The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 1: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

Happy New Year! To celebrate, this is the first of a new series on This Itch of Writing: not exactly reviews, but mini-posts about a book I'm reading which I think would be useful and interesting to us as writers. I'm planning to interleave these with the normal Itchy fare. Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers. Not every book I write about will be one I think is perfect, but I shall be focusing... Read more →

Historical Fiction Autumn: Hodgson, Harrogate and How Not to Start your Historical Novel

It seems to be Historical Fiction Autumn. The Historical Novel Society's Awards have had a good deal to do with that; I was one of the judges for their 2014 Short Story Award, and our comments on Anne Aylor's wonderful winning story, "The House of Wild Beasts", and on the two runners-up, are now up on the site. The HNS's website is also stuffed with great blogs and articles about everything to do with historical fiction. Antonia Hodgson, whose debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea is very high indeed on my TBR pile since I heard her speak and... 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 →

Free Indirect Style: what it is and how to use it

Free Indirect Discourse is the original term, being a direct translation from the French discours indirect libre, but that doesn't get you much further. And least helpful of all is Free Indirect Speech, because most of the time we don't use the term for stuff which was said aloud. (Does it make more sense in French, given that they don't routinely use speech marks in fiction? A question for another day.) But we're stuck with the name, and it's not really as vague and alarming as it suggests: quite likely you've been doing it all along - you just didn't... 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 →

About to Take Off

I go strangely brain-dead when I'm travelling. In the normal way of things I'm fairly observant, quick on the uptake, sharp-eyed. But once I'm through passport control some of my brain turns to mush (does mush come under the 100ml rule?). I can't see the signs to the loos, I read gate numbers wrong, I ask stupid questions of ground staff whose faces are already tight with weariness and the idiocy of the Travelling Public. They're usually quite nice about it. As you may have guessed, I'm posting this from airside, Gatwick North Terminal, on my way to Madrid. It's... Read more →

Cake houses and paper games

Children instinctively know what makes a satisfactory story: if that knowledge isn't coded into our genes, it's certainly wired into our brains. But I've been wondering what else in my childhood has fed into my writing self, and I realise that one thing I'm grateful for is childhood paper games. Adverbs: The first person draws say ten lines across the page, then on the left-hand side writes a vertical column of ten quantities - a hatful of, a fathom of, a milligram of - and folds it to hide them, so only the lines show, not the words. The next... Read more →

At last, a real How to Write book...

I've been reading Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer and it's immediately joined my short list of the 'How to Write books' worth bothering with: the ones that don't tell you how to write. Pam Johnson recommended it to me; Pam's a novelist and poet who also teaches on the Creative Writing MA at Goldsmiths. We met to talk blogging but when Pam says a book really tackles the core issues of what good writers do, I listen. The next day I dropped in on one of my local indie bookshops and there it was on the shelf. I escaped,... Read more →