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Posts Tagged inspiration
I’m thinking about this because of a review I saw this week of a novel billed in The Times as science fiction, which sounded rather disappointing – and it’s put me on a bit of a mission.
I haven’t read the book so it would be wrong of me to name it, but it concerned a new planet populated by humanlike aliens. The main threads are the bringing of God to the indigenous people, and the exploitation of its resources by mining companies.
It seemed this story could have been set anywhere. The human challenges were no different from those in a historical novel. The other-world setting didn’t add anything fresh, except maybe to save the writer some research. (I see a lot of science fiction – and fantasy – novels that are written for this reason. If you invent the world, you can’t be accused of getting it wrong.)
But shouldn’t we be doing something better with science fiction (and fantasy)?
Bob Shaw says, in How To Write Science Fiction, that science fiction’s defining quality is that it deals with ‘otherness’. Whether it’s in the future, the present or the past, it’s about realities we don’t have at the moment.
He also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character. It needs to be developed and explored. It changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition. It adds a new quality of strangeness. And Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.
One of Shaw’s own short stories illustrates this. Light of Other Days sprang from an idea about an invention called ‘slow glass’, which allows you to see an event or a setting that happened years earlier. And so a man whose wife and child died in an accident can still see them, every day, in the windows of his house.
Take, by contrast, Andy Weir’s The Martian. An astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to make enough air, food and water to survive. It’s genuinely an addictive read and I loved it, but it could just as easily be happening in Antarctica or on a deserted island. The science provides the particular challenges and the possibilities, but it does not change the human essence of the story.
We’re used to thinking that any story outside the Earth’s atmosphere is science fiction, but they’re not. They’re survival stories. But take the slow glass out of Light of Other Days and you’d have no story at all. That’s science fiction.
The Martian is a great read. The other novel may be too. But it’s a pity if the critical press and the literary community are presenting them as examples of good science fiction.
Science fiction should be a literature of the imagination. I think it’s a shame if we forget this. The same goes for fantasy – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a deeply invented world, and very different from The Jungle Book, which inspired it.
We only have to look at our own, real past to see how science fiction and fantasy should grapple with the idea of transformation. Every invention in the history of humanity shows us this. Think of electric light – we can change society and the very fabric of life with an idea like that. With phones – and particularly mobiles – we are reinventing the way society works, saving lives and creating new types of crime. With scientific narrative non-fiction like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we also have a model for writing great science fiction. We can examine the impact of a scientific discovery and the quantum changes it brought, in individual lives and for global corporations.
Science fiction works on this same continuum, the scale of human change. A great science fiction idea should allow us to send humanity to startling new places with new advantages, cruelties and injustices. And those are places in our souls, not just other planets.
So – rant over. I’m hoping this isn’t too abstruse or marginalising for some of the regulars here, but you do know how I love the strange … Do you write science fiction or fantasy? What are the ideas you’re grappling with? How do you refine them or test if they will be bold enough? Would they pass the Bob Shaw test?
POSTSCRIPT How could I have forgotten one of my favourite things about science fiction? It took Dan Holloway to remind me of it in a comment – the reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. Do read Dan’s full comment below.
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Every week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.
So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.
If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Wed afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered
- giving yourself permission to write
- establishing a writing habit
- thinking like a writer
- getting published 101
- how to self-publish.
This week’s show will be on planning a non-fiction book and the show after that will be outlining a novel – and will also include sneak peeks of the advice I’ve been cooking up for my third Nail Your Novel, on plot. So you want to be a writer? We have the inside knowledge. Do drop by.
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Why? Because they looked like they had the potential to be significant.
I’m not going to tell you the true details, of course, so this is a paraphrase. Broadly speaking, the characters have formed a new business venture. If it succeeds, it gives the narrator a new start in life. Also there’s a romance that will be threatened, because the girlfriend wants to settle somewhere else. The business makes this more tricky. Yet the writer summarised this period of preparation and change.
It’s fair enough to fast forward if there was nothing interesting to show. But during those hours, the characters are playing unfamiliar roles, and getting closer to their hopes and dreams. Relationships will change because of the responsibilities. Tensions will be growing. I said to my client: are you sure there is nothing interesting in these scenes? Do you really want to leave them out? To me, they’re gaps in the narrative.
I’ve often been guilty of this myself. I’ll be working through my outline and I’ll find a section where I’ve glossed over a set of events, not imagining they might hold important developments. I hadn’t given them a moment’s thought, but as I write, I detect this is leaving an unacceptable hole, disconnecting the reader from the characters’ arcs.
However, I don’t know what to write in these scenes. I certainly don’t know what might make the scene interesting. So what do I do? Apply backside to seat, start the fingers and let the characters guide me.
Some of my most satisfying scenes were born this way. It might be a good campfire moment, a small-hours conversation that turns surprisingly confidential. It might be a time to have an argument, confess some back story or blurt out something unwise because a character is ratty and tired. There might be a switch in a character’s attitude, a hardening of resolve, a feeling that this venture is committing my people to a disastrous path.
I start by writing any old nonsense and look for the point where the significance begins to grow. I might cut 90% of it later, but some part of this new material is usually valuable. And if I’d let myself summarise, I’d never have found it.
Gaps in research
Another reason I might dodge writing a scene like this is because, well, I didn’t do the homework. I have no idea what the practicalities of the situation would be. You’ll probably agree that’s a lame reason to leave a scene out, and might shortchange the reader. Writer, get thyself to Wikipedia.
Not all summary is bad!
Summary can be good, of course. You have to condense sometimes. But if you’re summarising scenes only because you find it too difficult to jump into them, or you hadn’t thought what they might contain, or you don’t have the knowledge to write them, don’t assume the story doesn’t need them. Get in and start exploring. You might be surprised.
Thanks for the pic Alistair Sutton
Have you surprised yourself with a scene you summarised and then wrote out at greater length? Let’s share examples! (I’d share some from my own work but, having a direly inefficient memory, I can’t remember what they are. So it’s over to you.)
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This morning I was scratching my head for a post to write, so I asked on Facebook for ideas. Immediately, Vivienne Tuffnell volunteered this great question: ‘How do you keep motivated when your books aren’t flying off the shelves?’
Before I could even type a reply, Zelah Meyer had countered with: ‘delusional optimism and a long-term view’!
Which is about what I would say (at least, the second bit).
We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve done everything possible to ensure your books are up to scratch, with appropriate covers, well-honed descriptions and sharp metadata. You know the book’s good. You’re doing all you can, as your promotion budgets and tastes allow. But those sales aren’t stacking up.
How do you take courage?
Keep calm and build a body of work. Actually, I see this as the only possible plan. Writing is a lifelong thing anyway. If you’ve had the gumption to start, and stick with it, it’s a default habit built over years. Having ideas is as usual as taking breaths. You finish a book and you don’t settle until you’ve got another under way.
Also, building a portfolio makes business sense. Whether we’re the Big Five/Four/Three/Two/AmazOne or an individual writer, this is what we’re doing. With more books we get more chances to be found by readers. And when we are found, we look like more of a presence.
Does this mean you have to churn them out? No. We are taking a long-term view. Write and publish fast if that suits your nature, your material, your market. If it doesn’t, you’re still building a body of work. However long the book takes, once it’s finished, it’s out for ever.
But everyone else…
What about all those posts on Facebook, G+ and Twitter where people share a stellar sales rank or triumphant sales numbers? Some days that can be like a big wet slap. Even though you know how sales ranks surge and plummet by the hour. What can you do, apart from congratulate them – and write?
First, remind yourself it doesn’t reflect on you or mean you should ‘do more’. (Except write. Did I mention that?)
And second, there is something you can do. Keep making meaningful connections, fishing in the internet sea for the other people who think like you, write like you, read like you. Writing is all about connection anyway.
Also, remind yourself how the ebook jungle has changed. I published Nail Your Novel when there was far less competition, and clocked up a good 10,000 sales with so little effort I couldn’t be bothered to count any further. I now can’t believe it used to be so easy. Now, with all the books clamouring for readers, we have to work so much harder for each sale.
Author/editor/songwriter/poet Jessica Bell (left) wrote about this recently at Jane Davis’s blog. I hit on this strategy myself, completely by accident, when I wrote Nail Your Novel. In fact, if I hadn’t got those nonfic titles I’d be feeling pretty discouraged, simply because selling literary fiction is hard, hard, hard. My novels sell only a fifth as many as my Nail Your Novels. But that means I’m five times as thrilled by a fiction sale as I am by a Nail Your Novel sale (though I’m still quite thrilled by those, thank you very much).
What if you only have one book?
A significant number of writers have just one title, and feel no desire to write another. Creatively that’s fine. One book might be all you need to say. Ask Harper Lee. But you are likely to feel this sales problem very keenly. Especially if it’s fiction.
I do know writers who made a big splash with just one novel. For instance, John A A Logan with his literary thriller The Survival of Thomas Ford – but he published at that goldrush time, when a free promotion could work miracles. It was many years before he released another book, and the momentum he got with the first kept him going nicely. He also supplemented it with a lot of hard work on Kindle and Goodreads forums. Now, though, it’s rare that one book will get you noticed enough.
In this situation, your best bet is to go for volume (again). Team up with other likeminded one-book authors and form a collective. Perhaps release a box set.
If the book is non-fiction, you could use it to launch a speaking or tutoring career, which gives people more chances to encounter you. It’s the volume principle again – but you’re producing performances instead of books.
It’s not all about sales
Let’s remember we don’t write simply to chase sales. Except for a few stellar bestsellers, there are more lucrative lines of work. But the satisfaction factor? Every new comment from a reader, every email, every new review, tells me I’m writing what I should be writing. It’s worth the struggle.
Stop this relentless positivity, please
So this probably all sounds very well adjusted. Do ever stop being so darned positive? Certainly I do. I had a towering strop recently when I saw a report of a speech at a publishing conference where the delegates were discussing how much credibility to give indie authors. It all hinged on sales; nothing else. No thought for originality, craft, quality. It reminded me that the publishing world does not want to give authors credibility if they publish themselves – and if we do, they assume we must be at some junior, paint-by-numbers level. Which is insulting for just about everybody – genre authors included. After that I was not positive at all. Measured in that way, EL James would have far more credibility than Henry James.
But we’re playing a long game. For some of us it is longer than others, but the answer is the same. Write more books, and write them well. And remember the main contest you’re in is not against other writers. It’s against your own standards and hopes; the struggle to do justice to your ideas and your talent.
This post probably isn’t startling information. But if you’re also having a crisis of confidence, I hope it helps. And I really hope my optimism isn’t delusional. This is Zelah, by the way. She really can do this. I’ve seen her.
Thanks for the hare and tortoise pic CarbonNYC
Any thoughts to add? Share in the comments!
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Have you ever filled in one of those questionnaires that’s supposed to tell you what your ideal job is? Whenever I did, I usually found them desperately disappointing – but then they probably weren’t meant to send people to precarious, impractical occupations like writing. Except that one day, I filled one in that did. And it did it with one excellently judged question: ‘do you value the strange’?
Not only did this prove there is only one job I’m really fit for, it also summed up what drives me to write.
Today I’ve been invited to Writer.ly, who asked me to describe how I develop my novel ideas. Expect a lot of head-scratching, thinking, running, shopping – and writing of notes that no one will ever see but me. Come on over… and tell me if you also value the strange …
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This question appeared in my inbox from Adam Nicholls after I reported on Facebook that I’d managed 4,000 words of The Mountains Novel in one day. Adam DMd me, in not a little anguish:
How many words do you write per day? And do you have to force yourself to do it? I love writing, but it’s work.
There are two significant points in this question:
- output; books growing steadily at a satisfactory rate
How many words per day?
I asked this question of a group I’m a member of, The League of Extraordinary Authors. Romance author Melissa Foster says she has no difficulty getting 7,000 to 10,000 words written in a day and that she adores the blank page. No issues with output there. (But there’s more to writing a good novel than stacking up the wordcount, as she points out in the comments below.)
Romance author Colleen Thompson says ‘When on a publisher’s deadline, I write 1,000-2,000 words a day 6-7 days a week. Otherwise, I try to produce 20-25 new pages per week. Right now, I’m editing, so all bets are off!’
And contemporary fiction author Linda Gillard says ‘I don’t have a regular wordcount but I doubt if I do more than 2,000 new words a day. I think of it as a chapter a week. It’s more important to me that I should work every day on the book – research or editing. For every day spent drafting, I spend 3-4 days re-writing/editing. Drafting I find quick, editing slow. Once a book is under way, I expect to work most days.’
Ultra noir detective author Eric Coyote says he ignores wordcounts – ‘because so much of my writing is re-writing. I clock time: 2-6 hours a day. Usually I work a couple of hours in the middle of the day, then a blast at night until 2 or 3am.’
Graham Greene, who was hardly a publishing slouch, would set himself a modest target – 500 words a day he was satisfied with, and he stopped even if he was in the middle of a sentence so he could pick up the following day.
Stephen King talks in this interview for The Paris Review about how he aims for 1,000 words a day.
And since you asked (or Adam did), I track wordcounts if I have a deadline, as when I’m ghostwriting. The plot is agreed beforehand and by the time I write it’s simply a matter of enacting what’s in the outline. I’d usually get 2,500 words done in a day, 5 days a week.
My own fiction is trickier because there’s much more discovery and exploration, even though I plan, so wordcounts grow erratically. They might shrink, too, as I realise I can’t leave the passage I wrote the day before. The day of 4,000 words isn’t a consistent norm although I didn’t stop there. By the time I closed the file that day I’d added another 2,000. Only time will tell how much of that I’ll keep as I’m sure I was cross-eyed by the end.
Indeed, like Eric, I find it more useful to record the hours spent. With novels like mine, part of the work is understanding how to handle the idea. So a session on the book may produce no new footage in the manuscript, but several hours writing notes or reading.
Get on with it
Of course, we could research and tinker endlessly. It’s easy to slip into procrastination instead of getting the writing done.
There are two main reasons why we might dither for ever:
- we can’t immerse
- we’re worried about getting it wrong – the inner critic
Where do you write? Stephen King in The Paris Review says he creates a ‘refuge’ where he can shut away. He also remarks that being close to a window is fatal because it’s easier to look outside instead of inwards to the imagination.
I posted last week about getting into the zone, using music. Writing tutor and suspense author James Scott Bell explains in this post how he subscribes to the oft-repeated philosophy of writing when he feels inspired, and making sure this happens at the same time every morning. Yes, be brutal with your muse.
Don’t lose contact with the book
A surprising number of writers feel a stab of stage fright before they sit down with their novel. I do myself, but only if I’ve had to leave the manuscript for more than a few days. The more I keep my contact with the book warm, the more I feel comfortable to venture back inside it. It helps that I’m drawing on the experience that the other novels worked in the end. What if you don’t yet have that or for some reason that isn’t enough?
Warm up the writing engine
Some writers favour freewriting exercises. Freewriting is basically splurging onto the page or screen, regardless of grammar, spelling, quality or any other critical issue. The point is to remove inhibitions and let the ideas flow, to connect with your creativity. Famous exponents include Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down The Bones, Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, and another of my cohorts in The League of Extraordinary Authors, Orna Ross.
Get out more
In my conversation with the League of Extraordinary Authors, Linda Gillard had this terrific advice. ‘I find the best way to stimulate the flow of ideas and the desire to write is to put myself in a situation where it’s impossible, eg Christmas.’ Indeed, this is one of the tactics I recommend in Nail Your Novel - if you’re stuck, go and do something messy that will make holding a pen impossible. Make meatballs or go to the gym. Inspiration is no respecter of convenience.
Do you have wordcount goals? Do you find writing a struggle? What would you tell Adam? Share in the comments!
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You’ll have seen the posts here about my blog series the Undercover Soundtrack.
Over the years, the posts consistently repeat certain bare essentials, both for reaching the writing mindset and creating a good story. Here they are, and whether you write with music or not, we all need them.
To enter the zone
In front of us is a keyboard and a screen, or maybe a pad and pen. Whether you’re putting on a soundtrack, closing the door on your favourite silent space or seeking the anonymous corner of a coffee shop, the first step is to find a way to delete the outside world.
Start the time machine
Whether we write gritty memoir or the most extravagantly invented fantasy, we need to harvest our emotional memories. Many of our scenes, dilemmas and storylines are drawn from feelings we had at important times with family, friends, loved ones.
To keep the pace
Stories aren’t static. To keep the reader gripped, we need to generate a sense that the world of the story is changing all the time. For me, music is a useful reminder, because music does not stand still. There may be a new instrument snaking into the mix, a new variation on a theme, a creeping, evolving harmony. If this is going on in my ears while I’m spending time with my book – whether I’m musing or typing – I find it keeps me up to the mark – pushing for ideas that give this forward pressure.
We’re getting more musical now. A song is not unlike a well-told tale. It creates a territory of familiarity – a pattern we recognise of verse and chorus. Then we have the second verse – familiar, but not the same because the background is more dense or the lyric more intense. The second chorus is usually more substantial than the first, and even if it has the same lyric, it packs more punch. And on the song goes, seeking a climax.
For all its variation, a song is tightly disciplined. It develops by adding only what belongs. As story writers we can splash about in ideas, locations, settings, characters and events, but the more they align with the home territory (or exquisitely contrast with it), the more they will seem to belong in one piece.
In a piece of music, there might be a breakdown, where most of the elements are subtracted, perhaps leaving only the drum track or the melody at great distance. Breaks are important for a reader too; perhaps a campfire scene, a time out from the pressure to let the reader breathe before the tension comes flying back.
To calm the inner editor
Novels are huge and often daunting. Getting from beginning to end requires persistence, and we always find our confidence tested. Many of my Undercover Soundtrack guests report that music is an essential companion in this. It helps us believe more in ourselves, our story, our characters, our world – and in our ability to finish.
How about you? What essentials would you add? And if music isn’t your aide of choice, is there something you use to get a novel finished?
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Some writers plan to the ennnnnth degree. Before they write, they prepare a trunkload of ideas, route maps and background. Then we have the scribblers who travel light. Just the barest plot twist, perhaps a skinnily-honed last line or a little black denouement. (Actually, I’m warming to this wardrobe theme.)
So if you’re in the former category, what mustn’t you forget? And if the latter, what’s the bare minimum you can get away with?
Today I’m at a festival called Chapter Book Challenge, a month-long event that aims to galvanise writers to write a chapter book in just a month. I’m zoning in on the essentials for the drafting process – and as an added bonus, commenters on the post (THAT post, not this one!) will get entered into a draw to win a paperback copy of Nail Your Novel, original flavour, which is packed with essentials for getting you from first idea to final draft. Come on over to find out what every well-dressed novel is wearing...
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Do you need help to get your novel started or finished? Four of us experienced scribblers talk about how we stay creative through the tough times and reveal our secrets for drafting, fixing and finishing, not to mention keeping our confidence. Solutions include running, composing music, meditation and lying on the floor scribbling on sheets of A4 using the hand you don’t normally write with.
My co-conspirators are Orna Ross (who is the author of Go Creative, several literary novels and leader of the Alliance of Independent Authors), Kevin Booth (who’s a translator as well as an author and trained as an actor before he took up writing), and Jessica Bell (who runs the Vine Leaves Literary Journal as well as having a parallel career as a singer-songwriter, which you might well know already from her appearances on The Undercover Soundtrack).
We’re forming the creative posse at IndieReCon, a free online conference for writers at all stages of their publishing careers. Do come over – and check out the other terrific events in the line-up. There’s info from all kinds of experts in publishing, writing and marketing.
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‘I like Nail Your Novel,’ said Lauren Orbison to me on Twitter recently (which was nice). ‘But you now need to write Nail Your Second Novel. It’s tough sometimes to get back to writing after finishing something.’
I understand what she means. First novels are usually written over many years. We might put more time, work and learning into it than we ever dreamed we could put into one project – short of actually rearing the next generation. Then suddenly, the novel’s done, it’s out and we’re wondering: how did I do it?
I’ve certainly felt like this. One minute, I’m stealing time to be with a book that has become as familiar as an old friend, refining to get the depth and finish I want. No other phase for me is so rewarding. I’m understanding my material. I have a book, for sure, at last. It reminds me of when I was at plays at school. In the final rehearsals we’d be adding refinement on refinement, amazing ourselves at how inventive we were being. The shambolic months were behind us.
Then it’s over. On the one hand, my novel is out in the world as a finished piece. Readers might be asking what’s next (bless them). And what have I got? Something much rougher, perhaps – to me – offensively so.
This, I think, is what Lauren is talking about. Some writers find it blocks them completely.
I’ve learned the way to deal with this is to get another novel to a confident state before the mature one sets sail. I know that if I get to the end of The Mountains Novel and I haven’t got a serious contender for Next Novel, I will be severely fretful and will rail at the muses for abandoning me. But The Mountains Novel will need periods of enforced rest after each draft and that’s when I’ll get developing the next one. Could be The Flying Novel, The Venice Novel, or – as I’ve had a few other ideas arrive – Someothernovel entirely.
So far, so good.
But what if you’ve completed the one novel you’ve spent years on, and you haven’t started incubating another? What if that first idea started so long ago that you’ve forgotten how you ever got it?
Or what if you have ideas but they don’t excite you? I have various plots I’ve thought of, but I don’t feel moved to write them. I’m missing the ingredient that will make me want to quarry them – because I haven’t found the theme or idea I want to take to them. They’re clay without a soul.
First of all, if you’re feeling so emptied, you can’t create. Go and stoke your imagination. Your first idea probably came to you out of the blue, while you were following something you were interested in. So read books and do things just because you want to, no ulterior motive of research. You can’t force yourself to have a great idea any more than you can will yourself to fall in love. But you can flirt with things that could bite back (in a good way).
If you’re still frustrated because you’re not actually ‘working on’ something, make this period of exploration into a project. Set yourself a target to read x number of novels, y number of non-fiction books, or have a brief sabbatical at an evening class so that you feel like you’re completing something. Think of it as an appointment with your muse. If you’re really desperate, read something you’re guaranteed not to like. The chances are, you’ll rile yourself so much you’ll be bursting ideas in no time.
And next time, don’t wait until the first novel is over before you work on the second. (There’s plenty more about developing ideas in Nail Your Novel, whether you’re on debut tome or umpteenth…)
Well that’s my method. Have you finished a novel and found it hard to get on with the next? Perhaps you have a steady stream of works in progress… Let’s share in the comments!
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Five characters, five musical identities’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jessica Bell October 29, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to handle passage of time in prose October 26, 2014
- ‘My word-hand is singing’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Marcus Sedgwick October 22, 2014
- Science fiction – have we forgotten what it should be? October 19, 2014
- ‘Is there life after death?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Christina Banach October 15, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose October 12, 2014
- ‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anjali Mitter Duval October 8, 2014
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