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.
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.
Writing a novel without some kind of a plan is like building a house on quicksand. It is so much harder to fix structural problems at the end of a draft than it is in the development stage.
Well known literary agent Jonny Geller
I don’t agree at all. Structure is a superficial feature of narrative. You can change it whenever you like. What’s truly fundamental is tone. You do need a plan, but the best sequence is–write first, then plan. Then edit with confidence, knowing what you’ve got.
Fantasy superstar Philip Pullman
Here’s the point about writing advice. I’ve learned to be cautious about dogma, because people are fond of saying what that works for them – their brain, their way of thinking – should be universal advice.
Lots of people extol ‘Write every day!’ That’s a great discipline if you can manage it, and for some people the only way to get the time. To be honest, a day of writing and doing nothing else (or two half days) works better for me than seven individual hours on seven different days. (Think about it every day if you can.)
Dogma merchants love the mechanics of writing. Some people handwrite their books in elegant notebooks with a fountain pen they bought at Harrods. Others hammer their old computer like a demented Muppet. Which is right?
I think it depends how you put words together. Some people painfully assemble their sentences like an old watchmaker. They write slowly – add a comma here? Oooh, tricky! What comes out is serviceable. Bit by bit they build the work. So handwriting is fine.
I’m more Kermit thumping out the words on my laptop, to see how the scene works, or whether this approach is too obtuse. I write quick and messy, knowing I will have to go over it again and again. I honestly think I need to write 10,000 words of a major character before I’m clear if they are working. To be forced to handwrite would be unbelievably frustrating. It would be like telling a ‘watchmaking’ writer to write with their feet. I accept the price of this method: writing stuff you change later, deciding an approach is not working, writing stuff you decide to cut.
When it comes to a significant review and edit, I change the font and print it out, and mark it up on paper. This is a deliberate attempt to make the work feel like someone else’s.
Plot or pants? Plan the work or write by the seat of your pants? See the two esteemed figures above. Brian Aldiss claimed to plan books down to paragraph level before he started writing. Stephen King starts with a situation and sees what happens.
I’m more King than Aldiss. However, starting a book without a clear understanding of the final place the characters must end is very dangerous. People don’t forgive poor endings. Where your characters start and end, the challenge they face and the change that happens, is the arc of the book. Starting without this is setting sail in the dark and hoping to find an island which might not be there. I must start knowing an ending, so in one sense I plot.
What is the narrative question, asked early in the book, guiding the book throughout, and answered at the end? Should Hamlet kill his wicked uncle? Can Iago destroy Othello by his lies? Will Romeo and Juliet live happy ever after?
Stravinsky said, ‘The magic happens at the keyboard.’ Writing deepens understanding of the characters, brings out themes, helps you understand this new idea is a better challenge than the old one. I’m also terrified that a detailed plan will remove the impetus to write the damn thing, just as telling someone a short story idea often stops me writing the story.
I start with a rough idea of what will happen, a one side plan. I write a lot, and it makes me reconsider the plan. Sometimes I pause a good way in and redo the plan. But the plan is the servant not the master.
Is any of this useful or got any thoughts? Let me know! This article was a suggestion from a newsletter follower, so subscribe and ask!
Nothing says Christmas like moaning about old TV. I am watching Star Trek The Original Series – I used to love this when I was ten or so. It lit up my world with wonder. Now, rewatching, please send help, because it’s terrible.
I’m not particularly fussed about the terrible clunky sets, the lack of common sense like seat belts, and the fact that it was thirty years behind written SF in addressing either bold speculative ideas, or social issues. In the Christmas Spirit of putting the boot in, I call in evidence:
The teeth-gritting sexism. Female characters as one episode love interest, professional women constantly characterised as flighty idiots incapable of driving a shopping trolley, women getting no lines except screaming and screwing things up. The uniform with incredibly short skirts. Women who get married leave Starfleet. Everyone wanting to shag Kirk (ewwwww).
The balls-aching line of command. No-one ever has any independent authority. Kirk has to tell Spock to tell someone to do the bloody obvious thing. In a real warship, they’d be blown out of the sky waiting for permission to wipe their own arses.
The teeth-gritting sexism can’t be entirely excused by the times. The pilot famously had a cool, competent, strong First Officer who was a woman, and they dropped the character because test screenings didn’t like it. In the pilot, all the Starfleet women wore trousers and weren’t stupid. So, don’t tell me the team were prisoners of their time – they backed down under pressure.
Even as a kid I noticed that they sent exactly the wrong people down to the surface, and let’s all face front so the monsters can jump them from behind. Although some nerd has shown wearing a red shirt is not an indicator you are going to die. Endless terrible decisions.
Broadly racist, white Americans tend to hold all the positions of power. My ten-year-old-me’s crush, Nichelle Nichols, was urged to stay by Martin Luther King; she inspired other black women into TV; I know she’s an icon, but she’s never given that much to do. Sigh of relief when Uhura’s shown with a soldering iron doing something. Soldering, not just smouldering.
The science. I don’t mind ‘handwavium’ – I don’t think the point of science fiction is to explain exactly how your faster than light works. It is the GCSE level science that everyone watching ought to know. Like, if you bombard a planet with incredibly bright ultraviolet light, aliens hiding in the dark still won’t be touched by it. Light doesn’t bend round corners. Humans looking up would be burned or blinded. Also, antimatter isn’t ‘evil’.
The world seems inconsistent from episode to episode. For example, if you don’t have enough energy to run the warp engines, can you still have enough energy to have shields and full impulse power? This stuff really matters to the story, different episodes give different answers. What happens when a nut locks themselves in Engineering, which happens every Wednesday? Different solutions in different episodes.
Primitive people enslaved by a god/god like computer – three times in the last eight episodes I watched. Women choosing flightily. Immortal chasing immortal for all time (twice).
Spock is not that credible a character, Vulcan an unbelievable society, Amok Time might be the worst episode of any science fiction programme ever. Not least because of the teeth-gritting and illogical sexism. (The modern take – Vulcans have emotions but suppress them, is far more logical, believable, and dramatic.)
Jim, Bones and Spock ‘joshing’ humourlessly may cause cancer and should be banned.
Characters give speeches which are plot points, not consistent with their character.
The story telling is sometimes ponderous, the acting hammier than a pork sausage, but AT LEAST THE MUSIC SUBTLY TELLS YOU WHAT TO THINK. Oh, the Woman is Being Seductive
Bonus point, Chekov is impressively annoying as a character. The Wussians probably agreed to a nuclear arms treaty on the promise Chekov would be frozen in ice for two billion years.
STTOS is optimistic. It espouses diversity and peaceful cooperation, even if it doesn’t deliver. It aspires to progress. Its penal system is based on rehabilitation, the culture aspires to be meritocratic. Not every episode is terrible. But sometimes when you go back to something, the river has flowed on. Nothing ages like the future.
I have some updates coming, but my lovely subscribers will get them first.
I have seen a first draft of the cover art and I love it so much, I am seeking legal advice as to whether I can marry it. That’s led to Serious Thoughts about Covers.
I’ve got some hot thoughts on Why Does This Take So Flipping Long? The quick answer is, it does, and if Our Child of the Stars is going to take a bit longer than a typical debut, then it’s with good reason. Which I explain.
I’ve had my Important Notes off my editor, Jo Fletcher. Notes are the editorial changes she wants, and this work is underway. I might write sometime about what this sort of editing is about. It’s not line or copy-editing, which is fixing semi-colons, tenses, and noticing characters’ eye colour changes.
Smartphones. The first novel I completed was a modern adventure with teen protagonists, and I was fed up with smartphones.
No, that’s not a problem, they’d Google. No, they’d message each other. No, they have time to text the Mayor that they’re in danger. No, you can’t use signal problems or running out of battery AGAIN.
I would’ve gotten away with it – if it wasn’t for those pesky smartphones…
In Our Child of the Stars, it’s true that law enforcement with modern tech would mess with the plot. But that’s fixable.
Stories come to me, and the setting and period is one of the things that come unbidden. Sometimes, I need take a step back and challenge my subconscious for being boring or obvious. This kept feeling like a period piece.
The original short story was written after reading Ray Bradbury, a writer who is nostalgic even when writing about the future.
We mythologise the past, and the Sixties in particular. It was another country, and they did things differently there. The novel is posed at that point of high idealism souring, at a time when the wave of change was reaching into further corners.
To write about the past is not to be backward looking. The book is first and foremost about family. It isn’t a preachy book, but I knew that it would touch on difference – sex, race and sexuality. It’s about the morality of violence – peace and war, and the dishonesty and power of the state. The Sixties was a time when all those issues were in ferment, even in out of the way places like Amber Grove. Arguments exploded and if you look at the news, the pieces haven’t landed yet. Our Child of the Stars does have a nostalgic streak, but also it might make people think, could we have done better? Can we now do better? It remembers what we gained as well as what we lost.
Why small town America? Biggest, it would be easier to hide Cory. And, I didn’t want to write about radicals in a big city, but peaceniks living in a small town. Inclusion mattered to me, which is why there are honest, decent people, friends of Gene and Molly, who support the Vietnam war, however reluctantly. That was part of the tragedy of that conflict.
A book needs a soundtrack. I write to music. I knew whose records Gene and Molly are listening to in the original story. The more I listened to the classics of the era, particularly the folk-protest tradition, the more music became important. It quickly became central to Gene’s character, and the framing of the tale.
There were so many good reasons to go with when I did. But, also, smartphones.
A few years back, I sat down and wrote, unprompted and off the top of my head, in five minutes, the books I wished I had written. Are these favourites? They are certainly not perfect, there are cogent criticisms of each of them. If I had written them, they would have had different faults. But these were the books that came to mind, without perusing lists of the canon.
Northern Lights – (Philip Pullman)
A Wizard of Earthsea, and The Left Hand of Darkness – (Ursula K Le Guin)
Player of Games – (Iain M Banks)
The Handmaid’s Tale – (Margaret Atwood)
The Persian Boy, and The King Must Die – (Mary Renault)
1984 and Animal Farm – (George Orwell)
Easter – (Michael Arditti)
The Sparrow – (Maria Doria Russell)
Revisiting this list recently I added
The Girl with all the Gifts – (M R Carey)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – (Neil Gaiman)
The Name of the Rose – (Umberto Eco)
Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
Commentary on this
These immerse you in their world with complete authority
Nearly all have great characters you care about.
They do tend to address issues however obliquely
The only ‘contemporary novel’ is Easter, a satire. Well, an everything.
None of the thrillers, spy fiction, or detective stories make it in.
It is interesting that writers I really rate and recommend do not have a single work that leaps out.
To take some examples, Saki, Borges, Ray Bradbury, Angela Carter I think of as short story writers. No P G Woodhouse book or story is strikingly better than the next one.
Remember this list is books where I thought, I wish I had written this. That’s not ‘fave read’ (many are), or ‘most impressed by’.