Tag Archives: Creative writing

Writing Life: too political?

‘My writing is my activism. Writing is like breathing.
I do it to stay alive as well as to feel alive.’
Una Marson.

Una Marson (1905-1965) was a writer and the first black woman presenter to be employed by the BBC, working there from the 1940s. I found out about her through this fascinating documentary: BBC iPlayer – Una Marson: Our Lost Caribbean Voice And check out her poetry, especially Little Brown Girl and Black is Fancy. An introduction to Una Marson’s poetry | The British Library (bl.uk)

Of course, my life has been very different to Una Marson’s, however, the quote above really resonated with me. ‘My writing is my activism.’ Yes it is for me too. I rarely go on marches these days – though I was once tear gassed by the French police on an anti Front National rally. I am involved in various non-governmental organisations, especially ATD Fourth World UK – All Together in Dignity to Overcome Poverty (atd-uk.org), and I give money to others, but my writing is the place where I mainly explore the issues I feel passionate about.

Recently, I have been asked if my Donna Morris novels (https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Kate-Evans/A-Wake-of-Crows–The-first-in-a-completely-thrilling-new-/25544314) are too political and too didactic. I find these questions difficult to answer.

I came to political consciousness through the feminism of the 1980s. The idea that everything is political and the decision not to discuss something is as political as the decision to do so, remains paramount for me. Plus I write what I would want to read. I want to read things which open me to differing worlds and perspectives.

Or do I? Apart from as background for something I am writing, would I want to read a novel from the point of view of someone who supports Nigel Farage?

Apparently we all want to live in an echo chamber these days. And it is true, that I have grown weary of arguments with people who hold views which are completely opposed to mine. In the past, I have found these energy sapping and, quite frankly, a waste of time. How many opinions have I changed? People are as entrenched in their silos as I am. I think maybe only experience changes views. Perhaps if Suella Braverman spent a night in a detention centre, she would behave differently?

However, it’s worth noting, there are studies which show that reading can increase empathy for people who have different life experiences from our own. So hopefully, if I do my research right, my writing could at least have that effect.

Will I lose some readers through revealing my political stance too readily and clearly? Do I care? I’m not sure that I do.

Next Event
If you want the chance to question me further on this or anything else, then I would love to see you at Newcastle Noir, 11th December 2022, 2pm, The Bloody White Rose: Newcastle Noir 2022 Tickets, Fri, Dec 9, 2022 at 6:30 PM | Eventbrite

Author Interview: Julia Stone

I am delighted to welcome author Julia Stone to my blog. Julia Stone ‘dabbled’ in writing for many years, studying poetry, short stories and script writing. In 2017 she decided to take writing more seriously and applied to Faber Academy where she wrote a draft novel. In 2018 she won the Blue Pencil First Novel award and was offered representation by Madeleine Milburn. After writing her third novel she won a two book deal with Orion Dash. Her debut, HER LITTLE SECRET was published in 2021, and her second psychological suspense novel, THE ACCIDENT, is published October 27th 2022. Available at: https://amzn.to/3Db7jPo

Author Julia Stone

What are you currently working on?
Editing the book I wrote at Faber five years ago. It’s a bit of a personal passion project and it’s now on its sixth major rewrite. It’s set in the 1970s/80s and is a story of intense female friendship – far removed from psychological suspense. That said, I have many other writing projects on the go and dip in and out of them as the mood takes me. Currently I’ve started work on four other projects: another psychological suspense novel about an academic who studies memory; early chapters of a fictional memoir; an outline for a dystopian script; and a non-fiction work on the psychology of small day-to-day pleasures (which may morph into an uplit novel…!)

What has inspired the novel you have most recently published?
‘The Accident’ is published October 27th 2022. In 2018 I was regularly driving down the A12 to visit my 100 year old great aunt. I find my creative brain comes into play when on a long car journey and I enjoy developing ideas to see where they end up. The initial prompt for ‘The Accident’ was sparked when I saw a couple kissing on a pedestrian bridge over the dual carriageway. It struck me as a strange place for a romantic cuddle and I pondered why they might be there. The story developed from there – a girl on a bridge; who is she and why is she there? From those simple questions a web of threads spun out and ended up as my novel, ‘The Accident’. But of course, we don’t find out the answers to who and why until the end…

Available at: https://amzn.to/3Db7jPo

You are psychologist and psychotherapist, how does this help or hinder your writing?
It has helped me in two ways:
Firstly, to really understand my characters, what makes them tick, how they became who they are, their wants and needs. When an editor suggests a rewrite or change to the plot it enables me to understand what is wrong and to take the essence of what they envisage but to write it in a way that fits with my style and the character’s personality. 

Secondly, to manage my own emotional wellbeing throughout the process. As a psychologist, I’m interested in the emotional journey we take as writers as there are huge ups and downs along the way. During the Covid lockdowns I was asked by Faber to be a guest speaker for their Academy students to talk about writers’ wellbeing and it was great to hear they are taking this seriously.

For example, many of us come to writing from other careers where we had far more agency – often we knew what we needed to do to achieve and had some control over how well we did. In the world of the writer there are so many elements outside our control that it can be quite a shock. Your novel may be fabulous, your cover letter perfect, yet you can’t get an agent’s attention. You get an agent and they ‘love’’ your book but they want you to rewrite the second half – oh, and can you change it from a romance to more of an adventure. You make the edits and the agent pitches it to publishers, but no one is interested as the market has moved towards uplit or there was a similar theme explored by a well-known author last year. And so it goes on…

An approach I use is to think of my goals at three levels: 1) my fantasy dream, 2) an ideal target and 3) the most likely scenario – an achievable positive base point. For example, at my first book signing I set my ‘likely scenario’ at selling one book, so I was thrilled when more people came to talk to me and bought copies.

Another important thing is to try not to take reviews and feedback personally – separate your identity from the novel – they are commenting on the book not on you. Look at reviews of your favourite best seller and you will find a range from 5 to 1 star.

I have heard you talk about the cross-over between therapy and writing/story telling. Can you elaborate on any connections you find?
When someone comes for therapy they share their experiences as a story. We tend to think and explain in a causal, sequential way: x caused y which led to z. We include dialogue to bring things to life. We talk about our wants and needs, our hopes and fears. There are highs and lows in emotion. All these are features of story writing.

We all have a personal narrative, a story we tell ourself about our life and who we are, to help us make sense of our experiences. And this informs how we react to events in the here-and-now. One therapeutic technique is to consider whether this version of the story is useful to us in its current form; is there another interpretation of events? Or different language? Maybe it was something we were told by someone else, or it was a reaction to specific experiences and hasn’t been revised as we have grown. Helping people to reframe the way they think of the story, to see the events through a different lense, or to assume another role (survivor rather than victim), can help cause a significant shift in mental wellbeing.

How would you describe your writing process?
Although I dip in and out of different writing projects, I am a strong planner and hate wasting time on something that isn’t going to work in the long run. So I plot an outline of the novel to help steer the story line, generally using a simplified version of Save the Cat. (Email me if you’d like a copy of the worksheet I use: Julia@juliastonewriter.com)   I was told the first draft is ‘telling yourself the story’ which I’ve found immensely helpful, so I relax into it and don’t worry if I stray from my plan.  I also create psychological profiles for my characters and create mood boards of their worlds. This helps as I have Aphantasia – an inability to see things in my mind’s eye – so if I need to describe something in the novel I have a stock of images I can refer to.

What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it?
It depends on the book. I will sometimes read related texts, particularly if I am exploring a psychological theme that is well researched, like memory. I also attend relevant talks and listen to podcasts. Most of my ideas for novels don’t require much more than a quick Google search and checking small facts, like how much it cost to make a call from a phone box in the 1970s!

Do you have any crafting tips?
When I write a first draft in third person I find it often reads in a stilted ‘Janet and John’ way. One way to avoid this is to write in first person and then change the perspective. This enables you to experience events through the character’s eyes and ears and understand what they are thinking and feeling. This helps make their actions/reactions true to their wants and needs.  

There’s a wealth of writing craft information out there. One of the best sites is Emma Darwin’s https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/ She gives practical advice on so many aspects from how to write a fight scene to pacing, it’s almost a one-stop shop.

The question you wished I’d asked you.
Ha – clever! Maybe something about social media for writers and readers. If an author is going to use it properly, it seems to be a daily job and I’m not sure I have that much I wish to say! I’ve mastered Twitter and interact semi-regularly with fellow writers and readers  @JulesTake3. Despite attending workshops run by The Society of Authors and being tutored by friends, I struggle with the others. Instagram is designed for visuals, so I largely post images of my ceramics and occasionally a book related photo. Facebook has so far defeated me – I’ve recently signed up but seem to see a lot of videos of guinea pigs and exceptionally well-decorated camper vans! Any advice gratefully received!

Luckily I do understand old-tech and my website can be found at www.JuliaStoneWriter.com where you can find information on both my novels, read past blog posts and sign up for my monthly musings on writing and psychology.

Events!

I have been rather overly excited these last few weeks as I have been involved in several literary events.

The first was Bloody Scotland, in Stirling, 15th-18th September. The biggest crime writing event in Scotland, and the biggest I have ever attended. I got to wear one of these for the first time!

It was a whirlwind. I tended to swing between feeling, ‘Yes, I have arrived, this is my tribe’ to feeling small and a fraud. The well known ‘imposter syndrome’. But I got to meet some genuinely lovely people who I hope I will stay in contact with. And my panel went well, ably chaired by Harriet Tyce, with Jane Corry and Trevor Wood either side of me. The audience of about 30 to 40 people were attentive and appreciative.

Then a surprise invitation from Philippa East, to be part of an online panel chewing over the Psychological Secrets of Writing. Along with Philippa chairing and me, there were authors Bev Thomas and Julia Stone who are both working psychologists and psychotherapists. The discussion was far ranging and interesting from my point of view, looking at how our psychology/therapy training and experience interweaves with our writing. It is perhaps not surprising that our novels feature therapists. Some of you will know from my self-published novels a counsellor called Hannah. She will make a triumphant return in my third in the Donna Morris series, No Justice (soon to be delivered to the publisher and out next year).

If you want a listen to the Psychological Secrets of Writing, then this is the link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGmuYBbitKjO2yhfGSR4SgQ

In the same week, I was lucky enough to be invited to do an event at Scarborough library. It was fun to be on my home patch, with people in the audience who I knew. Not all of them were friends and family, though, there were some new readers and I am grateful for that, not to mention the book sales.

And in October, I am making the short journey to York to be part of their Big Read programme.

My event is on Thursday the 20th October, 7pm-8pm. Tickets can be reserved at Explore York or via this link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/drowning-not-waving-with-kate-evans-tickets-403295185757?aff=odcleoeventsincollection&keep_tld=1

I do feel dizzy with it all and that means I have less headspace for the creative stuff. But this week I have to centre myself – walking and swimming will help – in order to complete No Justice and work on proposals for the next three Donna Morris mysteries.

The Psychological Secrets of Writing

Long time subscribers to my blog know that it is very unusual for me to post two weeks in a row, let alone one day after another. But I want to share this exciting news. My interviewee of yesterday, crime writer Philippa East, has invited me onto a virtual panel ‘The Psychological Secrets of Writing’.

Fellow panellists are writers Bev Thomas and Julia Stone, with Philippa hosting. We all have a background in psychology and/or therapy. We will be chatting about the links between psychology and writing, how our day jobs inform our creative work, and how a little expertise in psychology can help with character, plot and engaging with readers. We will also be delighted to answer live questions from the audience.

Details: Monday, 26th September 2022, 7pm-8.30pm. It’s free, but please register (and to find out more information about panellists) – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/psychological-secrets-of-writing-panel-1-tickets-347107928157?utm-campaign=social&utm-content=attendeeshare&utm-medium=discovery&utm-term=listing&utm-source=cp&aff=escb

Hope you can come along!

Author Interview: Philippa East

Today I am delighted to welcome crime writer Philippa East to my blog.

Philippa grew up in Scotland and originally studied Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Oxford. After graduating, she moved to London to train as a Clinical Psychologist and worked in NHS mental health services for over ten years. Philippa now lives in the Lincolnshire countryside with her spouse and cat, and alongside her writing she continues to work as a psychologist and therapist. Her debut novel Little White Lies was long-listed for the Guardian’s “Not-The-Booker” prize and shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger. She has since published two further psychological suspense novels, Safe and Sound and I’ll Never Tell, and is currently working on her fourth. See more at: Amazon/Philippa East

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my fourth psychological suspense novel, currently titled The Hoax… It features a remote Scottish boarding school, a group of troubled teens, the untimely death of a therapist, and two ex-spouses thrown together to investigate. I’m coming towards the end of the first draft right now, which means the hard work of “making it good” starts soon!

What has inspired the novel you have most recently published?
My most recent novel, I’ll Never Tell, had lots of iterations before it fell into its ultimate shape! I think ultimately, it was a combination of two idea kernels. The first was of a couple arriving in a foreign country and having to confront their own marital crises in the process of searching for their missing daughter. I also was fascinated by the question of how a family might function with a child “star” at its centre. And then I thought: what if the child star was the one who had gone missing?

How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
As a crime/thriller writer, I definitely draw a lot of my story ideas from true crime TV shows and podcasts. I think I write to try and understand people and what makes them “tick”, so although I write fiction, I am definitely always trying to make sense of real life, and the people we encounter in it. Sadly, my novel Safe and Sound was inspired by the real-life story of Joyce Vincent, a charismatic, sociable woman in her thirties whose death went unnoticed for nearly three years. Since I wrote and published Safe and Sound, tragically there have been further similar stories in the news.

You are a working clinical psychologist, how does this help or hinder your writing?
I think mostly, it helps it. As therapists, we hear many, many narratives about people’s lives and struggles, and I think this has given me insight into some of the universal themes of the human condition: love, acceptance, belonging, self-esteem and truth. I think it also helps me understand how people generally “tick” – what affects us and how, what motivates or frightens us, and how we relate to other people.

For me, writing is a way to try and understand the world, other people, and myself. I think this drive originally led me into the field of psychology – and now story-telling has become my means to ask and explore those questions. Therapy is so much about empathising with other people – putting yourself in their shoes, with compassion. This is the way I try to relate to my characters too.

How would you describe your writing process?
Um… messy! (Despite being a very organised person generally in life.) I generally will spend a number of months exploring an idea and working it into a rough outline, before I start writing. These days, I steer clear of formal outlines (which tend to lead me down the wrong track) and I just make loose notes in a notebook to steer me along the right story track. I will then do a VERY messy first draft of about 80k words, writing about 2,000 words a day. I don’t edit as I go, and I write in a VERY undisciplined way. I will then usually spend another 2-3 months working through a number of further drafts to sort everything out before showing it to my editor. After which, I’m likely to go through at least another three drafts.

What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
Since becoming a professional author (wow, that’s weird to say!), I’ve learnt to keep a clear separation between my creative processes as a writer, and the business of publishing, promotion, etc. Too much focus on sales, reviews, the market, etc can really create a lot of instability and self-doubt which is fatal to creativity! On a more practical level, I treat writing as a job (which, um, it now is!), meaning I prioritise it and carve out time for it every week. Having author friends to chat to and share ideas with is also essential. As you’ll see from the dedication and acknowledgements for I’ll Never Tell, my fellow authors have been an invaluable source of support along the way.

What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it?
Mainly using Google! With the sorts of books I write, there isn’t usually too much research required, and most things I need to know I can find on the Internet. Occasionally, I will put a shout-out on Twitter for someone who knows about something more niche that I need help with. I generally focus on telling my story first, in the way that works for me, and do my fact-checking later, otherwise I think I would get too restricted by the facts and feel unable to keep the plot going. I have to give a shout-out here to my friend Stuart Gibbon, a retired Police Detective who has helped me hugely to get any police-procedural parts right in my books.

Do you have any crafting tips, eg to do with writing dialogue, for scene setting, plot or pacing?

There are five key craft elements that I would say all writers should aim to grasp, practise and master. These are:
# show vs tell
# point of view (POV)
# psychic distance
# the “five commandments of story telling” (the art of structure)
# story genre (NB: this is different to marketing / publishing genres!)

For the first three (and much more!), I recommend the various blogs that writer and tutor Emma Darwin has on her website here: https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting

Regarding the last two, I highly recommend The Story Grid podcast series. Later episodes are highly technical, so I suggest you start here, and then work your way back and forward through all the early episodes: https://play.acast.com/s/thestorygridpodcast/shawn-rips-it-apart

For fun, I’ve also done some Twitter tutorial of genre and structure, all of which you can find here: https://twitter.com/philippa_east/status/1526255737508356101

You write crime novels which are stand alones. Have you ever thought about writing a series? What do you think are the pros/cons of writing stand alones rather than a series?
I tend to think of my books as standing “one step to the side of a crime”, rather than traditional crime novels. As a result, I’ve tended to write stand-alone books that often focus on interpersonal relationships and the emotional fall-out of extreme events as much as solving a mystery. For me, story-telling is about a character’s journey though challenge, conflict, “death” and “rebirth” (the classic “Hero’s Journey”). For me, the story naturally concludes once the protagonist has completed this cycle of growth. I can imagine that in some ways it is “easier” to write a series, in that you generally have your setting, characters, etc. ready and waiting for you at the start of each book. However, I think I’d feel too “hemmed in”, since I do like the flexibility of being able to explore brand-new characters, themes and set-ups each time – even if it means starting from scratch with each book!

Could you say something of your publishing journey and your experience?
I began writing ‘seriously’ about 12 years ago, with a terrible novel that I never finished or showed anyone, but which made me fall in love with writing. I then wrote short stories for many years, which was a great way to practise my craft and learn what it takes to get published. In 2015, I left my full-time NHS job to work part time as a private psychologist, and began another novel. After slogging through 12 drafts (yes, 12), an agent at the York Festival of Writing showed some interest. She read the full MS and then suggested I re-write the whole thing. The thing is, she was totally right. So I re-wrote it – cue another 12+ drafts! – and (thankfully!) the agent took me. This ultimately became Little White Lies, which subsequently sold at auction to HQ/HarperCollins. Somehow, I have since completed two further novels, and have a fourth in the pipeline!

The question you wished I’d asked you.
Oo, I’m not sure! I’ll take this opportunity to say do come and say hi to me on Twitter (@philippa_east), which is where I’m regularly hanging out. I love chatting to readers, writers and all book-ish people, so I’ll be happy to hear from you. Obviously you can keep updated on my book news there, and I also post about upcoming author events I am doing (online and in person), in case you’d ever like to join in on that. You’ll also get to know my cat Mimi who regularly appears in my posts!

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival 2022

Attending events – especially those where a certain amount of networking and putting myself out there is required – is not without its anxieties. Then Covid added its own peculiar menace to being around people. I have to admit, therefore, it was with some trepidation that I set off for Harrogate and Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival on Saturday.

Luckily this year the sessions were in a large airy marquee and eating and drinking could be done outdoors, which allayed some of the fears. And I was able to meet with a couple of authors who I already knew, so that also helped.

I enjoyed the sessions I attended. ‘Experts Chortling’ brought together some of my favourites: (Baroness) Sue Black and Carla Valentine with psychologist Emma Kavanagh. They were joined by former police detective Graham Bartlett. As well as being a wellspring of interesting information, they were all very funny too.

By the time I got to the book shop Sue Black’s books had sold out. I am not surprised. She manages to make the business of death and the dead fascinating and entertaining without ever losing respect for those who have died. Plus, if you are a newbie crime writer, along with Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd, Black’s books, interviews and documentaries are gold dust.

During the panel, Emma Kavanagh said crime writers were too often drawn to featuring characters traumatised by their pasts. What is more remarkable in reality, Kavanagh suggests, are the number of people who fall apart after trauma, and then show resilience, recovery and growth. It got me wondering where this might fit into a crime story.

The other afternoon session I went to was a discussion of the ‘future of the police procedural’. The panel was: AA Dhand; Jane Casey; Parker Bilal and Adam Lebor. All were clear on the duty of the crime writer to tackle difficult issues in a responsible way. Casey suggested crime authors are the ‘Rapid reaction squad of the literary world’ developing stories around current debates quicker than other writers.

Lebor said (as I have done in the past) that there are far too many young women who end up dead in the crime fiction genre. His series is set in Hungary and has a detective from the gypsy community (apparently ‘gypsy’ is the term used by the peoples themselves in this country). It has plenty of scope for exploring the lives of refugees, as well as the prejudices against the Roma.

They all characterised their protagonists as ‘lone wolfs’, especially AA Dhand’s Harry Virdee who the author likened to a gothic comic book hero (not my taste at all and I realised why I had never taken to his books). With my Donna Morris mysteries, I have gone in the other direction. Donna is definitely not a maverick and she needs the team, just as they need her (though she struggles to properly comprehend this). The relationships between the police officers are something which has been praised by some readers. I hoping the future of the police procedural includes space for a team player.

After paying £4.35 for a cup of tea (yes!!) and spending more than I would care to mention on books, I wended my way home. A shout out to Northern and Transpennine Express whose staff were friendly and whose trains were on time, comfortable, clean and not too busy.

Have any of you some good memories of literary festivals you would like to share?

Do women protagonists have to be nice?

Breaking News….

Saturday 2nd July, 2022, 2pm-3pm, I will be doing a signing at Mrs Lofthouse’s Emporium, Queen Street, Scarborough. Come along for a chat, I would love to see you.

Saturday September 17th, 2022, crime festival Bloody Scotland
10:30am-11:30am, I will be appearing on a panel entitled ‘Secrets and Lies’
https://bloodyscotland.com/ to book tickets.

Thursday 20th October, 2022 part of the Big Read, York
7pm-9pm, I will be interviewed & giving a reading at York Explore
https://exploreyork.org.uk/

Does the reader have to like the protagonist?

I have recently been given some feedback on the first of my Donna Morris novels, A Wake of Crows: the reader enjoyed the novel but didn’t like the main character. Unfortunately, this was passed onto me second hand, so I couldn’t probe further, but it got me thinking – should I be creating a likeable protagonist?

In fact, this question has followed me around for some time. I self-published three crime novels 2013 to 2015 with a main character called Hannah. More than one person told me she was unlikeable. She was going through a hard time and we were inside her head which got pretty dark at times. Yet her experience mirrored mine in many ways. After a friend waxed lyrical about just how unpleasant Hannah was, I did wonder whether they knew me at all or whether I was just very good at dissembling.

In crafting Donna, I made a conscious effort to create her more agreeable. She is not as ‘abrasive’ as Hannah was, Donna is kinder, she is not as intense.

Of course, not every reader is going to like every character. However, I did start considering whether this idea of being likeable or not stems from my protagonist being female? Are male detectives in crime novels expected to be amenable? How about Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Colin Dexter’s Morse and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock. Or even Christie’s Poirot? Though in each case there is a more charming side-kick who is, perhaps, the one readers actually relate to.

There has been a long tradition in crime writing of the detective being flawed in some way. I think Donna is less flawed and generally more genial than some, but maybe she (like many women) just has to be ‘nice’?

Do you have to like the protagonist to enjoy the read?

Midsummer

‘Kate Evans delivers a gripping crime debut
with a truly original policewoman as the central character. Highly Recommended.’
Myles McWeeney, review of A Wake of Crows, Irish Independent, May 7th 2022

The days are getting warmer and brighter. In a week it will be the longest day – midsummer. This always seems to come too early for me. We’ve barely begun to enjoy the season and suddenly we are at the mid point.

I also feel slightly out of kilter when it comes to my novel writing. A Wake of Crows has appeared in paperback and Drowning Not Waving in hardback. The first of DC Donna Morris’s adventures in Scarborough is just garnering some interest – like the review above – and I am already finishing off her third story (yet to be titled). I am on track to deliver this in the Autumn.

I was comforted when I heard Abir Mukherjee on Radio 4’s Bookclub. We were discussing his first novel, while he had already published his fifth, and he quipped that he had almost forgotten the plot of his debut. I am certainly afraid I might muddle up what happened when to whom between the three DC Morris mysteries.

What is also facing me – as the excitement around A Wake of Crows is rising – is a big blank. My contract was for three novels and I have, essentially, completed them. What comes next? I have everything crossed for another contract. But the workings of the publishing world are still something of a mystery to me and this is by no means certain. So maybe this is the end of my ‘being published by a traditional publisher’ trajectory. A brief but magnificent arc, like the traces of a rocket on bonfire night.

In my early twenties, I would attend firework displays put on by a BBC engineer friend of my husband. He boosted his pyrotechnics until it felt like being in the middle of the Big Bang when they went off. How I hope my publishing rocket could be given the propulsion of one of his.

Editing and Rewriting

I would never call writing a hard job. Not hard like working in a shop or a care home. But there are times when it gets tougher, and, for me, this is during the editing and rewriting stage. I am lucky to have useful feedback from my editor and her assistant. I like to get this as early as possible, in case there are any big changes to make and I always advise writers to find trusted readers to give a decent critique.

But writers also have to know where to start with editing their own work. Here are some words of wisdom from Booker winner Hilary Mantel, sent in an e-newsletter by Mslexia on the 17th June 2021. (For women who write, Mslexia is a national magazine of women’s writing.)

‘Don’t try to edit while you are writing. Your first draft is all about energy and unleashing your power. Respect the process of creation and give it space. It’s like planting a seed. You have to water it and watch it emerge and grow before you can prune it into shape.

‘There isn’t any failed writing. There is only writing that is on the way to being successful – because you’re learning all the time. It follows that that nothing you write is ever wasted, and that to become good, and better than good, you need to write a lot.

‘Suspect the judgment of others. What people coming from a different critical context might describe as slowness or failure you need to reframe as patience and a learning process.

‘Harness the power of intuition to free up your story. Many of us learn to write in an academic style, building a logical argument, picking over every line. This can inhibit a novelist. Aim at perfection – but in your final draft.

Photo by Jane Poulton

‘Rules that are valid in the rest of your life are not always valid for your writing. “Try, try and try again” does not always work for the creative process. Sheer bloody persistence won’t necessarily get you where you want to be.

‘Trust that your work will find its natural form – because it will. Our education system fosters habits of mind that knock out the habit of trust in what we create. You need to rediscover that trust.

‘If you are a great reader then you can become a great writer. If you read many novels, and many different kinds of novel, the principles of novel writing will be encoded deep inside you. That’s what I mean by trust. If you are a reader, then you know subconsciously how to tell a story.

‘Be protective of your work and resist the temptation to show it to anyone before you are satisfied with it yourself. When you do show it, make sure it’s to someone who is qualified to make a judgment. People who love you, or who feel threatened by you, will not provide you with the feedback you need.

‘Seek support from the right people. Try to get a professional opinion from someone who doesn’t know you. But always try to balance their feedback with what you know and trust to be true of your work.

‘Have the courage to try something new. If the world doesn’t seem to want your work, then be adaptable and flexible, but don’t compromise your vision or sell yourself short. Timing counts, and your time may come.’

All good advice as you would expect from such a renowned novelist. I do think searching out the right people to give feedback at the right time is crucial. Too early and it’s like stamping on a shoot just as it is coming above ground and too late the bush is already mature and thriving.

Another thing I have found fellow writers struggling with is when to stop editing and rewriting. Personally I like what novelist, Anne Tyler, said on BBC R4’s Desert Island Discs, (20th & 25th February 2022): ‘I revise until I think I will throw up if I read it again.’ Yep, that just about covers it.

Writing a Sense of Place

It was a great boost to my confidence to have a review of A Wake of Crows by Natasha Cooper in the ‘Literary Review’: ‘Well written and without any flashiness, this believable police procedural deals with guilt, vengeance, love, a serial killer with a God complex and redemption. It is quiet, effective and moving.’

And also to be interviewed on BBC Radio York by Bek Homer:

BBC Radio York – Bek Homer, 07/03/2022

All in time for the paperback edition to be released on the 7th of April.

Meanwhile, I am working on novel three, currently titled The Shark’s Mouth. As I was completing the second half of this particular draft, it felt like, having built up the plot like a Jenga tower of clues, I was having to very carefully take it down piece by piece. If I did this too quickly, the tower would collapse into a pile of incredulity.

For weeks I have felt as if I am living inside my novel and the reality is the fiction. Which, to be honest, is easy, given the madness which has overtaken the world.

In all my novels I want to create a strong sense of place. Here are some thoughts on how I do it.

  • I am lucky enough to live in the town I write about. Pretty much every day I take a walk to the sea. As I do so I make a conscious effort to notice with all my senses and, if anything reveals itself to me, I will write it down in my journal.
  • I describe the landscape using very simple language. The kind of language a child might use. And then I go over and over it, interrogating it for more detail.
  • I love to use imagery which dips into metaphor. Sometimes these will occur to me when I am walking and noticing. Other times, they can start out as a cliché or a well worn phrase which I then cross-examine to find something more interesting. For instance, the white crests on waves are often likened to white horses. But what other four legged animal could they be? And so on.

I always strive towards a balance between stark description and more complex imagery.

What tips do you have for writing descriptive passages?