main image

main image

Friday, 31 January 2014

How to Overcome Problems with Plotting

This week I have been one lucky author. On Wednesday I visited Great Baddow High School in Chelmsford, Essex, to take part in an event for the Essex Book Awards. I met some fantastic staff and pupils, all of whom are incredibly enthusiastic about books.

I'd never been to Chelmsford before and my taxi driver told me it is known as the birthplace of radio. In1898 Guglielmo Marconi set up the world's first wireless factory in an old silk mill, a building which apparently still stands today. It seemed apt, as reading and writing are all about communication, and the Essex Book Awards is getting students together to talk about books, to form strong opinions, and to try genres and stories which they might otherwise not be tempted to delve into.

It was lovely to meet and sit alongside another short-listed author, Nigel McDowell whose book Tall Tales from Pitch End, I began to read on the train home. It is beautifully written and the tension in the first chapters really draws you in. The cover is amazing too, strong and spooky. All credit to Hot Key Books for the design of this.

Nigel and I each gave a ten minute talk followed by a question and answer session. Afterwards I took a short workshop. Earlier in the week,when preparing for this, I wondered what would be of most use to the students.In this blog I have veered away from giving writing advice as there are so many people out there doing a much better job than I could. But over the years, through a lot of trial and error, I have learned some valuable things. Giving the workshop made me think that maybe I ought to pass on those nuggets of information in the hope that it may help some of you who are writers and who may be struggling with the same issues that I did in the early days.

As well as writing my own books I also do some critiques for a literary agency. The most common thread I encounter when looking at manuscripts is that they don't have a strong plot or a plot at all. I sympathise because it took me ages to understand what plotting was. I thought it was so hard to get right and yet really, when you know how to approach it, it's not that difficult. I wish that I'd known this when I started writing. It would have saved a lot of heartache. Often the manuscripts I see comprise a sequence of events. This is not the same as a plot. There are plotless books but if you intend to write a book without a plot I do think that you should start it from a point of knowledge, that it should be a conscious decision to abandon the notion of a plot. On the whole, especially when writing for children, I do believe you need a plot. In simplest terms:-

 Plot = a problem for your main character

(That's not rocket science, is it? So why did it take me so long to understand? I have no idea.)

The problem can be a predominately physical one which your hero/heroine has to tackle, such as an arduous search for a long-lost valuable artefact in an adventure story.

Or the problem can be a characterisation device whereby your hero has a weakness or an emotional conflict such as guilt versus duty or fear versus responsibility, which needs to be overcome.

Often it can be a combination of the two, whereby your character has to overcome a weakness or fear in order to fulfil a task.

When your story comprises just a sequence of events it will lack tension. Underlying tension is what keeps the reader turning the page, asking the question, 'Will the hero manage to overcome this obstacle/how will the heroine solve this problem?'

Plot creates tension

Your story must also comprise a beginning, middle and end or to put it another way:-

The Set-up
The Conflict
The Climax
The other important thing which is related to plot is character. Character is a big topic to cover but for your plot to work successfully you must know your characters, especially your main characters, very well indeed. Always remember:-

 Plot and character are inextricably linked

If you know your characters, how they will behave in any given circumstance, what their worst nightmares are, what their heart's desires are, then your plot will come together much more easily. You will find that your main character with all of his/her strengths and weaknesses helps the plot to reveal itself, dictates the plot and drives it forwards.

I hope that's clarified the mysteries of plotting to any of you who have been wrestling with it. To be honest I'm not sure that those students who attended the workshop really needed my input. Under extreme time pressure they came up with some absolutely amazing story ideas and first lines. I wish I could do that! I do hope that they'll continue to develop them. They are writers of the future, every one of them.

Here are Nigel and I surrounded by some of the students from Great Baddow and the other local schools who attended. It was such fun meeting them.

Next week I will talk a little about the beginnings of stories and if there are any other writing problems you would like me to try and cast some light on please let me know. In the meantime thank-you for reading.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Unconditional Love

This week I went to an interment. My uncle died in the summer, after a short illness, and we were unable to attend the funeral as we were away on holiday. Maybe it's because I didn't get the chance to say goodbye that I have found it difficult to believe he has gone. He was an exceptional person, intelligent, sociable, patient, generous, handsome even in old age, warm and wise. He was a businessman and a brave man who served with the Royal Engineers in Burma during the Second World War. But above all he was a family man. As one of my cousins said, he and my aunt instinctively seemed to know how to be good parents. I would add to that a good brother, sister, aunt, uncle and wonderful grandparents and friends.

My uncle was a steady presence, always the same, and in the turmoil which has sometimes engulfed my life that constancy was incredibly reassuring. All of use who knew and loved him have lost someone and something irreplaceable. Yet at the same time I am so grateful to have known him, to have learned many things from him, to have been able to call him family.

A couple of years before he died I went over for lunch. I was standing in the kitchen and he came up behind me in his usual quiet way. He didn't speak, but put his arm around me and gave me an unexpected hug. It was one of those moments I shall never forget. Everything about him was contained in that hug, all of those qualities I have mentioned, all of the endless love of which he had so much to give. In that moment I felt absolutely safe, completely understood. It was a gift which cost nothing, yet I shall treasure it to my dying day.

On the way home from the interment, the afternoon clouds were rimmed with a bright pale gold and a song came on the radio; Rag Doll by Franki Valli and The Four Seasons. There is a line in that song - I love you just the way you are. That sums up my uncle. Unconditional love.

Today his remains are where he wanted them to be, alongside his beloved wife and his parents in an English country churchyard, bordered by the woods he used to play in as a boy.

Snowdrops are in bud in the surrounding grass, the brook gurgles its song just over the wall. Over the road, horses, blanketed against the cold weather, graze in a meadow. My uncle may have gone from this world but his spirit lives on. I hope it is flying amidst the trees and across those fields. I hope he knew how much he was loved by so many people.
Thank-you for dropping by. Have a good week.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Enjoying the Moment

Those of you reading from far away might be forgiven for thinking that the U.K. has been almost submerged over the last few weeks. The floods have been devastating in many areas but thankfully not here so I feel rather guilty in admitting to finding January and February difficult months. Especially in the light of the snowstorms and unbelievable temperatures in the U.S., and also because it has not been as cold as normal here. We have had some beautiful blue skies and sunny days.

I know that I shouldn't wish time away but, at this time of year, I do. I long for Spring, for lighter nights and mornings. I long to walk outside not swaddled in scarves, hats, gloves and a thick coat.

Do you wait for inspiration non-writers often ask. But, in my experience, inspiration is quixotic and sporadic. If I waited it to arrive it probably never would. So I have a pretty regular routine for writing but at this time of year I do need to make an extra effort to cast off the sluggishness. One of the ways I do this is by reminding myself to really take note of those blue skies, the increased enthusiasm of the birds as they sing and the bulbs bravely pushing their way through the soil.

Something else which gives me a boost is perusing seed catalogues. I love the colourful photographs of flowers and vegetables and the promise of beauty and deliciousness they impart. This package arrived in the post last week and cheered me up no end.

I also had a lovely present from my son and daughter-in-law.

It was great fun deciding what to write and sorting out all of the letters.

This is what I came up with. It is fixed to the end wall in my kitchen and within a couple of hours of being there my daughter said it had inspired her twice, which has got to be good.
It comes from a quote by the Dalai Lama and reminds me to be in the present, to appreciate every moment, even these months which I find difficult to navigate.
Because you can become so used to the things around you that you don't see them properly I plan to change the words on a fairly regular basis, maybe every month. Anyway hours of fun and inspiration beckons! I think every writer should have a Make Your Own Banner kit and if you would like to look into buying one just click here.
I hope you have many happy moments this week and thank you for reading.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Productivity and Plants

'Productivity, in the form of innovation and creative problem solving can mean the difference between mild and great success'.
Roger Ulrich Ph.D.
We all have so many pressures these days and, like most people I know, my life seems to get busier and busier. I am bursting with ideas but there never seem to be enough hours in the day to even see if many of them are worth pursuing, let alone bring them all to fruition which is frustrating.

Just before Christmas, I saw a programme on television about houseplants. Apparently in the U.K. we keep less houseplants than we used to. That is certainly true of me. My 1930's house just doesn't seem to suit some houseplants but then I received a lesson from an orchid!

This was a present from my mother-in-law and because it is in a pretty turquoise pot I put it in the bathroom. It flowered on the window sill for months. Then, within a couple of weeks of the original flower stem giving up, it threw up another one, full of buds. What this orchid was saying to me was 'I really like it here'. And I listened.

For several years I've had a pink cyclamen which has limped along, occasionally producing a pathetic amount of flowers before returning to looking on the point of death again. I do know that cyclamens don't like to get too warm but in the past I'd insisted my cyclamen was where I wanted it to be rather than where it wanted to be.  I moved it to the unheated utility room. And look what happened!

It is so happy and so am I!

But back to productivity. I am always looking for ways to be more productive, to get more done in the seemingly shrinking time available to me, without making huge sacrifices in other areas. According to the programme I watched before Christmas and to various research projects, there is a way. It is through something as beautiful and accessible as plants.

Apparently flowers and plants in the workplace can have a positive impact on the following:-

Innovative thinking
Problem solving
Idea generation
Creative performance
Isn't that amazing? And all of the above are so apt for a writer as well as for other professions. Just by working somewhere containing flowers and plants the men in this study generated 30% more ideas than those in environments without. And this particular research at Texas A&M University back in 2003 showed that women came up with more creative and flexible solutions to problems.
Another study by Exeter University and reported in the Daily Mail in 2013,stated that plants and flowers wherever you work also do the following;-

 Increase concentration
 Improve wellbeing.

House plants have other important benefits too. NASA discovered that cacti have the ability to absorb electromagnetic radiation which can become a problem if you use a laptop a lot of the time. Peace lilies and spider plants are also good for this and I have several spider plants in my house. I love them for their beautiful striped leaves and cascading form as well as the fact they are good for the atmosphere.

According to the principles of Feng Shui plants bring vibrant energy into your space but it is important that they are in pretty pots and are kept  healthy. I'm certainly going to treat myself to a few more houseplants and find the right place to put them. Who knows, maybe increasing my productivity will be easier than I thought!

Thank you for reading and I hope you have a good, productive week whatever you are doing.

Monday, 6 January 2014


At the weekend we went to a party. It was in a tiny village, a hamlet really, where there aren't any streetlights and the night is so dark that you feel as if you are walking into the unknown. When we arrived, the sky was covered with cloud. Walking up the road my, husband and I held hands, concentrating on each footstep, unable to see each others faces or the uneven ground beneath us. After the quietness, the stillness, the cool air bathing your skin, the contrast of walking into a warm, well-lit house brimming with people is startling.

There was much laughter, delicious canap├ęs and catching up with people I hadn't seen for some time. "Are you still writing?" someone asked. It is a recurring question yet somehow always takes me by surprise. The answer of course is yes and hopefully will remain so. These conversations take on a pattern. The next question is usually, "Have you had any books published recently?" How lovely to be able to say yes. Publication seems to act as a kind of validation in the eyes of others. It appears to imbue your work with a higher worth. It has been judged by people in the business and not found to be wanting. Many times I have had to answer no to this question and sensed an awkwardness from the questioner, pity maybe? And me? How have I felt at these moments? I am ashamed to admit this but I have felt a little bit of a failure, as if I and my writing were not good enough.  Although I know this to be wrong, it can be difficult to quell the sense of inadequacy. The truth is that it can be some of our best work which never gets accepted by a mainstream publisher. The truth is that we are incredibly lucky to now have the freedom to self-publish with relative ease if we so choose and give others the chance to share work of which we are proud, but which publishers cannot fit into a certain slot.

Sometimes I get asked something else too. "Why do you write?" To be honest, on bad days, that is a question I sometimes ask myself. Why do I feel compelled to spend so much of my life putting words on a page? On those days, when there is so much to do that I can't decide whether to fit the writing around my life or my life around the writing, I even wonder if it is worth it. When we left that party on Saturday night the clouds had cleared and high, high above us the stars twinkled. If we had been utterly lost they would have guided us home. And yesterday, after a lovely Christmas, and when my motivation to return to work was a little low,  completely out of the blue, I was given guidance. I was reminded why I walk into the unknown each time I begin a story. The answer came from someone I have never met called Cathryn. She has posted a review on Amazon and it was pointed out to me by a friend. Cathryn, who is eleven years old, says that she fell behind with reading for a few months and that Last Chance Angel has helped her get back into it. That to me is the ultimate reward. It makes all of the hours spent writing and re-writing worthwhile. So, in the year ahead, when my plots get muddled or my characters refuse to behave, or I'm just finding it difficult to get going, I shall remember Cathryn's words with immense gratitude.

If you've read a book recently which you enjoyed, please take time to write a small review. You could make an author very, very happy!

Thank-you for reading.