Saturday, 23 May 2015

Reading fiction makes the world a better place

Reading about the lives of other people is enlightening and educational. When you read, you are using your imagination to climb into the minds, hearts and lives of others and take on their world and their emotions. Good writing  whatever your genre  should be able to make the reader feel, what the character feels; whoever they are, wherever they live, whatever they believe. 

I am talking about empathy here – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Empathy requires you to use your imagination. Reading fiction enhances the imagination, and increases your potential for empathy.  

In their 2006 study, Bookworms versus Nerds, Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley exposed participants to both fiction and non-fiction reading material, and found that 'comprehension of characters in narrative fiction appeared to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels.'  Furthermore, 'the tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores.' 

Their 2009 study, Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy, attempted to replicate these findings whilst ruling out the huge variable of individual personality. They found that 'fiction exposure still predicted performance on an empathy task,' And that 'exposure to fiction was positively correlated with social support. Exposure to nonfiction, in contrast, was associated with loneliness, and negatively related to social support.'

Subsequent studies have backed up Mar and Oatley’s research, with especial emphasis on reading literary fiction. 

"You never really understand a person  until you consider things from his point of view -
until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Harper Lee
Empathy is possibly one of the most important social skills we can master. It creates connections, and leads to a deeper understanding of people (why others think, feel and act as they do) as well as broadening our understanding of other cultures and societies. In turn, this increased understanding helps us have better relationships, and build stronger communities.

As if that wasn’t enough, empathy increases our emotional intelligence, our powers of perception, improves communication and develops the imagination. And the more we can relate to and imagine what the emotions and experiences of others actually feel like for them, the less likely we are to judge, which leads to greater sensitivity, more tolerance and more compassion. 

This clearly isn’t a comprehensive study on the subject, but as a writer of fiction, I must frequently put myself in the shoes of another and try to understand how they think and feel; I ask myself, "how would this person react, and why?" I’d like to think this makes me less critical of others, and more inclined to look beyond the behaviour and try to understand how and why people behave as they do.

And when Bring Me Sunshine was studied by students on the Working with Children, Young People and Families course at Cumbria University, I received dozens of letters of thanks (see here for a selection of their comments) for enlightening them about the feelings and experiences of young carers. When readers tell me they felt what my character was feeling, it means I’ve done my job properly. For those readers, perhaps it will also inform the way they go out about their lives… As one student kindly put it:

As our module explores the challenges young people, children and families face, this book is extremely helpful. Compared to other academics texts this book allows the reader to feel more connected and therefore take more from it. I feel as though I will be able to use this book to further my studies as it has given me a wider knowledge on the challenges (young carers) face in today’s society, and how they can be helped.”

Which brings me to my conclusion; you should read fiction not just because it's fun and absorbing and a perfectly blissful way to while away a few hours, but because developing more empathy and compassion will make the world a better place.

Thanks to all those students who gave me such valuable feedback on Bring Me Sunshine.

To read more about the benefits of empathy, take a look at The Culture of Empathy 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

A review of Better Left Buried, by Emma Haughton

I was supposed to finish a draft of my own YA novel before I read Better Left Buried, but I made the mistake of dipping inside and reading the prologue… A few hours later, I emerged, emotionally drained, and yet completely satisfied by this wonderfully gripping novel.

Sarah’s brother has died, her mum’s not coping and her dad’s working away from home. Even her best friend, Lizzie, seems a little remote. Sarah struggles to manage her grief alone, while caring for her mum and preparing for an important singing audition which could decide her future. We have every reason to feel for Sophie, an ordinary girl, in the middle of a family tragedy.

But right from page one we know this goes beyond ordinary and tragic. Danger lies ahead and yet, like Sarah, we’re not exactly sure where, why, or who to trust. There’s a mystery to be solved, and we’re with Sophie all the way, trying to make sense of strange happenings. She is followed by a stranger, her home is trashed, she is attacked in the street… and then she discovers that it’s all connected to her dead brother. He started something...and she has to finish it.

Sophie’s thoughts and feelings are entirely believable and her actions, although incredibly risky, flow naturally out of this very sinister plot.

I loved this book! And even though I was lucky enough to beta read Better Left Buried some time ago (and supposedly knew what was in store) there were still surprises. I was still on the edge of my seat. It’s a great read – for teens and adults – packed, from start to finish, with excitement, intrigue and tension. 

If you like thrillers, you’ll love this. Highly recommended. 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Tough streets make tough women, by Marnie Riches

Today is the book birthday of The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die. Finally, after three years of trying to push this baby into the world - from writing the first sentence to publication - with the help of my extraordinarily hard-working agent and the wonderful team at Maze/HarperCollins, I’ve succeeded. And, as is the case with real childbirth, you forget the pain the minute your progeny puts in an appearance. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t have to labour bloody hard to get to that point.

It seems fitting, then, that George McKenzie, the heroine of The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, should have had a tough start in life, as I did. The product of a crime-ridden council estate, hers has been a hard, violent upbringing – as is the case of the other young people around her. But just as I did, she has learned her way out of the ghetto, all the way to Cambridge, dragging that heavy chip on her shoulder up to the very top of those ivory towers.

Over the years, I have read crime thrillers, middle grade novels, young adult dystopian series, fantasy, literary name it, I’ve read it! There have been some splendid heroines. Lisbeth Salander, Clarice Starling, Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Grainger... But what did I want in George McKenzie? Other authors’ heroines seemed too introvert, too gung-ho without the necessary vulnerability, too squeaky clean, too apologetic. So, I got to work in shaping my kickass leading lady...

When we meet her in book 1, George is an aspiring criminologist, working on her politics degree at Amsterdam University - an Erasmus year break from Cambridge. The studio flat where she lives, in the heart of Amsterdam’s red light district, is under the same steep, gabled roof as two prostitutes’ booths and a coffee shop. George loves the sleaze and grandeur. What a heady mix!

Over time, as I wrote, I realised that I wanted a debate about sexuality to feature heavily in my series. And it does. Without us realising, so much of our daily lives is shaped by the sexual chemistry – or lack of it – between people. Does the guy at the garage fancy you enough to give you a discount on your tyres? Will your tutor give you a hard time over your late paper because he knows you would never look twice at him? Would you treat a friend differently after a tacit rejection where they confess you’re great for a mate, but not for a date? These kinds of questions are centrally important to your life when you’re younger, and George is only twenty in The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die.

In book 2, The Girl Who Broke the Rules – which I’m just putting the finishing touches to – George is studying for a criminology PhD on the subject of pornography use by serial violent sex offenders; still flitting between Amsterdam and Cambridge. By Book 3, she’s a qualified criminologist. Dr. McKenzie, no less! I wanted her to be brilliant, sophisticated, able to navigate the social and political labyrinths of academia successfully.

George isn’t just about the grey matter, however. We discover that The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die has all of the skills needed to go head-to-head with dangerous, violent criminals. Tough streets make tough women. She’s not afraid to take a punch and she’s not shy in dishing one out either. If she thinks you’re talking crap, she’ll tell you. If she wants to sleep with you, she’ll let you know alright - take it or leave it. She’ll not beg. George is proud and unashamed of her sexual powers as a woman and her intellectual prowess.

But she’s vulnerable too. Here is a girl who suffers from borderline OCD. Panicking at petty disorder in her life. If she can’t control her environment, she’s lost control. Too easy to blow up in temper, George has learned to keep a lid on it, though she often doesn’t succeed. Admittedly, I have regularly got into hot water because I’m a big gob. Of course, George was going to swear and say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. In her chest beats a strong heart. Her blood runs hot. George is, above all, a passionate woman who can crush a man between her thighs as easily as she can pleasure him!

My editor has billed me as a “home-grown Stieg Larsson”. When I wrote The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, and the first half of The Girl Who Broke the Rules, I had no idea that there would be a fourth book in Larsson’s Millennium series, penned by another author. So, admiring some of the wonderful qualities of Salander but wanting to inject some ghetto-fabulous street-smarts of my own into a leading lady, I wrote George to keep Salander fans going. She’s a character whose story I wanted to read. I hope that I live up to my editor’s expectations and I hope George McKenzie will resonate with readers all over the world who fancy a little bit more grit, a little bit more authenticity, a little bit more of a kick up the ass!

Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, by Marnie Riches

I have just bitten my nails all the way to the end of The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, and I’m quietly blown away. Speechless. In awe. Wow!
Marnie Riches’ crime thriller is due out on Kindle on April 2nd. The blurb reads -
When a bomb explodes at the University of Amsterdam, aspiring criminologist Georgina McKenzie is asked by the police to help flush out the killer. But the bomb is part of a much bigger, more sinister plot that will have the entire city quaking in fear. And the killer has a very special part for George to play… A thrilling race against time with a heroine you’ll be rooting for, this book will keep you up all night!
Luckily for me, I was given a copy early. I always knew I would return this gift with a review, so as I read I made mental notes…
  • Mention the powerful voice, unmistakably Marnie, coarse, rich and bursting with personality…
  • Talk about the intrigue, the slow drip of plot, the build up of tension, the jigsaw structure you mentally piece together not only while you’re reading, but between times when you can’t read because life is getting in the way…
  • Refer to the multiple points of view, which play out like a film – giving readers a glimpse of each slice of action before moving on to the next compelling scene…
  • Mention the setting – Amsterdam, Cambridge, South East London; the vivid contrast between cloistered academia and gritty urban life…
  • And most importantly, say something about George McKenzie – the girl who wouldn’t die because of her tenacity, her strength of mind and ballsy determination; say something about the way she pulls you through, hooks you into her world, makes you feel when she refuses to...
These things were all in my mental note book; they were all going to be part of my review. But now I’ve finished reading The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, there’s another thing. I’m bursting to tell you what it is, but I don’t want to give it away. It’s hidden in amongst the multiple points of view, and sits there – an unsuspecting golden jigsaw piece – waiting for you to slot into place. The clues are all there, but Georgina McKenzie’s world is so totally absorbing you don’t even notice them until moments before the author’s reveal. And when you do finally see the whole picture, you wonder how you missed the signs. It’s clever, confident writing, and richly rewarding for the reader.
I absolutely loved The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die and I cannot wait for the next George McKenzie thriller.

Photo by Phil Tragen
The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die is the first of three novels in the George McKenzie series by Marnie Riches, published by Harper Collins.

Website: Marnie Riches     
Twitter: @Marnie_Riches    

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Let's call it a detour...

Jane learned how to hook an agent,
on the bonnet of her Mini Cooper.

I have decided to head back down the long road to traditional publishing. I can hardly believe that it’s been two and a half years since I first took a detour through Indie Land – where did all that time go? I’ve learned a HUGE amount about the publishing industry, marketing and social media, sold a truckload of books (a small truck), won awards, been studied by University students, got a commission to write a book for a care leavers charity, and had lots of fun; all this on the back of my self-publishing endeavours. So I don’t regret it for a minute.

My reasons for going Indie were mainly to do with impatience and exasperation at the snails’ pace and umpteen hurdles of traditional publishing. At one point I thought I was there, supping tea and biscuits with my then-agent and the head honcho at a London publishing house. They loved Where Bluebird Fly; told me it was “a moving, gripping story, with a complex and sympathetic character … and the subtle, yet dramatic, and perfectly paced way you reveal Ruby's past is masterful.”

Despite this high praise, it was a dead end. (Those bastards in acquisitions … No, seriously – I completely understand.)
As it turned out, Margaret could only dream of the open highway.
My then-agent tried to place my other book, Bring MeSunshine, elsewhere – and I do believe she tried very hard. I had some excellent feedback from over thirty publishers, and yes, one or two of them didn’t love my voice enough, or feel the story was loud enough, but mostly the response was enthusiastic and positive. I could have worked on these things, but there was one common theme to their rejections over which I had no control.

“I’ve already got one...”
“It's too similar to a recent debut acquisition.”
“There’s too much overlap with ... our other author.”
“The writing style sits closely to another author we have on our list.”
“We have similar books for this age group.”
“This will clash with another project already in development.”
“It would fit in the same space on our list that ... occupies.”
“We have recently acquired a similar themed book.”

You get the message.

I prefer not to think these were stock replies, since most of said publishers also offered me the names of these ‘similar’ authors and their soon to be/recently published ‘similar’ works, and went into quite a lot of other detail about why they liked Bring Me Sunshine so much.

But given this almost universal response, and after trying for so long and coming so close, it’s not surprising I took a detour.

Two years down the road, two books independently published and two more in the editing stage, I find myself edging closer to that traditional highway again. I’ve enjoyed the journey immensely, but as much as it pains me to admit it, I am not meeting my audience. The child and young adult market is an especially tough road to travel solo on. It’s smaller than the adult market, e-books are less accessible to children who don’t carry bank cards and cannot order online independently, and large numbers of children access their reading material through schools and libraries, which means it is practically impossible for a stand alone author to reach these outlets in any significant numbers. 

I had hoped my detour wasn’t a detour; that it was a shorter route with prettier scenery and more immediate gains. As it turns out, it was all those things. But now it’s time to fasten my seat belt, pull out onto the main road and see if this time I can go all the way.

Wish me luck…

Saturday, 7 February 2015

The Psychoanalysis of an Aspiring Writer

Nan Bovington calls herself an aspiring writer, but if you’ve ever read her blog – The Essential Guide to Being Unpublished – you will know that nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s almost unbelievable that despite writing for three decades, launching herself into novels, radio plays and screenplays without a second thought, and sometimes almost ‘making it’, she still refers to herself as an aspiring writer.

It’s about time we changed this silly notion, and put her straight…

WENDY: So, Nan, when did you first ‘aspire’ to be a writer?

Proustian thoughts for Baby Nan
NAN: Thank you Wendy for asking. I think it was when I was sitting in my pram having a Proustian thought about the first time I tasted a Farex Rusk. It must have been a windy day, because at that moment a sheet of newspaper wrapped itself entirely around my head. Luckily it was the Sunday Times book review section. I was enthralled and then appalled. People get paid to write this stuff? I remember thinking, I could do that. By the time someone thought to remove the paper from my face, I had already set out on the road to authorship, fame and money. (Looking back on it now, I wish it had been a copy of The Racing Times and I had put ten bob on ’Lively Lass’ in the two-thirty at Haydock Park.)

WENDY: Have you always ignored good advice? (For clarity, readers might like to take a look at Nan’s earliest blog post ‘Never fail to ignore all advice from seasoned writers’ in which Nan reveals how Canadian literary legend W.O. Mitchell assured her she was a writer.)

NAN:  Yes, Wendy, it’s a matter of principle with me. That’s the kind of person I am – you know, principled.

Never mind the
WENDY: Did the hard-drinking, cigar-chewing, bullfighting and womanizing interfere with, or enhance your self-image?

NAN:  It definitely enhanced it, although I do now walk with a strange loping gait, have a rather alarming twitch and am compelled to wear lorgnettes. I attribute this to an arm wrestling contest with ‘Hem’ and the crew of a Panamanian fishing smack, (great guys) in an all-night tattoo parlour on Key West; although I still regret having that marlin tattooed across my chest. That’s why I think I may have to turn down a personal appearance at the Oxford Literary Festival – I don’t want to frighten Richard Dawkins.

WENDY: Have you ever been diagnosed with a psychological condition?

NAN: No comment - Who have you been talking too? If it’s Dr Otto Von Kraumsmeltzer....  I’m warning you, Otto; I’m suing!

WENDY: By your second blog post (Don’t wait for a plot - just write the novel) you have switched to the second person point of view. Was it a conscious decision or does this represent an underlying (and desperate) need to disassociate from pain and rejection?

NAN:  I have to confess you are right. What you have to understand is that I was frightened by Margaret Atwood at an early age; OK, I was thirty and she wasn’t a lot older than me. We were in Canada, on a creative writing course together. Technically she was the guest lecturer and I wasn’t, but you know.
Nan was reluctant to show
Margaret Atwood her tattoos.

Anyway in a mistaken attempt to get her to read my verse drama – A History of The Soviet Union from the Perspective of a Wheel-Tapper on the Siberian Railway – I offered to buy her a drink in the bar. She squinted at me warily and then said that she would have a ‘screwdriver.’ Well, I thought, scrap the drink; she has obviously got some kind of plumbing emergency. I imagined how I could ingratiate myself by sorting it out for her, so ran out of the bar to find the college maintenance department, borrowed a screwdriver and ran back to triumphantly present it (In retrospect, I shouldn’t have kneeled) to Margaret.

She looked at it, said, ‘Didn’t they have any vodka and orange juice?’ and squinted at me again; called me ‘a veritable literalist’ and laughed a good deal, (which I took as a HUGE compliment.) Sadly, I found out later that in Canada a vodka and orange juice is called a ‘Screwdriver’, and worse than all of that, Margaret Atwood would never read my verse drama. 

Until I recovered – many years later – I was temporarily incapable of referring to myself in the first person, and the twitch got worse.

Nuns with guns
WENDY: We are given a brief insight into the real Nan Bovington where you describe your early life and persecution by catholic nuns. How do you think this has affected your writing career?

NAN:  I wish you hadn’t brought this up Wendy. Look, I’ve never had any kind of romantic life because of the huge welts on my knees from the years of constant PRAYING. I have a flinch reaction whenever I see a ROSARY and am compelled to write everything to do with GOD or RELIGION or THE VIRGIN MARY in capital letters. I think this has put me at a certain disadvantage: and another reason why I can’t bump into Dawkins at the Oxford Literary Festival.

WENDY:  Do you have a well-defined guilt complex?

NAN:  Nothing about me is ‘well-defined’ as you well know Wendy!

WENDY: In your post Undone by the Comma, Drusilla Lockheart-Leary gives you a grammatical drubbing, and later ‘drags you through English grammar by your nose; administering irrigation to your colon and semi-colon, snipping your dangling participles, and ram-raiding the Oxford comma.’ How did this rather harsh lesson in punctuation affect your belief in your writing abilities?

NAN: I have made a careful and considered choice to abandon grammar. We never got on, we never will/shall/will.

WENDY: Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious… Your post, The Vestibule of Literary Hell has a very dreamlike quality to it. Did you write this post in your sleep?

NAN: No, I was drunk

WENDY: Your characters are a joy to behold. Let’s think about three of them in a little more depth. Clyde Darling, Bart Zeidegger, and legendary gangster Carlo (The Mouth) Carpacci – Snog, Marry or Avoid?

Dreamboats Clyde, Bart and Carlo.
NAN: Fascinating question Wendy! Well, obviously, anyone would want to snog Carlo (The Mouth) Carpaccio; know what I mean? You should see him dealing with an entire smoked salmon and caviar canapé chess board – it’s unashamedly erotic.

At first I thought obviously I would marry Clyde Darling, because he is a lit agent working for fab, super, cutting edge agency, Mallory Makepeace Associates AND HOW ELSE ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO GET A BLOODY AGENT? But then I thought no, repulsive as Bart Zeidegger is (and really, believe me, he is) at least he might help me get my novel pitch down from a paragraph to a sentence and then to just three utterly compelling words. So maybe I’d marry Bart and avoid Clyde…

You see, it’s quite likely that even Clyde, with all his connections, might have to overlook my lit genius. Economic pressures might insist that he drop me in favour of pushing a brilliant edgy idea like ‘Footballers Favourite Philosophers’ (Wayne Rooney riffs on Wittgenstein) or some Bake-off celeb’s debut novel which offers a searing insight into the socio-political ramifications of doughnuts in pre-war Europe. Thinking about it, Clyde probably wouldn’t or couldn’t, get me published! The bastard! I hate him! Why did I marry him?

WENDY: Which literary figures do you aspire to be like?

Sooty Bramblestoke
NAN: Mrs Euphemia Bramblestoke who wrote, the much overlooked and underrated, ‘Little Mitherings’ series. There were seventeen books in all, mostly about defecating cats and boundary disputes with neighbours, but compelling narratives written in such lucid prose with just the slightest wink of irony.  She died in poverty, obscurity and a large pool of gin, and was only found ten years later surrounded by her equally mummified cats.

SJ Perelman's
Heimlich Manoeuvre
AND S.J. Perelman - Master of the surreal pastiche, and sometime scriptwriter to the Marx Bros. I have a fantasy that I find myself sitting next to him on some flight, which is unlikely as he has been dead since 1979 and I have a phobia of flying. Nonetheless during this entirely imaginary flight, we strike up conversation and I tell him an amusing anecdote. He laughs and he offers me a pastrami and dill pickle sandwich while patting me on the back. This causes me to choke. Perelman then performs the Heimlich manoeuvre on me and we become instant writing buddies.

WENDY: Following your in-depth report from the Glossy-Smarte Literary Consultancy in May 2012, you took a step back from your own writing and choose to interview Tarquin Overbite (10 year-old literary superstar) and subsequently hand your blog over to Rip Lunge. Were you nursing wounds, or busy working on a rewrite of ‘The Indistinguishableness of Indistinguishability’?

NAN: That man Rip Lunge is frightening, I didn’t hand my blog over, he actually tied me up with electrical cable and shoved me into my own airing cupboard – quite relaxing really, after a while.

WENDY: In mid 2012 you embark on a series of blog-posts which tell the stories of Hideous Publishing Accidents, (beginning with The Keening of Lucretia Doonshafte) Were these posts unconscious vehicles for you to transfer your own feelings of disaster/failure/anger into a safe channel?

NAN: They were true Wendy, every single one them. People don’t understand how dangerous publishing is!

WENDY: Ah, denial…the perfect self-defence mechanism. Tell me, Nan, do you have trouble controlling your temper/feelings?

NAN: Why are you asking me all these questions? Why?!!

WENDY: For almost an entire year, you did not blog at all. Were you undergoing a series of hypnotherapeutic interventions to destabilise your feelings of inadequacy as a writer?

NAN: I was sitting in a lawn chair.

WENDY: Your returning post, in January of this year (I went missing for an entire year and absolutely no one noticed!) was a welcome relief for your fans. You followed in quick succession with two more posts … Where has this new burst of energy emerged from?

NAN: I don’t know if you are familiar with Dr Glockenspiel’s Invigorating Tonic for Depressed Bloggers? It came with a recommendation from Dorothy Wordsworth. She always kept a bottle tucked down her liberty bodice and frequently swigged from it as she raced about the fells feeling murderous, because William was ripping off everything in her notebook and bloody well making a name for himself; leaving her only to silently adore his genius and apple cores.  I can get you some at a very reasonable price. Just send cheque c/o Coleridge.

Nan, before and after Dr Glockenspiel’s Invigorating Tonic
WENDY: How do you feel about total strangers reading between the lines of your blog and making up their own theories about your writing abilities?

NAN: Actually I would actively encourage this, please, if there is anyone out there who has a theory about my writing ability and can explain it to me, please send it on a plain postcard to Essential Guide to Being Unpublished.

Nan's favourite
WENDY: What is your favourite cake?

NAN:  The biggest.

WENDY: After 76 years on the slushpile, nonagenarian Gladys Meakin found success posthumously, but where do you see your writing career ending up?

NAN: Badly

WENDY: The dictionary definition of ASPIRE is – to direct one's hopes or ambitions towards achieving something. Given that your combined blog, twitter and Facebook following exceeds that of Beyoncé, would you not agree that you have already achieved that dream, and that you are indeed, a writer already?

Unhappy Nan,
with Will Self as a polar bear
NAN: I know you are trying to cheer me up Wendy, but really, until I either earn at least £1 from my life’s work, or am carried on a litter around the Frankfurt Book Fair hurling handfuls of small change at Will Self, I will never be happy.

Until then, I shall press on writing my novel, called ‘Last Best West’ which is set in Canada in 1906 and is the story a highly educated young woman who goes to the far North to become a gold prospector (you think I’m joking here, but I am deadly serious) It’s all huskies & aurora borealis and strange disjointed love! (Well, it’s bloody cold up there, you know.)

WENDY: I’m not trying to cheer you up. But then, you are clearly delusional. It says here, (in my Puffin Children’s Dictionary of Psychoanalysis) that “Delusional disorder is characterized by the presence of either bizarre or non-bizarre delusions which have persisted for at least one month.” Apparently there is no cure, but on the other hand, it makes for some very entertaining blog posts.

Thanks so much for agreeing to be analysed.

Read Nan’s Blog here.
Follow on Twitter here.
Like her Facebook page here.

Donate to the Nan Bovington School for Tattoo Art here

Sunday, 1 February 2015

I'm proofreading

I had a dream last night that the commissioned book I have just finished editing, went off to the printers and only then did I discover a whole rash of missing words. I woke up in a cold sweat, shook my husband awake, and declared, "I need to proofread!"
Lassie and Timmy
(before he fell down the
abandoned mint shift)

Proofreading. It’s what you do AFTER editing and BEFORE publication.  I’m talking Errors. Typos. Missed words. Misspellings. The little stuff the eye doesn't always see, especially if you’re gripped by the writing. Your writing. You get so engrossed with what’s about to happen when...

Timmy has fallen down the abandoned mine shaft,

that you forget to notice what you've actually written is...

Timmy has fallen down teh abandoned mint shift.

There is some comfort in knowing that there are always errors, (even in the best books, published by the best publishers), but it’s still annoying when these little babies reach out and grab you by the throat, AFTER publication. 

So, TOP TIP #1 - read your work backwards. Not, like, sdrawkcab… but last chapter (or paragraph) first, then the penultimate chapter and so on, through to chapter one. It does help.

TOP TIP #2 - read your text aloud. What the eye dosen't see, the ear can hear. It's much harder to miss things when you read aloud.

TOP TIP #3 - keep a checklist of mistakes you repeatedly make. I have a friend who often types CLAM instead of CALM. One of my own mental blocks is FRO instead of FOR. Anytime you notice your own repeat offenders, add them to your list. You can do a search (Ctrl + F) of your manuscript and replace these nasties wherever they appear.

TOP TIP #4 - don’t just proofread on screen; print out your text and review it on paper. Reading your work in a different format might highlight different errors.

TOP TIP #5 - use the spellchecker. Seriously. It’s not fool proof, but if you do see a red line under a word, you can’t afford to ignore it.

Top tip #6 - have a holiday from your work. Doesn't have to be a fortnight in the Bahamas, but a few hours or days away from your writing will give you fresh eyes and a fresh chance to see any problems.

TOP TIP #7 - get help. Ask a friend or pay a professional. And remember to be grateful when they point out all your mistakes. You want your work to be the best it can be, and a good clean copy might make the difference between getting read and getting binned.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

When you’re stuck …

Anyone who has ever written a novel will tell you it is easier to start than finish. I don’t think it particularly matters whether you plan meticulously or write in free fall, the beginning of a novel is always exciting and full of possibility. You write those first chapters with a head full of ideas and a heart full of optimism; of course you do, or you wouldn’t even get started.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time, thought Toby.
But then, a few chapters in, something happens; either the ideas dry up, or else they come so thick and fast you don’t know which way to turn. You probably do know how your story ends, but suddenly you have no idea how to get there. The phrase, 'I don’t where I’m going with this' is all too familiar, although what we should really be saying is, 'I don’t know where I’m going NEXT.' I’m not talking about a temporary brain freeze which can easily be resolved by a break from your computer, a cup of coffee and a little bit of mental space; I am talking about the kind of stuckness which jeopardises completion of the whole project.

If this resonates with you, my advice is to do just one (or all!) of the following…

  1. Remind yourself how your book ends. The ending – like the beginning – should be less complicated, and focusing your mind on your goal may help you to think of some ways you can get there.
  2. If you don’t have an end in mind, try brainstorming all possible scenarios (in a separate document). Writing anything is better than writing nothing and keeps those creative juices flowing in the right direction.
  3. Think about the next plot point – as opposed to the next ten or twenty plot points – and keep on writing. Subsequent plot points will fall into place as you free up your creative mind.
  4. Take some time out to focus on the main character. Write down a list of questions about their motivation, desired outcome, relationships, and actions. Try to ask open questions which lead to possibility and ideas, (for example, Where do you want your relationship to be at the end of the story?) rather than closed ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ questions. (Do you want to marry a prince?)
  5. Tell yourself YOU CAN DO IT. This is likely to be a confidence issue. No one is making you do this, so the motivation must come entirely from within. It’s all too easy to think you can’t do it, but the bottom line is … guess what? YOU CAN.
  6. Carry on writing – which seems like a backward piece of advice when you don’t know what to write, but it’s not. Write through the pain. Write rubbish. Write anything. Write yourself a bridge from the Land of Stuck to the way ahead. As long as you keep on writing you’ll keep on thinking, focusing, creating, and eventually you will cross that bridge.
  7. If you’re feeling brave, ask someone else for suggestions. They might not have anything useful to contribute, but on the other hand, they might have that very shiny nugget which inspires you and lights the road ahead…
Above all else, remember that all writers reach this awful moment at some point in their writing career, where they cannot see the way forward. The only thing which separates you from them, is that they carried on.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

23 things to avoid

Here's another repeat posting from the now defunct Magic Beans Blog - because I am in the throws of editing and it's always worth remembering how NOT TO do it. 

  1. Weak words – got, that, stuff, really, went, was, had, things
  2. Passive sentences – EG Instead of the burger was eaten by the child, try, the child ate the burger. Instead of the boy was chased by a cow, try, a cow chased the boy.
  3. Wordy writing – EG Instead of she was eating, try, she ate. Instead of he was walking slowly, try, he dawdled.
  4. Superfluous adverbs (he said angrily, she walked quickly from the room)
  5. Vague words – seem, approximately, about, appear, look as if, roughly, more or less, give or take, almost, nearly
  6. Indistinct nouns – for example, instead of ‘flowers’ say roses, instead of ‘dog’ say spaniel, instead of ‘car’ say Ford Fiesta
  7. Adjacent sentences without connective tissue   
    Too much show...
  8. Repetition of words, sentences and ideas
  9. Over-reliance on show or tell (either can be tedious)  
  10. Blow by blow description of character movements 
  11. Failure to engage all senses, and relying on facial reactions and dialogue for effect.  
  12. Clichéd phrases, images, ideas
  13. Disorganisation on every level (sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter) 
  14. Lack of clarity
  15. No sense of place or atmosphere
  16. One dimensional, clichéd or stereotypical characters  
  17. Characters using each others names repeatedly when talking to each other
  18. Wooden, boring and/or irrelevant dialogue
  19. Reliance on dialogue to convey information to the reader
  20. Plot holes
  21. Abandoned plot threads or characters
  22. Coincidences that easily resolve tough situations
  23. Exclamation marks!!!
    ...or too much tell?

Monday, 5 January 2015

Raring to go...

Phew! Well that's another festive season over and done with... and if, like me, you are raring to get back to work, my advice is to set your alarm a couple of hours earlier than normal, get up and start writing. Don't stop to check your emails, look at your twitter feed or see what your friends did last night on facebook. Go straight to your seat of creativity (via the kettle) and write. 


Because I am reliably informed that the early morning is the best time to work. At this time you are most likely to be creative, focused and therefore productive. It is something to do with the frequency of your brain waves.  The brain has four different frequencies of brain waves:

  • Beta waves - associated with peak concentration, heightened alertness and visual acuity.
  • Alpha waves - associated with deep relaxation, and thought to be the gateway to creativity
  • Theta waves - associated with the twilight state that we experience fleetingly as we drift off to sleep and are strongly linked with creativity and intuition.
  • Delta waves - associated with deep sleep.
The most relevant of these to writers and other creatives are alpha waves, which appear when your eyes are closed and your mind is in a quiet state of relaxation. Usually this is between sleeping and waking.

When your brain is in an alpha rhythm state, the critical censoring function performed by your left brain is half asleep and the feelings and images from your creative right brain can more easily pass through the gate-keeper of your left hemisphere, unaffected by judgment, and into your conscious mind. 

Concrete thoughts, physical activity, sudden noise or light on the retina of the eye can send the brain out of alpha and into beta wave activity.

Since alpha brain wave activity is at its height when you first wake up, early morning bursts of creativity should be just what you need to kick start your new year of writing.