How to write a book

The book or the film? How storytelling differs in prose and live action. Ep 32 FREE podcast for writers

We recorded this episode as the TV-watching world was getting ready for the adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, from the novel by Susanna Clarke. Straight away, Peter and I were in dispute. Is it ‘NorRELL’ or ‘NORRell’? Nobody has to decide until it’s said out loud.

And that’s one of the key things about seeing a movie or TV show of a favourite book. It’s different from the version in your head.

We had a terrific time discussing dramatisations that weren’t like the original books, in good ways and bad. Some were simplistic. Some were surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the original or took it in a good new direction. We visited Frankenstein, the James Bond novels, Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, Vertigo, The English Patient, Mash. Did you even know Mash was a novel?

We also deduce some lessons for writers. Storytelling doesn’t work the same across all these media. We unpick some interesting principles.

My co-host is Peter Snell, independent bookseller.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

How to write a book · Interviews · podcasts

‘Janys in Venice, Tina in Canada, EJ in New Mexico…’ – global audience for our writing radio show

adam21Our show on Surrey Hills Radio just got this lovely write-up on a new website, This Is Wild. I’m not sure how we fit the wild agenda, but the interviewer has cited our enthusiasm for all things of publishing, our robust arguments about how you pronounce the Norrell of Jonathan Strange and our music collection. (Okay; my music collection.)

We talk about how the show began, and how the fans made our early adam1episodes into a party on Facebook. (Chriss from Whoknowswhere and Henry in Hyding should also be on that list.) There are a few useful writing tips in among all that, as well as pointers for making friends with local bookshops. And if you prefer audio, you can listen to the whole interview on Soundcloud from the This is Wild site.

Library Journal 1coverLF3In other terribly exciting news, Lifeform Three has just been selected as one of just 200 self-published books to be promoted nationally in libraries across the US. It’s part of an initiative called Library Journal Self-e, and you still have time to enter their awards. And Lifeform Three brings us neatly back to the Surrey Hills, because this haunting landscape was one of my inspirations.

Inspirations Scrapbook · Writer basics 101

One song to the tune of another – dos and don’ts of mash-ups and juxtaposition

Mash-ups or juxtapositions are a good way to get new story ideas. ‘This-meets- that…’ But flinging random ideas together is more likely to result in a mess than a good tale. Here’s how to do it well

One of my favourite party games is One Song to the Tune of Another, from the BBC Radio 4 panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. The best combinations deserve to live and breathe on their own, but if you try the game at home (and I do, frequently), you’ll find it takes a lot of stabs in the dark to find two songs that are made for each other.

There seems to be a rash of mash-up fiction at the moment, usually involving zombies. No, I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Robin Hood vs The Plague Undead – and I don’t want to. Why? Because the title seems to be the only joke and I can’t see where else it would go. Maybe I’m much too serious, but it’s not even a very good joke.

Juxtaposition rule 1: be surprising

If you’re going to juxtapose two elements, do something original. Phil South wrote this week on his blog Going Down Writing about taking two random ideas and making a story out of them. His result, Jurassic Submarine, is rather good.

Juxtaposition rule 2: not just a one-liner

A good mash-up has to be more than a one-liner. So although you may start with ‘this meets that’, you need to go a lot further.

Consider Deadwood.  That’s Shakespearean drama meets the Western – and the two together create something new, deeply right, with legs that will go on for miles.

A lot of great stories have originated in mash-ups, either in ideas or broader concepts. ‘Jaws in space’ gives you Alien. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke        is Jane Austen meets Jack Vance. Blood-Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick is Arthur Ransome meets John Le Carre. The whole genre of cyberpunk is film noir meets science fiction. Steampunk is sci-fi meets alternate history. If you’re going to mash two ideas together, they have to truly complement and highlight each other. It’s anything but random.

In my WIP Life Form 3, I’m mashing two ideas together, but I’ve spent a long time thinking about what they bring out in each other. There are ways in which the two ideas are compatible and ways in which they are interestingly jarring. Much of the story is generating itself from the fizz when they collide. (And I can’t tell you too much more about it at the moment without giving far too much away, which is why I’ve been very coy about details…)

If you’re going to mash two ideas together, they need to fit in some way. And preferably cause as much tension as harmony.

Most random stabs don’t work beyond the initial surprise, as I found when challenged to sing The Sound of Music to the tune of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The first few bars are amusing, but after that there is no coherence that makes it worth continuing.

You have to experiment a lot to find genuine show-stoppers, but here’s one: sing the words of Greensleeves to the tune of The Stripper. Try it now.


What mash-ups and juxtapositions, literary or filmic, do you think have genuine mileage?

For a bonus point, give me a good song lyric to sing to the tune of another.