Magical Students of Blue Secrets

I’ve just moved into a new flat this week and I’m not sure how long it will take to get an internet connection sorted. I’d hate to leave you high and dry so while I’m either offline or up to my eyeballs in unpacking and too preoccupied to get to the computer, you can have some fun with this novel title generator.

Two of the ten suggestions it came up with for my novel are Magical Students of Blue Secrets and The Dancing Truth. You laugh now but if I don’t think of anything better,  a manuscript with one of those titles is going to land up on some poor agent’s desk one day.  That would probably ensure that my submission went on a fast track to the slushpile.


Kate Atkinson – Edinburgh Book Festival 2009

My first impression as I enter Charlotte Square Gardens, the location of the Edinburgh Book Festival, is how solid the marquees are. It’s hard to believe that this world of bookshops, cafés, and theatres, populated by authors and readers alike, exists only temporarily. In a few weeks time I will walk by the empty square where I once heard some of my favourite authors speak and wonder where that world disappeared to.

The first event that I attend at the Book Festival is a Meet the Author session with Kate Atkinson. A hush descends on the packed theatre when she walks in. She is introduced as a writer of novels with plots “fabulously intertwined in a way that only Kate Atkinson can make work.” This is why I love her books and I hope that today she will give us an insight into how she constructs such cleverly interwoven stories.

The static-like sound of rain pattering on the roof of the marquee provides a soft background percussion as Atkinson reads aloud from her most recent novel, When Will There Be Good News? I am struck by how humorous the narrative is. Atkinson’s intonation and well timed pauses garner the audience’s chuckles. When I read the novel myself, I took it very seriously. It’s surprising how differently two people can interpret the same piece of text: it’s only now when I hear the words spoken aloud in the author’s own voice that I recognise the comedic moments that were there all along. The section that Atkinson reads from contains my favourite description from the novel: “Her left eye was bloodshot as if a red star had exploded in her brain.” I scribbled it down in my notebook when I read it the first time as a reminder of how I should aspire to write.

After the reading, Atkinson discusses the novel with the light-heartedness of one who has let her creation go. It is in the domain of the readers now and she laughs as she confesses to have recently forgotten both the title of the book and the name of one of its protagonists.

When Will There Be Good News? is the third novel to feature ex private detective Jackson Brodie and the darkest of the three. The opening chapter is particularly harrowing and Atkinson explains that this is because it was important to her “to do some kind of justice to the horrible things.” And there are certainly plenty of horrible things plaguing the lives of the four main characters – from deaths to train crashes to book vandalising thugs. Coincidence brings the protagonists together and, in a final series of breathtaking plot twists, they manage to achieve some sort of hope for the future. “I love resolution,” Atkinson says. “I think of my endings as being symphonic.” That so many of the plot twists rely on coincidence has attracted criticism but Atkinson brushes this off saying, “This book is meant to be founded in coincidence. Without coincidence there is no fiction.”

The Jackson Brodie novels have been described as “literary detective” stories, although Atkinson herself shies away from genre classifications. “When I sit down to write, I’m writing a novel by me so I have to block out all thoughts of genre and what other people will think.” She points out that although the Jackson Brodie novels were viewed as a departure from literary fiction into the crime genre, all of her books have something in common: “There’s always a puzzle.”

The “puzzles” in an Atkinson novel are typically complex and she is famous for her intertwined plots. To keep track of the story as she is writing, Atkinson does not rely on charts or diagrams but instead prefers to regularly read through the manuscript-in-progress. “I very rarely get to the end of a book and do a big edit because I’ve been editing nearly every day. I don’t write in a very linear fashion. I think of it as a tapestry or weaving. I start at the beginning and go forward and back, forward and back.”  Atkinson tells us that before she starts writing, “I always have the end and the title and those are the two things that really help. It’s a kind of optimism. If you think about the ending a lot, you believe you can get there.”

When asked about the characters in her novels, Atkinson begins: “People say the characters just spring into your mind, fully formed…” I hope privately that she is about to dispel this myth and tell us of the hard work that goes into creating such wonderfully realistic and flawed characters. Instead she continues, “And it’s true! The trick is making them work together.” At least she doesn’t claim that her characters speak to her and tell her what she should write. I’ve read so many interviews where authors admit to being bossed around by imaginary people that I’ve begun to worry that I won’t be able to write a novel until I start hearing voices in my head. It’s a relief to hear that Atkinson is firmly in control of her creations: “Your characters are your puppets. I enjoy manipulating them and making them do what I want.” Even Jackson Brodie is a “device” for binding together the multi-narrative, multi-character books that he features in, albeit in an ever-decreasing role.

“He’s been demoted with each book and spends most of the third one in a coma, which says something about my attitude to returning characters,” Atkinson laughs. But fans of the Yorkshire hard man will be happy to learn that she is writing a fourth book where Jackson Brodie comes back stronger than before to revisit his past. She speculates that it will be published in 2010.

How To Write A Novel Synopsis

I imagine that most authors wait until their novel is ready to be sent to a publisher or agent before writing the synopsis. Since I need to submit a synopsis with my New Writers Award application, I am writing it now, before the novel itself is finished.

At first it seemed an impossible task. What laws of physics would have to be violated in order to compress 200 pages of prose onto one side of A4? I didn’t have a clue where to begin, so I turned to the internet for clues. Three articles in particular – from essortment, Marg Gilks at Writing World and Fiction Writer’s Connection – shed some light on the problem.

Now practiced at condensing texts, I have compiled a summary of synopsis-writing-advice gleaned from those articles.

  • Style: A present tense narrative summary of the novel. The opening paragraph needs to hook the reader. Each paragraph should lead logically to the next. It should be written in the same style as the novel, e.g. humorous, suspense-filled.
  • Content: What are the themes of your novel? What is the setting? Include all major events that move the story forward and resolve all the important conflicts. Do not leave off the ending hoping to entice an agent or publisher to read the manuscript. They need to see that you know how to conclude your story. Who are the main characters? What are their goals and what stands in their way? What is at stake? You can use snippets of dialect and quotes from the novel to give an idea of the characters’ emotions and motivations.
  • Length: As a general rule, one page of synopsis per twenty-five pages of novel, but check individual agent’s or publisher’s guidelines. Whittle it down to a tight, gripping narrative. Be ruthless: all unnecessary adjectives and adverbs must go.
  • Presentation: If the synopsis is less than one page it can be single spaced. Longer synopses should be double spaced. Don’t put spaces between paragraphs – indent them. The first time a character appears, their name should be in capital letters. Include your name and the book title. Check and double check for spelling and grammar mistakes.

It seems that writing a novel synopsis is not all that different from writing a script treatment. Once I realised that, I was back on familiar ground and was able to hammer out a rough draft. Marg Gilks even suggested including a one-line story summary in the synopsis, which is basically the novel equivalent of a film premise.

Writing the synopsis at this stage has proved to be a very useful exercise, especially in identifying the themes of my novel. It has given me a much clearer idea of what I need to do to tie the four narratives together and I think it will make my rewriting more focused.

Now that synopsis is underway, I’ve reached another challenge: how to encapsulate the whole blinking story in a well chosen title.

Polishing, Plots and Pianos

I’m polishing up the first draft of my novel at the moment. It’s a slow process but I think I’m on track for my 30th September deadline. Once I get some feedback I will start work on the second draft. That will probably involve a lot of rewriting. For one thing, I’ll need to make the four narratives consistent with one another. At the moment I have one in first person, present tense; two in first person, past tense and one in third person, past tense.  I just can’t decide which way to go with that. Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down is an excellent example of a novel with four first person narrators but I also enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories which has several third person narrators. The only thing I’m sure of is that I can’t mix narrative styles. Or can I? Does anyone know of a novel that is narrated in both the first and third person?

Another thing I have to figure out is how to tie the narratives together. I would like the four stories to be intertwined from the beginning but at the moment they are connected only by one big event near the end of the novel. I’ll need to spend some time working out how to involve the four main characters in each other’s lives more.

A final area of concern for me is how to order the four narratives? Iain Pears’ brilliant An Instance of The Fingerpost has four narratives told consecutively, in completion. In Case Histories, the narratives were alternated all the way through.  I may have to try both styles to see what works best for my plot.

Oh, that’s right. The plot. Let’s not talk about that just now. Instead why don’t you read this short section of my novel that I was working on today and I’ll go back to obsessing over point of view.


The music room is in darkness, the heavy curtains are closed. I could open them, but instead I turn on the light. The room maintains a sufficiently gloomy ambiance to suit my mood.

There are music stands piled up in a corner and boxes full of tambourines and maracas. I catch my breath when I see the piano. It is magnificent. How had they got it up here? They must have had to raise it through the window. It is like an animal with a smooth mahogany pelt. I run my hand over it. I expected it to be dusty for some reason, but it isn’t. It smells of wood polish. I sit down at the bench and try a few of the keys. It’s in tune.

When I begin to play, I feel as though I am a kite swooping on the wind and the music is the string that runs through my centre. It tugs at me, setting me free into the sky and anchoring me to the earth at the same time.

I stop playing abruptly when I see someone standing in the doorway. It is Russ.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” he says. My fingers are still poised above the piano keys.

“Do you want to play?” I ask.

“No, I brought my own instrument.” He holds up a black violin case.

“I’ll leave you to it,” I say, standing up and closing the piano lid. I’m not sure if he recognises me, but as I start to move past him, he reaches out an arm to block the door.

“Stay a minute…Louise, isn’t it?”

I nod.

“How are things going?”

“Very well, everything’s fine,” I say, then wonder why I am lying to him. I suppose I want to believe it myself.

“That’s good,” Russ says. And then, I can’t really describe what happens next. A moment ago I was a kite, somersaulting in the air, but now the wind has dropped and I am cartwheeling towards the ground, the energy I had inside me spiralling outwards. Maybe Russ feels it, coursing out of me in raw, hard waves, because he fixes his eyes on my face and I hear myself say, “It’s hard. The tutorial work, I mean. I thought I would enjoy it more.”

“It’s often a big leap from school to university. It will get easier soon.”

“It’s not just that.” I feel compelled to say more, although Russ has not questioned me further. “It’s the people too. They’re nice but I’m not sure I fit in. I’m …different.”

I wonder if I have said too much. My words hang between us, just the two of us in the dark and silent room. The world outside is completely blotted out by the heavy velvet curtains.

Geneva Writers’ Conference – The Business of Publishing

I’m embroiled in a short story just now, which is taking all my time. It’s for the Guardian Weekend short story competition which closes tomorrow. I only found out about it last week and wasn’t planning on entering it because it normally takes me a month to write a short story, then something happened. It was just an ordinary thing that happens to ordinary people and not important on its own, but I realised that if I put it together with a conversation I heard a few weeks ago and an experience I had last year then it became something significant – it became a story. I didn’t know that one piece was missing from my puzzle until I found it.

So, during my short break from arranging all the pieces and bashing them into place with a sledgehammer (just kidding – I hope I’ve fitted my story together a bit more elegantly than that) I typed up some notes I made at the 2008 Geneva Writers’ Conference Business of Publishing Discussion Panel (I already posted notes from a travel writing workshop at the same conference here) . Sorry not to be offering you sparkly new material but my brain is a bit frazzled from the short story and I think these notes are still very pertinent:

Laura Longrigg, MBA Literary Agents,  on getting an agent:

The letter to the agent is crucial. You have to sell yourself. Be boastful. Mention all your prizes and publications and conferences that you have been to. A media presence is an enormous help.

An agent wants to know that you are in it for the long term. Let them know what’s next, what your future writing plans are. They will want more books of the same style or a series. Include a synopsis and the first 2-3 chapters (about 50 pages) which should be as good as you can possibly make them.

Consider paying a literary consultancy which will provide an in-depth critique of your novel for a fee and may put you in touch with an agent. Most of Laura Longrigg’s authors are taken on through these kind of contacts or via editors.

Bill Newlin, publisher at Avalon Travel, on independent publishers and marketing:

An independent publisher is less likely to get into a chain store and may not have money for marketing. They do work hard to get your book registered with Amazon and on databases. To find the right independent publisher for you go to a bookstore and see who is publishing novels like yours.

Book reviews and advertising do not work in marketing books. The only mass media that sells books is talk shows. Web campaigns also help sell books. It is a good idea to have a web presence because publishers and editors are looking for someone who has already created a market for their work.

David Applefield, founder of Frank,  on publishing and marketing strategy:

You need to manage your expectations. Very few people make money from writing. To get published you may have to reduce the risk for a publisher e.g. get a sponsor to pay for translation or a firm to buy 5000 copies. If you can’t market your book to the whole country, target a specific region. It’s not and/or, it’s and/and. Try everything to get your book published. Have a plan B. Youtube is good way to market a book. Include links to publisher websites.

If you found these notes useful (hopefully you did) and are interested in learning more about marketing a book, take a peek at my interview with Sade Adeniran.

How to Tell the Difference Between a Crime Writer and a Serial Killer

This post is addressed to the portion of my readers who have stumbled across my blog by typing “how to poison someone?” into their search engines. Apparently there are quite a lot of you. Now it may be that,  like me, you are merely a frustrated writer looking for ideas for your crime-novel-in-progress. Great. If you come up with a good one, pass it on, because I’m really stuck.

If you are a  potential serial killer then please accept my sincere apologies for misleading you. There’s nothing to see here, so move along now –  unless you think you could use writing as therapy to release your pent up rage without harming anyone.  Then, by all means, stay a while and browse.

If you are not sure which of the above two categories you fall into, let me direct you to this helpful quiz.

Hope that’s cleared things up.

The Big 1000

I have recently returned to my NaNoWriMo novel after about six months off and have been inspired by Isaac Espriu’s blog to set myself some writing goals. Previously I had been trying to write for six hours a day (hah!) but never managed. I could concentrate for about three hours (with breaks) but stopping for lunch was a killer. I could never get back into the flow again.  There was no incentive to write a lot either, because I knew I would be stuck in front of the computer all day regardless of whether I churned out 50 words or 5000.

Now I’ve set myself a goal of writing 1000 words a day and so far it’s going pretty well. On a good day I can be finished after an hour and on a not-so-good day it takes around three hours. I plan to have the story in place by 30th June and the first draft (with all the holes filled in and superfluous ramblings cut out) finished by 30th September. I set the end of September as my deadline because if I had done the MA in creative writing, I would have had to hand in a completed manuscript by then and I want prove to myself that I did not throw away my only chance of writing a novel by turning down the place on the course.

Unfortunately, I’ve not got a huge amount of self discipline and I haven’t managed to reach the 1000 words every day. My brother is really into hypnotism and mind control and he’s been giving me some tips on how to improve my willpower.  One of them is to create an ‘anchor’. That means that on a day when the writing is going really well, I have to do some kind of action that will act as a trigger to spur me on to write on another day when I feel less motivated. So over the last few days as I’ve been typing away like mad I’ve had to remember to periodically tug my earlobes. If I keep this up, one day I will sit down at my laptop, tug my earlobes and a whole novel will spill out onto the computer screen. That’s how it works, right?

Another tip my brother gave me for  improving willpower is to force myself to do one disagreeable task a day. It’s true that I don’t always love writing, but I don’t want it to be my disagreeable task either.  I suppose I could try washing the dishes every day. I really don’t like doing that. I’ve eaten cereal out of saucepans and pizza off of tinfoil rather than wash up.

Putting aside these exercises in willpower for a moment, the most compelling reason for me to stick to my goal is that on the days when I manage to write 1000 words I feel great and on the days when I don’t,  I feel rubbish. It’s as simple as that.