THE MAP TABLE

All the posts I mentioned at York Festival of Writing

I'm home from the York Festival of Writing and the dust is settling. As ever, it was a wonderful weekend put together by Jericho Writers, full of writers of fiction and non-fiction at every stage, from beginners to multi-best-sellers and - always one of the highlights - a reunion of several dozen of Debi Alper's and my lovely graduates from the online Self-Editing Your Novel course, including one of the keynote speakers, million-selling Cathy Bramley, and one of the exciting debuts of last year, Amanda Berriman. Old friend Ruth Ware was another keynote speaker and I devoured her The Death... Read more →


Being Published Part 5: Publicity

This is the fifth in a series of posts which I'm planning in the run-up to next February, when This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin will be published. In each I'll try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that this stage of the writing life can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here. Before we start, let's get something sorted out. Marketing and publicity are often talked about as the same thing, and they do have... Read more →


Being Published Part 1: The Contract

Many aspiring writers find the book industry baffling, and the prospect of being published very daunting, however much they long for it. It needn't be, but the industry is very odd, in many ways, compared to other industries. And where you don't know what the norms are, it's very easy not to realise when someone you're dealing with is either going out of their way to be extra-helpful or generous, or not doing what they really should for you and your book. Since my memoir This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin [Edited to update] was published on 12th... Read more →


How To Tame Your Novel

A writer recently got in touch because he's overwhelmed by the novel he's writing. He has a story, and about two-thirds of a first draft, but it's feeling more and more impossible. There are loose ends, continuity clashes, scenes whose outcome is unconvincing and others which don't go anywhere; when he tries to write a scene it always grows in a direction which the plot won't allow, while if he tries to write the scenes that the plot needs, they're stiff and dead. What's more, each time he solves a problem - changes the time-scheme of a chapter, or a... Read more →


Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on 10th March

I'm ridiculously thrilled to have my author's copies of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction sitting on my desk. It really does embody all the things I find myself saying when I'm teaching workshops and blogging, not just about historical fiction but writing fiction and creative non-fiction in general. Whether you're new to writing of any kind and have just fallen in love with a person or a period and can't rest till you've had a shot at bringing it to life on paper, or you're an experienced writer who's always loved reading historical fiction but have never dared to... Read more →


Narrative Drive: "What matters is that the ship is always trying to get somewhere"

You know how books about writing novels and stories always talk about "conflict"? And you eye your delicate love story or strange evocation of an agoraphobic fantasist, and wonder how you're supposed to get the Kalashnikovs or the divorce-court drama in there? I know why it gets said - I know why this issue matters, and matters hugely - but I've never found "conflict" as a term particularly helpful: so often the human dynamics which drive good stories just don't seem to file under that heading. "Obstacles" is perhaps a more useful term, when we're talking about plot and story,... Read more →


Do what you like, and teach your reader to like it too

Of all the narrative forms, theatre is one of the most demanding, both structurally and in terms of how little leeway you have to make mistakes. And musicals add in another layer of complexity, so I pounced on How Musicals Work by writer and director Julian Woolford, not least because I'm fascinated by where and how you'd put the songs in. The book discusses that at length, and all sorts of other ideas about structure and character (there's an overlap with John Yorke's Into the Woods, which I also love) which map across onto fiction and creative non-fiction. But one... Read more →


Straight proof: what any of us can learn from Dick Francis

Beat this, as the opening for a thriller: I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me. I've given micro-attention to a short piece of prose before, in An Education in Writing. And I've talked before, in Running With Wolf Hall, about what's going on when you read a whole book that sets you alight. And then the other day I wanted to have a think about how to build thrillers, and for the first time in many years I... Read more →


Chapter breaks and other joints

A writer friend has said that her book-length manuscript has arrived on the page with scarcely any chapters at all: should she put them in? Terry Pratchett doesn't, says another writer. A fellow workshopper was really bothered by how my novel (The Mathematics of Love, since you ask) had several parts to shape a bigger architecture, but not an equal number of chapters in each. One highly successful writer of light women's fiction doesn't put the chapters in till she's written the whole thing, because only then does she know where they should be. Whereas I plan in chapters right... Read more →


Working hypothesis: write as if you're a writer

One of the things I often have to explain when I'm teaching academic writing is that it's important to define any terms you're working with, because if you don't make it clear how you're using them, then the first time anyone says, "But what about...?", the chain of persuasion, which is your argument, is broken. The thoughtful students look nervous: they know that concepts such as Modernism, or Need, or even The Eighteenth Century (1713-1789? 1660-1815?), are things which people write whole books about, arguing with other whole books. So we talk about working definitions: of the possible sensible, reasonable... Read more →


Why I'm a convert to writing with Scrivener

All I actually need to write a novel is a stack of identical A4 notebooks (makes keeping the wordcount easier), a good biro (fat enough not to get RSI), and a plotting grid. Oh, and piles and piles of scrap paper for all the notes and ideas and snaglists. A word processor is essential next, but the many "novel-writing" programs on the market seemed to be little more than toys dreamed up by non-writing geeks, to sell or give away to beginners writers desperate for ways to make the weird business of creating something out of nothing more manageable. But... Read more →


What I learnt, as a writer, about writing, from A S Byatt's Possession

A while ago I blogged about what's going on, intuitively, when you're reading a really good book, using Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as an example. But, of course, many of us do read a really good book for a conscious, specific purpose. And if you have to write at length about it then you have to read even more clear-headedly. The first time I did that was for my MPhil dissertation, and the book was A S Byatt's Possession. I was writing a novel which wasn't, then, called The Mathematics of Love, and there were things I wanted to say... Read more →


Believable Dragons

In the perennial argument about whether you do research before, during or after you write a novel, one answer is that you do it when the children are away, the hangover's wearing off, and the bailiffs are out of the house: in other words, whenever you can. But given the choice, I found myself saying the other day on a forum thread, there are some kinds of research you have to do first, so that you've got something 'to start thinking against'. Something to start thinking against. It was one of those ideas I didn't know I had till I... Read more →