Editing and artwork for The Elephant Carnival

My Walker Books editor, has done a neat edit of my 1,200 words. I find chopping words excruciatingly difficult. She did it in a day. It certainly read better for it. I have just seen the final artwork. The beautiful illustrations are by Briony May Smith. When it’s launched in October I’ll put up a pic of the title page on the blog. One of Briony’s illustrations of the carnival elephants has been chosen for the story collection’s front cover!

I won the Mumsnet/Walker Books Children’s Animal Story Competition!

My story The Elephant Carnival reached the short list at the beginning of February and then I found out todays it’s a winner! It will appear in an anthology alongside nine other winning animal stories, which is scheduled for release in October this year. What I am most excited about is that the characters I imagined in my head, the painted elephants of the elephant carnival and their keepers, will actually come to life and literally walk onto the page. I can’t wait to see them.

This is my first children’s work of fiction to be published. Thrilled is an understatement.


Dialogue tags and body language – stuck using the same old phrases?

My pet phrases are:

‘His eyes narrowed,’

‘He raised his eyebrows,’

‘He frowned/glared/scowled/glanced/glowered.’

Yep, I have a real thing about eyes and dark menacing brows, to the extent I ignore the rest of the face and body. How about, ‘creased his nose,’ ‘slight curve of a smile’ ‘heart thudded,’ ‘lips twitched,’ ‘face, mask tight,’ ‘fiddled nervously.’

Here is Stephanie Meyer’s, J.K Rowling’s and Suzanne Collins’ pet phrases. http://flavorwire.com/newswire/the-most-common-phrases-in-hunger-games-harry-potter-and-twilight/

Care to share yours?

Beat the winter writing blues

Okay it’s January. New Year. New writing resolutions. The weather is so bad you might as well be sat behind your desk trying to hit that work count. But after only a few days of diligence, your mind wanders, your enthusiasm wanes and your stomach wants sweet comforting.

You are not alone. Eight out of ten Brits suffer to some degree from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Those of us stuck working indoors are particularly susceptible. Lack of daylight can seriously affect our circadian rhythm (our body clock). These rhythms regulate many important bodily functions such as: appetite, energy levels, sleep and mood. Melatonin is the main culprit. “Light stops the production of this sleep hormone, this is why we wake up naturally in the morning. But if melatonin levels in the body remain high due to lack of light, lethargy and symptoms of depression can occur.”

Let in the light
It would be lovely to escape to the beach on an extended winter sun holiday and write lying on a deck chair, but for those of us who can’t afford it a SAD light box is the answer. Normal room lighting emits around 500 lux. Light boxes emit an intensity of 10,000 lux. Treatment takes 30-60 minutes a day, repeated daily. See http://www.sada.org.uk. Also make the most of bright days and get out and about, particularly in the morning.

Stop stuffing yourself on carbs
I have sympathy. I swear chocolate is injected with happiness. When we’re feeling blue and lacking in energy we crave carbs because they are a great quick fix pick me up. But resist! Or the pressure canister on your operator chair with give out and you’ll sink even lower down in the dumps.
A lack of iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, D and B (the energy) vitamins, can all affect mood. St Johns Wort, Ginkgo Biloba and 5-HTP are all herbal supplements reputed to treat depression. Ask a specialist health food retailer or GP for advice.

Keep moving
Dr Andrew McCulloch from the Mental Health Foundation, says: “There’s convincing evidence that thirty minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week is effective against depression. Outdoor exercise will have a double benefit, because you’ll gain some daylight.” Activity is believed to change the level of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin in the brain. Sorry typing, swiveling on your chair or trotting to the snack cupboard doesn’t count as ‘vigorous.’

Keep socialising
Writer friends unite. Depression can result in irritability and not wanting to see people, but becoming cut off from people only exacerbates low mood. Writing is a solo profession for the most part. If you are a stay at home writer, make sure you have a social outing planned weekly. Time away from your writing gives you perspective and recharges your creative batteries.

So if you’re down in the dumps and stuck in a writerly rut, don’t hibernate, get up, get out, take care of your self, and most of all keep writing.

What does your private e-library say about you?

At the beginning of a writing course I recently attended, everyone was invited to take one item out of their handbag (we were all women) that demonstrated something interesting about their character.

After rummaging for a minute through my messy handbag, crammed with receipts, many pens (most ‘borrowed,’ not working) and random scrapes of paper (scribbled ideas, none particularly legible,) I took out my ipad.

Ha. I thought. My e-library – just the thing to talk about in a writing group.

Bad idea.

Here are some of the titles on there:

Violence by Rory Miller

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Surviving their depression by Anne Sheffield

Barbra Vine Murder Mysteries

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Junk by Melvin Burgess

A-level Guide to Psychology

The Empty Room -Surviving the loss of a Brother or Sister by Elizabeth De Vita- Raeburn

Yep – I’m in danger of appearing like the characters I am writing.  I feel it very necessary at this point to emphasis I am writing a murder mystery for young adults, in which the protagonist has lost her sister and has a depressive mother.

Thankfully most writers will understand that this is all in the course of research.

But sshhh! We wouldn’t chose the genres we do, if we weren’t just a little bit fascinated by the subject matter, would we?

What does your private e-library say about you?

How to handle contradiction in fiction

How familiar is the action hero who fights to the end without showing a glimpse of doubt, shock or fear? Or the antagonist who sets in motion horrifying events but never shows a flicker of pain, guilt or remorse? We’ve all read those books and seen those films, and it’s understandable why it’s tempting to remove contradiction from fiction. If we present a character in one emotional state and a few paragraphs later show them feeling the opposite, haven’t we invalidated our own writing? Aren’t we running the risk of confusing the reader?

This is where we need to give the reader a lot more credit. In real life contradiction is everywhere. Take a look at the newspapers and find it on a grand scale. Is there a story about a parent who killed his or her own child? Creation and destruction. A high-profile bitter divorce? Love and hate. A whistle blower? Loyalty and betrayal. War? Oppression vs. freedom. These themes appear time and again in stories because we recognise contradictory behaviours in ourselves and in the world around us and we wish to better understand them.

Take a look at the minutiae of your own behaviour. For one day, note all the emotional reactions you have to the people you meet. For example, you might feel affection towards a family member and hostility towards a work colleague. Note how you talk and behave in each situation. It will be quite different.

Now observe all the emotions you feel over a few days towards your nearest and dearest. The people closest to us often evoke the strongest and most conflicting emotions. In the space of an hour we might feel affection and irritation towards a partner, and as a parent, love may compete daily with impatience, entrapment and guilt. All are real and valid and human.

 So how do we handle contradiction when writing fictional characters?

Amy Hempel, an American short story writer and teacher, puts it neatly: “A story happens, when two equally appealing forces, or characters, or ideas try to occupy the same place at the same time, and they’re both right.”

Conflict is an essential element in all stories, opposing forces should not be easily reconciled; in fact, it’s better if they cannot be reconciled at all.

Characters must show internal conflict. Characters with flaws, who adopt different personas to suit different situations, are believable.

The author shouldn’t try to solve the conflict neatly, thus eliminating contradiction. Authors need only present the characters, theme, argument or dilemma, giving the reader the great pleasure of drawing their own conclusions on the story’s message.

Note: Even some words in the English language have dual contradictory meanings. E.g. Cleave – to split and to adhere. Sanction – to allow and to boycott. Bolt – to secure and to flee.

Go to http://www.dailywritingtips.com/75-contronyms-words-with-contradictory-meanings/ for 75 examples!

Seriously bad writing advice

Some of the random advice I’ve had from publishing professional during the last five years.

Don’t write in first person, it’s really hard to sustain for the length of a novel. The authors of Jane Eyre and Twilight seem to have managed.

Don’t write in present tense it jars, the perspective is too limited. Umm, Hunger Games Trilogy, Chao Walking Trilogy. I think they have been a success?

Don’t write flashbacks or bother with too much backstory, a story should always move forwards. Yes, but there is such as thing as context.

Don’t write for that genre it’s too saturated, no one’s buying. No one agent or publisher can speak for the market. Someone will come up with a fresh approach in that genre sooner or later. And there are second tier publishers mopping up the good manuscripts the big guns don’t want.

Linear story structure is old hat. Mix up your scenes, the timeline or POV to make it more interesting. I’m fairly sure the majority of new novels have a linear story structure. 

“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.” Walter Bagehot

In the Victorian age they talked sense. Thank you Walter!

Litreactor Critique – The results

I have had five critiques on the opening two chapters of my novel and phew they don’t hate it. I averaged 3.5 stars out of 5 over all. I scored highest on concept, structure and dialogue. Character was still a three. So that’s ok.

Everyone thought that my main character Leah sounded a realistic eighteen year old with a serious problem (she just found out her older sister is dead), though a little more exposition on her personality and her relationship with her sister would  strengthen the opening. They thought the set up of the story worked and was intriguing.

Things I need to work on:

In places I slip into telling the reader my characters feelings rather than showing them. I need to look at published authors to see how they show internal thoughts/dialogue in first person.

My body language description around dialogue and emotional scenes is lacking in places, given the shock/anger/grief the family are experiencing.

I’ve used flashback a little to show snippets of the sister relationship. I’ve been unsure how much to put in. A tutor recently said he hated them and stories should always flow forwards. But in a murder mystery, where the story unfolds in two timelines, the younger sister is retracing the steps of her big sister to find out how she died, flash back is essential I think. It’s a question of how much and how often. One critique said the flashbacks really helped to expose the characters and conflict, more so than the opening police scene. Something to think about.

My novel starts with a quote from an American Poet Laureate called Louise Gluck.

“Of two sisters, one is always the dancer, one the watcher.” This is the premise of the novel, the core theme is the sister relationship, in all ist conflict and contradiction. From the critiques I’ve learnt this is a strong concept but it needs to have a stronger presence in the opening chapters. The older sister Jenna, the dancer is dead mysteriously, the younger sister Leah, the watcher is compelled to find out why. But in so doing their roles are reversed and there is danger as she follows her sister’s footsteps to the end.

All this I’ll have to tighten up after completing the first draft. So back to drafting!

The Knife of Never Letting Go

I am reading Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go.

It’s such a good example of first person and present tense. I also love the symbolism of the knife throughout and how it’s central to the theme – Todd becoming a man. There’s a galloping plot, and Todd’s voice is very engaging.  The animals talk too or at least the people can read their thoughts. An original concept (okay accept for Dr Dolittle). Why this is just categorized as a teen book is beyond me. Some of the best fiction is put on the younger market bookshelves but has appeal across all ages. I’ll never be too old for a good adventure story set it this world or another (New World in this case). I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the Chaos Walking Trilogy.