The well worn path of Ian Mcewan and science fiction

I published something about Ian McEwan’s new book, what science fiction is and isn’t, Frankenstein, where the word robot comes from, and how this fits with Our Child of the Stars.

Grumpy lifelike male robot
Grump lifelike male robot (photo Pixabay, Pexels.com)

 

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Talk at Quaker Book Centre

There is a long unedited video of me talking to a friendly crew at Friends House in the Euston Rd.   Part one here  It is on Facebook (search for @quakercentre.)   Good event, but we could have covered so much more!

 

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Reading 16 April, Friends House, Euston Rd, London

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The rules of Write Club; or you want to write a novel

So you want to write a novel? I’ve been asked how several times in recent weeks, often from people who haven’t written more than a report since school. I’d written fiction but only stared defeated at the idea of writing a novel until 2012.  Here’s some thoughts.

Write to see if you can do it, and like doing it.

The curse of writing advice is how dogmatic and simplistic some of it is. Read around, and be cautious of This Is The Only Way.

Start writing. Write a dialogue between two people you know. Try short stories. Write description. Look at what things you write work and what don’t. Compare them to good authors you know well. Lots of authors keep a journal. Get a routine, whether every day, whenever you have a free hour, all Saturday. Don’t worry on day one what this writing is ‘for’.

Novels, short stories, plays, film scripts are different art-forms. They have some similarities and some differences. Writing twenty 5000 word short stories is not inherently ‘easier’ than writing one 100,000 word book. Writing well for children is no ‘easier’ than writing for adults. Write to find out what is the form for your story.

Read a lot. Read the sort of thing you like, the sort of thing you want to write, sometimes other things people praise which are not your thing, and non-fiction too. Occasionally you find a good writer who doesn’t read lots. But very rarely.

Some people try fan-fiction, which is taking a story you like and setting stories in that world. It is said to be a good exercise. Maybe try it but two firm DON’Ts. Don’t sell fanfic, and don’t submit it to agents (because copyright: most likely you do not have the right to use the characters). Use it for practice.

A NOVEL? Not surprisingly, if you want to write a novel, it’s a big job and takes a lot of time. I worked on Our Child of the Stars on and off for five years.

GENRE. Genre is a loose description, a set of promises to the reader. It helps people to market the book and to shelve it in the bookstore properly, so it has the best chance to reach its audience. Genre has conventions, and it is important to understand what they are now. For example, if you read a lot of science fiction published fifty years ago, the field has moved on. If you haven’t read Young Adult novels, you’re unlikely to write a good one.

The industry is very wary of cross-genre books because they can alienate both audiences and satisfy neither. But the conventions have plenty of stretch in them.

IDEAS. A good book is not ‘an idea’. ‘An idea’ can be a starting place, but for example, ‘orphan goes to wizard school’ is the idea for both A Wizard of Earthsea and Harry Potter – radically different books in character, world, story-line, philosophy, writing style and ending.

PLOT. Plot is the events you arrange in order to tell your story well. Lots of other story happens, you just don’t have to write it.

Even good ideas or worlds or research are most entertaining when used as a background to people. Interesting people that we care about, part of their world, driven by things they want, and who face obstacles and the limits of their abilities.

Hamlet is four hours long, yet it asks a few snappy questions. Claudius has murdered Hamlet’s father and usurped the throne. Will Hamlet do the right thing, and what is the cost? Hamlet would be a totally different play if Hamlet was a different person.

Writing gurus can be enormously dogmatic about how to structure a plot; also a Hollywood blockbuster, a literary novel and an art house film have different needs. But they are right that usually plot is about choices made by characters, a series of events following logically one from the other. They need to provoke emotional responses. There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end – a setup, the struggles to resolve the issues, the climax. (That was the original writing guru, Aristotle by the way. He liked admirable people being brought down by their flaws. You don’t have to write that.)

Writing advice. Good advice explains the arguments. For example, ‘all adverbs are bad’ is terrible advice. ‘Adverbs are often a sign of weak or lazy writing, often they can and should be replaced with better dialogue, or stronger verbs in action. Just sometimes they are an option worth considering.’ is better advice.

Yes, there are books on writing, and some of them are useful. I recommend a few below. Some courses are useful and some writing groups. There is absolutely no way around writing, a lot; receiving criticism, some of which you won’t like; and rewriting. Turning your critical skills on other peoples’ work is also valuable. There are services which you can pay to evaluate your work.  (This is a service I am developing.)

No, your first draft is not as good as you can get it. Sorry. Yes, some feedback you get is wrong. Sorry.

PLAN OR NOT? Do you plan every stage of your book before you start writing (a plotter) or do you just start with a situation and free-write (a pantser as in writes by the seat of your pants). Many people shift between the two. For example, I start with strong ideas about the characters, setting, themes, their dilemmas, and where they might end up. I develop the characters and theme as I write, then do some hard re-plotting in the first redraft. A hard-line plotter probably ends up deviating from their plan. I like the discipline created by a firm narrative question (will Hamlet do the right thing?)

Don’t try writing a novel for the hope of fame and fortune. The statistics are blunt, whether you self-publish or traditionally publish. Do it to see if you enjoy it. Do it to see if you can.

On Writing, Stephen King
How to become a writer, Dorothea Brande (very old, very interesting)
How not to write a novel, Howard Mittlemark, Sandra Newman
Get Started in Writing Young Adult Fiction: Juliet Mushens. She is a well known agent. Ignore the title, 85% of this book applies to any novel and it explains modern publishing well too.

 

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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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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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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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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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I Will Write You A Short Story

Authorsforfamilies.org is a group of literary people mostly from the US who got together on Facebook, to support immigrant children separated from their families.

Ripping children away from their families in tears and locking them up in cages, and no-one speaking the kids’ languages… and no paperwork… no easy way to connect a kid and their parents … we have this crazy idea that this is a Very Bad Thing. ***

So, we are fundraising to help, and we’re doing an auction.  There are lots of books, critiques, and advice things to bid on.

I’ve offered to write you a new, original short story.  Yes YOU, if you bid the most.  Cool, huh?

Here are the details.

It will be a story for age 16 + but without excessive sex and gore.  It will be between 1000 and 10000 words.  It will probably have some science fiction or fantasy take, but probably not vampires, werewolves, or zombies.  At the moment, I try to write things which end with hope.

It will take how long it takes.  I’d be surprised if I didn’t get you a draft within a couple of months, but what I will promise is fortnightly updates.

When I send you a draft, I’ll listen carefully to comments, but I won’t be planning a major rewrite.   I have a book deadline.

Will you like it?  I hope so, but there’s no realistic way I can write this unless we’re grown-ups, and accept that you might not.  I’d have to grill you about your taste for hours, and it would still be incredibly difficult to produce something you liked.  It may annoy you.  I hope not, but let’s accept the possibility.

We speak by email.  You give me four prompts.

  1. A name
  2. An object
  3. Something about style or setting or genre
  4. A line (poem, song, book, play) or a visual image but not of the object

I will try to use three of these, and it may be central or tangential, literal or figurative.

Of course, it’s fine to throw in some personal comments ‘Stories with aliens in give me hives’ and I may listen to those.

My decision as to whether I have delivered to you a story within the above parameters is final and no refunds will be given.

OK legal bit, as it has my name on it I keep the copyright and will publish it on my website.  The story will always be used with the line ‘Written for [you] after their kind donation to support Authors For Families.’  Unless you want to remain anonymous. You can put it on your website and send it to people in your Christmas letter, and we should talk about anything else you want to do with it.

It will come to you in British English, or a sort of weird hybrid I write when I set things in America.

An odd collection of my stuff is here.  I hope you enjoy it.

Bid early, bid often.

***You don’t think it is a Very Bad Thing?  Convo over, mate.  Educate yourself.

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Writing process: like a demented Muppet

Kermit types fast
Kermit types fast

I noticed this exchange on Twitter (26 Feb 2018)

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!

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