Writing Advice: The Giant Mega Bumper Post

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Every couple of months or so I get a message from someone asking for advice about writing or publishing – sometimes it’s about how to get published, more often just the general meat and potatoes of writing itself. I’m not sure why anyone thinks I am the right person to ask – given my general avoidance of responsibility and fascination with mead I’m hardly a good role model – but I usually attempt to give what advice I can, normally in a rambling, wordy email that causes the person asking to a) not reply and b) never speak to me again.

At the moment, as I wade through the steaming bogs of editing book 2, I have even less time than usual and replying to such messages has fallen down the back of the priority sofa, so I thought it might be useful to chuck any advice I might give into the one blog post, and then I can just point anyone who asks towards that.

This is that post. The thing to remember here is that writing advice is wildly subjective anyway, so what worked for me may not work for other people, and I certainly wouldn’t present the following nonsense as THE RULEZ because in the end we all have to find our own path. Also claiming I know enough about this process to be able to proclaim a set of RULEZ would be exceptionally silly. I’m still learning here.

Some questions I have had in the past:

How do I start writing?

Just start. Seriously, don’t agonise over it. If you have a story you want to tell, or even a scene you want to sketch out, just start writing and see what happens. The key thing here I think, and it can be surprisingly difficult to grasp, is that no one has to see what you’re writing, and it doesn’t matter if it’s crap. More than likely it will be crap, but it doesn’t matter because at the moment it’s just yours to play with. The important thing is to start, because once you start playing with the words and chucking them together, you are officially a billion percent closer to having written something you really like (look, I do writing advice, not maths).

I never have time to write. How can I finish anything?

I am a calm and tolerant person*. I am full of rainbows and kitten-wishes and love, but every now and then someone will say something to me that makes me twitch a little bit. That thing is normally: “I would love to be a writer but I don’t have the time.”

~twitch~

It makes me twitch because it sort of assumes that I have loads of free time somehow, that perhaps I roll out of bed in the morning, slip into a dressing gown and spend a couple of hours meditating on the day’s words… which is not the case. I have a day job and a social life like everyone else, and the horrible, sleep-destroying truth is that my books were written around the edges of everyday life. When I was writing The Copper Promise I got up earlier than I needed to and wrote before work, and now that my hours have changed slightly, I come home from work, feed the cat, wash up, and then squeeze in writing before dinner. Part of me would rather come home, feed the cat, ignore the washing up, and sit grinning at Tumblr for hours, but in the end, writing is my first priority. Apart from the cat. The fact is, you don’t get allocated extra-special-magical time because you decide to write. You have to find the time within your schedule, which normally means giving something up. Painful, but true.

How often should I write?

Ooo, this is a thorny one. The mantra we all hear of course is WRITERS WRITE EVERY DAY, and there are all sorts of issues sprouting off from that, concerning what makes you a real writer and how you even start to define that. I’m not going to touch any of that with a barge pole, but I do suspect that the more often you write the easier it is to continue writing. If you write for a couple of days, and then leave it for a couple of months, getting back into that rhythm may well be difficult, whereas if you sit down with your story every day, you won’t have to search too hard to find the door back into that world.

Having said that, not everyone is able to write every day. As much as I talked about making time for it, sometimes life just rudely elbows you aside and you don’t always have a choice; in the end, if you really want to tell a story, it will come out in fits and starts – writing is a bit like eating in that you can get away with not doing it for a little while, but in the end you have to. And once you have deadlines and contracts, it’s fairly likely you will have to find a way to write every day anyway.

Can you read this prologue I’ve just written and tell me if it’s okay?

Nooooooo. This is a very subjective piece of writing advice, so feel free to ignore it entirely, but for me personally I find the privacy of the first draft incredibly important. It’s the place where I can get everything hopelessly wrong, make huge embarrassing mistakes, and fart out great big wads of terrible writing and it doesn’t matter because no one will see it. That freedom is essential, because it gives me the space to try new things and pursue different tangents without the influence of someone else’s eyeballs on the manuscript. No one but me ever sees a first draft of my work, and I revel in that fact.

Similarly, I don’t give people bits and pieces of a book to read, particularly the opening section, until the whole thing is finished. This is because what makes sense as an opening chapter at the beginning of the writing process might have changed completely by the time you type the words “THE END”, and any advice you get on that prologue will be totally useless. Books change enormously in the writing, because they are tricksy weasel bastards.

(Now, some people I understand go to writing groups and they share writing when it’s in its early stages, which is both cool and something that wouldn’t work for me at all. A different path for everyone and all that!)

Being published looks awesome. How do you do that?

It is awesome!

It also tends to be slightly different for everyone. I self-published a novella, which got enough positive attention that I expanded it into a novel and submitted it to an agent who happened to be looking for Epic Fantasy at the time. She also just happened to be the Greatest Agent in the Known ‘Verse, and she loved the book, helped me to make it better, and then sold it to Headline. Pretty bloody lucky all round really, but I wouldn’t have got there at all if I didn’t have a finished book at the heart of it. When you talk to writers you often get odd stories like this, because the path to publishing tends to be a strange and scenic route. In general though, there is a tried and tested method that you can read about in a zillion places, most notably in a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. The simple version being:

Write a book, edit the shit out of it, query agents. Query agents until you find one you like who likes you. Get out on submission, baby. BAM.

Some bits of advice I would have about this process:

Really edit the shit out of that book. It can be easy to give it the once over and think, “Yeah, I’m okay with that,” because let’s face it, reading the same book over and over again can drive you loopy, but it is incredibly necessary. One of the biggest and most surprising things I’ve learned while working on The Copper Promise for publication was just how much of writing the book is actually re-writing the book. At the end of the first draft, you’re probably about 10% done. If that. Ouch. So edit the thing until your eyes bleed, and then have a read through and ask yourself if it reads like a book you would buy from your local Waterstones. And then just for luck, edit it again.

Get involved in the community, talk to people, and go to conventions. When I first heard this advice at the usual “How to get published” panel, my immediate thought was, “Well, I’m fucked then.” Because I’m shy and not very good at talking to people I haven’t met before, and conventions were full of strangers who all knew each other, and I was a dweeb. I am still a dweeb, but I made myself attend, and the good news is it gets easier with time. Also, as someone who often finds typing easier than talking, it’s definitely worth getting involved in the lively online community, and thanks to twitter I am now glad to be part of a sprawling network of writers, publishers, readers and bloggers. In terms of support, advice and inspiration, this is invaluable.

If things don’t go your way immediately, or even if the process is frustrating and slow, don’t get angry. Anger leads to the Dark Side, and they will make you wear a stupid helmet… Well, actually, getting angry is fine, anger is natural and healthy, but try not to get bitter about it, and try not to take it out on other people. It might be tempting to vent on the editor who rejected your story or to have a strop at the agent who wasn’t interested, but believe me they will remember, and that does you no good at all.

Never give up, never surrender! Writing is basically the best job ever. In a couple of hours time I will be wandering down to a bookshop to sign some copies of my book, and there’s no part of me that isn’t still stunned that this is a reality. All the work and the doubt and the missed Tumblr posts were worth it, because The Copper Promise is out in the world, and people keep sending me messages about which characters they think should have sex. I love it!

*stop laughing at the back.

The Copper Promise: First Reviews

WARNING: There now follows a very self indulgent post where I shamelessly link to posts that are being lovely about my book.

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It’s been a tough sort of week really, with various things going wrong – I won’t bore you with it here, but I was stress-drinking large glasses of red by Wednesday – however, the very first reviews for The Copper Promise have started to come in, which is equal parts exciting and terrifying. So you can consider this post an obvious attempt to cheer myself up:

Andrew Reid provides the most modern of reviews, stuffed full of gifs: Tom Hiddleston Dancing out of Ten

Pete Newman declares The Copper Promise to be “a good thing”: Tons of bad guys, an abundance of scars and a mild hint of sauce.

The legendary Graeme Flory writes a review that I suspect knows more about the book than I do: can we have the sequel now please?

And just to top it off, there has been some chatter on twitter from a couple of my favourite writers:

 

Well, I don’t know about you, but that cheered me up. Remember, The Copper Promise is already available for pre-order

Awesome Things: The Copper Promise is nearly here!

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Why yes, my cover is here. Did I mention it? I might have… I’m not sure, actually, that I can reliably sum up how much I love this*, or what it means to me to see my name on the front of such an amazing cover. I know that five-year-old me, making books out of glitter and crayons (hey, books about unicorns require a certain amount of glitter), and ten-year-old me, who chose LOTR because it was the fattest book she’d ever seen, and twenty-year-old me, studying illustration and enjoying the writing more than the drawing, and thirty-year-old me, who idly started writing a sword and sorcery novella one day…. we’re all over the fuckin’ moon. Dream come true. Nuff said. 😀

The Copper Promise already has an ISBN (as an ex-bookseller, I was nerdily excited about that too) and you can already pre-order it. And amazingly, terrifyingly, it’s only four months away. I hope you’ll join me for the adventure, peril, and several glasses of questionable mead.

There are some far-fetched rumours about the caverns beneath the Citadel…

Some say the mages left their most dangerous secrets hidden there; others, that great riches are hidden there; even that gods have been imprisoned in its darkest depths.

For Lord Frith, the caverns hold the key to his vengeance. Against all the odds, he has survived torture and lived to see his home and his family taken from him … and now someone is going to pay. For Wydrin of Crosshaven and her faithful companion, Sir Sebastian Caverson, a quest to the Citadel looks like just another job. There’s the promise of gold and adventure. Who knows, they might even have a decent tale or two once they’re done.

But sometimes there is truth in rumour.

Soon this reckless trio will be the last line of defence against a hungry, restless terror that wants to tear the world apart. And they’re not even getting paid.

 

*huge thanks to Patrick Insole and the team at Headline, who have done a straight-up amazing job.

The Copper Promise: Cover Revealed!

Yes, my book has a book-face, and you can see it over at Geek Syndicate.

I’m not going to be all British and understated about this… I fucking LOVE my book cover. I LOVE IT. There, I’ve said it. The distressed look, the font, the skyline, and HELLO THE DRAGON!! It is my most favourite thing ever, and it all feels so much like my book, like The Copper Promise, that I really couldn’t be more chuffed. When I opened the email containing the image (and how scary was that? Really scary, let me tell you) and saw it for the first time, I laughed in a maniacal fashion and did several laps around the flat.
Only four months to go, you guys. 😀

Small Update Time, or, “In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded”

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Just a quick note, like Granny Weatherwax’s, that I aten’t dead, I’m just super busy. Well, super busy in between spending a lot of time in pubs and learning about Vikings – I’ve just returned from two weeks of being very self indulgent, as well as hanging around York for a while, which was marvellous.

Much of my time off was spent knee-deep in the wobbly insides of Book 2. Previously on the blog I talked about how difficult it can be to get back into the swing of the first draft when your inner editor goblins are still clinging to your heels, but I’m starting to feel like I’ve finally shaken them off, and Book 2 is beginning to morph into its own strange, messy story. The scary part now is all about not quite knowing where certain paths are leading, but then it’s time to put on my Big Girl Writer Pants and go boldly down those paths, armed to the teeth with character development and snarky dialogue.

So before I vanish back into the mists of writing, here are some random observations from the last few weeks:

Agents of SHIELD was fun.

Breaking Bad was amazing, and I’m sorry but I rooted for Walt right up to the end.

York is lovely and the people are friendly and I’m not used to that.

The Welcome to Night Vale podcast is both soothing and scary. Goodnight, listeners.

Writing and the Unknown

The Pea Roast Post

I was thinking again today about why writing the second book can be such a frightening experience. I mean, it’s not frightening all the time – most of the time in fact, it’s rather fun, particularly when I’m physically doing the writing. The panicked moments tend to come at around 3am when I stagger out of bed to go to the loo and start thinking, “Yeah, so. Book two. How’s that going?”

There are lots of obvious reasons why writing a sequel is nerve-wracking – the sheer pressure of being paid to write, the weight of expectation – but there’s one that feels truer than the rest, and that’s to do with that ropey old question, “Where do you get your ideas from?”

Because we don’t know. I look back on parts of The Copper Promise and I have to boggle at the mystery of it all, because I’ve no clue where some of it came from. Where most of it came from, actually. Weird characters, scary moments, even some unexpected twists – I couldn’t tell you when they popped into my head, what my thought process was at the time, how I worked it out. When I write a book I’m a mixture of a planner and a “pantser”. I have a loose plan of where I want the story to go, and I leave lots of space for things to spontaneously occur. Ideas and images will come, almost always seemingly from nowhere, and what was a plot problem will be magically solved. In fact, often, it will be more than that; several unrelated things will become related, and the story will suddenly shine out, clearer than ever.

Sometimes writing is like standing at the edge of a deep well, your hands around a rope. You drag that bucket up from the darkness and it’s full of pieces – weird things, usually, stuff that shouldn’t make sense in daylight – but because you’re a writer, you see how they fit together. You know where they go to make a story.

You don’t think too closely about that well. Who knows where it leads to, or what strata it passes through? It’s dark, it’s probably unsanitary, and there’s no way in hell you’re climbing down there to have a look. Besides which, you suspect there are things down there, creatures of the dark, and they’re the ones putting the pieces in the bucket. Do you want to meet them? They probably have teeth.

That’s why the second book is really scary, because as you listen to the clatter of the bucket against the crusted walls, before you peer fearfully into the bucket… you’ve no idea what might jump out.

On Editing and First Drafts: Gremlins, Pigs and Beasties

Life sits on the writer and squashes her a bit

So I haven’t done a post about writing for quite a while. This is partly because “writing advice” posts make my brain itch slightly – what is applicable to me is not necessarily applicable to you, after all.

However, it occurred to me that my situation has changed slightly since I last wrote about, uh, writing. I have an agent and a book deal now, I’ve been through part of the process of being published – I am in the midst of learning all sorts of new stuff – and perhaps I have a new perspective that could be helpful. Or not. Either way, it’s useful for me to keep track of things, so here is a brief summary of my recent thoughts on the writing process. Take all with a pinch of salt, or a dollop of BBQ sauce if necessary.

Writing is Re-Writing I doubt anyone really thinks about this bit when they start writing. I know I didn’t. I started writing a book when I’d had a really bad day at work, and spending some time in an entirely different world was a quick way to cheer myself up. I didn’t think, “What I’m really looking forward to when I’ve finished writing this book is, you know, writing it over and over again.” At the time, I had no concept of anyone else ever even reading it, let alone editing it (and to be fair, that particular book has never been edited – just thinking about the amount of work it would require to be beaten into any sort of readable shape brings me out in a sweat).

But editing is the reality of writing. And that’s okay. I’ve lost count now of the number of edits The Copper Promise has been through – there was the edit when I thought I was self-publishing four novellas, the edit before I sent it to Juliet, my agent, the edit I did with her before it went out on submission, the edit I did after discussions with John, my editor, the edit that has just been sent off to the copy editor… *gasp* There are a lot. And with each one, the book becomes a sleeker, stronger, more kick-ass beastie. More than ever I now understand the importance of seeing your book through the lens of another pair of eyes, because as the writer it is so easy to become blind to it. Somewhere in your subconscious is the slovenly gremlin that whispers “Nah, I mean, that sorta works as it is, we can get away with that, right?” when really, we all know that isn’t good enough.

The Precious Sanctity of the First Draft Yes, all of the editing. I’ve just come out of a long period of editing (about to go back for more, very soon) so right now I’ve thrown myself back into the first draft of the second book. I am normally the Queen of First Drafts, storming through them in a devil-may-care manner, forging onwards with a fairly solid plan and lots of room for let’s-see-where-this-goes. But ye gods and little fishes, getting back to that after nearly a year of editing is hard. The editor in my head is awake and lively, and worse, has had loads of exercise recently and is being a right dick about it. Every line I write is subject to the worst kind of scrutiny, so that I keep stumbling to a halt. “But this is awful,” I think, opening another packet of Percy Pigs to distract myself. “I’ll have to cut all this out anyway. What am I doing?”

The last few weeks have been about remembering that you need to go easy on yourself with the first draft. You need that freedom to explore, to make mistakes, to follow paths that might not go anywhere, or that might lead you to a gem of story-magic that you’d never have found otherwise. I’m chucking in dialogue that I know probably won’t make it to the final cut (my favourite this week was Wydrin’s embittered cry of “I don’t care about your ironing!”) and introducing secondary characters who may or may not get killed off horribly later on. The first draft should be fun, it should be joyous, and the editor in your head needs to keep its trap shut, just for a little while.

This is why, in my opinion, the first draft should always be private. It’s often tempting to show your first few chapters to someone else, to get their opinions (and let’s face it, gibbering praise) and feel justified in what you’re doing, but it doesn’t really help you in the long run. For a start, a lot of that stuff in the first few chapters will go anyway (take it from someone who has done a lot of editing recently) or it will at least change a lot, and it’s really important that your first draft is free to be whatever it wants. You need to write like no one is watching. For now, anyway.

And that’s it for now! I trudge back to the story-mines, a pick in one hand and a short sword in the other. I’ll see you on the other side.

Nine Worlds: Geekfest 2013

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What-ho! Just a quick note to remind you that the first ever Nine Worlds is happening next weekend, and it’s probably something you want to get your geeky butts to. I shall be there, reading an extract* from The Copper Promise as part of the New Voices Slam Session on Friday night, trying not to freak out or lapse into comedy voices.

But aside from me making a fool of myself in public, there is an actual shit-ton of exciting stuff going on. I mean, have you seen the schedule? It is huge. It is a behemoth of a convention, full of mad interesting stuff, and once I’ve gotten through my five minutes of terror I’m very much looking forward to filling my head with loads and loads of excellent SFF gubbins.

If you’re coming along, do come and say hello! I’ll probably be in the dealer’s room, looking at My Little Ponies.

*Chapter 2, I think, because it’s quite gruesome but also has funny bits, and one of my favourite images in the entire book. No silly voices though. No.

Inside the Author’s Head: Interview at The Eloquent Page (I swear a bit)

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The lovely chaps over at The Eloquent Page gave me some interesting questions, and I waffled on a bit, being as rude as possible, obviously. Dead chuffed to make an appearance on such an excellent blog!

(I love answering questions like this – if anyone wants to chuck such things at me, I will be ALL over it)

 

My Day at EdgeLit 2: Living on the EDGE *air guitar*

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This Saturday I was in blisteringly hot Derby for the achingly cool EdgeLit 2. Above you can see a photo of me trying to look like I know what I’m talking about on the “Where Next for Fantasy Fiction?” panel (mainly that involved nodding at everything Adrian Tchaikovsky said). With thanks to Annie Catling for kind use of the photo!

It was a strange and slightly nerve-wracking day for me. I’ve been involved in talks on a smaller scale before – I sat in on a podcast/interview on steampunk at Alt.Fiction – but I’ve not really participated properly in a panel, particularly not one where you’re actually sitting on a little stage and have to hold a microphone and such. I did have a sense, sitting next to Adrian Tchaikovsky, Anne Lyle, Gav Thorpe and Freda Warrington – all writers with a number of books under their belts and well-deserved respect within the community – that I might be slightly out of my depth. I’m a debut author who hasn’t even debuted yet, after all. But I muddled through, largely thanks to my lovely panel colleagues who were very supportive and kind, and I managed to drop in a reference to Mass Effect*, so job done.

In the afternoon I had another panel, this time “How has the Internet Changed Writing?” with a trio of excellent chaps: Adam Christopher, Emma Newman and Andrew Hook. This time I felt a little more at ease, as I know Adam and Emma of old, of course, and Andrew, it turned out, had done a fabulous job of planning the panel so the whole thing had quite a natural structure. And let’s face it, I can talk about the internet all day with hardly any prompting at all.

Once I’d sweated my way through the panels I could relax a bit and have a few icy ciders. EdgeLit, like AltFiction, is a cosy convention with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, and as ever it was marvellous simply to hang around the bar and café area, bumping into people and catching up. I went to Mike Carey’s reading, which turned out to be a little slice of awesome, and then spoke to him afterwards about Studio Ghibli films, of all things. I had dinner with Adam Christopher and the fabulous Lou Morgan, where we discussed our favourite serial killers and the disturbing fact that Adam has never eaten a Percy Pig. We skirted around the giant beer festival that was happening in the middle of the square, and admired the CAMRA members’ amusing balloon hats. I ate one of Andrew Reid’s legendary peanut butter cookies, and had too much wine, and met so many twitter friends I completely lost track, but it was fabulous to finally put face to twitter handles. Other random highlights included: talking Gaie Sebold, who was very funny; catching up with Del Lakin-Smith and laughing hysterically about something I can’t even remember now; Kim Lakin-Smith‘s amazing emergency shoes.

So I was nervous about everything, but as ever with this sort of thing it was all a lot less scary than I thought it would be, and the cheerfully welcoming atmosphere of EdgeLit meant I had a totally excellent day. AND the late night music in the bar played the theme tune from Cowboy Bebop, only the best theme tune of all time. I actually bopped around in excitement.

* “Mass Effect rules, AMIRITE?” More or less. And someone in the audience wooped. Whoever you were, I salute you.