Thursday, 22 October 2015

7 Building Blocks for Suspense

Here's another blog post from my now defunct Magic Beans blog which feels kind of relelvant to me at the moment. If you're trying to write suspense, perhaps you might find it useful too...

Readers will be drawn to your writing for all sorts of reasons, but one of the ways to keep them there is to build suspense. Keep them turning the pages of your book, whatever the genre, and you will have a happy reader. 

Tinkerbell had found the perfect
place to hide...
1. Show us your protagonist’s weakness
Maybe she has a major character flaw, a debilitating phobia, or a secret from her past. Show us her flash of violent anger, her frozen fear of heights, or that humiliating moment of past failure, at the beginning of the story and build up to the moment when it is exposed to others. As readers, we will know the moment is coming; we will empathise with your protagonist and dread the moment as much as she does. Chances are, we will all be biting our nails in expectation.

2. Make the Wicked Witch really wicked
You know we should fall in love with your protagonist don’t you? Well, one way of nudging that along a bit further is to pull out all the stops and make your antagonist really nasty.

and Monty thought he was safe too...
3. Think the worst
What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character? Go on, make it happen. They’re going to have to deal with some pretty tough obstacles anyway, so why not make them tougher? Problems to be overcome are what stories are about, after all. Without conflict there is no plot, and no plot = no suspense.

4. Show us the danger
For your reader to understand the gravity of a dangerous situation, you may have to show us exactly how real the danger is by hurting another character first. This gives us the chance to feel the fear and anticipate the worst, and of course also allows for tremendous relief when the danger has passed.

But Buster had a new trick that
neither of them knew about...
5. Up the stakes
If you’re going to build tension, you’re going to have to keep upping the stakes, creating bigger and bigger obstacles for your protagonist to overcome, until you reach one so big there’s no way they are going to escape. (Except of course they will. That’s the point.)

6. Go against the clock
Set a deadline - a time, a day, a week… something specific. That way your reader will know exactly when the dramatic climax is upon them and they will feel a real sense of urgency.

7. Employ the unexpected...
...but don't rely on it. While you might be tempted to let your characters do something unexpected, if you do it too much, you risk losing your reader. Suspense is about what might happen and involving your reader in the build up to that event is crucial.  

Friday, 9 October 2015


I’m always intrigued by how much of an author we see in their stories, and when I read Headline Murder – an absolute corker of a book – I couldn’t help but want to know a little more about Peter Bartram. 

In Headline Murder, Colin Crampton, newspaper reporter at The Brighton Evening Chronicle is desperate for a scoop and finds one when Arnold Trumper, the proprietor of the Krazy Kat golf course, goes missing. In the course of his investigations Crampton uncovers all sorts of shady dealings, discovers a dead body, meets some very dodgy characters, falls in love with Aussie traveller on walkabout Shirley Goldsmith, and finds himself in grave danger. But nothing will stop Colin from getting that all important story...

I loved everything about this book. It is a fast paced mystery, superbly plotted and kept me guessing right until the end. Despite the murders, it is light hearted, easy to read, and perfect escapism. Sixties atmosphere oozes from the pages to enrich the whole reading experience.

But for me, the best thing about this book is Colin Crampton himself; he is extremely likeable with lots of sharp, funny banter, and a good heart; if I was Shirley, I’d definitely give up my walkabout for him.

So, knowing that Peter has spent a lifetime in journalism, the obvious first question is, are you Peter Bartram basically Colin Crampton?

Peter Bartram in Brighton
Peter: Perhaps I’m a bit of a frustrated Colin. I think every good journalist lives for chasing a story - and that’s what Colin does and what I’ve spent most of my own career as a journalist doing. But I’ve never been a crime reporter - although I have covered crime stories. And, unlike Colin, I’m sadly not 28 anymore! I’ve known a lot of good journalists over the years and there are bits of the best ones in Colin.

Wendy: How did your own experience as a journalist influence Colin’s character and behaviour? Are you, for example, a frustrated sleuth?

Peter: One thing that drives most reporters is a desire to find out things that people very often don’t want to tell you. A colleague once said to me that he thought a journalist needed a “low bred curiosity”. I think he had a point. So, in that sense, sleuthing is as much part of a journalist’s life as a detective’s.

Wendy: How did you make the transition from journalism and article writing to story writing? Was it something which came naturally to you?

Peter: I had written a few short stories and a radio play before I attempted my first full length novel. I’d also spent a year writing a weekly serial for a newspaper - it was about the adventures of two hopeless businessmen who were trying to make their company a success. Then I had what I thought was a good idea for a crime novel and wrote 108,000 words. But when I’d finished it, I realised the whole thing was a mess and needed a complete rewrite. So I put it to one side and had a deeper think about what I needed to do to produce something that would appeal to a publisher. In terms of making the transition from journalism to crime writing, I think that was reasonably easy because journalism teaches you to get on and write to meet a deadline. You don’t have time to sit around fretting about writers’ block. That habit of writing daily is useful when you’re writing a 70,000-80,000 word novel.

Wendy: Headline Murder is absolutely bursting with plot. I loved the intrigue and thought it was very accomplished to keep the pace going whilst dealing with quite a complex plot. I’m guessing you must do a lot of planning. What’s your writing process?

Peter: When I wrote the 108,000 abandoned book, I just started with an idea and made it up as I went along. That’s why it ended up as a complete mess. Crime fiction needs to be intricately plotted - everything needs to be properly “clued”. You can’t have things happening later in the book that come out of nowhere. You have to give the reader the chance to spot it coming - and hope that they’ll miss the clue and be surprised when it happens. So after I had the original idea, I carefully plotted the whole book in 68 scenes before I started writing. Some of these scenes changed a little when I came to write them. But having a clear plan meant that I could concentrate on the writing and making each scene entertaining without worrying about where the plot was going next.

Wendy: As mentioned earlier, Colin is gorgeous! He’s so funny and sharp and quite a charmer too. But what came first – the plot or the character?

Peter: The character. I wanted to write a series of crime mysteries around the same character and I spent ages agonising over how to make a detective sound original. It seemed that everything, but everything, had been done. And then I realised the answer was staring me in the face. I was a journalist - my protagonist would be a journalist. He would be a crime reporter who had to solve crimes in order to get his front-page scoops.

Wendy: The nostalgia element of Headline Murder is a huge part of the enjoyment of this book. How much of this did you have to research?

Peter: The books are set in the 1960s. There are two reasons for that. The first is that the 1960s is one of only two decades in history that has a name with capital letters - the Swinging Sixties. (The other is the Roaring Twenties.) The second is that (showing my age!) I started my career in journalism in the 1960s and so I knew what newspaper offices were like in those days. Very different from today - not a computer in sight. You can recreate an era by doing a lot of research - but the best research is actually having been there and done the kind of things you’re writing about. But I do research to fill in some of the detailed stuff.

Wendy: It’s hard to imagine how this story would have played out in 2015 – modern technology, mobile phones, and internet archives would all have scuppered some of your lovely scenes and cliffhangers. Do you think modern crime novels suffer because of this?

Peter: I’ve certainly read modern crime novels where the latest technology is central to the plot or used to create tension. But when you’re writing about a different age, the problems posed by, for example, having to rely on newspaper cuttings rather than looking things up on the internet create all kinds of new plot opportunities.

Wendy: Telephone boxes or mobile phones?

Peter: Mobile phones and tablets have transformed journalism. But there was a sort of raw excitement when we had to find a telephone and then dictate our story live over the line from our shorthand notes to a copy taker at a typewriter at the other end.

Wendy: MGB or the 2015 Ferrari LaFerrari?

Peter: It has to be the MGB. When I was Colin’s age, I had a white one - so it seemed only fair to bequeath it to him in fictional life!

Wendy: Chocolate éclairs (with real artificial cream) or Krispy Kremes?

Peter: A chocolate éclair - definitely with real real cream!

Wendy:  Will we see Colin Crampton in action again?

Peter: Yes. He’ll be back in 2016. Colin gets into all kinds of trouble when he investigates the strange theft of a What the Butler Saw machine from Brighton’s Palace Pier.

Wendy: ...And I can't wait for that!

To find out more about Peter, visit his website
Connect with Peter on Facebook
To meet Colin Crampton, visit his website
Buy Headline Murder

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

I’ve gone over to the dark side

I’ve had to have a break from my writing; from my life. Personal reasons.

Feels like I lost myself over the last few weeks while dealing with these other issues, but I’m ready to find me again. I’ve had a story gestating in my head while I’ve been out of action and now, raring to go, I realise that this new story is perhaps more complete than is usual for me at the pen-poised stage. With this in mind, I’m going to try some proper planning.

“Nooo! Don’t do it!” screams the rebel voice in my head.

“But I have to; I need to,” I argue. “Splurging was all right for a novice, but I know what I’m doing now”  ...ahem... “and I haven’t got time for the inevitable rewrites involved in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along method.”

“Yes, but the story is ready to go,” reasons impatient Rebel. "What planning could you possibly need to do?”

I give that some thought. And while I’m thinking, a subliminal suggestion is planted in my brain by another (currently more successful and utterly brilliant) writer friend. Download Scrivener, she suggests. So I do.

I spend thirty minutes getting to grips with how it works (the recommended tutorial is two hours; torture for Mrs Impatient) and then I type my synopsis into the page.

This is when I realise there is still a lot of research to do, and a lot of ideas to amass. I need to know ‘stuff’; like, lots of stuff because this book is going to be very deep and meaningful. I'm thinking Man Booker, Pullitzer... that kind of thing. I'm thinking location location location (for the movie rights) and of course, I need to get properly acquainted with my characters. I want to eavesdrop on their conversations and find out how they feel, what they think, what their unusual but adorable quirky habits might be; I need to know what they want to do with their lives. 

(If I'm honest, this isn't very far from what I do normally. Except that normally I have a jumble of files, spread across my desktop and tend to forget what, when, who, how and where everything is.)

And I need to road test a few of the important scenes...

“What? Writing out of sequence? Have you completely lost the plot?” screams Rebel...

And that’s when it hits me. “No!” I answer. “Far from it. I have discovered the plot! I am liberated from writing in the metaphorical dark.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Scrivener is just an organising tool. You are a creative; you don’t need to be organised...”

I turn back to Scrivener, import some links, videos, pictures; make some notes, play with the order of chapters, admire the cork board... 

Rebel is losing the argument. 

Three days in, and I’m creating files right, left, and centre; finding ways to make sense of my writing preambles, my research, my ideas. And I'm writing too - yer actual story. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place.

Suddenly I realise, I am utterly lost to the Splurge method. Planning has gained a convert.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The Girl Who Broke the Rules, Blog Tour

Today I welcome back Marnie Riches, author of The George Mckenzie series
Marnie Riches
Having read both of Marnie's books I was delighted to be included in her blog tour, and chose to ask her somesearching questions; about her writing, her characters, and what's next for George McKenzie. 

Wendy: Why did you choose the porn industry as a setting for your story? And why the emphasis on desire, sexuality and sexual violence?
Marnie: When I was a final year student, although I was doing a degree in languages, I was allowed to “borrow” a paper from the Social Sciences faculty. I chose “Women in Society”, and violent, hard-core pornography was one of the topics that I opted to study. I had intended to embark on a PhD on pornography, but for a variety of ill-thought out reasons, ended up taking a job instead and joining an indie rock band. Decades later, when I was writing The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, I realised that my interest in gender differences, the nature of desire and sexuality had found its way into my story. In The Girl Who Broke the Rules, I already knew I wanted George to train to be a criminologist, so having her do the PhD I had aspired to do and having the story tackle the darker side of desire seemed like a logical next step.

Wendy: I’m going to ask you a question George asks Dermot Robinson here, ‘Do you think erotica inspires men to commit sexually violent crimes against women?’
Marnie: In terms of vanilla or hard-core erotica, absolutely not. In terms of violent porn, still my answer is no, I don’t. And in fact, in the course of my research, I came across an interesting study that had been conducted in the Czech Republic, where pornography had been banned during Soviet Rule. When the ban was lifted, all porn was allowed – no restrictions on child pornography or violent, hard-core pornography. The incidence of sexually violent crimes being committed actually went down once the ban was lifted! So for me, that is proof that there is no causal link between pornographic content and crime. However, I do think that violent hard-core pornography reinforces the idea that women are passive, sexual objects and second class citizens. We still have enough sexual inequality in the first world! We really don’t need to invite more. So, normal erotica is a normal, healthy part of adult sexuality, in my opinion. But violent images in pornography politically feels like a backwards step to me. I’m not in favour of censoring adults’ fantasies about other adults, but published material where profit is made should not shirk a sense of responsibility to 50% of the population!

Wendy: Georgina Mackenzie has a very difficult relationship with her mother. Your other characters don’t fare much better with theirs. Why are dysfunctional familial relationships a theme?
Marnie: When I observe people – especially Northern Europeans – I often see a veneer of harmony and calm masking something fraught just beneath the surface. The stiff upper lip that the British are famous for is just a euphemism for suffering in silence! In my family, however, we’re all of shouty, dramatic immigrant stock. Our dysfunction is laid bare. An only child to a single parent - like George and Letitia - my mother and I argue frequently, though we do get over it and are close. My mother is not Letitia! Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that family dynamics I see around me have inspired George’s toxic relationship with her mother. Never underestimate the manipulative abilities of parents! I don’t want to read about happy, balanced characters. There’s no drama in it for me. I want to explore how mean people can be to those they love the most. Why is George so abrasive? Why does van den Bergen suffer from health anxiety? What has made them the people they are? More often than not, childhood trauma is at the root of adult foibles.

Wendy: Van den Bergen surprised me in this story. He seemed more vulnerable than in The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die. Was this intentional?
Marnie: When you’re writing a series, you’re in a position to give your main protagonists real depth, giving them even more backstory and peeling the layers of their innermost thoughts away to show what lies beneath. I knew in The Girl Who Broke the Rules that I wanted van den Bergen to play a more central role, to give the series some balance. I’m not a huge fan of the two-dimensional Alpha Male who sucker punches his way through a thriller, never giving much thought to his mission other than to get the bad guy and shag the girl. I like to defy gender stereotypes, so although van den Bergen is a successful Chief Inspector and no pushover, I wanted to reveal a more thoughtful side to this artistic, serial-killer-catching misanthrope.

Wendy: Silas Holm is really creepy. How do you think he compares to other crime fiction baddies?
Marnie: I love Silas Holm! He took me by surprise and wasn’t in my original synopsis for the novel at all. I confess, Holm is me, tipping the wink to Hannibal Lecter, although in Silas’ case, he is an anaesthetist with a fetish for amputees, rather than a psychologist with a thing for cannibalism. Anyway, I couldn’t find a name to rhyme with Amputee or Pervert. I suppose I could have had Herbert the Pervert, but he wouldn’t have fitted in a serious story about evisceration and trans-national trafficking. The real baddie-star of The Girl Who Broke the Rules is The Butcher, of course, but if I talk about that, I’ll be spoiling the surprise!

Wendy: There is a huge attention to detail in your story and I imagine you must have spent a long time researching. How much of your research inspires what you write, and how much of what you write inspires what you research? Chicken and Egg question.
Marnie: I spend a month, full time, researching each book and do bits in between as and when gaps in my knowledge arise. The Girl Who Broke the Rules is, in many ways, a medical thriller, so I had to do a mountain of research into the technicalities of The Butcher’s modus operandi. It was the research that gave me the idea to include an endocrinology subplot. I fell in love with the phrase, “catecholamine storm” and ended up doing a pile of reading that spun its own mini-story! Interviewing real life criminologists to help me flesh out George’s working practices generated little flourishes in the story too, but the biggest inspiration came from research I did twelve months ago on trafficking, when I was putting the synopsis for this book together. Coupled with news stories I saw in the media, I couldn’t fail but to be creatively stimulated by the horrors reported there. I write about crime, after all!

Wendy: Did the research upset you? (Did you actually sleep at night?)
Marnie: No. I found the research thought-provoking. I have a strong sense of social justice and thought I’d raise awareness of the problem through my writing. And yes, I sleep like the dead at night, but that’s because I cram an awful lot into the day and get up very early. My brain doesn’t have the space for nocturnal upset!

Wendy: I read an article about women being hard-wired to love thrillers because our brains are more attuned to working things out, our lives are generally more complicated, and we are natural problem solvers. Who are you thinking about when you are writing? Women, or men?
Marnie: I don’t write for male or female readers. I put together the book that I would want to read, telling a story that would interest me. Other than that, I have my agent in mind as my principal reader. He’s the one who sells the series to publishers worldwide, so he’s as invested in its success as me. Plus, he has Pulitzer Prize winners and Man Booker types on his list, so I need to write something really clever that will pass muster with him!

Wendy: Your plotting is a thing of beauty. We are constantly transported from the mind of one character to another and from one plot strand to another. It’s very complex and must require a huge amount of planning. How do you keep on top of everything?
Marnie: I begin with a two page synopsis, telling the story from start to finish and introducing the main characters. Then, I write the first draft, ensuring I have my high points in the correct places. But once finished, I go back and re-plot the entire thing, moving the sections and chapters around so that there’s balance and good flow. I write in distinct scenes from different characters’ POVs, which makes shuffling easy. I make notes – especially towards the end, so that I remember to tie up every loose thread I had intended to tie up!

Wendy: What can we expect next from George Mackenzie? ...
Marnie: The Girl WhoWalked in the Shadows is out soon. I’m currently writing the final scenes, which is FUN! It’s another fast-paced but dark tale that continues themes from the previous George stories. This time, Europe is in the grip of an Arctic deep freeze. There’s a killer on the loose called Jack Frost, who plugs his victims with dagger-sharp icicles, leaving no damning forensic evidence behind. But wait! What has happened to Van den Bergen and how does George get roped into this hunt for a serial-killer? Flashbacks to the abduction of two Dutch toddlers – one of van den Bergen’s cold cases - bring another gripping, heart-rending dimension to an intricate puzzle that only George can solve.

Continue the discussion with Marnie on Twitter
Read my reviews of Marnie's books here, and here, and take a look at her guest blog for me here.
And if you still want to know more, take a look at Marnie's website.

Thank you, Marnie .

Thursday, 27 August 2015

An unexpected gift from my mum

My mum died in 1997. She was 66, and far too young to go. I had three young children at the time and although she was everything a grandma is meant to be – supportive, loving, kind, and fun – family life left little time for us to just sit and chat, about her.

Our shared history meant I knew who she was anyway; she loved books, and reading, and telling stories to her grandchildren. She had a great imagination and a wonderful sense of humour. She trained at RADA to be an actor, then went into teaching and used her training to produce wonderful plays in the school where she worked. Her imagination was always at work – as a mum, a teacher, a friend.

My mum's actual
That’s the mum I knew. What else did I need to know?

Eighteen years later, I’ve discovered something else; something I wish I’d known back then. My mum wrote stories.

In the process of clearing out the family home recently, in amongst the piles of paper and drawers full of memories, I discovered pages and pages of my mum’s handwriting; the beginnings of two stories, very Alan Bennett in style and humour, but my mum’s voice is loud. Her words reveal so much: her sense of humour, her love of people, her insight into why people behave as they do, and a little bit of mystery. It is all typically Mum, and yet I had no idea she wrote anything like this.

I'd have liked the chance to sit down with her and discuss writing. I'd have liked the chance to share our stories with each other. I'd have liked to have got to know her as a writer. But instead, I have her stories...or at least, the opening scenes of her stories. And short of channelling my mum in a bid for some kind of spiritual intervention, I will never find out what happens next.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Girl Who Broke the Rules - a review!

The Girl Who Broke the Rules is the second stunning thriller from Marnie Riches.
I was delighted and horrified by this book in equal measure. Delighted by the complex patchwork of unwholesome characters, the constantly shifting point of view, the level of knowledge and incredible attention to detail; horrified by the violent images, the treatment of women and children, and the perverse sexuality. 
Yet it was both delight and horror which kept me reading to the end because I just had to find out how this hideous situation would be resolved.
Most of the characters are flawed – and by that I don’t mean they are badly drawn; quite the opposite. We couldn’t loathe them if they weren’t so real. We couldn’t feel for them, gasp at the horrors of their lives, or notice the shreds of their humanity. The situations they find themselves in are shocking, horrible, and compelling. George Mackenzie, the heroine, isn’t especially likeable, but she’s gutsy and determined and steers us bravely through the darkness to the light at the end of the tunnel.
But it is only a light. Whilst this particular crime may be solved, the ending is not completely sewn up and if we want to find out what happens next, The Girl Who Walked in the Shadows is out in 2016.
The Girl Who Broke the Rules is a dark and daring page-turner, and if you like that kind of thing, I highly recommend it. 

I'll be interviewing Marnie on the 2nd September, so do come back then to find out what she has to say about The Girl Who Broke the Rules, her intriguing characters, and what we can expect next.

Friday, 7 August 2015


Okay – so not everyone can afford to have Ellen Degeneres read their book out loud, but there’s a lesson here. If you read your work aloud, you’ll see (and hear) all sorts of potential problems you couldn’t find otherwise.

Reading out loud forces you to read every single word; when reading silently to yourself, there will be words, sentences and even whole paragraphs you skip over. You might not even realise you are doing it, but you will.

When reading aloud you will (in no particular order):

  • pick up on the natural rhythms, language, speech, sense of time and place and so on
  • get a sense of what feels right and wrong, much more readily than if you keep the words to yourself
  • notice the words you overuse
  • become acutely aware of clumsy expressions
  • know which sentences are too long when you run out of breath before you get to the end
  • have a more immediate feel for the pacing, either because it moves too fast or too slow, with not enough beats for you to take a moment’s rest from the plot
  • notice problems with your characters (eg, are they distinguishable from one another?) 
  • notice information dumps; the places where you do too much telling and not enough showing
  • feel bored if there are no, or too few, variations in tension
  • know if you really like and identify with your protagonist, over and above your minor characters
  • notice if major plot points are not given enough prominence
  • know if you have tied up loose ends

This is not a comprehensive list, by any means, but it should give you a better sense of what you are looking for, and hopefully convince you that reading out loud is a good thing. 

Of course, you might not find any problems with your manuscript and feel that the whole experience of reading aloud was a waste of time… maybe that's what EL James thought too...

Sunday, 26 July 2015

One of those Ta-Daaa moments...

...and I’m so excited to be part of it.

"Part of what?" I hear you say.

"Why, the cover reveal for Marnie Riches new pulse-pounding thriller – The Girl Who Broke the Rules – of course!"

When the mutilated bodies of two sex-workers are found in Amsterdam, Chief Inspector van den Bergen must find a brutal murderer before the red-light-district erupts into panic.

Georgina McKenzie is conducting research into pornography among the UK’s most violent sex-offenders but once van den Bergen calls on her criminology expertise, she is only too happy to come running.

The rising death toll forces George and van den Bergen to navigate the labyrinthine worlds of Soho strip-club sleaze and trans-national human trafficking. And with the case growing ever more complicated, George must walk the halls of Broadmoor psychiatric hospital, seeking advice from the brilliant serial murderer, Dr. Silas Holm…

Available in August! 

Having read and loved Marnie’s last book – The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die – I cannot wait to read this one.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Writing for Adults and Children, by Colette Victor

What’s the difference between writing for adults and writing for children? This is a question that was put to me recently.

My first reaction would be to say there’s not that much difference in writing for these two audiences. You get into your character’s head, you listen to them and you tell the story like they’re experiencing it. 

This is true, of course it is, it’s the very basis of good storytelling, but there’s more to it than just that. I’m used to writing for adults. I’ve written seven novels, four of which never made it to publication, all of them for adults except one. 

What to do with lobsters
in a place like Klippiesfontein
(Cargo Publishing, 2015)
These are the aspects that, for me, typify writing for adults:
  • I can write about any subject matter; difficult social issues, sex, characters who might be morally dubious but interesting all the same…
  • My characters can speak any way they like. If they want to use a four-letter word, they can. If they are morally inclined towards blasphemy, that’s OK. They speak like they speak and I don’t stand in their way.
  • I know my end reader is a fully formed adult with a mind of his or her own that won’t easily be corrupted by the words I write. I can experiment with form or style because I know my readers are well read, have been exposed to all manner of stories told in the widest possible variety of ways. They are, in most cases, sophisticated readers and often expect things to be a little difficult and are stimulated by a challenge.
This translates into a lot of freedom for a writer of adult fiction but, at the same time, where there’s freedom there are also fewer rules and boundaries. And rules and boundaries, for all their restrictiveness, also offer certainty and a sense of knowing where you’re going.

And it’s precisely here that I often find myself stumbling. My biggest problem with adult fiction is plot. No matter how well I plan and structure my story at the start of a new project, my characters ignore my efforts and go off on tangents of their own. This inevitably leaves me with heaps and heaps of rewriting and restructuring in the end.

Head over heart
(Chicken House, 2014)
This, to an extent, is where writing for children is easier. I’ve worked with a lot of young people from all races, religions and creeds. There was a particular story idea that grew out of this experience and just wouldn’t let me go so, after a few years, I decided to simply write it. Being a complete novice at writing for young people, I bought myself the book How to write for children and get published by Louise Jordan (Paitkus 2010). In this book, Jordan likens the structure of a children’s book to a three-legged stool:
1.One leg is the beginning; What is this story about?
2. The next leg is the middle; What is the problem?
3. The last leg is the end; What happens?
Without all three its legs the stool will topple over.         

I know, I know, this structure can just as easily be applied to an adult novel and that would solve all my plotting problems, wouldn’t it?

Well, no. By strictly adhering to this structure with my YA novel I was able to write a good book in a relatively short space of time. But applying this to my next book, an adult novel I just completed, did not lead to the same satisfying result and I was left wrestling with my plot just like all my previous adult novels.

But then in writing for young people (in my case, young people between the ages of eleven and fifteen) I had a whole list of other pitfalls I had to watch out for:
  • Bad language and sexually explicit content are not acceptable.
  • Sensitive social issues must be dealt with in a safe or politically correct way (even my politically incorrect character had to be toned down despite the fact that the whole reason I created him was to highlight a politically incorrect viewpoint and challenge it.)
  • My scope for experimenting with style and form was more limited because my audience was younger. They are, by definition, less experienced readers who need to cultivate the sophistication that most adult readers have. My story had to be cleaner and more straight forward.
No matter how much I believed I was in touch with young people and their views, I had to remind myself I was an adult with no experience of being young in the world they’re living in today. I made sure I consulted them about sticky points along the way. I often sat down with these young girls (in my case, Muslim girls, because the book I was writing was about the hijab) and asked them how they saw the world. They were very generous with their time and flattered to be consulted by an adult.

So which do I prefer? I’m not sure. I suppose I’m in my comfort zone when I’m writing for adults but, at the same time, writing for young people was a challenge I really enjoyed - so much so actually, that the next book I’m doing will be YA too.

What, in your experience, is the essential difference between writing for adults and children?

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Monday, 6 July 2015

Second Book Syndrome, by Emma Haughton

Emma Haughton
Two months on from the publication of my second YA thriller, Better left Buried, I thought it would be a good time to reflect back on my experience of bringing another book into the world. I remember wondering some time ago whether it would be as hard as the first time around. As manic. As nerve-wracking. As scary.

And the answer is… yes and no. Writing the damn thing wasn’t so bad. I managed to escape the infamous ‘second book syndrome’, at least initially. Many authors say coming up with another idea and bringing it to fruition is very difficult; tempting to think that having done it once before, you’re in for an easier ride. Sadly that’s rarely the case. Each book presents its own unique set of problems and challenges, and you have to find a different way through the forest with every story.

 However , I side-stepped the whole problem by selling the second book ready written. No cunning plan or anything, just the way it worked out. By the time I went out on submission with Now You See Me, I’d already written Better Left Buried. (Mind you, being on submission with two books rather than one has its own issues, but I’ll save that for another blog post.)

Once Usborne took me on, though, it wasn’t all plain sailing. The editing process for Better Left Buried was… err… hell. Three structural edits, then an extremely rigorous copy edit which left no stone unturned in terms of questioning plot points or character motivation.

Happily, I can confirm that publication was generally an easier experience this time round. Thank god. As I’ve written about on this blog before, I found the process of publishing my first book quite terrifying. The feeling of exposure to the wider world. Dealing with the verdicts.

Second time around it was still nerve-wracking – impossible to bring a new baby into the world without angsting about how it will be received – but I’d had my blooding. I’ve grown a thicker skin in the last year or so. Yes, bad reviews and ratings still sting, but with nothing like the ferocity of the first.

I’ve also grown used to the constant nagging worry about sales, publicity, awards and so on - all the usual stuff that fills a writer’s head on a daily basis. And I’ve learned the only cure is work. Immersing yourself in your next book is the best, indeed the only effective way of insulating yourself from worries about those already out there, making their way in the world.

And as I write this, I’ve also passed another landmark – yesterday, right on deadline *high-fives self* I pressed Send on my third book, propelling it into the inbox of my agent and editor. So begins another cycle. But at least now I’m reasonably confident I know the territory. Fingers crossed.  

Emma Haughton was a journalist working for national newspapers and magazines before settling down to write young adult fiction. Her first book, YA thriller NOW YOU SEE ME, was published by Usborne last year. Her second, BETTER LEFT BURIED, came out in May.

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