In 2013, I designed the future for my novel Lifeform Three. I wrote about robots that were more human than people, people who were slaves of their devices, and creatures who wanted to escape the algorithms and find real connection and meaningful lives.
Katherine and I discuss key fundamentals of writing a futuristic, science fiction, dystopia or speculative novel: creating a viewpoint character who is non-human yet relatable; designing a world with plausible social systems by figuring out the priorities of the rule makers; choosing names that reinforce the story’s themes and resonance; and lacing the text with warnings that are subtle and not preachy.
So, do androids dream of electric horses? We also discuss homage to favourite books – Lifeform Three is, in part, a love letter to the pony stories I devoured as a kid. (Apologies; I’m bringing you horses for the second time this month. The next post won’t be horsey.)
And here’s a bonus! A bit of bookish chat with Tim Lewis on his channel Book Chat Live. He asked me to make an Amazon wishlist with favourite books that have influenced my own writing. That’s quite a wide brief because I’ve written memoirs, contemporary fiction, SF and writing craft books, but there are literary touchstones for each of those, which you might like if you like my kind of book. Tim has a wildcard question at the end – choose anything you like from the Amazon store and say why you’d like someone to buy it for you. Ever since, I’ve been bombarded with adverts for the thing I chose. People, the algorithms are watching.
How do you use research to build a plot? If you’re writing beyond your own personal experience – and most of us are – what details make a difference? How can you use your actual experience as a starting point? What are the absolutes to cover if you’re writing historical fiction, or fiction set in a special world?
Today I’m at BooksGoSocial, talking about this to Tom Burkhalter. He writes World War II novels created from meticulous research and deep understanding of his subject – indeed he’s often complimented on his flying experience, which he admitted to me was 90% research. And I have wide experience of writing what I don’t physically know, from my years as a ghostwriter and now with my own novels. Just for my most recent novel, Ever Rest, I learned two special worlds – music and mountaineering.
We also talk about how to organise material for a novel and how to teach yourself revision techniques that are effective and rewarding. If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you’ll know I’m zealous about revision – for me it’s one of the great creative processes. Do come over.
What’s literary fiction? Today I’m on Mark Dawson and James Blatch’s Self-Publishing Show, wrangling this question.
We talk about definitions, of course. Where literary and genre overlap. What literary isn’t. We also talk about marketing strategies for literary, and about my work as an editor, ghostwriter and writing coach.
Last Sunday I guested again at Litopia, an online writers’ colony and community. Every week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had PR agent Kaylie Finn @kaylie_finn ).
The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then talk about how they’re working – exactly as an agent would think about a manuscript that crossed their desk. This time we had YA post-apocalyptic fiction, a World War II spy thriller, a farce set in the world of British TV, a literary post-apocalyptic adult novel and a Cold War memoir. Issues we discussed included introducing a world and characters, stylised language, versatility of tone, orientating the reader so you don’t lose their attention, introducing a character with a peculiar problem, writing comedy, believability of a story concept, what makes a YA novel YA, ingredients for a historical novel, and how to get a toehold in the very competitive market for special forces memoirs.
Fascinating stuff – as ever, I talked loads, and I also learned loads from the responses of Peter and Kaylie. (That’s Kaylie and Peter in the preview pic.)
Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.
Phew, this blog has been busy this week! Last Sunday I was the guest of Litopia, an online writers’ colony and community. Every week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five submissions are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox and a guest. This week, that guest was me!
The genres can be absolutely anything, so I found myself assessing a young adult fantasy, an urban American thriller, a travel memoir, an Irish literary character piece (aka ‘upmarket fiction’) and a humorous fantasy crime. We picked out issues such as where to put back story, establishing the tone with the writing style and the choice of events, trying to make a character too likeable… and lots more. It was a fun challenge, and also fascinating to see Peter’s commercial instincts in action. While I concentrated on elements craft, he was asking: ‘Are there too many of this kind of book already? How do you stand out in today’s market? Or is it right on trend?’
We had some technical difficulties, so for some reason the video is a whopping two hours long, even though the show was only one hour. I’ve set it up to start when we actually start talking…
Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.
When I was first hanging around Twitter, I came across Nick Cook, who was taking his first steps building a presence as a science-fiction author. I watched over the years as his hard work paid off – he found representation and then a book deal with Three Hares Press (which, by coincidence, was founded by an editor I used to work with).
After three books (one for each hare) Nick will publish his next series independently, and asked me onto his video blog to chat about this new and unknown territory.
After years of waving hello on line, spaceships passing in the night, our worlds collide properly for the first time.
We had so much to natter about that we split the video in two. Part 1 is how I came to self-publish, the rewards and freedoms.
Part 2 is the challenges, developing a fanbase for your work even if you make surprising detours (ahem), ghostwriting and the phenomenon of the celebrity author, how indie and traditional publishing co-exist and how they’ll move forwards, and my all-time favourite film. No, I couldn’t choose just one film, I chose three. (One for each hare.)
Oh my heavens, it’s publication day. Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is no longer a tease in a tweet or a blogpost. It’s a real thing. A paperback book. A hunk of Kindle estate, or Kobo, or whatever other ebook format floats your boat. (Though there are no boats in the travels … plenty of buses, however.)
And my writer/designer friend Henry Hyde has invited me to his blog to chat about it. We cover technical stuff like developing a writing style, influences like Bill Bryson and Gavin Maxwell, and some of the main thematic stops such as the romance of old houses, impostor syndrome and 1970s Doctor Who. Do hop aboard. Oh, and you can find the book here.
Today I’m at Michelle Dunton’s Youtube channel, talking about ideas, where they come from and how they end up as books. Michelle’s been reading my novels and decided to pick my brains for her podcast. One question of hers I particularly liked: she asked how a first-time fiction author should start writing a book. Should it be the characters, the plot, what? My answer: ‘start with something you can’t stop thinking about’. And from there, everything flows – as it does in this discussion. Do hop over.
Hello! I’m slightly late posting this week because I knew I had this waiting. Joanna Penn invited me back to her podcast to thrash out a thorny topic – how to find your author voice.
We discuss what voice is, how to develop it, how character dialogue differs from narrative voice, how authors might adapt their style for different kinds of book, voice considerations for non-fiction, the value of experimenting and – that perennial favourite – why literary fiction might take so darn long to write. Plus side helpings of Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater, so bring a picnic.
If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ll have seen a good bit of gallivanting this week at the London Book Fair. As soon as Olympia closed its doors, the Alliance of Independent Authors began its 24-hour marathon festival of advice and information for authors. Whether you’re indie or not, there’s heaps of interesting stuff for the 2016 author, such as: a cover design clinic, marketing advice and tips on crowdfunding.