Students grill a new author about Creative Writing

I was delighted to be invited to speak to Woodhouse College’s Creative Writing Class.  This is an optional activity, and this particular meeting had 3-4 students who’d come specially.  Woodhouse combines a college-y feel and strong academic ambitions with a lot of societies and activities.  It’s diverse, smart, and I would have loved that option when I was 16.

I read, then talked through how I came to write it, genre, how publishing works, etc.  The students asked plenty of sensible questions, although the questions tended to need quite long answers.  Then we did a creative writing exercise around plot.

What did they think? Well, here’s one report.

…Stephen Cox visited the Woodhouse Plus Creative Writing class to give a talk. He read an excerpt from his book Our Child Of The Stars and spoke about writing and publishing the book, giving the aspiring writers in the room valuable insight and advice into the process. He answered our questions on a range of subjects, from finding your voice to how much do authors need to plan and world build in advance? He led a creative writing activity that he uses, that aims to help writers figure out a starting point for a story. It involves creating 2 characters who can be summarised interestingly in 1 sentence each, who have some sort of dynamic between them, in a setting, where one (or both) want something, and something that’s standing in their way. This exercise led to interesting starts of stories that we shared with one another. Stephen’s talk was interesting and insightful, it helped us understand the writing world to a greater extent and his advice and writing tips were useful. I for one will be using them in the future.

Will any of them get a book published?  They have plenty of time, and I hope I both encouraged them to work hard at the craft of writing, and gave a not too discouraging discussion about how long the path might be.

It was interesting that all of the plots generated that were shared, were genre or might well have been.

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Write what you know – Our Child of the Stars

This article appeared in the Jan 2019 Enfield Dispatch under the headline Written in the stars.  My thanks to the editor.

***

How did I write Our Child of the Stars?  Did I stick to the old saying ‘Write what you know’?

I wrote a short story for Halloween.  A couple, Gene and Molly, and their strange but lovable son Cory.  It took me a day or two, and I was intrigued.  Obsessed.  There was tragedy in Molly’s past and violence in the family’s future. What an oddly likeable little boy he was.  Whole strands of the book come from single sentences in the story, like how Cory came into their dreams…

And it was clear the setting was rural New York and the timing was that great mythical decade, the Sixties.

‘Write what you know.’ I was brought up in Bristol.  It would have been easier to move the book to the urban England of my childhood and set it a little later.  The book would have been surprisingly different.

Yet the characters were very clear where they came from.

What I know, I hope, is people.  I have always been surrounded by strong, interesting women, which helped to write Molly, the main voice.  I know families, and bereavements, and arguments, and what it is to be a child, a sibling and a parent. I know what I care about, what I think of the world then and now, (war and peace, truth and lies), and what type of books I like.  I’m a kind of recovering science fiction and fantasy fan, I like some of it a lot, but always because of the people.

America fascinates me, because I was born there.  Research was talking to people, remembering stories from my parents, the books and films of the era, and of course, the internet.  And the wonderful soundtrack made music a character in the book.

I knew who to ask, intelligent readers of different ages, genders, tastes and nationalities who would give me robust feedback.  I learned what feedback is useful.

I wanted to try for an agent. A previous novel got nowhere but encouraged me.  It’s never been so easy to find what agents want.  This book interested three agents and one offered to represent me.  We didn’t know each other, he just liked the book.

‘It’s wonderful,’ he said, ‘but it needs more work…’

He sold it, and now it is in the world, and complete strangers love it.

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Updates for this book and the next for reviewers and bloggers

I’m enjoy reading reviews of Our Child of the Stars on Goodreads and Amazon, among other places.  It’s not done to respond to those directly, even if I wanted to.

I’m writing a second book, which will strongly appeal to those who liked the first one.  To stay in touch:

Ideally subscribe to my newsletter – which only goes out when I have real stuff to say.

Drop me an email, if you only want the most significant developments.  That goes on a secure list. (The newsletter is easier.)

Follow me on twitter

Follow me on the journey and comments welcome.

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Twelve things a good writing group should give you.

Hat-tip the Big Green Bookshop Writing Group

Company. Writing is often lonely, and non-writers don’t always understand.  Attending a group gives the sense of shared endeavor , a place to vent your frustrations, and a place to share little triumphs that non-writers may not get.  It should be enjoyable!  You should leave powered up and determined.

Welcome.  People are interested in you and what you are reading and writing.  They explain the rules, introduce themselves by name and try to remember yours.  They make it clear that socialising afterwards is open to all.

Generosity of spirit.  Good groups are open to new people, new ideas, and new approaches.  Your personal goals are respected. They applaud your successes and mourn your disappointments.  They encourage you back on the horse.

A safe space.  They accept who you are and where you come from, and within any publicly stated terms of reference, support you in terms of what you want to read.  They have clear rules on what is appropriate to share when.  If you are wanting to read sexual violence, torture, etc, ask the facilitator first beforehand.

Some group discipline.  There is clear facilitating AND the group understands the boundaries.  Quieter voices are heard, discussion is focused but not military, friendly but not meandering.

It’s kind about how things are said, but honest about what is said.  

Critical skills. A good group encourages you to read and listen to other people’s stuff and develop your own critical abilities.  It is often easier to see and understand strengths and weaknesses in other people’s work, before realising the relevance to yourself.  It should encourage you to learn from reading published work.

Both valid and invalid criticism!  Hearing criticism of your work is hard to take.  Being a writer will mean criticism before, during and after the publication process. (If you didn’t like reading to a group, oh boy, wait until you get edited!)  I strongly believe, don’t defend the work line by line, you need to learn the art of taking in the comments, processing them, and deciding if they are valid/helpful.

Focused feedback.  Criticism should be primarily about the craft of the work – factual accuracy should be flagged briefly for the author to check outside the meeting.  Don’t suggest making the main character a vampire, unless the author clearly signalled they wanted radical suggestions.

Accountability. A good group encourages you to keep writing, it will understand those periods when you are blocked or unhappy, but it will kindly push you in the right way.  Not every writer improves with practice, but no writer can improve without it.

A quest for competence.  The group share news about where you can hear industry professionals speak, they try to get that writer or that agent to come to a meeting.  They share what courses and books did for them.  They understand you can read too much advice and not do enough writing.

A mix of knowledge.  For Our Child of the Stars, I got to try out early chapters on men and women, on British people and Americans, on parents and non-parents, on people who have been in love with science fiction forever, and people who avoid it.

The thirteen point is perhaps a good method.  That’s a contentious matter for another post.

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Giveaway: Three copies of the proof given away

I just tweeted this

GIVEAWAY DRAW.

Three signed proofs of the ‘wonderful, magical, gripping’ #OurChildOfTheStars to be won.

Follow me and RT this to enter

(UK post only)

details, offers, links bit.ly/2RPmOCS 

EDITED TO ADD CLOSES 12/13 Dec.  Sorry!

  1. People who sub to my newsletter are entered and if they follow me and RT on Twitter as well they get a second entry
  2. Anyone can sub to the newsletter so this is fair.
  3. The publisher only covers post within UK, sorry
  4. Sorry Mum, no close relatives, wouldn’t look fair
  5. Actually, Mum has bought a copy
  6. I use a random number generator to pick the winner. Woo, Science!
  7. If you haven’t followed me on Twitter or subbed to my newsletter you can’t win
  8. I’ll try my damnedest to run a clean fair comp, but my decision is final
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All I want for Christmas…

Well, working on the Second Book, of which more later. I am at the stage of looking a vast pile of words which I am now looking to see if it is a polished train of narrative or just a heap of rusty wreckage.  This is an interesting point in the process.

I am in a Debut Authors group, which by the way of things is mostly full of Lovely Americans. Lovely Americans are lovely. Wouldn’t it be good if I got a US+Canada deal for Our Child of the Stars…

Being a debut author is interesting. The Quercus publishers team are working hard. Two months from Official Hardback Publication and you know, launches, articles, blogposts to write.  All of which is less stress than writing the second book.

Online reviews have been supportive and insightful.  I just need as ever the entire world to see buy the book, like it, and review it.

And to write the second book, so signing off now.

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How to help any new author

There are five easy things you can do to help an author that require no specific training or equipment.

Please buy and read the book! The main thing the author wants is for you to enjoy it.

Feel free to buy it as a print book, an e-book, or an audio-book. A smart author wants all readers.

If you like it, please, please talk about it – online and face to face.  Personal recommendations count.  If you’re a social media person, you know what to do.  You can help authors you like.

Please think about rating and reviewing on Amazon and Goodreads.  It’s easy – giving a star rating takes less than a minute.  Reviews do help readers decide; also, more reviews make the book more visible online.  A review never has to be an English Literature essay.  A few quick lines would be great.

Libraries and charity shops serve the broader purpose of promoting literacy. Most authors use them and encourage them.

Here are five things NOT to do when an author has a book out

Please don’t worry if you haven’t time or energy.

Don’t send bad reviews.  They’ve seen it.  You’re rubbing their face in it.

Don’t tell them their book is not being stocked in any particular shop. No shop can stock more than a minority of titles, and 99% of the time there is nothing the author can do.

Don’t be rude to booksellers or anyone else; don’t move their books in the shop.

Forget to buy it.

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NaNoWriMo Yes or No?

NaNoWriMo – national write a novel month – has been running for years.  It’s a writing challenge, where you pledge to write say 50,000 words in the month of November.  You can set a lower target if you like. You ‘win’ NaNo by completing it.

50,000 words is not a full-length novel, and it’s accepted by anyone who knows anything that what you write under these conditions is likely to be a rough first draft.  Rougher than a billy goat’s bum.

As I grow older, raining on other people’s parades pleases me less and less. I want to be really sure before I tell people not to do something. And I’ve never done the challenge, although I have often sat down and tried to write a very large number of words over a very small number of weeks.

NaNo generates almost cult-like enthusiasm, with my Debut Authors Facebook group full of good published authors ready to do it. My writing group loves it.  And yet, there are people in those groups who are silent, and some serious writers online warning it doesn’t work for everyone.

Here’s the case for NaNo

People may not start a novel because they are boggled by the number of words.   Write 50,000 and that kills the idea you can’t write a novel-length text.

A rough draft no matter how shonky is something to work with and improve.  Vast amounts of writing a book are in the endless editing anyway.

You may find pace and energy because you must write.  You may feel the story come alive in your hands and that gives you the taste for writing.  For me no plan lives until I am writing it.

There’s a supportive community, people share tips and encouragement, no one is rude to you for falling behind.

Writing more normally, a great many people endlessly cycle back to the start of the novel to change it.  NaNo whatever else it does, stops you doing that.  It is inherently better to finish and then fix even major changes in the first edit.  We see people in the writing group spending forever on the first third of the book, Groundhog Day.

Smart NaNo people spend October planning, researching, getting characters sorted etc.  You might write a book in a month starting from a prompt.  Wouldn’t necessarily advise it.

Here’s the case against

So, I know smart people who say that it has helped them as a writer.  Self published and traditionally published writers who still do it – although they are a) prolific and b) plan beforehand so they are not starting from scratch.

But then if NaNo was a vast effort, and what it led you to do was start again and rewrite from scratch in a fresh document… did NaNo help you?  If it gives you months of block, was it really that good?

In almost every field of life, getting nervous newcomers to set an impossible target and then fail is a bad strategy.

The writer @TimClarePoet who does an interesting podcast did an episode on NaNo.  He is flatly against.  If I can summarise his argument:

  • Tim says, if writing is presented as a tough, daily, grim challenge, it will feel like it. If you have trouble with your writing enthusiasm, it may crush it.
  • He cites many writers who take a two or three month writing break post NaNo.  Bluntly they burn out.  They could therefore try a much lower daily total or even ignore the daily total, and be further ahead in the same time.
  • Tim believes in trying to make the writing a joy. Try to write every day without bludgeoning yourself with a total.

Where am I?  Sceptical.  Partly for me, I know I could churn out 50,000 of word product, but not if in full time work.  I just don’t know what I would have on 1st Dec would be worth working on. If your difficulty is plotting and structure and focus, as mine has been, just getting words down might not be helpful.

I have seen claims of the liberating power of NaNo that are clearly ‘very optimistic’, although not every writing coach, agent or editor is hostile.  I wouldn’t argue anyone out of it but I wouldn’t advocate it either.

I think one of my most treasured learnings is that you can learn from different and contradictory writing processes.  Too many writers extol a Golden Path which is different from the next writers.  Be clear on your aims, be clear NaNo need not be your usual process.  Treat it like a particular challenge that does not have to be your life.

What I’m doing in November is committing myself to write or edit every day come what may, to finish the rough first draft of Sekret Second Book.  That’s because that’s where I am and deadlines. Not NaNo.

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More about Our Child of the Stars

A lost child, the family who try to protect him and the secret that refuses to stay hidden . . .

Molly and Gene Myers were happy, until tragedy blighted their hopes of children. During the years of darkness and despair, they each put their marriage in jeopardy, but now they are starting to rebuild their fragile bond.

This is the year of Woodstock and the moon landings; war is raging in Vietnam and the superpowers are threatening each other with annihilation.

Then the Meteor crashes into Amber Grove, devastating the small New England town – and changing their lives for ever. Molly, a nurse, caught up in the thick of the disaster, is given care of a desperately ill patient rescued from the wreckage: a sick boy with a remarkable appearance, an orphan who needs a mother.

And soon the whole world will be looking for him.

Cory’s arrival has changed everything. And the Myers will do anything to keep him safe.

A remarkable story of warmth, tenacity and generosity of spirit, set against the backdrop of a fast-changing, terrifying decade.

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In praise of the crappy first draft

Some writers craft each sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter as if they are a Swiss watchmaker.  And when they get to the end, a quick polish and the book might be ready to be shown to someone else.  Hey, if that works for you, great.

I’m not like that. Writing a book explores how your characters react to each other and the world.  Writing a plot tests it for coherence, probability, and interest.  Writing your ideas may shift how much you want to emphasise one thing or another, or begin to strengthen and draw out themes that were not explicit in any plan.

I think that would be true even if you plan chapter by chapter in advance.

There is every reason to believe your first draft will need at least one major revision, at the level of character and structure.  Probably more than one.  So it feels to me that aiming for it to be perfect as you go is a mistake.

I am 30,000 words into Mysterious Second Book, and already I have lists of things I want to add, strengthen and possibly remove.  I have a choice, to go back and redo what I’ve already done, or keep ploughing on, taking notes.  I’m also leaving scenes that aren’t working to come back to them.

If I must be happy with everything I have written, and I must write everything I need up to this point, I could hover for months endlessly refining.  I could get stuck on a scene I may decide in the end I don’t need.  Better to have the whole thing done, however patchy in places, and then know what you are working with.

So, when someone says the first draft can be crappy, they don’t mean that bad writing is good, that everything in it ought to aim to be crappy.  They don’t mean, in my experience, that they don’t read each chapter over and fix or annotate obvious issues.  They’re saying, they have let go of what they have written first off needing to good enough to show.  It will be the second or third draft, perhaps, that might be fit to be let into the light.

The most important writing advice is probably read a lot.  The second might be, don’t do what Famous Author says they do just because they say so.  Understand why they do it.  Maybe, you should try it, maybe you should accept it, maybe it is the best advice for you ever.  Maybe, you will end up like other authors who don’t do that.

What you don’t need is a folder full of the first thirds of several different novels, each polished to gleam and yet abandoned.

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