Tuesday, 22 April 2014

"That difficult second book..." (and third book... and fourth book...)

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Those were the words I heard a lot when I was writing the second book. It's a line oft-repeated by agents, editors and authors alike. The first book is still a hobby piece; an act of hope and faith; an expression of joy. When you finally land a 3 book deal it's balloons, silly hats and champagne all round. You pat your first book cover fondly and giggle when you see it on a real shelf in a library or book shop.

And then comes Book 2. This time, you're a professional writer. This book isn't just a bit of fun - someone has paid you actual money, trusting that you will write it. This brings a certain responsibility. My life had changed a lot by the time I was writing The Mortal Knife, mainly because I had become a mum. I had always been an evening writer; now I had to learn to sit down during the day and treat writing like the job it was and is. It wasn't easy but having a deadline on the horizon is a mighty effective combo of the carrot and stick. Maybe this is why writers find the second book tough - up until now the writing has been all carrot.

Which brings me to Book 3. I'm not sure why I thought it would be easier. Maybe all that 'difficult second book' stuff implied 'that stupidly easy third book!' Except it isn't easy. It's difficult. And finally I am beginning to get it. Writing 80-90,000 words of gripping, funny, consistent, warm-hearted prose is NEVER going to be easy. No matter how many times I do it, I will never be able to describe it as easy. The day I can describe the process as easy, I'm not growing. I'm not stretching myself.

But - and there is a but - one thing does get easier and it's the thing that gets me past all the other difficulties. No matter how hard it gets, I can tell myself: 'I've done this before.' As I limp towards the finish line of Book 3 I know I've been here and lived to tell the tale. For years I was the queen of the half-finished novel - but no one will ever read your half-finished novel. It will languish on a long-defunct laptop or memory pen - or even a floppy disc (revealing my age. Remember those?)

So, if there is one thing I have learned about writing in the last few years, it's this: FINISH SOMETHING. Because the power of finishing something - be it a poem, a story or even a book - is that once you've done it, YOU KNOW YOU CAN DO IT AGAIN. And even if your first or second or tenth efforts don't get the reception you want, that's okay. Next time you'll do it better.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've a book to finish.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Say hello to Hot Key :-)

From L-R: Emily, Jet, Naomi, Jan, Georgia, Sarah O, Me, Cait, Sarah B, Livs
and Front L-R: Amy and Meg
I've been feeling guilty recently - about this blog. I started *Notebook to Novel* as an aspiring, unpublished author and used it as a place to pour out my dreams and disappointments and any tips I picked up along the way.

Now life has changed to the point where I barely recognise it. In the last year I've not only become a mum (now there's a voyage into the unknown!) - I've also become a real, live, professional author. I say professional because for the next couple of years I'll be taking a break from my day job and concentrating on family life - and writing life!

There'll be lots more about that. But for now let me tell you that one of the most strange and lovely things about getting a book deal is seeing the other side of publishing - the inside if you like. And the nicest thing of all is realising just what a team effort publishing a book is.

Writing is largely a solitary endeavour. It relies on you being able to go into your own head and disappear; hang out with characters who feel real but aren't real (that's important by the way. They aren't real, hence the return to normal life is possible!) I've written before about how important it is to find other writers and dreamers and people who understand but even with this much of the graft of writing is a solo effort.

But when a book gets accepted by a publisher a whole new world is revealed. You work with editors who help you find the real heart of your story and put it on display. It's like walking in to see your hairdresser, peering out from beneath a fringe that's too long - and an hour later you walk out with your face finally framed and visible and on show to the world.

You work as part of an incredibly passionate, talented team of people who share one aim - to help get your little book out into the world and read by as many people as possible. There are people who design beautiful book covers; there are people who help you arrange events and market the book (and generally treat you like royalty on the entertainment front. In two weeks of Hot Key events I probably put on half a stone...)

And beyond Hot Key are all the other amazing people who are working to get Death & Co out there and read by as many people as possible: book buyers, book sellers, librarians and all the other unsung heroes of the book world. These people have lots of guts and get very little of the glory. They love books, their knowledge is encyclopaedic and they aren't afraid to sit down with a bottle of wine and tell you exactly why a particular book is brilliant or awful.

So this post is to say thank you. Thank you to all the people who left comments on the blog over the last couple of years. Thank you to Gillie my agent and to my family and friends who kept the faith. Thank you to Hot Key for loving Adam and his family and his world as much as I do.

And if you're reading this blog, longing for your own book deal - longing to see YOUR book in your hands - be inspired. Go back to the start of this blog when I was just daydreaming about it. No matter what you hear about how tough the market is - it is still possible for a debut author to get a book deal with a brilliant publisher. Keep writing and keep believing. You're next!

If you'd like to read Death & Co for yourself you can buy it from Amazon, Waterstones, Easons and all good independent booksellers.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

BLOG HOP: The Next Big Thing!



Right, my first ever blog hop! I had no idea such a thing existed until I was tagged by the lovely Bernie McGill who I’ve mentioned before. Basically it’s a chance for writers to share a little bit about their work with other writers and the rest of the world. So, here’s everything you wanted to know...

What are you working on at the moment?

The sequel to Death & Co. I have a working title but I’m always madly secretive about my titles in a superstitious sort of way! So for now it is simply known as Book 2!

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Obviously as a sequel the idea came with the first book. It actually came about when I was typing an email to my friend and writing mentor Bernie McGill (who tagged me to do this blog!). I was supposed to be meeting her for coffee and emailed to warn her that I had a stinking cold. Given to hyperbole I started writing, ‘I don’t just feel like death; I feel like Death’s ailing granny...’ and felt that sudden PING! that every writer will recognise – that feeling that there’s an idea there that just might lead to something. I started writing Death & Co. that night and never looked back.

What genre does your book fall under?
Near world Teen / Crossover fantasy. It’s our world with a twist!
Which actors would you choose to play in a film rendition of your book?
Ha! Every writer’s fantasy question! Unfortunately it would require a time machine as I have a few ideas for actors but they would all need to be about ten years younger than their current age. So for example Nathanial would be perfectly played by a slightly younger Colin Firth. He has the right combination of compassion and slight careworn-ness – not to mention being so very English! Kristin Scott Thomas would make a lovely Elise – and no one could do Auntie Jo more justice than Jo Brand.
What is the one sentence synopsis for your book?
Gah! Every writer’s most hated question! I guess it would be: Fifteen year old Adam is a reluctant Luman, guiding souls into the afterlife – when all he really wants is to be normal. Most of the tension and humour in the book revolves around this.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I have a lovely agent called Gillie Russell at Aitken Alexander Associates. She negotiated my deal with Hot Key Books, a fantastic new publisher specialising in teen fiction. They only launched last year but they’ve already had amazing success – one of their first books Maggot Moon won the Costa Children’s Book Prize. So basically my book has found a good home!
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I wrote it in bits and pieces – so worked hard for a couple of months, then took a four month break, then finally found the motivation to finish it over another couple of months.
What other books would you compare this to within this genre?
This is a really tricky question because I can’t think of any other books quite like it. In my mind it’s the book lovechild of The Inbetweeners and The Adams Family!
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’ve already described the lightbulb moment up above – but I guess I have always been interested in the supernatural and general existential questions about why we’re here, what our lives mean – and of course if there’s anything out there after we die. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t wrestled with these questions at some stage in their lives – and the variety of answers is amazing. Plus I've worked with teenagers for most of my career and they are great craic - so it seems natural to me to make them the heroes of everything I write!
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
The book is quite dark in places – but it’s also very funny – a bit like life itself. The general consensus from the people who have read it is that ultimately it’s a joyful, life-affirming book in spite of the tough subject matter.  I’ll let you be the judge!
FINITO! That was quick! Now, time to pass the candle onwards and upwards. Having mangled as many metaphors as possible I now present Deirdre Sullivan and KJ Foster. They’ll both be posting on the 6th February. Enjoy!

Monday, 31 December 2012

What I learned this year about... writing.

Keep doing it. Don't stop. Your time will come!

What I learned this year about... babies.

I've only been a mum for three months but let me share what I've learned in that short time...

- However they come out, be it through the trapdoor or the sunroof, it's gonna hurt.

- The first four weeks are pretty much awful. Nothing can really prepare you for the exhaustion. Whole days and weeks blur by in hallucinatory four hour cycles of waking, feeding, winding, changing, dozing, waking, feeding... Lots of people gloss over this fact. I would like to thank the handful of people who were brutally honest about this. And everyone else... I reckon you just blocked it all out, like any other trauma - so I forgive ya!

- Whatever joyful moments you can seize upon in these first four weeks - grab them and don't let go. It might be a shower, an uninterrupted meal, someone taking the bean for a walk so you can sleep... Enjoy each and every such moment!

- Babies grow fast. Take lots of photos. The speed at which they change is miraculous. Expect to be mildly broken-hearted when they grow out of the newborn clothes.

- At about five to six weeks they start smiling and interacting. They begin to grin and coo and sing to themselves. They develop a visible personality. At this point, magically, all the sleeplessness and hormones and pain (not to mention nine months of pregnancy) suddenly becomes worthwhile. You realise that by sheer good fortune you have created something truly amazing - a whole new person.

 - Babies take centre-stage. You are no longer the star in your own life.

- Swaddling is your friend. Ditto the angry hiss of static or any other white noise, especially if you have a colicky or overtired screamy baby. I recommend Baby Bliss by Dr Harvey Karp (aka The Happiest Baby on the Block) for tips and tricks. It saved my last remaining marbles.

- People love babies. It is amazing the happiness a baby brings, not just to family and friends but to complete strangers (in supermarkets and cafes to name just two examples). And when a baby bestows a smile on someone - it can make their day.

- Most of all I have learned that your own baby really is different. No matter how unmaternal you feel before your baby arrives (e.g. backing away in terror when a friend / colleague holds out a dribbling, shrieking, writhing newborn) somehow after those first few weeks have passed in a blur you will wake up one day, look at your gummy, grinning new arrival and realise that your life has changed forever - and that's okay.


Friday, 30 November 2012

A triumphant week for the PWA!

I've written before about the fabulous PWA - our online (and occasional in-the-flesh) writing group. And while my NaNoWriMo efforts have been an epic fail (due to proofing I hasten to add, wasn't slacking completely...) two PWA members had awesome success this week!

First up Bernie McGill's novel The Butterfly Cabinet was chosen by Julian Fellowes as his novel of the year! For those of you unfamiliar with Julian Fellowes he's currently best known as the writer of the international hit series Downton Abbey. I love Downton Abbey (and not just because fellow PWA-peep Julie Agnew and I enjoy drooling over the delectable Branson...) and am quite jealous of the US audience who haven't seen the third series yet. Of The Butterfly Cabinet he writes, "McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor."

And secondly short story writer Mandy Taggart has won the 2012 Michael McLaverty Short Story Award (run by the Linenhall Library, Belfast) with her story Ways of the North. It will be published in an anthology along with the two runners up. If you want to hear Mandy talking about her win you can listen (for 30 days only!) to her Radio Ulster interview. (Mandy's bit is at the end.)

Congratulations to both lovely ladies! I'm feeling suitably inspired by their success to get the proofs finished and get some writing done!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The proofs have arrived!

Exciting times in the McCune / Murph household - the uncorrected proofs of Death & Co. have arrived! The picture at the minute is the Hot Key logo but I've seen the first draft of the 'real' cover and absolutely love it - it really captures the spirit of the book!

This is the first time I've ever seen something I wrote bound into an actual book - and it was amazing flicking open the pages and finding my words inside. Up until now the book has only existed on the computer screen or a dog-eared, heavily marked print out. Suddenly the book seems so much more real!
And as if this wasn't cool enough check out what they've done at the start of each chapter - I am loving the 'woodcuttings'. You can catch a sneak peek at the first couple of paragraphs of the Prologue here...

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

It's almost November... It's NaNoWriMo Time!

A very quick post this evening as the witching hour is approaching on this spookiest of evenings...!

So our daughter Ellen is just over 5 weeks old today - hard to believe. The days and nights have blurred past in 3-4 hour slots of feeding, nappy changing and catching some sleep when the opportunity presents itself. But don't worry, I am exacting my revenge by getting as many comical photos of her as possible. I look forward to showing them to prospective suitors in the future...

And of course the end of October means only one thing - tomorrow is November and the start of NaNoWriMo. I believe the usual target is 50,000 words but I've decided that might be a tad ambitious with a newborn baby. So, my personal target will be 10,000 words this month. I suspect they will be pretty awful words but no one can fault my optimism. It's not too late to set your own target so if you want some tips check out the NaNoWriMo website.

And one final bit of excitement. The book (out next year) is called Death & Co. - and by spooky coincidence the bound but uncorrected proofs arrived with Hot Key today, ready to head off to Australia! A very suitable book for Halloween of course. You can check out the temporary cover here - but I can't wait to reveal the real book cover because it's AMAZING!

Happy Halloween!





Friday, 5 October 2012

A tale of 3 Jane's...

Well world, I'd like you to meet someone. This is our brand, shiny new daughter Ellen Jane, born on Tuesday 25th September at 1.01pm. She came out with eyes wide open, a squawk of indignation and a thick head of dark hair which is greatly admired (and petted cat-style) by all.

Choosing a name can be fraught with difficulty but we went for Ellen because it was beautiful and classical and means 'bright light'. Her middle name is Jane, which is also my middle name - when the book comes out next year it will be published under D J McCune.

So two Jane's so far - but both Ellen and I were named for the third - or rather the first. This is my Granny Jane Oakes,  known as Jenny. She died on the 5th of October 2011 at the age of 95. She lived through two World Wars - the first as a baby herself, the second as a mother with babies of her own (she told us about hiding in the cupboard under the stairs when the air raid sirens went off and bombers flew towards Belfast). She originally came from Newcastle in England but moved to Northern Ireland when she got married.

Granny absolutely adored books, poetry and reading and would often sit up reading into the small hours of the night (a habit she passed on to me). I never got to tell her about the book deal but I know she would have been proud. I also know she would have been proud of her newest great-grandaughter, named in her honour - just as she was proud of all her other children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

There's always grief when we lose someone we love. I was still writing Death & Co. when Granny died and it added a particular poignancy to the whole thing - writing a book about life and death and free will and family and the afterlife when the memories of a real bereavement were so sharp and fresh. Sometimes it seems insane that the world still turns when someone you love has died; that the other players keep walking the stage with all their triumphs and tribulations.

In the end, we all find our own ways to remember the people who have gone before us - place flowers, pull out old photos, light candles. But maybe the best thing we can do to honour the dead is to live well and do the things we know would have made them proud.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Writing and juggling... the latest twist.

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All writers are jugglers. I suspect most scribblers harbour a fantasy about being a 'real writer'. The fantasy probably reads something like the following...

Once upon a time there was a writer who lived in a cottage by the sea. The world pretty much left her alone, apart from the seagulls she had trained to bring her the odd packet of Doritos. She wrote stories and sold them to publishers who paid all her bills. The taxman liked her stories so much he left her alone. And so she whiled away her days eating Doritos, walking on the beach and effortlessly writing books without distraction. THE END

Now, even as a fantasy writer, that is pretty far-fetched - but a lot of us have some version of this tucked away in a dark corner of our minds. "If only it wasn't for my (delete as appropriate)... job / husband / kids / pets / responsibilities I would be able to write! Goddammit, I could write!" [adopts tortured expression of frustrated artist]

Thing is, we all have to juggle writing with life. I don't think that ever goes away, even if you're some amazingly successful writer - I mean c'mon, then you've got cool parties to attend and book panels to waffle on and that house in the Bermudas to visit... (See why I write fantasy, this stuff is easy...). Stephen King points out that TV is one of the greatest distractions for many aspiring writers ('sucking on the glass teat' is the rather evocative phrase he uses). For me the internet is my personal precipice - after all, as a writer the internet is so essential, so justifiable! You have to do research, email editors and agents, connect with other writers - and of course readers.

And from tomorrow I will have a whole new 'ball' to juggle. It - or rather she - will be roughly 9lbs in weight and pretty ferocious when she's tired or hungry. I'm guessing parenthood brings particular challenges for any writer - after all, being a parent is largely about being unselfish and sacrificing your personal wishes and desires for someone else, especially at the beginning. You begin to dream some new dreams for someone else - and for once they're not a character, they're a real flesh and blood human being. They don't have to follow the path you prescribe for them - tough for any writer (because let's face it, writing is as close as you can get to playing God without actually re-training as a dictator). And writing is selfish in a way - romping through your own head, choosing at times to ignore the world around you. From what I hear newborns don't tend to tolerate being ignored for long...

So as I sit here typing I can feel our daughter having a final alien-style squirm around, getting ready to erupt into the world, a whole new human being! Hopefully I'll learn the same skills so many of you have had to learn - balancing the role of writer and mum without messing up* as either (*Disclaimer: too much, most of the time. Is that aiming low?)

And any tips you've learned along the way - do share. After all, every one of us is a juggler -  but many hands make light(er) work.



Friday, 14 September 2012

Currently watching... The 4400

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Having worked pretty hard for the last few months on all sorts of things I'm enjoying a rare bit of down time at the minute - the calm before the storm so to speak.

So what better way to pass a few lazy hours than with a box set of The 4400? It's a quirky little series which I'd never heard of until it popped up in a 'recommended for you' list.

The plot essentially revolves around 4,400 people who go missing from earth, from a variety of different countries and times - only to all be returned at the same time with no memory of where they have been and a variety of new 'superhuman' abilities. Rather like Heroes these abilities can be used for good and evil - and at my current viewing stage (half way through season 3) the jury is still out on a couple of the main characters. Are they goodies or baddies?

It's the perfect chill out DVD - near world sci-fi, undemanding, good mix of characters and 40 minute bite-sized episodes. It's also pretty addictive so expect to watch 2 or 3 episodes back to back.

My one concern is the knowledge that like so many American shows it fell victim to 'sudden death' - where a studio for various reasons (usually financial) cancels halfway through the final season and without necessarily tying up all the loose ends. It's lazy, annoying and disrespectful to viewers who have invested time watching hours of content, only to be cheated out of a conclusion (thinking especially of the ill-fated Flash Forward here, not to mention the utterly bizarre, rush-job ending of the really promising Jericho). I haven't seen the last series of The 4400 yet but I'm really hoping it ends with a bang instead of a whimper...

Monday, 10 September 2012

Every writer needs a PWA!

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"Ah-ha, ah-ha, but what is a PWA?" I hear you ask (channelling Dr Seuss). Allow me to explain...

The PWA is short for the Procrastinating Writers' Association. Like the best nights out, it came about spontaneously and without any real planning. In October 2011 a few of us formed an online Facebook group for NaNoWriMo. We all had different goals - from ploughing on with books to writing more short stories - but essentially we wanted to stop getting distracted and get some writing done!

Over time our little group has evolved into something really special. Sometimes life gets busy and it can be hard to make time for meet-ups - but thanks to the internet a group of fellow writers is never too far away. The PWA has given us a space to share ideas, celebrations, commiserations, gossip, news about life and the odd picture of Branson from Downton Abbey... {ahem}.

The thing is, writing can be intense. Possibly every writer is a bit crazy - happy to spend time locked in a room in their head with a bunch of non-existent people who somehow conspire to bring themselves into existence. There's only so much a long-suffering spouse or pet can listen to as you cackle with delight at your latest plot twist or evil villain. That's why it's so important to find people who understand.

So if you're struggling to finish your latest project, why not get together with other people who get the crazy? Why not create your own PWA? You won't look back.

And before I go let me introduce you to our PWA...

This is Julie Agnew. Although she was no doubt a child prodigy she is a bit older than this now so don't feel insecure. She writes lovely poems but she's also working on her first book, which is very, very funny and warm-hearted, rather like Julie herself. It has a working title of 'Holly' because that's what the main character is called and the rest of the PWA are going to torment her until she finishes it because we want to know how it ends! On a side note, she posts distracting pictures of semi-naked Olympians to take us away from work. Grrrrr (not).

This is Bernie McGill. I met Bernie (and the other PWA members) when I joined the Creative Writing Class at Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart. Bernie is the endlessly patient and positive tutor in the class, who somehow manages to help you critique your work while being incredibly gentle and encouraging. She's also the author of a beautiful novel The Butterfly Cabinet, prize-winning short stories and a couple of plays. You can find out more about Bernie and her work if you visit her lovely website.

And finally... presenting Mandy Taggart! Mandy writes absolutely beautiful short fiction, some pieces really moving, some with a wonderful thread of dark humour running through them. She has been awarded an Arts Council grant for 2012-13 to give her the chance to focus on her writing - hurrah! You can find links to some of her published stories on her Facebook page, including a link of her reading a piece called Skiboo out loud - and singing! Brave woman!

So, are you feeling inspired? Will you be setting up your own PWA?

Friday, 7 September 2012

I knew I was going to love Hot Key Books...

... when I saw this video. Because there is nothing worse than a bunch of luvvie types who take themselves too seriously :-D

And know the best bit? Not only are they accepting submissions but they accept full manuscripts by email! Is your book ready? Go for it!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

It's all a bit exciting...

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Just a quick hello after a madly busy few months. I'm very conscious of not updating the blog but hopefully you'll forgive me when you hear that so far this year we / I have...

a) renovated a house.
b) moved into new house
c) got my 3 book deal *faints*
and finally... drum roll ...
d) we are having a baby! Very soon! In a few weeks! *faints again*

I won't bore you with the details of the move, lots of you will have done it and know how stressful it is. We were looking for a house for a long time (as previously mentioned in this post) so it was great when we finally found a house with office space for two writers! It needed lots of work - but we're now at the 'picking curtains' stage, rather than the 're-wire and re-plumb' stage!

As for the book deal - well it's been interesting! Not least because up until now my two trusted readers have been my lovely agent Gillie and my friend and writing mentor Bernie McGill. Now I've had to expand the 'reading circle' to include all the lovely people at Hot Key Books, especially my editor Emily Thomas.

It's always strange letting new people read your work. Writing comes from inside you so when someone reads it I always feel a bit exposed - like I've laid down a little piece of my soul for people to pet or spit upon as they choose! I'll be writing more in the blog about the whole editing process - as well as a rather fabulous group of writing ladies who have kept me sane through finishing the book, submitting it and dealing with the ups and downs of negotiations and edits. Forget the A-Team - they are the PWA! More on them soon...

And as for the baby bit... Well, I'll be able to tell you more about that soon enough. For now my stomach is moving from side to side Alien-style which is half-endearing and half-freaky. All tips for juggling newborns and writing gratefully received!

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Some very exciting news! It's a deal!

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You may have noticed the blog has been very, very quiet. That's because I had some very exciting but top secret news. I am over the moon to tell you that I have a 3 book deal with the fab Hot Key Books!

The book is called Death & Co. and tells the story of 15 year old Adam, a reluctant Luman - one of a special group of people charged with sending souls safely into the afterlife. Thing is, all Adam wants is to be normal - hang out with his friends, go to school - and if he's lucky eventually get to snog the lovely Melissa Morgan. Unfortunately Adam's family and the Luman world have other ideas...

I started this blog to keep track of the up and down road to getting published as a newbie author - and two years on I can finally crack open the champagne. I've been so touched by the comments and emails I've received here, especially because I have a habit of disappearing for long stretches - so thank you to all of you who read the blog and rooted for me over the last couple of years. I hope it will encourage you to know - no matter how tough the market is out there new authors are still getting published. You could be next!

I'll keep you up to date but provisional publication date for Death & Co. is May 2013 worldwide - and I reckon I can sneak a few teaser extracts out before then!

Friday, 17 February 2012

Getting from notebook to novel - #6

#6 - It's editing time. Get acquainted with your Inner Critic - and make sure she's a real b*tch!

So you've finished the book! The hours and hours hunched over the computer have finally paid off. Your story rocks, especially that neat little twist / devilish villain / saucy lurve scene (delete as appropriate). All you have to do now is have a quick read through, check for any outageous spolling mistaks (heh heh) and start sending it off to agents / editors / publishers.

Except you don't. This is the point where you will simultaneously become your own best friend and your own worst enemy. This is the point where you get out your manuscript, red pen and a notebook and begin the editing process.

As ever I learned a lot from my writing Bible, Stephen King's On Writing. He suggests printing out the complete manuscript double-spaced and doing a read through with a notebook by your side. Changing words or phrases is easy - just write them straight in, making the most of your double spacing. When you notice something which needs more thought or which is causing conflict, King suggests making a squiggle in the margin and then writing a corresponding page-referenced memo into your notebook. For example, some of my notes for the new book included "p216 Check paddock location" and "p89 Check Chloe's age." They're not always deal breakers but the fine details which make your world believable and consistent - especially important in fantasy.

It would be possible to write an entire book on editing, never mind a blog post - but one of the best pieces of advice I came across was to read your book as if it's your worst enemy reading it. Trust me, you'll soon spot the overuse of certain words (with Watchers it was a love affair with the word grimace, with the new book... I'm not sure yet...). On the other hand try not to lose the faith. Every writer has that experience of loving page 52, then reading it the next day with hatred in their heart. That's part of the process. The love will return - unless it genuinely does suck.

Anyway, I'm off to practise what I preach - wish me luck!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Wondrous gadgets for writers #2 - The 'Freedom' Programme!



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Ever noticed how the more you have to do, the easier it is to get distracted? This is especially true for writers, who spend so much working time on the computer. And of course the computer means only one thing... THE INTERNET!!!

I'm not the first person (nor will I be the last) to find that the internet is a double-edged sword. For the current book it has been incredibly useful, especially for research (everything from suicide bombing to west African time zones, in case you're interested...). On the flip side, things like Twitter and Facebook can sap precious writing time. It is with some shame that I must confess to a love-hate relationship with a certain FB game...

Thankfully I'm not the only one - and here comes Freedom to the rescue! It's a programme designed for the weak-willed (i.e. the human race), whereby you voluntarily lock yourself off the internet for a set time period of  your own choosing. I've found a two hour minimum helpful. To get on to the web in this time isn't impossible but it does mean restarting your computer - which is generally enough to dissuade the average bear.

If you're feeling bad about needing this - don't! The link above takes you to the testimonials page and you'll find you're in good company - everyone from Nick Hornby to Zadie Smith to Naomi Klein confesses to finding it a life-saver, especially when on a deadline. What's more, it's available for PC and Mac AND you can try it for free first. If you want to download the programme permanently it's only ten US Dollars. Just think how much more you'll earn when you get your first book advance*...


*(You'll be at least fifty pence better off, easily...)

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Wondrous gadgets for writers #1 - The Echo Pen!

As you've read previously I have been afflicted on occasion with computeritus, the bane of all writers at one time another. By computeritus I mean the various agonies caused by excessive typing - neck pain, shoulder pain, back pain, finger pain, wrist pain etc etc...

In this post I described one attempt to get round it which is working fairly well - writing by hand, then dictating the text using voice recognition software. However today I got the chance to use something I had only previously read about - the Echo Pen.

Essentially it writes like a normal pen but on special paper which means your notes can be uploaded directly to the computer by USB cable. Apparently there is also some way of converting your handwritten notes to text in Word - every writer's dream! That said, I'm not exactly famous for my copperplate handwriting...

If anyone has used one of these (or a rival brand) I'd love to hear your experiences! Is it genuinely useful - or just a gimmick?

Saturday, 31 December 2011

A writer's resolution...

Buy this here
 Another year has come and gone - and it's that time when you take stock of what you've done in the last 12 months...

I'm pretty happy with what I achieved in 2011. I do wish I had finished the new book but the end is definitely in sight - a couple of chapters away and of course the re-drafts.

So with that in mind this t-shirt slogan will be my mantra for the next 12 months. If you're stuck, feel free to make it yours too. Hell, you can even buy the t-shirt!

Happy New Year and good luck with your own writing. I have a good feeling about 2012...

Friday, 16 December 2011

Is it just me...


Buy this here
 ...or is this top really cool? It's from the brilliant Deviant Art website, where artists from all over the world can showcase their work. Some of the pieces can be bought as prints or downloads but a few can be bought as gifts, including this top - for all the writers!

If this was a hoodie I would totally be buying it...

Thursday, 15 December 2011

How much is *too* much???


Source
 Work on the new book is coming along nicely and the end is definitely within sight! But as I reach the final chapters I'm confronted again with the question: how much is *too* much for a book aimed at 11-14 year olds?

I work with tweens and teens so I'm under no illusions about the kinds of things they're involved in. Life just keeps getting more and more complicated in a world where change seems to happen overnight.

My last chapters involve some fairly drastic twists and turns - a night out which ends with a spiked drink, serious humiliation and the inevitable mobile phone video. Bad as this seems, it pales beside the finale - an act of terrorism with devastating consequences.

In the middle of all this is my hero,  a teenage boy called Adam from a rather unusual family. He's smart and funny and a little bit geeky. He's confronted daily with all sorts of life and death issues when all he really wants is a normal life.

Tween and teen fiction can be a mixed bag - either trying to protect young people or going to the other extreme; in-yer-face 'issues' or gore. I'm constantly amazed and humbled by the challenges life throws at some teenagers and the grace with which so many acquit themselves. In the end most teenagers, like Adam, are simply trying to find their place in the world and a way of making sense of the madness.

So maybe the writer's job is to be honest and unflinching - as long as it's not all doom and gloom. A little bit of humour and escapism goes a long way towards easing the pain - in books as in life!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Back to the Old School!


Picture source
 Ok, you'll be pleased to see that I'm still alive. I'm conscious that the blog had vanished off the face of the earth for a while, for all sorts of reasons - work, getting the house we were looking for, a death in the family. Now I'm finally getting back into my groove and writing is once again making it on to my 'To do' list.

Recently I've re-discovered the joys of writing by hand. I did a lot of this when I was writing The Watchers, mostly after a long walk on the beach. I would sit in the car and scribble, then scoot home to type it all up.

The trouble was I was doubling my workload - or so it felt like. I can type pretty fast, certainly much faster than I write and typing directly meant that I could achieve huge word counts. Unfortunately it also meant that I was wrecking my neck and back spending hours hunched over a keyboard.

Clearly a solution was needed - so I've found a happy medium. Recently I've been writing a lot by hand, then dictating the text using voice recognition software (Dragon Naturally Speaking if anyone is interested). It's not a perfect system - no VRS is smart enough to completely understand how any normal human thinks and speaks, never mind some crazy writer. It has difficulty with certain words - the Northern Irish ("Norn Irish") pronunciation of words like 'how' and 'now' still sends the computer into an occasional meltdown.

I have noticed several happy side effects. Firstly, I can dictate a thousand words then spring out of the chair with no aches and twinges. Secondly a notebook can be whipped out and put to use anywhere - from lunch break to sitting in a waiting room. And thirdly there is something unfettered about writing by hand. I find it frees me to stop editing as I write and just puke it onto the page. Then I can tweak it while I dictate.

If anyone else has any brilliant ideas for how to get the words down I'd be delighted to hear them!

Friday, 19 August 2011

Back from the Baltic Sea!

You may have noticed the blog has been somewhat quiet recently... That's because the Murph and I were away for a couple of weeks on a fantastic holiday around the Baltic Sea! 

In just a fortnight we did a whistle-stop tour and visited Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Russia, Estonia and even northern Germany! We had a brilliant time and I'll share a few highlights when I finally get unpacked...

I didn't get much time for writing but I did see some brilliant scenes and meet some fantastic people - who no doubt will inspire even more new ideas.

Still, the holiday is over - so time to knuckle back down to work!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Just finished... The Hunger Games

Just finished this book and it was a great read if you enjoy post-apocalyptic YA fiction.

Katniss lives in District 12 in a post-apocalyptic America. When the 13 Districts rebelled against Capitol one is destroyed completely and the other 12 are forced to send a boy and a girl every year to compete in the Hunger Games. Twenty-four players begin the games and only one can survive.

The book begins when Katniss becomes one of two 'Tributes' who have to represent her District. Will she survive?

Katniss is a great character and her environment and survival skills are convincing. I liked the premise - a bit like Running Man / The Long Walk with a female teen heroine. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Loving... Jericho

Still on holidays here - and what better time to discover Jericho. This series got past me completely when it was on TV but I've loved every second of it on DVD!

If, like me, you're a newbie it's set in a small, farming town in America. It's a normal day for the people who live there - until they see a mushroom cloud on the horizon. What caused the explosion? Is it local, national - or global? And how does the community get on with life when no one can contact the world beyond their town?

Jericho is about the struggle to survive when the world as you know it has changed, maybe forever. It strikes the right balance between relationships / warmth / humour and the real problems of survival - lack of resources and the inevitable violence that comes from this. If you like books like Stephen King's The Stand you'll probably like Jericho.

So, if you enjoy experiencing the end of the world vicariously - from the comfort of your own sofa, with popcorn - then this is the show for you!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Currently reading...

One of the pleasures of my job is having long summer holidays. This not only allows me time to write but just as importantly gives me a chance to work my way through the great pile of books beside my bed.

I've just started reading this book and I'm already a bit in love with it. I won't say any more at this stage, other than quoting this long and beautiful paragraph from the third page. If this is a typical sample of the writing then I'm in for a treat…

"Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by torchlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read… They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life."

I'll be reading this again for inspiration the next time I'm sitting at the keyboard, struggling to write a particular paragraph or page or chapter!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Healthy Breakfast Treat!

"A couple of years ago, I became fascinated by my own liver." No, this is not the start of some bizarre, French novel. Let me explain...

A couple of years ago I got glandular fever (that's 'mono' to our American friends and Epstein Barr for the pedants and medics). It's a common virus and the vast majority of people who get it shrug it off after a few weeks.

Unfortunately I wasn't one of them. I was one of the unlucky souls who found their liver under severe attack from the nasty virus particles. It left me with really odd post-viral symptoms which took several months to clear. Thankfully it went away but it was very unpleasant at the time.

I'd never really thought about my liver before. It's the unsung hero of the body - not as sexy as lungs or hearts or brains but just as vital. Think of it as a kind of battery and filter combined. When your liver gets clogged you can start to feel pretty tired and rotten.

So, when I saw this book on Amazon recently I got curious. I bought a second hand copy and found it full of cool recipes, mostly very low in saturated fat and high in fruit, veg, nuts etc. It's that time of the year in work where everyone is shattered. I'm finding myself eating whatever rubbish is to hand because I'm too tired to cook. This isn't good so tonight I decided to make one of the recipes for breakfast muffins - and they are surprisingly tasty. I say surprisingly because they are amazingly low in fat and sugar but don't taste like they are.

Anyway, if you feel adventurous here's the recipe. There are lots more in the book. Enjoy!


INGREDIENTS (For metric - check conversion websites)

1.5 cups wholemeal self-raising flour (or plain plus 2 level tsp baking powder)

0.5 tsp mixed spice

0.5 tsp cinnamon

0.5 cup sultanas

2 egg whites, beaten

2 tblsp plus 2 tsp cold pressed almond oil (I used walnut oil and it was fine)

1 cup cooked, chopped apple (roughly 2 Pink Lady apples - all I had!)

1 tblsp plus 1 tsp honey or concentrated apple juice.

0.5 cup soy milk - I used ordinary milk.


  • Heat oven to 176deg C (350 Fah)


  • Mix the wholemeal self-raising flour, cinnamon, mixed spice and sultanas. Keep separate.


  • Peel and finely slice 2 apples and cook in a little water until soft. Mix the apple with the beaten egg whites, oil, honey and (soy) milk.


  • Blend wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.


  • Cook in an oiled muffin tin (I used paper cases instead) for roughly 17 mins.





    • Thursday, 9 June 2011

      Go me!

      This is a shameless example of me being my own cheerleader (I could have posted a cheerleader pic but it might have attracted the wrong sort of reader...).

      Tonight I passed the 40,000 word mark. I'm half-way through chapter twelve and I reckon there are between fifteen and twenty thousand words to go (it's a much shorter book than The Watchers). I hit the wall just after 30,000 but I seem to be back in the game now. So, hanging in there and keeping on going.

      The last chapter is mostly written and I reckon there are three or four chapters in between (I could of course be wrong...). I can't claim to know everything that happens between now and the end but there *is* a scene where my hero Adam goes to a nightclub and things don't go exactly to plan... Should be fun to write.

      So, back to the grindstone!

      Wednesday, 8 June 2011

      How much is that doggie in the window...?

      The world likes to crudely label people as dog lovers *or* cat lovers. However I happen to love both. I already have two cats with seven legs between them (leg number eight took on a fast moving vehicle and lost). But just recently I've been wondering whether it's time to take the plunge and get a lovable mutt.

      First of all I should point out that the Irish wolfhound in the picture is just the fantasy dog. They're beautiful animals but they're basically the size of a pony and the cats would make a tasty mid-morning snack for a typical wolfhound. Also, they are apparently nicknamed "the heartbreak hound" which has nothing to do with Elvis songs and everything to do with their short-ish lifespan (7-9 years).

      But even a small dog seems to bring awesome responsibilities. Cats are independent - the perfect singleton's pet. They spend their days sleeping, eating, sleeping, grooming, sleeping, getting stuck on the roof etc etc. They can be left overnight without wrecking the place. Sometimes they seem almost sorry to see you come home, just as they've got used to that comfy bit on the sofa...

      A dog on the other hand is demanding. It craves attention! It needs walked and let out in the garden to ... 'do its business'. It might well develop a penchant for chasing small furry animals e.g. three-legged cats. Kennels fill up fast in peak holiday season. You get the jist.

      So why is it that in spite of this I am desperate to get a dog? Is it a married thing? I don't think so. I had a dog once when I was single, for three whole days - on an agreed trial basis I should add! A guy I worked with was trying to re-home a lovely dog which had unfortunately grown from a cute puppy into a full-size animal, much to its owner's displeasure. Said owner then pretty much kept the dog locked up for six months before eventually conceding defeat.

      This meant that the (totally untrained) dog went almost crazy with excitement every time she saw a human being. She enjoyed mad, lunging walks, dragging me in her wake. She scrabbled out of my supposedly escape-proof garden so she could play with / eat / terrorise the dog / children next door.

      I realised with a sinking heart that this dog didn't just need a single mum and a suburban garden. She needed a large, boisterous family, preferably with teenage boys who could run the legs off her. She needed a dog whisperer who could teach her to walk on a lead, not trail her hapless owner along the edge of the harbour. With a mixture of sadness and relief I gave her back to the re-homer, who happily found her a farm to live on.

      But years have passed since then and now I think it's time. I'm having to work on the Murph (who isn't a natural pet man) and a wolfhound is out of the question. But I'm pretty sure I'm ready to handle a Jack Russell...

      Sunday, 5 June 2011

      Just finished... Gone

      It's another wet weekend in Northern Ireland (they're not exactly an infrequent occurrence). Luckily while there are still books in the world I won't have any bother entertaining myself...

      I read Gone last weekend and really enjoyed it. When you're reading it you will definitely recognise elements from other books - it reminded me of Stephen King's Under the Dome crossed with Heroes / X-Men. It starts really well - Sam and his friends are sitting in school when their teacher simply disappears. It soon becomes clear that the small town they live in has been completely cut off from the outside world and everyone aged 15+ has disappeared. This on its own would have been an interesting situation (very much like Under the Dome) but to spice things up we then learn that Sam and some of the other kids have been developing supernatural abilities, probably linked to the nuclear power plant on the edge of town.

      In some ways the story is predictable - a new order has to be established. Not all the kids who become town leaders or develop powers are the good guys and gals. BUT this book has lots of nice twists, including a very King-esque 'monster' in the desert, scary animals, some vicious baddies and a reluctant, likeable hero in Sam. It's a good, pacy thriller.

      I should add that I bought the sequel today Hunger (there are two further sequels so far - Lies and Plague) and with a sinking heart I'm realising this one is possibly going to be less psychological and more monster-y. I'll let you know if it lives up to the first book...

      Thursday, 2 June 2011

      Why Writing is like 'The Long Walk'

      One of Stephen King's most intriguing novellas is 'The Long Walk', written as King's alter ego Richard Bachmann. In this story 100 teenage boys gather at the starting line of a life or death marathon. Their task is simple: walk at a steady pace of 4 mph without ceasing. The catch: if they stop they will die. Their aim is to be the last man walking. If they can manage that they will be given everything they've ever dreamt of.

      At the start of the 'race' their spirits are high. Some of the walkers work together, encouraging each other. Others become loners and retreat into their own shell. As the walk progresses boys begin to fall away – or rather are shot dead. In the end the last man standing is the only one to survive and win the prize.

      Okay, so I'm exaggerating a little. Writing a book is hardly life or death... BUT it does take a certain single-minded madness to see it through, to be the 'last man standing'.

      Anyone who has written a book from beginning to end will know there are definite stages along the road. At the beginning the idea is a bright light. It fills your mind with glee and your heart with hope. This will be the one! This one is different! This idea is going all the way! You start writing, and every moment is a joy. You love the characters, the places, the cleverness as the plot twists and turns. You can't wait to sit down at the computer every evening.

      The end is pretty satisfactory too. You know you're nearly there! It's like climbing a mountain and seeing one last ridge between you and victory. Somehow you get a second wind. I remember writing the last four or five chapters of The Watchers with a mixture of love, hate and steely determination. You keep going because you're so nearly there.

      In The Long Walk the middle section is where most of the walkers fall away - or lie down and die. The middle is where the fun is over and reality is dawning – there's still so far to go! You don't know if you have the reserves to get you to the end. Other people are out in front! Sometimes those people are people who have become your friends. You're not sure if you're going to make it!

      In the end, after years of painfully throwing aside half finished manuscripts, I've realised that real writers are the ones who write through the pain. The writers who find agents and advances and publishing deals aren't 'magical'. They don't know the right people. They're the ones who just kept writing, whether they loved it or hated it.

      As you can probably guess I'm about half-way through the new book and the pain is raw and fresh... It's a long road - but I'm going to keep walking!

      Tuesday, 31 May 2011

      Just finished... Blood Red Road

      Well, it was a bank holiday weekend - which meant Northern Ireland was pretty much doomed to torrential rain. Luckily I bought a few fab YA books and this was the first one I read.

      I was really looking forward to Blood Red Road - not least because my agent Gillie also represents Moira Young! Gillie had talked about the book when I met her back in February - and now I can see why she was so excited about it.

      It tells the story of Saba who lives in a post-apocalyptic desert with her pa, younger sister and twin brother Lugh. Lugh is Saba's great love - until he is taken by men in black cloaks who ride out of a storm searching for him. The book is about Saba's struggle to find him and the dangers she has to overcome on the way. It reminded me of The Stand and The Road but with a totally believable, kick-ass 18 year old heroine.

      Saba is a fantastic character. She's properly hard-as-nails, not because she's a psycho but because she lives in a world where if she weakens for a second she's dead. Throw in some feisty female warriors called the Free Hawks and a very hot love interest (Jack) and you have the perfect ingredients for a scary, sexy YA thriller.

      I totally recommend this book - if you like dystopian novels and strong female characters you'll love it!

      Thursday, 26 May 2011

      Word count climbing...

      The word count is steadily rising on the new book! I'm still being very secretive about the title and plot but for now I'm just going to call it The Adam Story.

      I sent the first chapters off to Gillie and Bernie to read and got a really positive response, so very pleased about that! It's always hard when you start a new project and you think it's good – but you're not quite sure if the rest of the world will think so…

      I haven't been great on the blogging front recently, mostly because I'm concentrating on writing the book! I've noticed a number of tweets and blog posts where writers have admitted that they find social media a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the internet is full of fantastic resources for writers. It still amazes me that with a few clicks on my keyboard I can find what time the sun sets in West Africa in January…!

      Of course we've all been in that situation where we really meant to do some writing and somehow ended up frittering away two hours looking at shoes and holidays. I'm as great a sinner as anyone else but I've recently hit 30,000 words and I feel like I'm going strong.

      So, no more distractions. I'm hoping to have most of the first draft complete by the end of June. It will be a tall order but it's also a shorter book than The Watchers. Any words of encouragement gratefully received!

      Hope your own writing is going well!

      Friday, 13 May 2011

      Friday night treat!

      So... the other night, for the first time in AGES I watched Dirty Dancing. I had totally forgotten how unbelievably sexy Patrick Swayze was in this film. The Murph was sent out of the living room so me, the cats and a box of chocolates could salivate over 'Johnny Castle' at our leisure.

      I couldn't find an embeddable version of this scene (or at least one that hadn't been badly dubbed in French / German / Russian) so if you'd like to admire the scrumptiousness of every girl's favourite dance instructor you can find it here.

      Enjoy!

      Tuesday, 10 May 2011

      Getting from notebook to novel - #4

      4. No man, woman or writer is an island - you can't do it alone. Find people who understand.

      As the picture suggests writing can sometimes feel like a lonely business. Writing is like giving yourself a gift - the gift of that book you always wanted to read. But at times you can feel like you're lost at sea and desperately in need of an anchor.

      That's why it's so important to find people who understand what you're trying to do. Family and friends are good if they're sympathetic and don't just think you're wasting your time or shirking the housework. I've had the good fortune to marry the angel Murph who always manages to say the right thing, just as I'm poised over the computer with a sledgehammer ...

      But for people who *really* understand there's nobody better than other writers. I can't stress strongly enough what a difference it can make joining a writing group. Some of my writing heroes like Stephen King are dubious about the merits of creative writing groups. I can imagine how some can become cliquey or competitive or downright poisonous.

      I was lucky enough to find the Flowerfield Writers - a group with an amazing tutor and a genuinely warm-hearted crew of aspiring writers. We're all at different places and writing different things but everyone there is kind and encouraging. It's the first place I ever shared anything I had written - only a year and a half ago - but that simple, decisive action of reading my work aloud is the springboard from which The Watchers, my agent and the new book have all flowed.

      If you don't fancy a group, you MUST know someone who wants to write. I'm constantly amazed by how many people have that small and secret desire burning inside. Become a group of two or three people. Agree to encourage each other, praise what's good, offer constructive criticism and celebrate every success. Believe that you can get your story out there into the world.

      Stephen King said that writing a book can feel like trying to cross the Atlantic in a bathtub. That's a long way to row but if you have a back up team offering tea, biscuits and words of encouragement that journey is going to feel a whole lot less bumpy. Find people who understand the beautiful madness of trying to write a book. You won't look back.

      Friday, 6 May 2011

      Very superstitious...

      Okay... I'm basically a rational person but I will admit to the occasional bout of superstition and never more so than when writing.

      Last night I was at my writing group and was trying to read bits of the new book. I think it is like *the greatest idea*!!!!!!!!! (Don't we all when we start something new...) Certainly I'm enjoying writing it - and I'm dying to read the first chapter to the group. It seems (to me) quite fresh and original and all that exciting stuff.

      The problem is I have this bizarre, superstitious feeling about it. Don't ask me why. I will admit to wearing 'lucky socks' on a plane when I was a student. I occasionally spit at lone magpies. I have even been known to fling salt over my shoulder. Those are all for good reasons - landing safely, avoiding sorrow and keeping my optician in business.

      Why will I not read my first chapter? Is it like when I read it the writing magic will somehow wear off? I don't know. But I've finally completed the first five chapters and going to send it to my two trusted readers - Bernie McGill and Gillie (my agent). Both will tell me if it's any good and will tell me if there are mental bits that aren't good at all. Maybe then the weird spell will wear off and I can stop reading random, disjointed extracts to the Flowerfield bunch. I can read them the first chapter and it will suddenly make sense!

      I've gotta send it, for their sakes...

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