Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Best Non-fiction Books

I am not in line to the throne of the Solomon Islands. Sorry. But between the ages of 13 and 15 I convinced my classmates that I was. (This was, obviously, pre-internet.) It became 'that kooky thing about Joe', alongside my fear of bananas (true) and my ability to hypnotise people (false at the time - I learned later).

So my relationship with the truth is like that between a vulnerable, young hero in a Hitchcock movie and the mysterious stranger who comes to stay, claiming to be an uncle who's been 'travelling' for the last few years. It might start with the thrill of a new friendship but it usually ends in murder.

Well handled truth can become, for me, like any other good story. So I love great non-fiction books. In writing fiction I can make up whatever I like. Non-fiction authors can only deal with what the world has given them, yet some of them still manage to put it all together to create a thriller.

Eventually the world threw up a picture of the people of the Solomon Islands. Someone in my class noticed that I was not black and my regal lineage withered.

Here are my top 8 non-fiction books so far:

The Prize, by Daniel Yergin
It turns out the story of the oil industry is the real story of 20th century - and it's a twist-packed gut-wrencher.

Quantum, by Manjit Kumar
The battles between the greatest brains over the nature of the very tiniest particles in existence. Fascinating, complex and mind-bending stuff made human and relatable.

Agent Zigzag, by Ben Macintrye
If you made this up, you'd be called insane. A dodgy character stumbles into WWII, double-crosses everybody and comes out a hero. Probably.

Rubicon, by Tom Holland
Nobody spills the guts and glory of Ancient Rome like Tom Holland.

Monte Cassino, by Matthew Parker
The drama and heartbreak of the bloodiest battle of WWII.

The Education of a Poker Player, by Herbert O. Yardley
Everything you need to know about poker is everything you need to know about life - whether you play or not.

The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, by Andrea Pitzer
A Russian genius escapes European tyranny (twice), encodes his nation's calamities and his indictment of American society in great novels - but nobody notices until 30 years after he dies. You'll love it.

Stealing the Mystic Lamb, by Noah Charney
400 years of European power-struggles boiled down to a series of audacious art-heists, with a riveting unsolved mystery at its heart.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Writing Exciting Action Thrillers - tips and discussion from twitter chat

Last night I was 'guest host' of a twitter chat all about writing exciting action thrillers for kids. If you're on twitter, take a look at the hashtag #ukmgchat - there's a fresh discussion every couple of weeks (the last Wednesday of the month and the second Wednesday of the month). The 'mg' stands for 'middle grade', which is the American term for the kind of books I write - anything for ages 8 to 13ish.

If you're not on twitter, here are a few of the main things that came up. It was pretty intense trying to hammer out answers in such a short format with no time to think about it before more comments and questions came flying in. So this is all pretty raw, but I'll stand by anything I said...

Do you know how you want an action/fight scene play out before you write it?
-I know what the outcome needs to be & story elements that need to happen. Beyond that is a fair bit of improv then edit.
-Punchy verbs make it easier to FEEL what's happening. Hit the guts harder. Adjectives get in the way.

Obsessed w language. Anglo Saxon better than Latinate, short chunky sound-bitey words?
-Agreed. Balancing word-length, sentence-length & pace/timing is the constant concern when editing action.

Hi Joe. How do you choreograph your fight scenes? Do you act them out?
-I have toys or use pens as people to slo-mo choreograph fights, action etc on my desk. Then I need to write precisely.

Picked up a good tip last night - you can control speed of reading as a minute a sentence level.
-I like to monkey about with that. One model for writing action is the Iliad, for its long similes at unexpected moments, holding back the pay-off til it's almost insufferable.

How gory/visceral can MG action scenes be? About to write a key (medieval) battle scene and not sure how far to go!
-I'm fairly ungory in disposition so I usually go one step beyond my own taste. It's instinct more than rules.
Worth testing on kids of that age. They will invariably tell you to ramp up the gore.
-Not always wise to listen to kids. You are the writer. Do it your way.

What are your favourite thrillers? Best action scenes? What gets your heart pumping??
-My models for action writing are Robert Ludlum and The Iliad.

How do you sustain action in your stories? Do you follow a method or let the characters dictate?
-Story first. Action serves story. Plot all planned out in advance. Sometimes I find unplanned action moments but rarely.

What for you is the most challenging aspect of writing thrillers for kids?
-Main challenge is maintaining a 'real' feel to it when kids are doing crazy action stuff. Could get silly v easily.

Are your books popular with girls and boys? Did you write specifically for one or the other?
-Audience for my books splits about 50/50, girl/boy. I don't consider audience at all while writing.

I don’t write action if I can help it. Usually have tons of characters and it's rock hard keeping track of them all in actiony bits.
-Action with any more than 2/3 characters is tough. Like juggling. I try to separate spatially into discrete scenes.

What is the best advice you can give to other MG writers looking to get published/ represented?
-Ignore trends, just write. Learn to cook well. Only share work as late as possible in the process.

Do you think action scenes are the way to get reluctant readers into books?
-Up to a point. Dull action scenes as bad as dull anything else. What matters: GRIPPING STORY. Tension not action.

How long do you think action scenes should be to keep them exciting?
-1 or 2 exchanges then move on. Or one major reversal. Stop just BEFORE you think it's done. Then cut half of it. Build the structure of action like a mini-story, with acts & climaxes. Sustains tension.

What do you read for inspiration?
-Ludlum, Lawrence Block, Nabokov.

In fight scenes how do you judge how much is too much? And have you ever been told that you got it wrong?
-Helicopter chase in my 1st book was about 10 times longer in 1st draft. I cut & cut & cut til it was good enough.
-In a fight scene, too much = anything more than the minimum. IMPACT more important than length. Boil it down. INTENSITY.
So do you often write more action then you need and cut or does it pan out mostly how you would like it?
-Usually 1st draft has more than I need. I rewrite action scenes & cut a lot in the edits.

Any tips for writing thrillers?
-Thrillers rely on rigorous plotting, clarity of hero's aims & intensity/originality of villain & his/her plans.

Any action no-no's to watch out for? Other than, "Don't confuse the reader."
-Mistaking movement for action, motion for emotion, volume for impact.

There was a lot more, with some recommendations of books to check out as well as tips from other writers getting involved too. If you want the full whack type #ukmgchat into twitter.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Does Playing Make You More Creative? Not If You're Doing It Wrong...

This afternoon I spoke at a conference run by Unilever and the ESRC called:

"Cardboard boxes, storybooks and games: Imaginative play in middle childhood"

It was only a 15 minute presentation, so I thought I'd type up what I said while it was still fresh in my mind. Here it is:

What a treat and a privilege to be here. It's been a fascinating day so far; thank you for letting me play my part.

I write books mainly for the 8-13 crowd. It means I get to play every day - with ideas, stories, possibilities... I also do a lot of work in schools talking about creativity, writing and generating ideas.

I suppose I'm a case study of what happens when instead of a toy or a console you give a child...

...a box.

I grew up with lots of boxes. I think my parents realised pretty quickly that a box is cheaper than a toy. My sisters and I had so many cardboard boxes that we needed a bigger box to put the boxes in, and then that got full so we found the biggest box in the world and put all the boxes into it and we called it the Box Box.

Our other way of playing was to act out stories that we made up as we went along. Epic adventures. Rich and complex worlds in which we would be completely immersed for hours. Thrilling dramas with twists that were later used for a show called 'Game of Thrones'. If you've heard of that, well... that was us.

I saw my role as rearranging the furniture as much as possible. My older sister saw her role as organising me as much as possible. She was very good at it.

We sometimes played with such dedication to realism that we didn't break to go to the loo. There was one Amazon adventure when I really needed to go. But we would never disrupt the world we'd created or the story. So, "It's OK," I said. "Don't worry, Wandering Chieftan. I'll be right back. I'm just going to... make arrows."

That is still the euphemism we use in my family for going to toilet. "Excuse me a moment, I'm going to make arrows," or "It's a long drive - have you made arrows?"

My younger sister had a very special role in the games. Well, one of two roles. She created them both and she chose which character she was going to be in that particular game. On special occasions she combined them. One was 'Yaps the Dog'. That was when she wanted to be a dog. The other was a kidnap victim or some kind of hostage.

Either part could appear at any moment, no matter what the context. We could be digging for stolen space-jewels on Saturn and suddenly: "It's OK, Commander Wandering Chieftan - Yaps the Dog is here!"

Her being taken hostage would always lead to an elaborate, swashbuckling rescue from a cage I built around her. Then when we finally released her from captivity she'd always - every single time - say, "Umm, no not yet. I'm still kidnapped."

By the way, my older sister is now a top business strategist & consultant. An actual, real-life wandering chieftan. She made it. And my younger sister is a hostage.

No, it's OK, she's a writer.

These games - the boxes, the adventures - trained 2 things into me that I rely on every day in any creative projects.

The first is that to create anything you need to be wrong most of the time. You need to seek out new ways to be wrong. Spectacular ways. Pursue them. Explore them. See how wrong you can go.

There was no problem with going on the 'wrong' track with our childhood games because the game - and the fun - would always continue. We could try things out and carry on. There are so many games where you can't do that. If you try something different or go 'wrong', the game ends. Fun over.

I see it in schools too, especially secondary schools. When I'm getting kids to come up with ideas, they have such a strong sense of some contributions being 'right' and some 'wrong'. It stops them saying anything that isn't dull or at least predictable. I've even seen teachers tell certain pupils to put their hands down because it's time for "sensible ideas only please". That's no way to come up with anything. A writer needs to go through a hundred silly, outrageous, ridiculous, unworkable ideas to get to the one gem.

The second tool I developed was this:

Coming up with something out of nothing. The blank slate. Overcoming the inertia of that first creative step - the beginnings of an idea where there was only a void. I will sit at my desk tomorrow and I will turn to the next page in my notebook and it will be blank. I will have to fill it. With something - anything. I will face a blank page every day for the rest of my working life.

Creating something from nothing relies on a muscle that needs training. Very few forms of play develop that. And I don't think schools teach it, either. How often are students given the task, "Write something." - with no guide, or prompt, or framework?

I worry about that dying even in toys. My Lego had no picture on the box of what I was 'supposed' to make. Or if it did, I ignored it. I made whatever I wanted. Or I experimented without knowing what I was making. I went wrong a thousand ways, each one more fun than the last.

I didn't limit myself to the Lego, either. I incorporated blu-tak, string, cutlery and once (only once) my dad's reading glasses. (That was for a yacht. It didn't float.)

And, of course, the box went into Box Box.

The unstructured, unsupervised play was the perfect training for a creative life. And the time to play in that way led directly to me writing my first songs, my first musical and then, eventually, my first book.

Which is why I'm still playing every day. Now go and make up something ridiculous.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Women Getting in the Way or Getting Boys Reading?

Apparently “boys are being deterred from reading because the ‘gatekeepers’ to children’s literature are mostly women.”

At least, that's what a writer called Jonathan Emmett believes. Jonathan Emmett said so in a long piece in the Times all about Jonathan Emmett and what he believes. You can read a summary of what Jonathan Emmett believes here:

I wasn't going to comment on all this, mainly because I think it's beneath comment. But people keep talking about it and now I've been asked directly what I think. (Also, it turns out I'm not beneath commenting on things that should really be beneath comment. So here goes.)

I'm a boy. I've always been a boy. When I was a smaller boy I found it very hard to get into books. I pretty much gave up on books when I was 12. I wish I hadn't, but I did. I'm still a very impatient reader, and perhaps because of that I now write books that are used and marketed for getting boys to read - especially boys who, like I was, are impatient with books or don't think books are for them.

I won't bore you with how a reluctant reader becomes an author, but later in the week I'll do a more general piece about how to get boys reading. For now, does the fact that there are so many women in children's publishing have negative effects on boys' reading? Is Emmett right?

Well, I'm a boy and an impatient reader. Here's how I choose a book:

- I find a MAN. The most macho MAN I can find.
- I ask the MAN what he's reading.
- I do thorough research to check that book has been written, edited, designed, marketed, distributed, sold and reviewed by MEN.
- I beat my chest and read a MAN'S book.
- I raise a glass (of whisky or man-sweat or ox-blood) to Jonathan Emmett.

It's really tough for me, because of all these pesky women in publishing.

If only there were some books that do get boys to read. Oh, like mine. Brilliant. Well done me. So, my books must be the product of a very male environment, right? Well, that's true, I am really very macho. But the agent who first took me on and edited all of my books is a woman. My current agent is a woman. My first readers are my wife and my two sisters. My most helpful sounding board is my mum. My editor is a woman. My front covers are designed by a woman. The booksellers and librarians who know my books and get them into the hands of boys who otherwise wouldn't read are mostly women.

There you go - the team that brings you the Jimmy Coates books is incredibly male (plus all those pesky women).

I seek out expertise, not men. I trust someone's knowledge and experience, not their gender. If an editor wants to remove from a book elements that typically appeal to impatient readers - technical details, daring adventures, appropriate violence - then the editor is just wrong, not wrong because she's female.

Of course, it's more likely that the editor has noticed that stuffing those elements in without serving the story is more likely to switch readers off - male, female, old, young - than get them gripped. Books that grip impatient readers are not watered-down imitations of computer games. Books that grip impatient readers are great stories.

If there is a lack of understanding of what it's like to be an impatient reader and the elements that contribute to a boy being put off reading, that is the problem, not an over-abundance of women. To suggest otherwise is unhelpful, sexist and wrong.
After I gave up on books when I was 12, I rediscovered them when I was 17 thanks to my older sister. For years after that I only read a book she put in my hands. She could pick out books she knew I'd like because she knew me and she understood what stories would grip me. I'll stop short of pointing out that that level of empathy is a typically female trait. Pretend I didn't say that. Because my point is that gender is irrelevant. Understanding is everything.

The only reason I read anything at all now, let alone write, is thanks to the smart, persistent women in my family and a dad who read publicly, almost ostentatiously, with books and newspapers spread out in front of him, some held in place by special devices he invented so he could read more than one thing at a time. More about dads another time. For now, let me finish with a few words about logic:

At Last, A Few Words About Logic
If you see two facts that are vaguely similar in theme you can't assume one causes the other.

Fact A- boys read less than girls
Fact B- there are lost of women in children's publishing

Aha! Fact B must cause Fact A.

Except, the trouble is, Fact A could cause Fact B:

If boys read less than girls this is quite likely to lead to a publishing industry full of women. Because who wants to work in publishing? People who like books.

Or there could be a whole load of other factors involved, which I'll talk about in another post, very soon...

Meanwhile, for a theory about one aspect of boys' reading, here's something I wrote about cover art.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Writing a First Draft, Then Rewriting. A Couple of Examples.

Yesterday I blogged about my writing process. I mentioned first drafts:

"First drafts are awful. But that’s the point. Knowing I can write rubbish allows me to write 2,000 words a day. Then I go back over the first draft and make it good."

After I posted that, I had a great question over on twitter (right here) from Joe Holland (or, as he's known on twitter, @GodfreyVanZoom):

"I know all authors say 1st drafts are bad but is that proper bad or like when the class whizz says they failed a test n get 96%"
My reply (split over two tweets):
"As bad as you need it to be to get it written. It's not even 'good' or 'bad' yet. It's just a slop. It has no standard.
"Some 1st drafts are better than others. The point is that doesn't matter. Good bits get better, bad bits get redone or go."

After that I thought it might illuminating to let you peek at a fragment of a first draft. Then you can see for yourself how bad (or not) it is and how much it changes before the book is finished.

Unfortunately, I don't still have all my first drafts. I often new versions of the book over old ones by accident. But i do still have the first draft of Jimmy Coates: Blackout. Here are the first two paragraphs exactly as they appear on my computer in a file saved on June 20th, 2008:

#Prologue Title#

Four kilometres down, under #not London – the place on the south coast# , in the heart of a UK government supercomputer embedded in a concrete crust fifty metres thick, a new algorithm flickered into life. Instantly, it began worming through the system, a mere twinkle in a constellation of electrical impulses. Imperceptible. And insignificant too, if it weren’t for the fact that at the exact same moment, # kilometres above the earth and at the other end of the UK, a # plane pierced British airspace.

The two events were timed to perfection. The worm wriggled through the computer network exactly as it had been designed to do, creating a tiny corridor in the UK Satellite Surveillance System – a sliver of shadow which the #type of plane# ran through like a fencer’s blade. The precisely pinpointed surveillance blackout had rendered it effectively invisible. It was easily high enough to be clear of the range of conventional, ground-based radar defence systems; its black #kevlar?# panels didn’t even glint in the night.

As you can see, I skip a lot when I'm writing a first draft. If I don't know something, I just leave a # and I carry on. But the image is there. The starting moment of the book. I can see it clearly in my head and the image doesn't change. I've planned the whole story out, remember, so I know exactly what information or what event needs to power its way into my reader's head on the first page. I just don't really know the best way to phrase it all yet.

Fast-forward to November 2008 and the first two paragraphs look a little different. This is how they appear in the final version, as you can read it when you pick up the published book:

The Bodies

Buried four kilometres below ground and embedded in a concrete crust fifty metres thick, one of the UK government’s seven supercomputers was about to be breached. It was housed beneath Menwith Hill Royal Air Force Station in North Yorkshire, but nobody on the base could have any idea the attack was underway. The battle was lost as soon as it began, when a new string of computer code flickered into life.

Instantly, it began worming through the system, a mere twinkle in a constellation of electrical impulses. Imperceptible. Insignificant too, if it hadn’t been for the fact that at the exact same moment, hundreds of kilometres to the North and eleven kilometres above the earth, an Aurora Blackbird SR-91 plane pierced British airspace.

Yes, I've gone back and put in all the tech details about the plane. Yes, the section has a proper title now. Superficial stuff. But I've also tidied up the order of the information. It's tighter, it's slicker, it's more dramatic.

You don't start with a computer code when you can start with breaching a government facility. You don't start with a number when you can start with a word like 'buried'. Looking back at this now, it's very strange for me to have started the book with a sentence using the passive voice ('was about to be breached') rather than a stronger active verb (active = someone did a thing; passive = a thing was done). Usually I go through my drafts making changes the other way: passive to active. But I still like the final version of this opening.

Try another one. Jimmy Coates: Survival starts with a short prologue, which didn't change much at all through all the drafts. But here's the first bit of chapter one, as it is in the first draft, typed on August 16th, 2007:

Chapter One – Slipstream

First it was a light on the dashboard, then a noise in the engine. A tiny ‘clunk’ that you would only notice if you knew what to listen out for. Jimmy knew what to listen for, and he knew it meant trouble. Running out of fuel is inconvenient if you’re driving a car, but if you’re ten thousand metres up in the air in a small plane, it’s usually fatal.
Jimmy didn’t panic. He’d been expecting this for the last three hours. I could land, he thought. At that moment he was somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, so it would be tricky, but he knew he could do it. Even though the Falcon 20 wasn’t designed to go anywhere near water, Jimmy pictured himself splashing down into the waves. A part of his brain was already working out the best angle for the plane to hit the water. He could even feel the muscles in his shoulders warming, preparing for the longest swim of his life.

He gritted his teeth and stared straight ahead out of the cockpit. He knew landing wasn’t an option. He had to reach Europe. Thousands of lives could depend on it. Then came the answer.

Now take a look at the finished version, as I wrote it in January 2008:

Chapter One – Slipstream

First it was a light on the dashboard, then a clunk in the engine. Jimmy had been expecting this for the last three hours. I could ditch the plane in the water, he thought. At that moment he was somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and a part of his brain was already working out the best angle for the Falcon 20 to hit the waves. He could even feel the muscles in his shoulders warming, preparing for the longest swim of his life.

He gritted his teeth and stared straight ahead out of the cockpit. He knew ditching wasn’t an option. He had to reach Europe. Then came the answer.

Just as in Jimmy Coates: Blackout, it's the same scene. I didn't decide to start the book with a different image or a different thing happening. That's because I trust my plan. I know my story works. I like my structure. So all I've done here is rigorously challenge every sentence, every word: does it need to be there? Does it tell my story? If not, it's cut.

Remember, reading these first drafts isn't meant to show you how good or bad a first draft is meant to be. My point is that you don't need to worry about whether it's good or bad at all. It has no standard. It's a starting point. In both these examples there were about 20 different versions of the opening before I settled on something I liked. Nobody ever needed to see any of those versions - not my agent, not my editor, not my wife or my mum. And I only feel able to share them with you now because they're a few years old and the books are out there for you to read if you want them.

I hope this helps answer your question, GodfreyVanZoom. Everyone: let me know your thoughts and send me all your questions. I read all your comments, tweets and emails.

Now back to the first draft I'm working on. And if this post is anything to go by, you might get to see a snippet of this first draft some time in the year 2021...

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been tagged. I can feel it oozing all over me. Not really, it’s actually quite a pleasant feeling. Like being tickled with butter.

SF Said told me about this ‘Writing Process Blog Tour’ and he’s one of my favourite children’s writers, so when he says things I pay attention. (He wrote the extraordinary Varjak Paw books and his new release, Phoenix, looks amazing so check it out.)

He tagged me, so it’s my job to continue the tour. The idea is that every week from now until the internet burns up in a fight to the death against the aliens, a writer posts on a blog the answers to the same four questions. You’ll find out what they are in a minute.

SF Said’s answers from last week are here:

And my answers are about to scroll in front of your eyes…

What are you working on?
A thriller. An epic, gut-busting, nerve-shredding, eye-widening, sphincter-pinching thriller. It’s going to be the first full-length thriller I’ve written that isn’t about Jimmy Coates. At the moment I’m considering whether a couple of NJ7 agents are going to appear in it just so there’s some kind of continuity across the different worlds I’m writing in. Or I might decide that’s too confusing.

I’m about a third of the way through the first draft. Or perhaps I’m closer to half-way. It’s hard to tell. I’m about a third of the way through my story plan but about half-way through my expected word-count. And if you think that’s a problem, it isn’t, OK? It just isn’t. IT REALLY ISN’T. Hush now.

All I can tell you about this new book is that it’s about a ninja. And that it’s basically awesome.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Easy. Mine are better. I know they probably aren’t really, but before I start writing a book I have to believe that. I have to think it’s going to be better than anything else out there, or what’s the point in doing it? Aim high. Fail big.

Actually, I think I’m trying to do things in a slightly different way to other action-thrillers. I don’t get a kick out of bigger explosions or more over-the-top set-pieces. I prefer tension. So a small piece of action or a turning point for a character can actually be much more exciting than, say, a spaceship blowing up. That’s the challenge I like: to get a reader breathless and on the edge of his or her seat simply because of the twists in the story, not because of a series of big bangs.

One other big difference between my books and other action-thrillers is that my books have a much bigger female readership than most.

Possibly unrelated to that, or not, is that I set out to write better women than there are in any other action-thriller books. Apart from Jimmy Coates himself, every significant character in the series is female. Jimmy is just a mechanism through which the lives of many different, contrasting women and girls come into conflict with each other. Each of them grows, changes, wins or loses in different ways. I don’t think you could point to any other series of action-thrillers and say, ‘That has a male main character, but it’s really all about the women.’ Sadly, you have to keep that quiet because the ‘wisdom’ of the publishing industry (which is completely wrong) is that if a book features female characters, boys won’t read it.

Why do you write what you do?
I started writing action thrillers because I love the form of a story with mystery and twists. It’s the clever construction that I enjoy – as a reader, a watcher of movies, or as a writer. Twists give a special kind of satisfaction. A good one should feel shocking yet at the same time inevitable. Like you can’t believe it, but at you also know it absolutely had to happen that way. A great reveal, a powerful turning point – that’s why I keep writing.

I do have plans to write in other genres but I think I will always love a great twist.

Continuing to write thrillers for now is not really an artistic decision. It’s a commercial one. While I have an audience for thrillers, it would be silly to suddenly switch to something else. If I can write something that will grip anybody who’s enjoyed my Jimmy Coates books, then for the time being I’m going to do that. After this, I’d like to write more screenplays, some funny books and books for grown-ups.

How does your writing process work?
It doesn’t really 'work'. It just is.

I allow myself about two months to plan. I do most of my planning by hand, in notebooks. It involves brainstorming, charts, diagrams, doodles and a lot of scribbling. Eventually I’ll have a rough idea of what’s going to happen in the story, in order. I’ll either type up that running order into a scene-by-scene list on my computer or I’ll transfer it to a series of index cards – one scene per card. Then I play about with the plot some more, on the computer or on a big pinboard where I can stick the cards.

Planning Jimmy Coates: Blackout started like this:

Once I think I have the plot sorted, I pitch the whole thing to my wife. I ask her for ten minutes and I tell her the story. If you can’t tell a story in ten minutes it isn’t worth telling. From her reaction I know exactly which bits of the plot work and which bits don’t. She often has questions that help me sort out a lot of kinks. Or I need to throw the lot out and start again. It’s good to know that kind of thing before you actually start writing the book.

Once the plot is sorted I start writing. I aim to write 2,000 words a day until my first draft is finished. I used to do all of this on the computer, but these days I write a lot by hand, again, in notebooks. Switching between the two can also be a really good way of keeping the process fresh. The shift in feel and perspective helps give me a boost if I feel stuck.

Writing Jimmy Coates: Blackout longhand looked a bit like this:

Nobody will ever see my first draft. First drafts are awful. But that’s the point. Knowing I can write rubbish allows me to write 2,000 words a day. Then I go back over the first draft and make it good. That takes roughly another two months, but it varies from book to book.

I don’t write much in the morning. I usually read or watch a movie. I start thinking about proper work after lunch, or after tea, or after dinner. It’s a meal-based work-schedule. I usually write until 2 or 3am. On a really good day I can write 2,000 words in an hour. Most days it takes a lot longer, though I don’t really know why. Often I’ll write the first 1,000 words in half an hour then need a break. Then I’ll spend perhaps 2, 3, 4 or even 5 hours grinding out the rest of the day’s work.

The whole process involves a lot of agony. Every few weeks there is a moment of joy. Then it’s gone and I’m back to the agony.

The agony is worth it to end up with something that looks like this:

The planning stage is probably the most fun because I enjoy the bits that feel like solving a huge puzzle. The rewriting is also OK because at least by then you’ve actually written the story down from beginning to end without any breaks. That’s a major achievement. The exciting thing about rewriting is that at the end of every day your book is better than it was that morning. But rewriting would also be the worst time to die. I always worry about that while I’m still rewriting – “The book isn’t as good as it can be yet! But people will think I was finished! And I’M NOT FINISHED!”

And as for this blog… NOW I’m finished.

So. My turn to tag somebody. Actually, I’m tagging two people. On Monday next week they’ll both be answering this same set of questions. Check them out…

First there's young talent Lauriane Povey.

She'll put her answers on her blog which is here:
On twitter, she’s @laurianeteresa and her latest book looks like this:

And then there's the rather brilliant Rachel Hamilton:

Rachel Hamilton studied at Oxford and Cambridge and has put her education to good use working in an ad agency, a comprehensive school, a building site and a men's prison. Her interests are books, films, stand-up comedy and cake, and she loves to make people laugh, especially when it's intentional rather than accidental. The Case of the Exploding Loo is her first novel, and she is currently working on a second.
Her website is and you can find her on Twitter as @RachelLHamilton and Facebook as RachelHamiltonAuthor.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Tips For Writing Action

I've just been writing a fight sequence in the book I'm working on. Over ten years of writing action scenes in Jimmy Coates thrillers, I've noticed a couple of tools I rely on to help me, and a couple of huge WATCH-OUT rules that I don't think any writer should ever, ever break. Those biggies are at the bottom. First, the tools:

Be clear
If you're writing any kind of fight or chase, get hold of little action figures or toys so you can carefully and slowly choreograph the sequence on your desk. The excitement of a scene is instantly destroyed if your reader is confused about how a character's arm got from round his enemy's neck to punching him in the liver without the necessary physical transition. Block out every move in the sequence like the director of a dance show and you'll avoid asking your characters to bend over backwards or suddenly sprout extra limbs.

Be brief
Once you've choreographed your sequence, cut half of it. Then cut half of it again. Reduce every fight or chase to its essence. You want maximum impact, minimum space on the page. For every twenty moves you'd see in a fight on film, write one. But make it count. In my first draft of my first book, Jimmy Coates: Killer, the helicopter chase was twenty pages long. In the final version, it's four pages. But because it's shorter it's more thrilling, it's more memorable. It should feel like it takes up more of the book than it actually does.

Be specific
Jimmy does not punch people. The knuckles of the first two fingers on Jimmy's right hand connect with his enemy's clavicle. For example. Get a diagram of the human anatomy and work out precisely the bones and ligaments that are crunching or grinding or twisting and how. Be specific not just position and action but with degree - how hard is someone hitting? How fast is someone moving? The common adjectives are too loose. Better to cut adjectives altogether and use stronger verbs. Even better, show the effects of a blow and you don't need to explain how hard it was. Show how the character feels the speed and you don't need to say it's fast.

Be vague
Sometimes you want to project the mess or speed of a fight or get across that so much is happening so fast nobody can keep up.  That's when you need to step back and let the reader fill in the gaps. Don't itemise every blow with the detail you would if you were being specific. This works well towards the end of a book when the reader has already imagined enough specifics to be able to know the detail instinctively when you only suggest an outline. So switch to overall dynamics. You'll need to rely a little more on metaphor and simile to make it work. This might not make much sense without an example, so here's a fight between two young would-be assassins near the end of Jimmy Coates: Power...

The two boys swung round each other like Olympic gymnasts on monkey bars. They traded blows with such pace that the noise of each strike echoed into the next. It sounded like rapid drumming. Jimmy let his mind drown completely in his programming. He wheeled his legs round, throwing himself in complete rotations to spin and kick again. At the same time he blocked Mitchell’s attacks with alternate hands – while his right defended against a savage kick, his left held on to the strut above his head, then viceversa.

Eventually, actions merged together. The fight became a blur in Jimmy’s head. He felt like he was in a trance, with a red haze seeping from his centre out towards the tips of his limbs. It was the feeling of murder. He knew Mitchell felt it too, and the longer the fight went on the hotter it burned.

Be different
We've all seen a fast car crash into a market stall. We've seen a lot of fights in movies. Do better. When the movie Bad Day at Black Rock came out in 1955, very few people knew about karate. The fight sequences in that film are short and powerful. A one-armed man has a skill he learned fighting the war in Japan and the result is utterly gripping, even now. It's even more exciting if you imagine never having seen karate before. So do some research. Find something that thrills you. If you find yourself writing a cliché, make a note to come back to it later and tweak it out of existence.

Play with time
A fight or chase shouldn't take the same amount of time to read as it would take to happen in real life. You can accelerate when you want to (especially if you're being 'vague', as above) or you can slow things right down and indulge in the right simile, the right bone hitting the right soft tissue, the maximum impact for a single action that would otherwise be lightning fast (especially if you're being specific, as above). Your job is to create a fight in the reader's head, not to commentate on the fight in your head.

Finally, remember: every single line of every fight or chase should tell the story. If it doesn't, an action sequence will feel kinetic but stagnant. Do not mistake movement for action. Do not mistake motion for emotion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Writing tip from Aristotle

"We are what we repeatedly do. So excellence is not an act, but a habit."

And so to be a writer, write.

(I don't think that includes tweeting.)