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

What’s In A Fairytale? 5 Helpful Starting Points

So, we’ve established (more or less) what a fairytale is and what kind of story we want to tell. Question is, how do we go about telling it? Every genre has its own markers – the key elements that readers expect to see. Fairytales are no different. When we pick up a fairytale, or something that guises to be one, as readers we have certain expectations and, as writers, we have to be careful to fulfil enough of them not to leave the reader feeling cheated.


An important caveat. There are no rules in writing. Actually, a lie. Considering we are in the business of art, people seem in a hell of a rush to bind us in so many rules I sometimes think it’s a miracle anything original ever gets published with all the bureaucratic strangling going on in our market. So let’s change that to…

There shouldn’t be any rules in writing

So while the below listed and explored are common themes, they are not the be all and end all. They are guidelines. Ideas. Suggestions. If  you ask me, our job as writers shouldn’t be a tick box exercise of combining an expected set of conditions into one linear narrative, it should be a challenge so see how many of them we can leave out and still get the same end result. Personally as a reader, I love to be surprised. I love that moment when I actually have to put the book down for a moment to admire the mastery of such a warped imagination that created such an unexpected twist.


But that said, if you want to get published, particularly traditionally, you have to play by the rules. (That’s not to say there aren’t agents out there who will take a chance on something new and controversial (in a literary sense) but they are needles in a very big haystack). Most books I pick up these days are so formulaic it hurts.

So here’s a couple of elements to keep in mind when working on your own fairytale as well as a few tips from me on how to rebel (whoo to the writing revolution):

Starting points for fairytales

  1. OUR DASHING HERO, DARLING DAMSEL IN DISTRESS AND VILLAINOUS VILLAIN

The Golden Trio. Pick up any fairytale and you’ll more than often find all three in residence. If your name is Disney, it’s normally the princess of the week, the nameless prince who is only there to kill things and save the afore-mentioned princess from the cliché evil villain. From Snow White, the literally unnamed Prince Charming and equally unnamed Evil Queen to bang up to date with Anna, Kristoff and the we-were-going-to-do-an-original-hero-as-villain-story-but-chickened-out Hans, these three characters are the foundation around which the fairytale is built.

That does not mean by any stretch that there isn’t room for some interpretation. My favourites are where the damsel is just fine saving herself while the hero has his own problems to contend with (Hercules and Meg), linked instead of by a sappy love story but by the mutual villain; or where the villain is actually the hero of the story (Maleficent) or better yet starts as the villain and comes full circle to hero as the hero takes the opposite journey (absolutely loved the Black Swan mirroring in Once Upon a Time S5 p1 with Regina and Emma as they switched roles). I actually love this cliché because it gives us so much room as writers to go “screw that” and mix things up. Why can’t the princess be the villain and the wicked witch saves the prince? Why can’t the hero have their own story completely independent of the princess? What if the hero has to team up with the villain to save the princess and falls in love with the wrong one? There is so much scope here. As any self-respecting Oncer will tell you “Evil isn’t born, it’s made” and “Anyone can be a hero.” Break the rules. Shock the reader. Make them really question their assumptions. Write a story where no one is who they appear to be. All three should be distinct characters with their own stories, motivations and development. That is when a fairytale is at its most powerful.

2. THE EPIC BATTLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL

You can’t have a fairytale without some kind of great war between all that is good and all that is evil. Back when Snow White was released in 1937, people were happier to accept the simple lines drawn between good and evil, cheer on the heroes and go home satisfied. Since then, audiences have become much more demanding and questioning. Our job as writers is to ask those questions. What is good? What is evil? Is someone evil for doing the right things for the wrong reasons? Or for doing the wrong things for the right reasons? Which is better? Which is worse? Can a hero still be hero if they are willing to kill? What makes people evil? Are people all evil or all good? What are the shades of grey in play? Can a villain ever be redeemed? When does a hero become just a vigilante with a sword? Here’s a fun writing prompt:

Write an entire book from the point of view of one character as the hero. It’s only as the reader reaches the end, they realise that character is actually the villain and they’ve just witnessed them killing the real hero.

3. The Great Moral Lesson

Fairytales, as established back in March, are as much about examining the “human experience” as they are about princesses and wicked witches. They are morality tales. Each one has a “lesson” that it wishes to teach. Frozen teaches girls everywhere that they don’t need a prince to save them and depression can be beaten. Tangled teaches little girls that ignoring their mother’s direct instruction and running away is a great idea. Snow White taught a generation that it really is the be all and end all to be the prettiest of them all. Okay, okay, I’ll stop. Tangled is also about growing up and identity. And Snow White is about the perils of vanity. Each fairytale has its core lesson to share with the world. And so should yours.

For me, this is why we choose to write fairytales. This is the very core of what they are. We as writers want to give a voice to a particular story, or struggle, or theme and share that. For me personally, the theme I looked at was the constant fight we all face to find who we are in this crazy, mixed up world that is so quick to want to shove us in neat little boxes and fundamentally  the idea that just because you are born as one thing does not mean that is the thing you must be for the rest of your life – in other words, just because you are born a hero does not mean you cannot become the villain and vice versa. I also wanted a chance to really explore accountability (as for me personally this is something somewhat lacking in fairytales). I chose these themes because they are close to my heart. They are things I struggled with as a kid, and continue to now as an adult and are stories I have never been able to find in the books I’ve read so I wrote my own.

Everyone has their thing. That one or two moral/ethical/emotive topics that really sets our hearts burning. If you aren’t sure of yours, look back over everything you’ve ever written and write down all the things they have in common. You might be surprised by what you find. I did this a couple of years ago and it really made me more self-aware as a writer and in many ways, my findings created the foundation for the fairytales I’m now writing. It’s a fantastic exercise to do, even if you don’t plan on writing anything that ends in “happily ever after”.

4. Once Upon A Time to Happily Ever After

I don’t know if it was different for you, but back when I was just starting to write as a kid, fairytales were the device my teachers used to explain the formula of a story. It starts “once upon a time” there is a great thrilling quest and it ends “happily ever after”. Of course, I’ve since learnt that stories are somewhat more complicated than that but it’s important to keep the format in the back of your mind when you are working on a fairytale. A few questions you might want to ask:

  • Where do I want to begin?
  • Am I going to follow one primary character through the whole story (which is the traditional route) or jump around and show different sides of the story?
  • Where do I want to end?
  • What is happily ever after for me/my characters? Am I a “True Lover” or is there a different kind of ever after I want to explore?
  • Will this have a happy ending?
  • What exists after “happily ever after”? Do I care? Is this something I want to explore? What happens when “happily ever after” breaks?

5. The Sappy Love Story

Can you write a fairytale without one? Frozen tried. But even without it being the primary “love” story, it was still there in the background. Maleficent is probably as close as Disney has ever gotten to a fairytale that doesn’t have a love story (and even then her past/backstory is one giant love story – just because it ends badly doesn’t stop it being a love story, or does it? When does a love story become a revenge story?) As I explored a couple of posts back, a lot of the original fairytales do actually step away from the traditional love story. Some of that is time based, perceptions have changed. Things we are disgusted by now were just not that frowned upon back then. Friendly reminder that rape within marriage only became illegal in the UK in 1990. And some of it is to do with the fact those stories were downright twisted. My favourite retellings are the ones that push the love story to the back. As a woman, I do not enjoy being informed that my happily ever after comes in the form of biceps and abs. As a writer, I’ve made the choice to very much marginalise any romantic storyline in my own work. My protagonist is a strong female whose happily ever after has absolutely no correlation to whom she happens to be dating at the time.

5 Questions To Ask When Writing a Fairytale Retelling

Fairytales are very vogue at the moment. Everyone is jumping on the band wagon. The bookshelves (particularly for young adult) are full of princesses and heroes. Shows like Grimm and Once Upon A Time are prime time and widely watched. And even Disney has taken to rehashing its own stories on the silver screen. They are the new vampires and everyone is getting in on the action.

But there is a great difference between doing a thing (say… Twilight for instance) and doing it well (say… True Blood). And I, of course, want to do it well so over the last two years I’ve given myself a crash course in how to handle already existing stories. Because that’s the fundamental problem. People have literally read that one already. So when you launch in, it’s not like handling any other genre. It isn’t enough to have a story. You have to justify to those legions of existing fans of the original story why you are taking their beloved tale and rehashing it. How do you get people to reread a story where they already know the plot and the characters and still surprise them? How do you keep them hooked?

I have learnt a hell of a lot over my time in this minefield. I thought I knew fairytales until I tried writing one. Which means I’ve done this backwards. I started with the mistakes and then have spent two odd years fixing them all. I don’t recommend this approach. It’s frustrating and demoralising at times and involves hours of stress. (This is what I get for being a “pantser” I guess – I’m terrible at pre-writing research)

The problem is, despite there being so much momentum in this area (retellings generally, not just fairytales), there is not a lot of guidance out there for people. Even when I went looking I struggled. I can find fifty infograms telling me how to get my character out of a straitjacket but nothing when it comes to copyright implications and types of retellings. And so, I thought I’d put together a quick guide of five questions I wish I had asked before I launched into my fairytale retelling with the hopes that maybe it can help some of my fellow fairytale lovers.

5 questionsQuestion 1: Do you really know your fairytales?

The honest answer for me was a resounding no. If I’m completely honest, I was a bit of a Disney reliant. I trusted the mouse to have done his research and just springboarded off the back of what he had done. Mistake. I knew about the Grimm fairytales but I’d never actually read them. I knew people had told me they were (and I quote) “a tad” darker than Disney.

You don’t say.

As I illustrated last week, the Grimm brothers somewhat live up to their names. So my advice here is pick your source material and then dedicate some serious time to research. That doesn’t just mean the Disney and the Grimm but try to watch/read what other people have done with it. Once Upon A Time is a great melting pot for all fairytales. My book is based on Snow White so I suffered through both Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman as well as the obscure version the BBC made in the early 90s and as many others as I could find and I read any and every book based thereupon.

The purpose of this is two-fold.

1. You get to really understand the story you are handling before you start and by looking at the common denominators across all the other versions, you can find the core themes/ideas of your fairytale in question.

2. You’ve got to know what’s out there to avoid rehashing something someone has already done.

Question 2: What kind of retelling are you doing?

A retelling is a retelling is a retelling right? Wrong. In my experience, there are four overarching ways to handle a retelling.

The Reimagining

The same story. Same characters. Different cast. The recent Disney remake of Cinderella is a classic example. Same story. More three-dimensional cast. No real changes. It looks different but basically does the same thing. I imagine the live action Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson (breaths held) will run a similar pattern. Or look at the Rogers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella – that’s another straight reimagining. I also put things like Burton’s Alice in Wonderland under this category. It’s borderline to retelling but there just wasn’t enough original content. I’m sorry but “Wonderland” to “Underland” does not count. At the end of the day, same story.

My advice? Leave these to Disney. It is very difficult to do a straight reimagining that doesn’t come across as “because I do this better than the original did” and that tends to put backs up.

The Prequel/Sequel approach

Gregory Maguire showed how successfully this can work with his novel (and the now incredibly popular stage show soon to be film) Wicked. It’s a prequel to the Wizard of Oz. Same world. Same characters. Different part of their timelines. It’s brave territory because you are effectively leaping into an existing world with someone else’s characters and picking up where they left off but it has been done successfully. Let’s face it, Disney are pretty terrible at their own sequels so the field is open for new players.

The Retelling

This covers pretty much everything else. Similar story with some kind of twist. Maleficent retold Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the villain. Once Upon A Time puts everyone in a giant melting pot called Storybrooke and throws in a memory curse for good measure. Tangled updated Rapunzel for a more modern story, giving the usual 2D prince an upgrade and a personality (shock horror) – Shrek is another good retelling of the same story. Frozen is perhaps the most high profile retelling of the old classic The Snow Queen. A Cinderella Story (I was a Hilary fan) takes Cinderella and puts it in a different time period.

As the above illustrate, retellings can stay pretty close to the original story but tend more often to drift quite a ways from the original so the options here are pretty endless. Generally speaking though, each one has a key detail that is the core of the retelling (Maleficent – villain pov; OUAT – mixed tales in one place; Shrek – erm… prince charming is an Ogre; Frozen – villain isn’t a villain). If this is the path you are taking, my advice would be to have very clear in your mind what your linchpin is and keep it in focus at all time.

The Thematic Retelling

The most subtle of the collection. I suppose you could argue these aren’t really retellings. They are completely different stories with completely different characters but they borrow themes and ideologies and iconologies from the source material. The best example of this I’ve ever witnessed is House MD. For those of you who don’t know, Greg House is actually based on Sherlock Holmes and throughout the eight series, small little idiosyncracies are added here and there to thematically retell Conon Doyle’s classic story. There is no argument that the stories are completely different. But themes they share are things like both principles are unnaturally smart and observant; there is a heavy focus on puzzles and solving the impossible; Drug use and addition.

And then there are the smaller “cuter” things. Holmes/House (someone somewhere was very proud of that); Watson/Wilson; House lives in apartment 221B; and every so often they’ll throw in a line of dialogue that throws back to the original material.

This is my choice of retelling. For me, it offers the most flexibility. It allows you complete creative control over your stories and characters but allows you to still use the existing background of the fairytale to add depth and familiarity for the reader.

Question 3: Do you know your copyright limitations?

This is the one that will give you the most headaches and heartache if you aren’t 100% certain of what you are allowed to use and what you aren’t. Copyright law changes from place to place so I’m not going to even being to start to try to provide details here. Each story will be different. It will depend on when and what the original source is. Peter Pan, for example, is a fairly modern novel and so has more restrictions than Sleeping Beauty but Disney can get quite protective over their stories but it tends not to cover fictional novels. From Wiki:

In 2013, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued a trademark to Disney Enterprises, Inc. for the name “Snow White” that covers all live and recorded movie, television, radio, stage, computer, Internet, news, and photographic entertainment uses, excluding literary works of fiction and nonfiction

An afternoon of research will save you a lot of worrying later down the road. Particularly if you are thinking of self publishing and so don’t have the safety net of an agent and a publishing house.

Question 4: What are you bringing to the party?

I’m sounding like a broken record at the moment. I lament to anyone misfortunate enough to be around me Hollywood’s loss of ability to do anything original. I swear, if they remake another “classic” 80s movie I’m staging a protest. First Fame, Flashdance, 90210, Superman – the list just goes on and on. I nearly cried when they released that they were redoing Mary Poppins.

So what are you doing writing a retelling? – I hear you ask. Is that not exactly the same thing?

My answer. Not if I do it right.

Big if, I know, but an important one. Think about Romeo and Juliet for a second. Do you know how many movie versions have been made? No? Me either. I had to Google it. According to TCM…

There have been more than 30 film versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – silent versions, sound versions, versions in foreign languages, and in modern dress. Source

Now, how many have you heard of? One, two? I’d reckon the two most people know is the Baz Luhrmann movie from 1996 and Disney’s Gnomeo and Juliet. I’ve seen more, I know I have but these two stick in my mind. Why? Because they did something different and they stuck to it – for better or worse. They knew what they were bringing to the party. If you give the reader the same stuff they’ve already seen, at best your work will be forgettable, at worst left discarded and unfinished. A retelling can so easily become a very boring experience for a reader if they haven’t got anything new and exciting to be drawn to.

It’s all about balance between keeping the stuff you love and that inspired you to write the retelling in the first place from the original but combine it with enough new elements and surprises to have your fingerprints all over the prose and keep the reader hooked and second guessing.

Question 5: What are you trying to accomplish?

Imagine the following (fictional) conversation that must have happened between Stephanie Meyer and the agents she pitched her work to:

Agent: “So what is this book about?”

Stephanie: “A vampire falling in love with a human.”

Agent: “Been done. If I want star-crossed lovers I’ll read Romeo and Juliet.”

Stephanie: “Funny you should mention that. R+J is a massive theme throughout my book.”

Agent: “Okay, so it’s Romeo and Juliet with vampires. Isn’t that just Dracula?”

Stephanie: “No. Mine is for young adults and, get this, my vampires sparkle.”

Agent: “Okay… you’ve got me intrigued. But tell me why I should publish this book over all the other ones? What does your book accomplish that they don’t?”

Stephanie: “…”

Actually Steph, bless her, had quite a choice of answers. Love or hate Twilight, it does do a lot of new things to an old hat. It made vampires attractive to a young audience. It retold the old story of Romeo and Juliet and the star-crossed lovers against a (faux) gothic background. It makes stalking an attractive feature… okay, okay, I’ll stop. But my point is, whatever your view on this book, the first one anyway, brought something new to the shelves.

If you have ever got as far as pitching a novel to an agent, you’ll know this question has a nasty habit of popping up. It isn’t enough to just have a story these days. The publishing industry is about the bottom line. You have to do more than just justify your story as a story, you have to justify it as a book as well.

So have this in the back of your mind. Think about what you are doing that makes your novel unique. Is it addressing a new audience? Has it got a currently relevant message? Is it exploring a moral dilemma? Is it changing the genre of an old classic? In short, why is someone going to choose to pick up your book out of the millions out there? What is your sales pitch? If the best you’ve got is “cos I love Sleeping Beauty and wanted to have a play around with my own version” you might want to sit down and really think about this one.

If you are struggling with this, write a blurb. Write yourself the paragraph you’d put on the back cover to hook new readers. That 500 odd words is everything unique about your book. It’s your “why you should read this” declaration to the world. Look at what you’ve written and ask yourself if you would pick up that book. Better yet, hand it to half a dozen beta readers and ask them if it makes them want to read the book. They come back with a yes and you’ve got yourself a book.

Next week I look at elements of the fairytale and how to start turning ideas into a novel…

Review: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I always love to watch the reactions of people when I tell them what book I’m reviewing each month. For me, Birdsong was telling. Each time I’d tell someone, I’d instantly get responses like “great choice”, “excellent book”. But when I’d then follow up with “have you read it?” the answer was invariable “no. I’ve always meant to but never got around to it.”

And that is exactly why I chose to take it on this month. This is one of my bucket list books. It pops up all the time on those “100 books to read before you die” lists. It’s regularly hailed as Faulks’ best work. And everyone seems to have heard of it. And yet so few of us have read it.

This book was not what I expected. If I’m truly honest, I don’t know what I was expecting but not that. One of the things people tell you is it’s a “story about the war” so I kinda expected it to, you know, be set in the war. And it is. Eventually. But the main story is bookended on both ends by love stories. You actually start some years earlier in a French village with an English man named Stephen Wraysford who is visiting a family there. The first sixty pages this book felt heavy. Very heavy. The kind of heavy that makes you consider putting it down from the effort. Take my advice.

Don’t.

It might be a slow starter (honestly, the stuff about the factory and the strikes and the banal events of a cliché perfect-on-the-outside, troubled-behind-closed-doors family held little interest for me – the character building for both Isabelle and Stephen was so slow and while it does set you up with the secondary characters, most of them prove insignificant for the remainder of the novel aside from a thrown in line to warn you of their fate) but keep going. At about page 60, this book lights up like a firecracker on the 4th of July.

Another suggestion, don’t read this book at work. There I was, casually reading away my modern doorwedge of a faux classic when all of a sudden things were happening and I was suddenly very aware I was in company. Suffice to say, this book is not a PG rating. But from that point onwards, it takes off. And then Faulks throws in another curve ball (rolling with the America themed similes and metaphors today apparently)

In essence, this story is the story of Stephen’s journey through the war. Ish. With side plots. And random characters. And the odd divergence here and there. But he is the common thread that runs through it all. If you don’t care what happens to him, then you won’t get to the end (though I would challenge anyone not to). Because this book likes to time travel. Just as I was really getting into Isabelle and Stephen’s journey I suddenly found myself 6 years down the road and with a completely different character (Jack).

This is where the war stuff really comes in. You follow a whole battalion of characters as they struggle their way through the coming days, including the first day of the Somme (if you have a weak stomach, maybe skip this one – it’s gritty, real and doesn’t soften the horrors that happened there at all). And just as all this is kicking of…

We get stuck with Elizabeth.

I feel sorry for her as a character. She’s well written and in any other book her story line would seem engaging but against the brutalities of Stephen’s story line she just comes off (for me anyway) as a moaning girl with boyfriend troubles. Her sections are interspersed from here to the end with the tellings of Stephen’s struggles.

But Elizabeth does provide something else in this book. Guilt. On the cover of the version I read there is a quote from a reviewer “deeply moving”. I tend to find this means one of two things. Either a) you are going to come out of this novel with a renewed love for humanity and faith therein or b) you are going to be depressed as hell. This one is mostly the latter. It covers so many themes from the pointless waste of lives in the war, to the sheer bravery of the men that fought. It touches on how ill we treated these men after they returned and also on the emotional hell they were put through. There were parts of it that made me feel positively nauseous at the things these men went through “for King and Country”. And through Elizabeth, it points out our ignorance. November 11th every year we wear our poppies and say our thanks but most of us have next to no real idea what happened out on the fields of France. What exactly we are thanking these men for. For example, I had no idea they had miners out on the front lines. Men stuck underground for hours at a time in appalling conditions and although I did know about the massacre of the Somme, to read it through the eyes of those on the ground made it gutwrenchingly real.

Character wise, men do somewhat better than women. I don’t think you are supposed to “like” persay any particular character. But you do know them. They feel so real. So dynamic off the page. Their voices are so… human, it is what makes this book at the same time both compulsive reading but also repulsive reading in a way. Faulks is almost cruel. By treating the characters with such indifference, he makes the reader really care. You feel the deaths. There will be moments you’ll just have to stop reading for a moment and recover/grieve. You will find yourself begging them to just keep breathing as you rush through the pages dreading what you’ll find. He writes characters that have become immune to even their own death and so you as the reader take over the obligation of care. In a world full of fictional works that desensitise us to death, this one makes it brutally real. And if for that reason, and no other, it should be on everyone’s reading list.

Female characters are a little more two-dimensional. I wasn’t fond of Isabelle or Jeanne or Lisette and as I’ve already discussed, Elizabeth, while a useful vessel for conveying ideas, was in herself dull and man obsessed.

I suppose all that said, it was inevitable that I was never going to be satisfied with the ending. In many ways for me it felt too clean after such a messy journey. Elizabeth’s ending made me roll my eyes openly (and felt rushed, as though it was squeezed in at the last minute). And I wish he had spent a little longer in the final moments of Stephen’s – there was so much opportunity there – the amount of conflict and confusion after everything that had happened – that mix of characters I felt was under used. A mere chapter or two felt too little to me.

But all is forgiven for the writing. This book is a master-class. Faulks brings history to life with such a subtle hand that you barely realise you are reading words. You are seeing pictures. I’ve not seen any of the TV adaptations but I can’t imagine any living up to his prose. The detail, the definition, the care with which he tells his story is breathtaking.

This book will mentally destroy you as you read it. But don’t let that put you off. It is equally one of the hardest and one of the easiest 500 pages I’ve ever read. But definitely one of the most worthwhile. And for this reason, it’s in my “magical 1%” category. Those books that live with you. That change you in imperceivable ways. That become way more than just a story in a book. Books that stay with you forever. The war sections of this book will hurt. From the simple action of reading the letters in the trenches to the pain of characters like Brennan and Weir. This book is a war story, a love story and a survival story. But most of all, and the reason no matter if you even hate all of the afore listed types of stories that you will finish it, this book is about the human spirit and its incredible ability to endure the unendurable even when that spirit is irrevocably broken.

Rating: 10-10 – this isn’t a should read, its a must read

Favourite Quotes (7): “What was held to be a place of natural beauty was stagnation of living tissue which could not be saved from decay.”

“The harder he worked, the easier it seemed”

“I think children need to believe in powers outside themselves. That’s why they read books about witches and wizards and God knows what. There is a human need for that which childhood normally exhausts. But if a child’s world is broken up by too much reality, that need goes underground.”

“She had taken a job because she needed to live; she had found an interesting one in preference to a dull one; she had tried to do well rather than badly. She could not see how any of these three logical steps implied a violent rejection of men or children.”

“You can believe in something without compromising the burden of your own existence.”

“It made little difference that this was, by comparison, a small attack: there were no degrees of death.”

”He wanted it louder and louder; he wanted them to drown out the war with their laughter. If they could shout loud enough, they might bring the world back to its senses; they might laugh loud enough to raise the dead.”

Favourite Character: Jack

Least Favourite Character: Elizabeth

Writer’s Corner: A Beginners Guide to Plot Mapping

You know at school when they told you writing a story was easy? All you needed was three things: a beginning, a middle and an end and voila, one book in a nice tidy package.

Yeah…

They might have missed a few things.

In reality, the stories we are writing today as adults are somewhat more complex. Normally, there are at least two main story arcs (or if you are more like me, six or seven), there is that annoying niggly issue of character development to keep an eye on, there is this “pacing” thing everyone keeps going on about but you aren’t 100% sure what they are on about, there is the whole “it needs to make sense” thing and then, if you are particularly adventurous, it may not even be presented in chronological order. Someone said to me once, “writing a book is like braiding hair”. At the beginning you know what you want it to look like but actually finding a place to start is difficult. While you are braiding, you have your hands full of about a million different strands and clumps as you try and weave them together. And then all of a sudden, you are tying the band around the end and somehow, you’ve pulled it all together and even Katniss would be proud. Oh, and it takes years of practise to perfect, and even then, there are somedays no matter how hard you try, it just won’t come together right.

Thus ends my short stint as a hairstylist.

But the analogy holds steady. A book is about strands. A good author can juggle a half dozen and pull them together into a mostly neat ending. A brilliant author does so without you even noticing. Just look at JK. Love her or hate her, she is the master at pulling together all those tiny little details. A single line of dialogue in book one that suddenly makes sense when you get to book seven. And that whole symmetry across the series thing… that is pure talent.

So how does she do it? Or more importantly, how do we?

Plot mapping.

Different places call it different things (You’ll hear “narrative arc” a lot) but it is essentially the same process of drawing out your plot into a visual form so you can see how it builds. Moreover, you can draw all of your arcs on top of one another to make sure the book is balanced and always has something happening to further at least one of many plots you are juggling. Different people like to use different imagery but the basic steps are the same.

For example purposes, I’m going to use Hunger Games.

1. Identify all your key characters. 

Vitally important. You need to know who is important before stuff can happen to them.

HG: Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Prim, Haymitch, Effie

2. Identify all your key “action” arcs

Most books will have one of these that will form the backbone and then a load of splinters that drift in and out as required.

HG: erm… The Hunger Games…

3. Identify all your key “emotional” arcs

Again, self explanatory. Note down all the development you want to take your characters on, either in relation to one another or on their own.

HG: Katniss and Peeta. Katniss and Gale. Haymitch from drunk to mentor. Katniss from illegal hunter to victor.

4. Map each arc.

For now, ignore all those niggly rules and just focus on what you’ve written/plotted. Draw out each key moment representative to the length of the book. The high points, the dormant moments, the low points etc… Literally go scene by scene and pull the story apart.

5. Overlay

6. Lay the “narrative arc” template over it

The aim is for the overall plot to look something like a heart monitor of a someone in cardiac distress – it should go up and down but in a roughly symmetrical fashion. If it doesn’t, it may need some rearranging. Play with chapters and the order of events. If there are any moment when all the plots fall quiet and nothing appears to be happening, those are your sections you need to address to keep the book moving.

However, note, not all books work to this format. This is only a general rule. Some books are written to deliberately defy this model. At the end of the day, trust your writer’s gut. Be honest with yourself and write what feels right to you.

Personally I prefer to map using journeys rather than questions because not all posed questions will be answered fully in one novel (particularly if you are working with a series) but this a great technique to really SEE your book. It forces you to focus on the key elements, to identify your key arcs and you can see how they are building. It shows you the dead weight you are carrying that you can get rid of and it shows you were your plot may need bolstering.

You don’t even have to limit it to plot arcs. Why not map out your themes?

Just to throw it in here, it can be as detailed or as high level as you wish. If you want to know detailed plotting, Google JK Rowlings Plot diagrams for HP. Wow. That is all I say. Wow.

#CampNaNoWriNo Success

I come bearing good news. I took on the mountain and today I am proud to say I conquered it. My mission of 60,000 words in one month is complete. I even have a few days extra for reading through and editing. It’s been a fun journey with all the ups and downs one would expect and there were a couple of times there I didn’t think it possible so I’m super happy to be stood at the finish line today. This is my first attempt at one of these events and it will certainly not be my last (frankly I can’t wait until November). I’ve had so much fun. It’s been really great sharing a cabin with like minded writers who have been there to cheer me on when I was struggling and celebrate with me now it’s over. And it’s been really good for me to have strict deadlines to write too. It’s taught me a lot as a writer. I’ve learnt that I can sprint write, something I did not think myself capable a month ago.

The Butterfly Children is a long way from finished. I’m still really excited about it as a project (which is always good news as fellow writers know how quickly that buzz can fade). It’s something a little different from what I’ve tried before. For a couple of days I’m going to luxuriate in my smugness on the counter to the right but then its time to up the ante and see if I can get it to the end (aim 120,000) as quickly as possible. But keep an eye out. It’ll be getting its own ‘I’m an official book now’ page on the top bar and on that will be lots more information and little tidbits. Maybe even an except if I’m feeling sneaky :p

But for now… Champagne please 😀

Geek Out! Rowling and Watson

For those of you who share my obsession with young Mr Potter, here’s the link to the much talked about interview between Emma Watson and JK Rowling. Having read it, I understand more what she is saying. Still can’t decide if I’m excited about or dreading the Fantastical Beasts movie… I guess only time will tell…

Watson/Rowling Interview