prep to do before launching into the camp.

8 ways to prepare for camp nanowrimo

1.Choose a project

I know some people will disagree with me on this (and just about every other point I’m going to raise) but I have personally found I am about 1000% more productive if I go in with a project in mind. Up until the two week mark, I normally have a couple of different options on the radar. At this point, I make the choice, and stick with it. It gives my brain two weeks to get embedded in the relevant world and ready myself for launching in.

2. Choose a target

I don’t necessarily mean word count though this will more or less be how this is endgame represented. I more mean this in the sense of what you want to achieve by the end. I personally find it a bit soul-destroying sometimes to write to word count alone so I equate it to something. For shorts, this may be finishing the project. For novelists, this may be aiming to get to a certain plot point. I’ve found when I’ve given myself a tangible goal, I’ve been able to reach it easier, often overshooting word count in my enthusiasm. Think about what progress you would personally be happy to see.

3. Have a rough story in mind

Again, probably a surprise to hear from me but I never go into NaNo completely blind. Even with The Butterfly Children (which was basically written with a blindfold) I had a rough idea of what type of story I wanted to tell and a very basic spine of plot points to follow. And the one project that never got off the ground (Black Feathers) was the only time I went in with absolutely no prep. Chances are once you are in the heat of the moment, you’ll end up deviating and going in all sorts of unexpected directions but I would highly advice having a vague plot map from the outset.

4. Have a set of reasonably rounded characters

To me, this is the key to sprint writing. Sprint writing is more or less about listening to the characters and letting them to do the hard work. Letting them run amok on the page and tell the story for you. But the only way you can do that, is if you and your characters have had a nice long sit down chat beforehand. You need to know your characters. I’d recommend the two weeks before mark is when you sit down and refine your character list. There are loads of really good character sheets out there, including one from NaNo themselves for this purpose. I’d focus on at least a list of five characters (traditionally hero, best friend, love interest, villain, character of authority/wisdom/guidance in a fairytale for example). Look at it this way, if you are going to let your characters doing the heavy lifting, you need to give them shoulders first.

5. Tense, point of view and narrative style

Another good thing to have in mind before launching in. Are you going passive omnipotent third person or on the ground first person present narrative? My other bit of advice would be to stick with it. Even if after day three you know you’ll probably change it later, keep with it for the Camp else you’ll end up backtracking ground and get into serious danger of editing yourself as you go which is deadly when sprinting to a target. My advice would be to read around in the genre/style for which you are aiming. See what other writer’s are doing. What styles grip you? What grips you about them? Why do they work? How would they work in your story?

6. Make sure you are all signed up and ready to go

Sounds obvious but I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve ended up signing up on the 30th of June because I just plain forgot the admin bits and was so wrapped up in the story planning. As I said before, I’m setting up a cabin this year, so if you want to join me, just leave your NaNo name below and I’ll send invites to the first eleven.

7. Choose your platform

I’m actually a pretty multi-media gal when it comes to writing. You’d think my preference would be computer when it comes to sprint writing, and for November I would completely agree, but for the camps I actually have a preference for handwriting. It’s the most flexible for me to fit around my lifestyle. I can carry a notebook everywhere. I can write on the bus on the way to work, in the canteen at lunch. In the ten minutes when the internet is down. On the beach. In a cafe. Whenever and wherever I have ten minutes it’s with me. I don’t have to wait for boot up or anything like that. I can just open and go. This is how I’ve done nearly all my NaNo projects. Either way, it’s worth taking a moment to work out what is best going to work for you and make sure you are all kitted out.

8. Work out a rough schedule

Perhaps the hardest part of Camp NaNoWriMo is fitting it around life. Life happens. And the problem with this retreat is that it is only as secure as a closed door. I would guess most of you, like me, are juggling a day job as well as the writing gig. Many of you will be fellow bloggers so you know how long that takes and how much work that can be. Then there is the marketing and social media platforms. Plus family commitments, remembering to eat. And that annoying sleep thing they tell me is a good idea from time to time. And if all that isn’t enough, I hear there is this thing called a social life I should look into at some point…

My point is, you are going to have to commit a serious chunk of time to the Camp so work out when and where that will best work for you. I give myself a rough timetable. I know I blog before work. I study in my lunch hour and then know my evenings are mine to write and during NaNo seasons, I also dedicate my Sundays exclusively (where I can) to writing. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to about NaNo have said one of the biggest contributors to their success or failure was time management.

A final thought on plotting…

This is a very personal subjective matter. There truly is no right or wrong answer to the “How much should I plot?” question. For some people, I know they need everything in place beforehand or they come out in hives. I personally know that over planning is the easiest way for me to kill one of my own projects. Something I haven’t mentioned above, for example, is (for fantasy and sci-fi) world building. That’s because my personal feeling is that this is something that can evolve with writing and be edited into clarity later. But then I’m a character writer. My characters build the world around them and then I colour in the gaps later. But some people feel the complete opposite way. And that’s cool too. For those people they would want to have the world and mythologies in place but not really care what characters they are dealing with and create those as they go along. Equally, I haven’t spoken to research (for crime particularly). Again, I’m personally comfortable with vagueness (e.g. he shot him with a gun, I can work out what kind of gun later) and some scientific breaches in my first draft because, personally, I like to see the full picture of what I’m dealing with before I launch into the research and use that as an editing tool. But again, I’m an editor. My first drafts are normally full of plot holes and inconsistencies. I know this. I accept this. And I’m committed to fully being aware that my editing process is a lot longer than other people’s. It’s just how I write. You may be different.

Ultimately, NaNoWriMo is about you. Only you know how you write. Only you know your preferences. My only advice, ironically, would be don’t listen too hard to all the advice out there. Read it. Listen. But don’t feel like you have to do it that way. We are just providing one particular opinion, or path. Don’t be afraid to do it your own way. Camp NaNoWriMo, more than anything else, is about embracing the inner writer and having fun with what we do. You can’t do that if you are bound by seventeen contradictory “rules” on how to do it right. The only right way to do it is to write. End of.

As always, comment below your views and opinions.

Maxi x