In My Wildest Dreams: Adventures in Children's Fiction

The making & breaking of a writer

May has gone in silence. But my iMac wrestling is now over. My keyboard is lighter and wireless. My screen is larger and Retina. Clarity. Except when it comes to transferring everything. The only files I have displaced are related to my web pages. The site is fine for the moment as long as I don't meddle with it. A redesign is on the cards, because I am not sure I shall ever be able to put those missing picture files back into the right folders in RapidWeaver. These are the kind of irritations that can sometimes 'conveniently' take you away from the book.

It is 1st June. I still prefer writing on a desktop computer, at a desk with an office chair. I got as far as ordering a laptop, but sent it back when I realised (which I already knew) that I couldn't get on with it, however fast and glimmering is a MacBook Pro. I don't seem to do writing in cafes, in the van or odd corners. In those situations, I tend to stare out of the window, which is both the breaking and making of a writer.

Having said all that, I am sitting at my desk not working on the book, and about to nip out for coffee at my favourite cafe, where you will often see me gazing out of the window.

Reading between the lines.

Having finished revising The Tall Story of Tobias Small at the end of MarchI find myself in the in between times:

Small things - waiting for the new iMac to arrive in June (my mid-2007 example has slowed to a recalcitrant stumble. Daily, I tug it by its lead.) I am waiting for the wind to turn around from the North - it is holding up bird migration, though a Swift has just been reported over Bristol. It is time to get over my irritation at agents who after five months have still not replied. I shall not chase them. I have a publisher looking at a manuscript. I remain patient. The outcome is uncertain,

Big things - waiting for my father's funeral. He was 90, a D-Day naval veteran at 20. I am an orphan at 62. That's a lucky life.

Small things: I have plenty of inspiration - I know what I have to do. For the time being, I am enjoying the warm April sunshine.

An odd case of mistaken identity.

After two months off, I have started writing again. This week I started reworking my book for 9-12s, The Tall Story of Tiberius Small. This was the one which was politely declined by a eleven agents in 2013.  (Four never replied). I received one very kind 'near miss' amongst the correspondence.

Now that I have abandoned the idea of changing my name to Jackie Durango, 35 year old mother of two from Chiswick and dismissed all notions of there being ageism in children's publishing as a sad delusion, I feel ready to start work again.

I have begun by modifying the title. My book has become The Tall Story of Tobias Small. I think this is better, but time will tell. Thank goodness for global find and replace. I shall be changing more names, but this is less important than developing character, narrative voice comedy, place and other things.

Why am I doing this? Because I believe the heart of the book is sound. I have the faith of ten Ray Bradbury's. I am working without the benefit of an editor in a world where, for an old hand like me who has been published three times and remaindered, a book has to be tuned and polished before it will be taken seriously by anyone who wants to make money out of it. There is no leeway for someone who has been there before.

I am taking the book apart and putting it back together anew. In motoring parlance, I am pimping my ride. Street legal or not, I want it to shine

So may I introduce to you...

I re-drafted the synopsis of The Reaping and it still remains at around 1,200 words, which is better than the 3,000 it became at one point. Who knows whether it is any good? I've kind of lost the plot with the exercise, which is not great when when you are trying to impress someone about your ability to tell a story.

I have now sent off my proposal to five agents, electronically. I am working on the basis of tackling one submission a day. Each agency wants the same sort of thing, but in a slightly different form. Attention to detail is all, requiring the same concentration as a CV or job application. It is not a job to be rushed or for the faint-hearted. The screen is a duplicitous thing. It colludes with your eyes against your best attempts to spell and punctuate, to put each word in the correct order or to put them in at all.

Press SEND and be damned... one hopes not. I am philosophical, not excited. Pleased to be finished... for now.

It was twenty years ago today...

I am happily ahead of schedule! I finished the final draft of my YA novel, The Reaping on the 3rd November, although every time I read a page on the Kindle I am tempted to change a word here or there and make adjustments to the manuscript in Scrivener. I must draw the line. I have ended up with 70,100 words, a hundred more than my target.

I am not feeling euphoric. Any rapture at finishing has been tempered by the grim task of producing a synopsis to tempt an agent. I spent four hours yesterday producing a chapter by chapter digest; I gave up at the halfway point through the novel. The synopsis had already crept up to 2000 words and it was so dry that it made me soporific just checking the spelling. Hopeless. I abandoned it!

This morning I produced an elegant spidergram of characters, relationships, plot points and themes in Scapple. The chart means a lot to me, but would baffle and annoy an agent. It proved to be a useful aid, leading to the first draft of a 1200 word synopsis, which contains most of what I want to say about the plot etc. Tomorrow I must précis it and give it a little pizzazz. I'd love it to become 850 words, but I don't hold out too much hope. As long as it sings on the page I shall be happy!

After that I must write the letter: So may I introduce to you... if only I was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band!

Calm but not becalmed

I am little behind schedule, which is most unlike me. That's not a bad thing though; I have been taking my time to get The Reaping right. When I last blogged it was June. I worked through most of the summer. As autumn arrives I have just completed the 5th draft, five minutes ago in fact. No euphoria yet; I have exported my MS from Scrivener in Kindle format, so I can see how it looks from the ereader's point of view. Reviewing it it will mean more note-taking and hopefully only fine tuning of the text. I thought that was what I was going to be doing in this last draft, but I ended up cutting out whole scenes which had slowed the pace of the story and rewriting others.

Am I pleased? I am not sure. The last of the September sunshine beckons. I have not been birding in an age. I shall go to Slimbridge on Friday afternoon, a reward for sitting here and sweating it out between now and then. That is the only way to do it. I shall not finish this project prematurely. My news deadline is the beginning of December.

Nine weeks is not much time.

A manuscript is a duplicitous beguiling thing

This is where I'm at!

 (Not that I ever really know, but it's a happy sentence if you're an optimist; dark if you are not.)

I have completed the 2nd draft of The Reaping and read the whole thing again. In my head I have sent it off to an editor. Euphoria.

 It is useful to role-play the situation and I have been on the receiving end of tough love about a book before. And now in my head, the book has been returned and the comments are more devastating than I thought.

Misery. Kick the wall. Throw a bottle out of the window and hope it hasn't hurt anyone as it shatters. Regret. Go for a long walk. Have a drink. The first half of the book works, the second half does not quite so well.

I have written myself a stiff and unambiguous note about the problem areas. Time to set another deadline. 2nd draft was due 1st July - I managed that. The next? I haven't decided yet. Summer beckons.

I have to get this book right. I know I shall. It's just going to take a little longer than I thought. There is absolutely no point sending it to an agent before it is ready. I am more than halfway there, but there are some big issues to resolve. I may change the narrative voice. I may not. That is the whole point of a third draft. Some huge decisions to be made.

The RAG rated revisions plan:


I must not go a wandering...

I have not posted anything on the blog for a while, simply because I have been working on revisions to my manuscript, currently standing at 61k words. I have used Scapple to develop a revisions map, and as you can see I am working through it (whilst listening to piano music) and RAG (Red Amber Green) rating my progress.

I started with small details that could easily be changed, but have now moved on to writing new scenes and revising others. Then I shall play around with the structure of the story. Finally I shall look at fleshing out some of the character descriptions (physical) before I re-read the whole thing and begin polishing the text.

So far so good... but I would say that wouldn't I? The sunshine makes working more difficult, but I am sticking at it and hope to finish by end of June 2014


Almost home.

3000 words to go until I finish the first draft of The Reaping. Another thousand words tomorrow, then a five day break. I should be finished by the end of next week. Pleasingly, I shall be well inside my schedule.

I shall then take a break and begin working on the second draft at the beginning of the second week in April and hope to complete the final draft by the beginning of September. The book will have taken 12 months. Time goes quickly when you are writing a book, although paradoxically the process seems slow. Deadlines come around faster than Christmas. So far, so good.

Meanwhile, the world turns as normal.

My book is still a few tiles short of a roof.

A small scare this morning. It is always difficult to start writing again on a Monday. Today I was a little distracted, waiting for a roofer to come to look at a couple of missing tiles and perhaps quote for re-felting and battening the whole thing. I am 9,000 words off finishing the first draft of my YA/crossover novel. The work is painstaking even though I know that in a few weeks I shall tear it all apart again.

Lack of concentration. In my efforts to back up my document file to Dropbox, I placed the file in the wrong area and then deleted it. When I opened Scrivener again, I found that my most recent file was gone. How did that happen? Who ever knows how these things happen? Something I did inadvertently obviously. A morning's work lost....

Not quite. If you have set the Preferences correctly in Scrivener, then it will automatically back up the file you are working on with a different file extension so you can't accidentally over right it.


 I retrieved my work and copied it to the correct folder in Dropbox. I have not lost a single file in the past four years, but it was bound to happen eventually.  The file is now secure, ready for me to take apart at my leisure.

Backup is all in the planning.

Step one:  Save as you go. (I hit Save at the end of every paragraph.)

Step Two: Set up automatic back up in preferences.

Step Three: Back up to an external hard drive.

Step Four: Subscribe to a service like DropBox (It's free up to certain limits.)

On time and perspective

55 days to go to my deadline for finishing the first draft of my YA/crossover novel.  11,231 words remaining to complete the 60K. 11 working days. Sounds like plenty of time.

How's it going? I am approaching the final scenes. I have been writing in chronological order, working out the story as I go (my usual working method) and making notes for changes, using Scrivener's Document Notes along the way. I am optimistic, but the book will require extensive rewriting. It has taken this long (I began mid-August 2013) to discover relationships and motivations. I have been sketching. I need to layer some colour & texture, bring light and shade to the piece.

I have stopped fretting about agents and what other writers are doing. I am not sure it ever bothered me that much. When I look at Twitter now, it is mostly to see what visual artists are up to - an ever changing gallery to look at before I begin work each morning. Visual artists know all about perspective. Then there's the bird world and the weather....

You know what happens to lines drawn in the sand.

Deadlines. Important, particularly when self-imposed. I have 82 days left to finish the first draft of my current project. (YA/cross-over). I am back into it today, back to writing a 1000 words after three+ weeks off over Christmas. I have accumulated 42,084 words to date out of 60,000. I hadn't realised so much time had slipped by while I was enjoying the season of good will and good intentions. Think how much I could have achieved in those few weeks? I could be 5,000 words, 5 days from finishing. Now 82 days doesn't sound very long, especially when you knock out the weekends.

It is 9 January 2014 and this is my first attempt to practise my New Year's resolution to write the blog more often; after all that is why I have bought a wireless keyboard for my iPad. (That is my story and I'm sticking to it). I thought if I wrote the blog downstairs and did some social networking in the evenings at the dining room table (whilst being sociable) I might keep that side of things current. Hmm. I'll make a start on that on Monday night; after all tomorrow is Friday.

Time will tell. Meanwhile I have abandoned all thoughts of agents. Three still haven't replied about The Tall Story of Tiberius Small. Finishing the current book is the priority and to support that, I have even relegated birding to the afternoons...


If you fiddle Rome will burn.

The thing about creating any piece of work is knowing when to stop and let it go. ebooks allow for any amount of post-publication fiddling and revision. Letting the work go has to be a matter of self-discipline, self-belief and an acknowledgment that it was how you saw things at the time. After the event if you see the world differently, then create something else that reflects that. Let's not be lazy.

When I came to think about the ebook of Badgerman & Bogwitch, I initially saw it as an opportunity to update it, if not significantly revise it. I fiddled around with dates and updated the book to reflect the changes in technology in the twenty years since I began to write it. But in the end what I realised was that making it more contemporary added nothing to the power of the story, so after a few months fiddling and reformatting, I went back to the original text. I am happy with that. It helped me focus on  my new projects.

At the  end of the day the electrification of Badgerman & Bogwitch was a technical exercise. I learned a lot on the way about the new format. I am still learning how to manage the book once it is on line. I have dipped in and out of publication on Amazon - I have deleted my own book from the list - and made it available as a free download on my website. I am about to distribute it more widely for free through Smashwords.

Having said all, this I have revised the cover.

I have returned to my favourite colour: blue.

Comments (2)

An ebook is a lost child in a soundproof warehouse run by robots.

20 writer's neuroses in no particular order :) 
  1. Why doesn't anyone under thirty think print books have a future.
  2. Why hasn't my blog views' counter moved in the past four days?
  3. Should I really look at Google Analytics to see how my web page is doing? 
  4. If I lived in London, I would network with other writers & court agents at parties. (Doubt it!)
  5. Should  I read more books by other authors to get a feel of the market? (I am not fourteen, though I once was, so what do I know?)
  6. Should I be writing more than 1000 words a day, and an additional day a week?
  7. Do I bore my Twitter followers?
  8. Do they care enough to be bored?
  9. Should I get into Linkedin, Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest, and......?
  10. Do I have time to make a splash on Goodreads?
  11. How do I stop myself looking at Amazon's Daily Deal?
  12. Why are agents always looking for new writers, not old ones?
  13. Should I give my ebooks away for free?
  14. Everyone else seems to be going to writers' conferences.
  15. How many self-help ebooks does one writer need?
  16. Should I stop buying on Amazon and support my local bookshop?
  17. How can I compete with those who turn out 5+ ebooks a year?
  18. Why am I not interested in zombies, vampires and life after the apocalypse?
  19. Publishing an ebook is like abandoning a small child in a soundproof warehouse run by robots.
  20. Why can't I take myself more seriously?


Diggle's Dilemma.

So which blue sky to choose?

This is Diggle's Dilemma. A clear blue sky is so rare in autumn in my part of the Northern Hemisphere, it is tempting to just shelve the writing and spend time outside. The alternative is to pull the blind and just get on with it.

But then when lunchtime comes and the sky has clouded over - particularly if the work has not gone well - there is regret to be dealt with.

As it happens, today I had made a start - 265 words to be precise and some simple revisions - I lost an hour because I overslept (I hate it when that occurs.)

Now it is 12.30 p.m. & cloudy. But I did go out for a coffee. No regrets. 735 words to write this afternoon.

P.S. Best of both worlds. I wrote 761 words in the afternoon. And it is grey & cloudy outside :)

Tartt's Dilemma

Well, I am not going to buy two copies of Donna Tartt's new book, The Goldfinch, unless I buy one as a present for someone else.

What would you do? Buy the hardback edition (784 pages) for £10.51 from Amazon or the Kindle edition for £9.98, which is all of 53 pence cheaper? In a nutshell, this is Tartt's Dilemma.

So what's the problem? I love books, that's the problem. I love the smell of them, the feel of them, the sight of them lined up on the shelf - all colour and splash. The Goldfinch will be a long read - I am looking forward to it - but in this case the hardback (like most) it is too hefty to tote around and the paperback when it comes out will be no slim volume. Anyway, on this occasion I'm not prepared to hang around for it.

On the other hand I don't have to be the first person in Britain to blog a review so I don't need the download right now. Anyway the initial reviews are already out. I can wait for the post, which will of course be free from Amazon (I think I read somewhere that Amazon actually include a download charge in their Kindle price).

So which to buy? I err on the sumptuousness of the hardback, but then again, there's the convenience of Kindle. But then again, I won't be able to share the book after I've read it. And I hate the thought that when I have read 100 pages, the Kindle will tell me baldly that I have read 13%. On the other hand...

Tartt's Dilemma. And I guess the publisher feels the same. Give the reader a digital download with the hardback and they might only sell one copy instead of two, which takes me back to my top line. No chance.

I am still not sure what to do. This is Tartt's Dilemma.

Then again... I should be supporting my local independent bookshop. That is the author's dilemma.

You can't gift an ebook!

I have made up my mind. I prefer to read books.

ebooks are a convenience like supermarkets. Books are a delicatessen. I was on my way to this conclusion when I started thinking about reading Sarah Dunant's Blood & Beauty, her novel about the Borgias and Renaissance Italy. I couldn't talk myself into downloading it, even though it was cheaper than the hardback. The subject matter didn't seem to sit well with the e-format.

ebook and Renaissance art? ebook and rich colour and period detail? Even though I am a technophile I couldn't imagine an electronic alliance between the Kindle and the Borgias that would work, at least not for very long. The book then is the book of choice. I was tempted to say format, but the term doesn't really describe the nature of a book.

Then comes the gift, through the post from my niece in Edinburgh, quite unexpectedly - Blood & Beauty, signed by Sarah Dunant. A complete and giddying surprise. The book is sumptuous, 526 pages of rich detail. The cover has a velvet feel. It sits well in the hand, weighty but not too heavy.

I have been a long time admirer of Sarah Dunant. Twenty or so years ago, I spent a weekend with my friend Rob attending a writing workshop in Stroud library with Sarah Dunant and her friend Gillian Slovo. That moment in time still resonates, not just because I was slightly star struck, but because our tutors turned out not to be the media types from the television that we might have imagined, but good, honest, down to earth people willing to give their time and experience for very little financial reward. They were kind and thoughtful - very much like my niece, who took the trouble to queue for the book without being prompted and post it to me the following day.

The book is not the gift, so much as the thought and effort that went into making it. You just can give someone a Kindle as a present, but you can never give someone an ebook. It just won't work. It has no resonance.

I am not against ebooks; I love them - the convenience, the fact that out of print books can be easily revived, that self-publication (though not self-publicity) is easy. I love ebooks, but not all the time. I still stick with my view that for a small additional cost all books should be available with an ebook download code.

For now at least, the gift of writing is best presented between cardboard covers.


Twitter twitching & why I deleted North America

Twitter is a good thing, trolls apart, but it can make you itch and twitch. I began my Twitter experience by following local birders. They are an informative bunch, mostly good tempered, keen to share and generally celebrate their experience of the natural world. I have learned a lot.

Then I started following people in the 'literary' world. Agents. Starting with London, I ended up in New York. One link led to another like shots lined up in a pub lock-in after hours. Twitter is always trying to make you join up.


This morning I deleted North America. While I am in bed, that continent tweets all night. When I opened up Twitter in the morning it had become a dawn chorus where Magpies and Crows drowned out the songsters. I like the day to break gently. Twitter had become a caffeine fuelled frenzy.

I am not parochial. American agents, nice as they are, are simply of no interest to me at the moment. However, I am learning a lot from following agents in London, not just about their drinking habits and what kind of birthday presents they receive, but actually what books are current and what kind of thing I ought to write. I am not talking about genre or trends, but the need to write something I want to write but which is also SPECTACULAR.

So I Tweet small and think BIG.

'I thought you were dead...,' he said.

A way back a child expressed surprise on seeing me. "I thought you were dead," he said.

"Why did you think that?" I asked.

"Because all authors are dead," he said.

Certainly not dead, but I have been out of print for a while, obtainable only through Abe Books or Amazon, sourcing my novels from secondhand dealers in Australia, Japan, the UK or wherever my books have ended up. They have been thinly spread across the globe; a small miracle in itself.

But now? Badgerman & Bogwitch has a wider distribution. Having wrestled with the old WordPerfect files until I put it back in shape, I uploaded it to Amazon today as an ebook.

It was a painless procedure. It went without a hitch, except that I wanted to price the book at £1.99 in the UK, but it ended up showing as £2.00, which to my mind seems somewhat more expensive. (If you decide to download it, please don't email me asking for change.)

I am left with one question? How long will this book be in eprint? It could be 1000 years. No one seems to know the answer. I am not inclined to delete it.


A writer is a writer is a writer.

Who am I to make comments about someone else? I don’t know J K Rowling or how she feels about anything, anymore than I know about you who are reading this. So this is not personal. I’m not even going to pass an opinion on her children’s novels. I am not a child so what would I know anyway? I have read the first four Harry Potter books and enjoyed them. As some point I shall read The Cuckoo’s Calling, but probably won’t get round to The Casual Vacancy, because that’s not my cup of tea.

It is not J K Rowling, or her books I am really interested in, it is what her productivity tells us about what it is to be a writer. J K Rowling wrote before she had money (maybe in a dream of making a living). She could have cut and run after the first three Harry Potter books. When the films were done she could have rested on the money & devoted herself to good causes. (She has certainly done her share of that.) But at no stage it appears did J K Rowling stop writing, nor has she shown any desire to churn out more of the same.

Whatever the quality of her work, whether it stands the test of time, or whether she goes out of fashion, she will always be a writer because I imagine she is compelled to do it… and not for the money or fame.

Why do any of us do it? Writing is hard work (though no one makes me do it so I can’t complain) and I doubt that it is any easier if you become wealthy through your writing; you just have more to lose in terms of self-confidence and the self-esteem if your gift deserts you for a while. Best selling novelists are like the rest of us. We all need to have our books recognised for what they are and not because our name is on the cover.

Writing is a compulsion, but not an addiction; a writer always has control. Writing is compelling  - you can take a break from it - but return to it you always will. Being a writer has nothing to do with money or fame. It has everything to do with writing. It is simple.

A writer is a writer is a writer.


I used to love WordPerfect, but is it the Betamax of word processors?

I have spent a large portion of the day trying to correct formatting issues with the ebook version of Badgerman & Bogwitch. The problem has arisen because I imported the original 1992 WordPerfect file into MSWord, then imported it into Scrivener so I could export it as an Amazon .mobi file format. I have been left with a number of unwanted indents and hard return paragraph anomalies.

I have been going through the Scrivener document line by line, adding and deleting hard returns as necessary. It has driven me slightly mad.

There is no problem with formatting for ebooks if you write straight into Scrivener, as I have been doing for the past three years.

WordPerfect has turned out to be the Betamax of Word processors! :(

10 fantasies for Independent Booksellers Week

Wouldn’t it be nice if…

  • The EU adopted a Common Bookshop Policy & paid subsidies to independent bookshops, funded by corporation taxes collected from online booksellers.
  • Independent bookshops were eligible for lottery funding to create reading corners & put on events for children.
  • Book tokens were prescribed by the NHS to counter the over prescription of anti-biotics & tranqulisers.
  • Every secondary school adopted a bookshop.
  • There was an “e free Friday” campaign & no one bought books online the day before the weekend.
  • Supermarkets could only sell books between 12.00 & 1.00 a.m. on Tuesdays.
  • Authors who had ever sold a million copies refused to sell their books through online retailers & supermarkets.
  • There was a five year moratorium on business rates for independent bookshops,
  • Every paper book sold came with a code for the ebook download for an additional £0.99.
  • The Net Book Agreement was reinstated.

What I learned from the wind in the willows.

I have been working this afternoon though you wouldn't think it from looking at me lounged alternately on the sofa in the conservatory and flopped on the bean bag, half in the house and half out in the sun. If my landscape is like The Wind in the Willows, then spring has come late for this particular myopic observer of the world. I have put on my glasses, picked up my broom, set it down again and made space for myself to think. So I have been working. (I could never convince my late mother that lazing on a bean bag constituted hard labour but that's another story, like spending the early nineteen seventies doing my dancing lying down.)

I have made more  decisions about my work in progress:

The Key to Finlac, overlong and in two halves, is like conjoined but not identical twins. I shall risk an attempt at separation in the optimistic belief that they will both survive. After all they both have a head and a heart. I know what future I would like for them both. It is just a question of nurturing them so they both go on to thrive.

As for The Tall Story of Tiberius Small, if I fail to find an agent, I shall publish it myself as an ebook and have no qualms about it. I might even do it under a pseudonym. At least it will be out there rather than in the way, and I had a good time writing it, a few laughs in the process.

I have no excuses then. I know where my four MSS (now that The Key to Finlac has become two) are heading

Time to get my backside off the bean bag, pick up the broom and sniff the air. ... that way more ideas will come.


Have you seen Tiberius Small?

So what's happening with Tiberius Small, the six foot ten year old with the loaded gun and 2.5 million stolen Euros? You'd thing a boy that dangerous would have a load of people after him! Well, he hasn't been caught yet. He's still out there looking for a new venture. In fact even though he's six foot tall he has to jump up and down to get noticed.

Actually a couple of agents did catch a glimpse of him. I guess they shook their heads and said, "I do not believe it!" I reckon Tiberius Small will just have to leap higher and wave his arms around more vigorously. After all he is a boy who never gives up.

Early days. I have sent Tiberius Small to act the fool in front of three other agents and I am looking for others he might entertain. Success is all in the luck and timing (and having a good book in the first place... that fits). After all my first book Inside the Glasshouse was rejected by 12 publishers before it landed on Christopher Reid's desk at Faber & Faber and he liked the idea enough to develop it with me all those years ago. Had it arrived a week later ... or he'd had a headache... who knows? The same goes with agents I guess.

However, I am enjoying the regular Twitter event #askagent where hopefuls: young, old, experienced, whoever, can ask questions of agents about getting published. It is like having Radio 4 wired straight into your head. I haven't asked any questions, but I enjoy hearing the answers, which mostly seem to be that there are no real answers except: don't give up, keep trying, don't follow trends, be yourself, work to improve, we read everything...

So I go on...

You can go home again

Nothing in my writing is ever planned. I play around (or work around) until things look right. An ability to recognise shape, patterns and shadows is the the thing. That is where I am intuitive rather than applying rules. I don't plan. I write, then unpick, delete and shuffle what is left. Then add a little more.

Sometimes I have a blind spot. Quite often actually, which is why it is good to let a first draft settle for a long while. The glare of the final sentence blots out the flaws in the four thousand sentences that have come before.

So what was so wrong with the first draft I finished a year ago? It started out as Young Adult (YA) fantasy set in the real world, avoiding as many angst ridden vampire, zombie, dystopian love threads as possible. The story had edge that would cut the skin, if not the carotid artery. But with the story came an ending and a logic that said it was more suited to a younger age group. Maybe I am unskilled in the art of YA or just unwilling to twist the knife?

So fluently reading 10+ it is, with a closing parameter of 14. Not that I really believe that stories can be targeted accurately at age. That has more to do with signposting & marketing.

When my sight returned, I noticed two things that should have been obvious from the outset had I planned, but then writing is the way I construct something. It is a laborious and frustrating way of doing things, but never boring. I recognised a minor character, who by a different name I had written about before in Badgerman & Bogwitch. The second thing of course was the landscape. Much as I had tried to make it different, it was still the Ramswold Valley. I should have recognised the landmarks.

At last the shape is there with the missing pieces and the things I need to change. I have 52,000 words to unpick and rearrange. I know the world of the Ramswold Valley so I should not resist writing about it if there is more to say, another story in its own right.

To help me I shall use what is really a free-form and intuitive planning tool, Scapple, from Literature & Latte. Instead of planning I am using it to unpick and rearrange and add to what I already have. And it is cheap too at a few pence over ten quid. I already write using Scrivener, so it is a natural process to use.

This is my work for the summer.

Did I really write that?

A brave thing to go back to the first draft of a book after a year's absence? It's loaded onto the Kindle, ready, but I have just put it down to write this, prompted by the first section heading: Nightshade. I don't even remember writing that word. This may be a good omen, indicating that I shall be able to stand outside the story and see it afresh as others might view it.

On the other hand. like places and things in childhood the story may turn out to be smaller and less wondrous. Like favourite holiday destinations it may have suffered over the time and be almost unrecognisable. These are the risks that come with committing a chunk of one's life to writing something you hope will be enduring.

It is not an exciting prospect, but hopefully after the examination there will be exhilaration. Then relief.

It will be short lived. Doubt will creep back in on taking a third look at the book. So I shall revise it a fourth time until I reach the point where I think it is time to let it go. Hopefully.


The Tall Story of Tiberius Small

So it is now May. I went to Australia for much of March and April. I meant to look at my final draft while I was away, but I just let it sit, knowing that it was pretty well finished. On my return I read it though once again and made one or two minor changes, sharpened a few sentences and checked it for continuity.

The Tall Story of Tiberius Small is finished and weighs in at 37,000 words, which I hope is about right.  Nine and ten and eleven year olds should be able to read it as long as they are due to hit Level 4 English and have a sense of humour... and still like books. What do I really know? I enjoyed writing it and I am not embarrassed by any of it... so... time will tell. For the moment I am a success.

Tomorrow? Am I heading for a fall? Whatever, I am thick skinned. It is done. I have pressed the Send button. I am right back where I was when I started this blog about three years ago. I am waiting for the joyous Ping! of acceptance arriving in my Inbox.

Why writing is all Snakes & Ladders.

I am pleased to say I have just finished adding the final touches to my new book (Title remains a secret). I can now have a break. In just over a month's time I shall have one last look at it and then send it off to agents.

I shall then have to go back and look at the first draft of a book I finished this time last year. (Title remains a secret) When I'll look again at The Key to Finlac, I am not quite sure. I have a long version, and most of a shorter version ready.

Why do titles remain a secret? I guess because until I send a book off, I have not quite settled on it and don't want to give too much away.

So how do I feel about my progress towards being published again? Sanguine I guess. I have written at least 40,000 words a year for the past three, so something might happen in the end. I know I am a good writer. So much depends on the market... and getting past the intern at the door!

In October, I shall start a new project. I know exactly what it is. At least for the moment, I am at the top of another ladder!

More threads than fingers.

I have been busy. On 3 October, I started writing a new book (That's three now in various stages.) I've been feeding my 1000 words a day habit and am 10,000 words from finishing this first draft.

As I knew I would eventually, I have stumbled this morning and only managed 300 words, which is why I guess I have turned to this blog again. I have spent the last six weeks or so (at least  for 3 hours a day) seeing the world through the eyes of my ten year old self. I have managed to amuse myself, so I hope my book might entertain others. A 10 year old is a 12 year old is an 8 year old is a 10 year old. I don't really believe one generation of children is much different from another when you scratch the surface.

Now with just 10,000 words to go (Ten days - that is the way I measure things, like small children counting 'sleeps') I have to pull all the threads together and leave no loose ends, except maybe one or two that  I can pick up in another book.

My hands are full. My fingers are busy. Can't afford to drop anything now :)                

Burning the rainbow at both ends

Funnily enough I photographed another rainbow today. It was one of those complete ones, where you could see both ends, but is impossible to photograph without a super-wide angle lens. (Which is why we have an imagination and a memory.)  It boded good weather for birding... and as it turned out for writing too.

I have been making notes for a number of days - off and on - but just before lunch I began to write the new book. I have spent three hours writing 250 words. That seems like a long time spend with little to show for it, but I have been working carefully to find the narrative voice and set the tone. I think I have  gone some way towards finding them.

I have set the two main characters up and now I shall let them run and see where they lead me.

Optometry & Optimism - seeing the road ahead.

This morning finds me a happy man. A rainbow arcing over Stroud at 8.00 a.m. I have managed to remove 20,000 words from The Key to Finlac so far (over the summer, not this morning!) I am listening to the new Bob Dylan album and I have the title for the new book I have just started writing (not drawn from Tempest).

It's raining. Less of a distraction.

As usual I was planning on writing something else. That book will have to wait while it ferments a little longer. As I have two books currently in various drafts, I thought I'd be better off writing something for 10-12's (30-35,000 words) - a comic creation to keep me chuckling when the revisions get hard. Ever the optimist...

... or should that be optometrist? I have four pairs of glasses: for reading, for reading in the sun, for watching tv & a pair for working on the computer. Make that five - sunglasses. Maybe six - rose-tinted.


New Shoes & Autumn Leaves

Why do I still use school terms for my reference points even though I am no longer involved in education? Like a dutiful school boy I still settle down to work every time a new term begins and kick off my shoes & go barefooted when end of term comes around. I never have been comfortable with the notion of New Year's Day or the beginning of the financial year in April. Spring & the beginning of the Summer Term has more significance.

And then there is September, where it all really starts. New shoes, new uniform, new stationery; looking forward to kicking though the autumn leaves.

Time for me to review the past two years. I have written 100,000 words. I have a couple of children's novels in nearly final draft. I am a "finisher" - the work ethic side of me sees to that - but I also want to start something new. I want to get back to my 1000 words a day habit. I want to kick though the leaves rather than trudge back from town, laden with shopping however interesting my purchases

If a painter can work on several pieces at once, then so can I - as long as there is an end in sight. That is the challenge. The juggling....but not as the mood takes me. It requires more discipline than that.

Tupperware tells its own story

Does not posting a blog recently mean I have been focusing hard on the book? Mostly.

Writing the first draft of a book is like being a child again, running down the beach on the first day of the holidays to stamp my feet in the water. It's all shrieks and hollering. The second draft is shivering back up from the shore line, feet stabbed by stones. The final draft is being rubbed hard with a sandy towel. Warming, but unpleasantly abrasive.

But there will be a time when the sun breaks through, and I'll sip scalding sweet tea from a Tupperware cup, hot sand between my toes. And I'll dream that dream of never going back to school again.


When Less is More...More or Less...

This is my morning. Still working on the revisions to The Key to Finlac. Still trying to reduce the first 45,000 words to no more than 10,000. It's a tough call, but I'm, getting there. The question to be asked all the time is: What is essential to the story? If it doesn't move the narrative forward, leave it out.

But it is also important to remember that 35,000 words have not been wasted. They have not been expunged. Not so much evaporation as distillation.

I write this, so I have the heart to go back to the book again tomorrow. It's a reminder to myself as well as a glimpse into the writing process.


French Lessons with Donna Tartt

Apart from the fact that it is again going to be really hard to get back into the discipline of writing, what have I learned from my visit to France last week?

  • Normandy is a continuation of Dorset (geologists may tell me I am entirely wrong) and that is no bad thing. I am still capable of writing an ambiguous sentence
  • Red Squirrels abound.
  • Driving on the back roads is like being in the 1950's, but you can go faster and engines are more reliable.
  • My father landed tanks at Utah Beach in WW2 when he was twenty years old. (But he never mentioned it until I said we'd been there - I wish I'd known beforehand. Do fathers ever talk to sons?)
  • Language is not everything - but it helps. A smile goes an awfully long way. It's a myth that the French habitually laugh at the English.
WHAT I REALLY LEARNED is not to be daunted by other writers. Enjoy holiday reading. Come back wanting to write as well as Donna Tartt.
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A Sparrowhawk ate my homework...

... and other excuses. It sometimes doesn't take much to disrupt the writing. The appearance of the Sparrowhawk on the garden bird feeders did just that and my compulsion to video it (See it here). Then of course I had to tell my friends about it and Tweet about it, followed by a celebration coffee in Kitsch (My coffee shop of the moment.)

Fortunately, I had produced a significant amount of writing yesterday, as well as making some important decisions re: the structure of The Key to Finlac. A day off then is excusable.

This though is the stuff of writing stories. It is the accumulation of small things, the looking and the excitement of it and the desire to tell people about it in a way that is fresh and conveys the wonder of it all...

House Martin - The Bringer of Stories.

The other day I stopped on the way to my destination and stood stock still for ten minutes. A group of House Martins were feeding over a wild patch of water, bog plants and reeds close to the path. Flying fast at shoulder level they spiralled around me. To them I could have been any inanimate object. For me it was as close to airborne birds as I am ever likely to come. I could have looked them in the eye if they hadn't been moving so fast.

The air is light, the sunshine warm. Following small speeding bodies in flight with only one's eyes, the bright background a wash of colour, is disembodying. Such is the lightness of being. Gone is the weight of the world. And so is time. For a moment. This is close to flying.


How to tell of this? Find the right words and pictures to release something in the imagination. This is why children need to learn to love language and illustration from an early age through picture books, songs, poems and nursery rhymes. It is why children need to read and be told stories, and it is why it is beholden upon us to encourage them to enjoy the written word as they grow older.

Seeing a House Martin is one thing, being able to tell someone about the joy of it is another.


Hey, Ray Bradbury... you left somethin' behind.

On 27 March I wrote in my blog entry titled "Sunshine Stopped Play": I have ordered a second-hand edition of Ray Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine" (my copy has long gone - and you can't get it on the Kindle.) I want to read the scene again where Douglas Spaulding puts on his new tennis shoes and races off into summer.

And now Ray Bradbury has gone, in body anyway. The sound of tennis shoes on gravel remain. Why is Ray Bradbury more important for me than many other other writers? He straddled the past and the future; he recognised the present. He captured childhood in a jar, let us look at if for a moment and then released it to fly wherever. He looked at the stars through the lens of a soda bottle and saw things clearly. He saw people as they are. Ray Bradbury's stories, however disturbing, always left me feeling that we have it in us to do better, to put things right if only we can come to terms with our restless yearning and realise that we would never have all the answers. Because there are none.

Ray Bradbury was an influence and still is. In that sense he is there I'm my Timeline with Dylan & The Beatles. 

My secondhand copy of Dandelion Wine did arrive. It looks as if it as never been read. Shame. I shall pick it up, read it, then pass it on. Ray Bradbury still has something important to say. 

Forensics: Getting to the Truth of the Story

Forensic has popped into my head this morning. Slow, methodical, painstaking work to analyse what has happened. What exactly is the truth of the story I have written? As another person, I have to go back to the scene and find out what really occurred there. What is still to be discovered?

I have begun re-writing, The Key to Finlac, opening the book with an entirely new episode involving a character I knew little about before. And as I'm discovering, I had not properly explored and explained the world she inhabits. I have been looking for clues - trace evidence - and putting a credible scenario together to present to the reader.

It is delicate work, tricky in that I have to tread carefully so as not to destroy or contaminate that which needs to be preserved.

Without all the pieces, those already logged and those freshly seen, the story cannot be rightly told.

Agony & Avocets: what birds tell us about story-telling

What could possibly take me a way from me desk when I should be writing? I write in the morning I go birding in the afternoon, not necessarily the best time. Compromise.

Yesterday I broke my habit.  Avocets had hatched three chicks at WWT Slimbridge the day before. This is the first time Avocets have bred on the reserve, or anywhere in Gloucestershire. I felt an urgency to see them - history in the making -  and via Twitter @slimbridge_wild I had an inkling that the parents were about to move them. I left home at 7.30 a.m. I wanted to capture the moment on video.

I succeeded. You can watch it happening here Magical. The birds performed right on time, boldly leading the chicks across the water to a fringe of weeds on the other side. A meagre shelter. This just fifteen minutes before I was due to go back to Stroud.

Jubilant, I went home and uploaded my video, then went into town for coffee.

In the afternoon, comes another Tweet. The Avocet family had gone missing. Predated? Or in a place of safety? The wardens can't find them so the first seems most likely. Agony. Uncertainty. My video somehow has taken on the aura of CCTV images. Last known sighting.

Life is more dramatic than art. Art distills its intensity and fixes it in the collective memory. The Avocets is a story in the making: a struggle against the odds creates a unique and thrilling event, then a mystery that we hope shall have a resolution.

The Slimbridge Avocets & Me says it all about our need to hear a tale well-told, and in children's books, the desire for a happy ending... whilst allowing for the fact that life is often not like that.

This morning the latest Tweets from @slimbridge_wild :

"We have found the male Avocet this morning feeding on the Top New Piece, but still no sign of the female and three young."

"We hope that the female Avocet is being a good mum & keeping a low profile with her family. Let us know if you see her from our hides today?"

To be continued....

The latest Tweets from @slimbridge_wild :

"Great news it looks like the Avocet family has made it to the Bottom New Piece (Kingfisher Hide) That's about 300M from the nest site."10.45. a.m.

Saturday 19 May 2012

"Fantastic news all three Avocet chicks are still with their parents on the Bottom New Piece (Kingfisher Hide) this morning #GlosBirds"

My Window, the Pencil Sharpener

It isn't the biggest window in the world, but it is possibly the biggest pencil sharpener... unless your study has a bigger, more distracting window with a better view. The sun is shining too. Maybe I should turn my desk around and face the other way.

I am big on BIG this morning too. Truly procrastinating. Back from holiday. Staring at the blue Adriatic last week, the task of finishing The Key to Finlac seemed a very simple one. I could see the light and shape of things. I would be ready to come home and start again.

So here I am, turning the smallest of pencils around and around in the big sharpener. Writing. A window on the world.

Bulldozing and Landscaping the Novel

The restructuring of The Key to Finlac continues:

  • I have killed off a brother even before the story begins.
  • I have abandoned a set of parents.
  • I have demolished two houses, a factory, and a school.
  • I have remodelled a significant landscape.
  • I have scrapped a motley collection of old vehicles.
  • I have put a property developer out of business.
  • I have buried a pensioner-gardener
  • I have removed one mystery and replaced it with another.
  • I have added a new character and developed others.
  • I have written a more engaging back story for my other main protagonist.
  • I have done away with 500 years of history.
  • I have mislaid a brew bin.

I shall begin writing again tomorrow, having rewritten history today.

Revising the Novel: to slash or burn?

Not so much slash and burn as letting light into the wood.  I have chopped and cut, cleared away the underbrush and stacked the timber. Sunshine is streaming through the new leaves. A Wood Warbler sings. The coppice is ready for new growth

By painstakingly listing the scenes in each chapter of the first 45,000 words of the book, I have found a way of losing at least 30,000 words, whilst retaining the heart of the story. It already looks better.

The remaining half of the plantation looks healthier, but it could still do with some more light and colour. I shall tackle that tomorrow.

Then the rewriting begins.

Monarch of the Pen: The Flight of Fancy.

No longer so perplexed about revisions today. In the early hours of the morning came a moment of clarity. What brought it on? Our upcoming flight to Croatia had been changed from a civilised 12.55 p.m. to an unthinkable 6.25 a.m. I was furious. I shall never fly with Monarch again. It prevented me from sleeping. I had to switch off and change the subject.

Out of bad comes good. At 1.00 a.m. I worked out exactly what I have to do with my book. Not the new one, but The Key to Finlac, which I "finished" in August. I now know how to reduce the MS by 40,000 words whilst retaining the heart of the story. That's the theory anyway. I began making notes this morning.

As for the recent book? Can I really revise both stories at once? The human brain is an unfathomable thing.

Revision and the Taming of Two Horses

I always look forward to the task of revision, then immediately long for the carefree days of tapping the keys, meeting the characters listening to their story. But revise I must.

Sometimes it feels like raking up leaves in a high wind or chasing a lottery ticket along the seafront. Other times it seems like the plot is almost there, but it cannot quite be recalled, like waking from a vivid dream the details of which are suddenly lost.

Then inevitably halfway through the first read comes the loss of confidence and the realisation that you are going to have to write much of the novel over again, and that is like straddling pair of wild horses who want to pull in different directions, whilst juggling three flaming torches. It's an unnerving journey.

So I try to proceed methodically:

  • A read through, spotting immediate faults with the plotting and characterisation.
  • Listing the key things that need to be changed.
  • Producing a good plot outline (scene by scene).
  • Re-writing and/or deleting scenes and introducing new characters as necessary.
  • Re-reading and sharpening the plot.
  • Sharpening the prose and checking for typos.
Right now though I am staring at two wild horses.

Sunshine Stopped Play - Writing is just not Cricket

Lingering. Not malingering - I think -  today. Sunshine has waylaid my plans for writing. No bad thing. Time for reflection and letting the book settle. I could never up sticks to Provence or Tuscany (even if I could afford it.) I would never get anything done, except - perhaps - in the two months either side of Christmas.

I tell myself that I can undertake ebook formatting of Badgerman & Bogwitch and revisions of the new book in the evenings if I feel inclined. After all there is time. I have set a deadline for end of September 2012 to start full-tilt on an entirely new project.

I have been reflecting on the Wind in the Willows, as I do every Spring when it suddenly appears. It is a book I can admire from the perspective of childhood. I indulge it. It is beyond criticism. It is synonymous with sandwiches eaten by ten-thirty a.m., hungry again by twelve, ravenous and pooling small change for wine gums by three.

I have ordered a second-hand edition of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine (my copy has long gone - and you can't get it on the Kindle.) I want to read the scene again where Douglas Spaulding puts on his new tennis shoes and races off into summer.

And all the while, I have been contemplating The Hunger Games and what it means for childhood. I have not read it yet or seen the movie. So I can only have fears and no opinions. Who knows, The Hunger Games may yet prove to be a metaphor for publishing?


Cloud Gazing & The Book Without a Story

On my third attempt, after eight hours work (well, a lot of sitting around actually) across two days and downloading some more software, I have uploaded a competent time-lapse movie (32 seconds covering a period of two hours).

It is technically ok. I solved a few problems along the way, like making sure I switched off the autofocus on the camera. My first attempt was dizzying, because the lens kept zooming in and out every 24th of a second during my first movie attempt. (N.B. You have to take 24 still pictures to create one second of video.)

So what's wrong with it? At first sight, nothing. Have a look for yourself. (Click here for Movie.)

But it's like a book. Without a story, without artistry and without a heart it is nothing. It is a doodling; a lesson learned along the way to something better.

Funnily enough, all this has helped me re-focus on my writing.

It's a 1st draft - 373 Words that make all the difference!

An eight o'clock start is always a good sign. Forty-Five minutes and three hundred and seventy-three words later I had finished the first draft of the new book.

I stood up from my desk with the same joyous abandonment as finishing the last paper of my Finals. At that time I took two weeks off to laze around and read. (Why would I do that when I'd been reading five books a week for three years?)

What shall I do now? Well, I won't start my revisions immediately. I shall leave it for a week or two and potter about with a new idea. Maybe start a third book.

As for the first draft being finished, I simply reached the point where I could safely leave it. For now it will do, like an electrician making the wiring safe for the weekend, but needing to come back to do a permanent job on the Monday.

So it weighed in at 53,626 words. Numbers are important. I want the MS to be 48,000. In revising I reckon to lose 25%-30% of the words simply by writing better sentences, which would leave me about 8,000 words short of my target. This difference will be made up by the writing of new scenes and the deletion or revision and development of others.

It may take another two or three drafts - three months' work. But I shall get there in the end.

iTunes is not as sweet as birdsong - but it has its uses

When is the world silent? Never. Hopefully. My writing world is full of distracting noise; birdsong mostly, calling me outside. It is a shame to blot it out, but I do if I am to get anything done.

How do I do that? With music; my iTunes Writing Playlist. (100 tracks, 7.7 hours of music - I rarely get beyond 2.5 hours, the length of a typical writing session.)

The music serves two purposes. The first one I have already mentioned. The second is the most important. The music provides me with continuity. Like in a film it adds atmosphere and links the scenes and silences. It is a signal that tells me it is time to start work. The familiar playlist is the continuity I need for writing the story; it links one day with the next. Throughout the course of the novel I never change it.

But the music must never have words. It tends to be someone playing the piano, occasionally accompanied by an orchestra. The volume is set to the level of a secondhand bookshop with a Mozart string quartet in the background; it is like mites of dust in a shaft of sunlight. Greenery beyond.

It works for me.

Playlist: click here.

Ten things that tell you the novel is done

How do you know when the book you are writing is actually finished?

  1. It tastes like a crisp apple.
  2. It burns in your throat like homemade ginger beer on a summer's day.
  3. It smells like clean cotton sheets.
  4. It preens like a Drake in breeding plumage.
  5. It is like dozing in sunshine.
  6. It is as if you have discovered Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine for the first time.
  7. It is your eleventh birthday.
  8. It is the first day of the summer holidays
  9. For me, it seems like 1964.
  10. ... someone else agrees that it is ok.

If it is all these things and it just feels right, then it is done. You have to stop somewhere.
Sometimes you have to be content with good enough.