I’ll be your coach

 

I’ve just returned to working for charity, First Story, this month. First Story’s aim is to change young people’s lives through writing, particularly those who might be disadvantaged socio-economically, and/or suffer from a lack of confidence. I had my first creative writing workshop with the school I’ll be Writer in Residence for last week. Before I met the group of students I’ll be working with, I was wondering what to tell them. I want to inspire them to be writers, as well as to give them the confidence to flourish, but I’m not sure that I personally feel like a teacher, or even know that creative writing can be taught. In spite of having published twelve books, I don’t have any qualifications in teaching and I have none in English past the age of 15.

So what I said was:

I am your space: I am your space in which to think about and practise the craft of writing. 

I am your permission: I give you permission to be writers. 

I’m never going to say to a single one of these young people that they are rubbish, that they cannot do it, that they need to demonstrate proficiency in key aspects of the curriculum, pass an exam or sit a test. I hope that having the time, space and permission to ‘have a go’ will help them blossom, both now and in the future.

Finally, I said:

I am your coach. 

In most subjects taught in schools today, the educational model we follow is that you attend classes, practise, learn, graduate and then make your way on your own. But in sport, the model is that you are never, ever done. Everyone needs a coach. Even the greatest football player or Olympic athlete needs a coach. There isn’t a fool-proof path to become a premier league player, nor to win a gold medal at the Olympics. What players do is that they learn, they practice and they are coached. It is a never-ending process of attempting to improve under the guidance and tutelage of a person who has your back. The way to become a great cyclist, gymnast, football player or even a writer is with help. It is not, as someone tweeted at me recently, about reading a few articles online and doing it by yourself.

As Atul Gwande, surgeon and author of Checklist, says, ‘Coaches are on to something profoundly important…They build on your skills and address your weaknesses.’ Gwande, who is seen as being top of his field in general and endocrine surgery, hired a coach, thinking that this fellow surgeon, would have little to teach him. After the first session, the coach had made pages of notes on how Gwande could become a better surgeon. Two years later, Gwande’s techniques had indeed radically improved.

For me personally, I’ve benefitted greatly for the coaching I’ve received from my agent, Robert Dinsdale, my many editors over the years, and my writing buddies. In my role as a Royal Literary Fellow, I frequently receive training and coaching from other fellows. I still believe that I could benefit from more help and dedicated coaching for my thriller writing. (Any volunteers?!) As Gwande says, ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you’re going to be that really matters.’

 

My Writing Toolkit

Book blogger and health journalist, Victoria Goldman,  asked me to tell her what my essential writing toolkit is for her blog, Off-the-Shelf Books. Here goes:

Office

Our exciting news is that we’re renovating a house in rural Somerset. In the meantime, we’ve downsized so I no longer have an office, but a desk in the corner of an open-plan room. I look out over a small, but beautiful green garden that backs onto an urban nature reserve. Jays and blue tits peep through the window. I can’t think if there’s any clutter, and I like to have a flower or two next to me. I work on an Apple Mac and a laptop. This has revolutionised my life: because everything is in the cloud, I can pick up my laptop and go, without having to check it’s saved, and I no longer have that awful realisation that I’ve spent hours working on the wrong document. 

Notebooks

I love having different notebooks with lovely covers. I have one for ideas, one for quotes and overheard snippets of conversations and a working one, with what I need to do next. It helps me keep track of where I am – for instance, My Mother’s Secret is just about to be published out, but I’m still talking to readers about my previous thrillers, Bone by Bone and The Stolen Child, whilst editing the fourth one, The Anniversary. I find writing long-hand is a good way of generating ideas too, although I actually type my novels straight onto the computer.

Exercise

Writing is incredibly sedentary, so I need to move! I get up before anyone else and do an hour to an hour and a half of the Tracy Anderson Method. Tracy is a trainer in the states; I stream her classes, which are a combination of light weights and dance cardio. At the weekends I run or go mountain biking. I love walking. One of the characters in My Mother’s Secret lives in the Lake District, so it was a great excuse to head up there for ‘research’. I find walking helps with creativity and general resetting of one’s mental equilibrium.

Coffee and chocolate

I start my writing day with black coffee and 80% dark chocolate. I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic coffee roaster, Extract, at the bottom of our road and I buy their organic espresso, which tastes of hazelnuts and cocoa. Apparently.

Candles

I light a candle when I start working. I like scents that are quite sharp when I’m concentrating: my favourite is St Eval’s Rosemary and Bay; and then soothing, like Sandalwood, when I want to unwind. I love being surrounded by greenery so I fill the house with lots of plants.

Protein shake

I get through that mid-afternoon slump with a protein shake, usually made of fruit and vegetables, non-dairy milk and protein powder. I normally add spinach; this one also has raspberries and coconut milk.

Headphones

Since we’re all in one room, there’s quite a lot of ‘negotiation’ about who gets to watch downhill mountain bike racing, How to Train your Dragon, or have some peace and quiet to write their novel. I spend quite a lot of time wearing headphones and pretending I can’t hear anyone speaking to me. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts when I’m doing chores; I’m a big fan of The Story Grid podcast and book, which is by editor Shawn Coyne and is aimed at helping writers and editors improve.

Cake

My daughter and I love baking: this is a cake that I made for one of my sister’s for her birthday. It’s a great way to relax and a slice of cake feels like a nice treat after a week of writing several thousand words and drinking spinach smoothies!

 

What’s your essential toolkit?

How to tell a good plot

My seven-year-old daughter is teaching me how to plot. She’s drawn a story mountain for me, which shows the start, build up, climax, solution and the end (she’s obviously inherited her ability to spell from her mother). She’s broken down the key elements of a story she’s writing to demonstrate how it works. 

 

 

It’s about a girl called Jasmine whose horse is stolen. Jasmine follows hoof prints in the mud, and discovers a broken robot in a ditch with ‘Dr Evil’ stamped on it. With the help of her friend, Summer, they mend Tim the robot, and he leads them to Dr Evil’s house. Dr Evil has enslaved a group of robots and they’ve been collecting prize animal specimens from around the world on his behalf. The girls free the robots and they help them release all the pets. 

 

 

Obviously, it needs more work, but if I hothouse my daughter a bit more, she might keep me in prosecco in my dotage! But actually, the story mountain is a pretty good way of thinking about plot (in fact, I do ‘plot’ my stories on a graph before I start writing, although I know that sounds completely nerdy!).

Even at such a young age, my daughter, pretty much like every kid can do, has captured the key ingredients for a story: a beginning, a middle and an end. Plus there’s a hero – Jasmine, and a villain – Dr Evil. Her story also features some other essential characters: the friend and mentor (Summer); villains who become friends (the robots); victims (the animals, especially the horse, Faye) and a mentor figure (the mother, Sanjida, who is a vet and in the final scene checks that Faye is unhurt). Faye is the symbol of ‘desire’ in the story that motivates the characters: both Jasmine and Dr Evil want Faye, albeit for different reasons. The story also has some other essential elements: an inciting incident, a crisis and a climax – more on these shortly. 

 

 

What I think every story needs are at least three acts corresponding to the beginning, the middle and the end (although, you can of course have multiple acts). In the beginning section, you need an inciting incident: this is the event that forces our protagonist to act – or decide not to act  – but is what starts your story. Think of Nick Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn finding his front door open, his living room turned upside down, and discovering that his wife, Amy, is missing. We immediately think: What has happened to her? What will he do?

This is followed (in the middle section) by what editor, Shawn Coyne terms, progressive complications for the protagonist, where he or she faces increasing as well as different difficulties (not several of the same type of difficulties). And boy, in Gone Girl, do Nick and Amy get put through the ringer in terms of the difficulties they face, from the police, to the press, to ex-boyfriends, thieving friends and Amy’s insane quiz… 

 

 

There is then a crisis, which is often described as the worst point for the protagonist; it’s a seemingly inescapable predicament or insurmountable dilemma. In the final act, there’s a climax, which could either be a showdown with the antagonist or could be internal – the main character battles with his or her internal predicament. If the inciting incident is – what will happen?, the climax is the unexpected but inevitable result of the opening event – this is what happens. 

 

 

The ending is the resolution, which ties up loose ends and lets us see how the dust is going to settle. Fairy tales and children’s stories often begin, Once upon a time, and end, happily ever after. And although readers tend to want a story to finish on an emotionally satisfying note, an open, unhappy and/or uncertain ending can also provide closure, even without the happy ever after. 

I’d highly recommend Story by Robert McKee and The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne for more detailed discussions on how to plot. And in the near future, I’ll do a breakdown showing how I plot my novels.

 

Let me know if you have any comments or questions!

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

The octopus and the pirates

I’m giving a talk on plot at Novel Nights on Wednesday 23 Many. This is a wonderful monthly event, organised by writer, Grace Palmer, in Bristol. A writer talks about an aspect of their work, and local authors and aspiring writers read short extracts from their work-in-progress, all over a glass or two of wine.

If you happen to be in Bristol, do come along – the details are here. The full story, about how to plot, will be on the blog on Sunday 27 May.

In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview, inspired by a story my daughter wrote for me when she was four. Like most kids, she fascinated by dinosaurs and pirates. Now, if I could come up with a movie concept – Jurassic Park meets Pirates of the Caribbean – I’d be minted.

 

 

What other writers are saying about My Mother’s Secret

Six weeks to go until My Mother’s Secret comes out! For an author waiting to see how her book will be received, this is a tense phase to be in!

 


For anyone interested in how the process works, once the book is finished, edited, copy edited, proof read and type-set with a draft cover design, an ‘uncorrected bound proof’ is created. It’s nearly the final version, but the cover might be tweaked slightly, and there could still be errors that we’ve all missed. The proofs are then sent out to magazine journalists and authors kind enough to say they’ll do their level best to read it before it goes off to the printers.

So far, I’ve had some amazingly kind comments from my fellow writers. Thank you!!

 

The next step is that early copies will be sent out to bloggers, who are really the most important people. They are readers who, in their own free time and without being paid, will read and post reviews of books on their websites. Waiting to hear back from them is even more nerve-wracking!

In the meantime, here’s what some of my favourite authors are saying about My Mother’s Secret:

This gripping story about families and secrets takes the meaning of ‘deception’ to a new level.

         Jane Corry, author of My Husband’s Wife and Blood Sisters

 

 

 

A well written story that is so compelling you have no choice but to race through it to uncover the secrets. Twisty, tense and chilling until the very last page. Brilliant!

 

         Sam Carrington, author of Saving Sophie, Bad Sister and One Little Lie coming in July

 

Sanjida has nailed it again. A claustrophobic, unpredictable thriller that I couldn’t get enough of. You’ll be holding your breath until the last page

        Jack Jordan, author of My Girl and Anything for Her. A Woman Scorned and Before Her Eyes coming soon

 

 

And more from LV Hay, Luana Lewis and Peter Swanson…

 

 

I hope that’s whetted your appetite! If so, the kindest thing you can do for an author (apart from give them wine and chocolate), is to buy their book and post a short review on Amazon, Audible and Goodreads. It’ll keep them in coffee and Hobnobs. Thank you!

 

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

The Stolen Child

THE STOLEN CHILD

category_icons03

 

I’ve just finished the edits and copy edits for my second thriller, The Stolen Child!

 

   They stole my child from me.

And now I want her back…

 

For those unaware of the various lengthy processes a  novel goes through, after I’ve handed the manuscript in, my editor highlights areas that could be improved and I have another go at reworking those sections to her satisfaction. I finished that bit the day before going on  holiday – phew!

 

The Stolen Child - copy edits

 

Continue reading

Editing my Novels

category_diary80EDITING MY NOVELS Writer Isabel Costello  kindly asked me to write a guest post for her blog, The Literary Sofa. I hope you have a chance to read some of her other posts, all highly informative with some interesting tips.

theory of mind by sanjida o'connellI had the unfortunate fortune to be barely edited when my first two novels, Theory of Mind and Angel Bird were published by Black Swan. Fortunate, because editing is a painful process, especially when the person who is paying you is pointing out your shortcomings. Unfortunate, because it gave me the misguided impression that writing a novel is all about the writing. As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘The first draft  of anything is shit.’ For your work to shine, you need to write, rewrite and then get some help!

Continue reading

It’s All in the Edit

category_diary80IT’S ALL IN THE EDIT – I used to be dreadfully bad at spelling and grammar. Now I’m just bad. I’m better  than I was thanks to spell check, practice and copy editors. Necessary as good punctuation and the correct use of the English language is, though, editing is so much more than this.edit

You can – you probably should – pay for a copy editor to go through your work before your book wings its way into the world; you should probably also hire a professional editor (more on this another time), but I thought I would share with you my editing procedure. Not that everyone needs this kind of approach – it’s simply what helps me with my rubbish spelling and blindspots when it comes to typos and story structure!

So. I’ve finished the first draft. I drink copious amounts of alcohol, preferably fizzy, and then:

Continue reading