He makes it impossible to check my phone, pulls so much on the lead and at such a pace that the text message becomes a blurred string of half-letters. I give up quickly and instead pocket the device as in-case-of-emergency measure, should we get lost in the woods and become storybook characters.
He only watches the ground, and I only watch him, therefore –
I see the bed of autumn, a blanket of stripped garments shed by the trees that guard this place, as though we’re walking through their wardrobe. I sometimes expect a reprimand for treading through their quarters, but it doesn’t come. He and I are allowed.
I asked my students to get local with their writing - meaning, consider a space that's particular to you. "Give me a description" was the initial task, which eventually became specific details, and then, after that, a memory...
It would make for a good long angle photograph. Trees and leaves have started to collapse in, making it either a fairytale landscape or the opening of a horror scene, depending on the time of day. But I do know there's a graveyard at the end.
I walk by mallow on the journey down the lane - some open and full, others just cracking their leaves. There are stinging nettles forming parts of the path, coupled with greenery that used to be daffodils. There is another track that branches off from this one, one we're not meant to go down, although the "No Entry" sign is missing.
It's the first time I've known flowers by name. I can recall my excitement at recognising the mallow as exactly that. On the way down I didn't know it, but on the way back - as though seeing wild bluebells and fox gloves frame the headstones had shaken something loose - I saw the paleness of the flowers.
On this second week of practicing what I preach, during a lecture this morning I gave my students the following prompt:
"The first time I told my family about _________, they didn't believe me."
As a group we shared possibilities - the Area 51 conspiracy, being held in custody, the noises - and then we took six minutes of free writing time to see what might come out of it. The deal was that while possibilities had been shared, we could also use something else entirely to fill out the blank in the sentence. I chose "her".
The first time I told my family about her, they didn't believe me. But it was the most serious conversation we'd had in years. I tried to explain that I didn't mean for it to happen; it was one of those freak acts of life - not that my mother bought that excuse.
"Don't say it just happened," she cautioned me. She told me I sounded like my father, said, "He was big on things just happening, too."
My sister was the more composed out of the two of them, as though she'd always known this was coming. She calmed Mum down in the end, promised that she'd sort things. Then, when we were on our own, she asked what I'd done with the body...
Visualise a space, I tell my students, imagine a landscape and consider how you want a reader to see it...
There is a crunch underfoot. The world is burnt, as though someone up-ended a bag of Autumn over the forest and left behind early dark evenings, pumpkin seeds and the crackle of an open fire. The few greens that remain are making a gradient to yellow; I imagine a sweepstake among the evergreens, to see who will be the first to brown. The bark grains are deeper, too, wrinkled by the difficulty of a long year. This space feels changed and unaffected all at once. It’s a saving grace to be reminded that the grass will dampen, roots wither and trees undress – no matter what happens anywhere else.
Earlier today I met my new cohort of Creative Writing students for this academic year. I set them a free writing exercise - to respond, somehow, to the image below - and during their time working on this, I also practiced some free writing. I think, when you're buried under bulk amounts of editing or teaching plans or other real-world things, it can be (too) easy to misplace the joy of smaller endeavours, especially creative ones.
This writing isn't my best work by a clear mile and then some. But I sincerely enjoyed the seven minutes I spent writing it and, no matter how I spend the remainder of the day, I can at least say I've done some writing - which is exactly what I preach to my students.
So, here we are. Sunflowers...
She loved yellow; something about the inherent warmth of the colour. She considered it to be a shade of happiness. The first time she got lost was as a child, swathed in yellow, giants that made her worry for a moment that she might have tumbled into the sun - or rather, a land made of hundreds of suns, perched atop stalks with leaves that waved and clapped as the wind lapped around them. Her father had been wearing a summer yellow shirt that had disguised him against the backdrop of the forest -
For the longest time, I have greeted every new university cohort with the same writing prompt: The sealed envelope.
I've asked rooms full of students to answer the query of what might possibly be in the envelope in question. I've had answers from glitter (a surprisingly malicious thing to mail someone) through to a severed finger (which, against some of the other suggestions, wasn't actually all that surprising). Once we've created a list of possibilities, I give the students five to ten minutes to pick an option and "free write" - i.e. pick an option and let your imagination be an outrageous toddler for a while. If you write rubbish, you write rubbish; you can't feel bad over something it took you ten minutes to draft. But if you don't write rubbish, then you have a seed of something - all from a small collaborative practice that warmed your mind up a little.
For the past few months I've been working with Tortive Theatre, in conjunction with Worcester Rep and The Swan Theatre, Worcester, to convene the Flash Fiction 101 writing competition. It's a monthly competition that we run - judged by myself and Ben Humphrey - that asks entrants to adhere to one rule: tell your story in 101 words. But this month (September, as it was), we changed things by introducing a prompt into the mix. It was a small prompt, complete with a picture, about a siren that sounds at the same time in the morning and evening in a town. Why?
Ordinarily, Ben would read the first round of submissions before sending me the shortlist, and we'd work together to thrash out our top three reads. Because the prompt was one I'd set, though, we decided that this month I could have the pick of the litter and shortlist my top ten (or, as it turned out, my top eleven). What amazed me, though, and what prompted this post today, was the diversity of the responses to my prompt. For something that was part of a horror or science fiction setting, writers managed to make their responses intimate, unexpected and hilarious, stretching the prompt to fit an impressive amount of narratives. It was a beautifully welcome reminder of a) how effective prompts can be and b) how underrated they often are.
It seemed worth touching base, then, to remind other writers - aspiring and professional alike - of the sheer joy in writing a story based on a seedling of an idea - like a sealed envelope - and just seeing what happens. I've picked a pack of tarot cards as the illustration for this post because, earlier this year, that's where all of my prompts came from. I would pick a card at random in the morning, read its meaning, and see what happened. Nothing I wrote was ever longer than around 700 words (with some pieces being as short as 300 or so words), and I don't have strong aspirations to do anything with the works once they're done. They were just a morning stretch, if you will, to get me thinking - and it worked! I sincerely enjoyed the practice and, were it not for the stress of 2020, I would have continued with it (but maybe one day).
So pick a card, or a colour, or an object in your kitchen - and write! Give yourself ten minutes and enjoy the time, safe in the knowledge that it doesn't have to be a masterpiece; it just has to get you started.
It’s one of the oldest pieces of writing advice that to write good characters you must know them well. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? But it can sometimes be a lot harder than it sounds. If we start with the basics of learning about our characters, we can Google whole lists of questions that we should be asking:
When I published Intention, how Gillian (my protagonist) made her tea was one of the hot topics – aside from her being a psychopath, that is. So, these fine details do count for something.
In asking questions of our characters we build them into something authentic. But this doesn’t just mean giving them the good bits or the quirky bits of humanity; sometimes it means giving them the rotten elements, too, which is where developing character comes in.
While you shouldn’t have a whole book of characters who are severely unhinged (I mean, sure, it would be interesting, but where’s your hook?), you also shouldn’t construct a cast of angels either. For me, after I’ve dealt with all the basics I like to move on to the existential:
And, perhaps the most important of them all…
Character motivation is essential to so much in a story: plot arcs, pacing, satellite characters – the list could go on! Working out what your character wants and what that motivation can bring to your work is hugely beneficial, not least because it pads out your protagonist/antagonist. In the bid to develop our characters better we need to know them from the inside out; which is to say, we need to know them as well as we know ourselves (on a good day). You can also yourself:
All of us – humans, not characters – have something that drives us and, likewise, all of us have things or people that bring out the worst in us. While it might take some time to develop your character with all of these things, it will surely be worth it when someone reads a chapter of your someday novel and says, “Wow, I do that too…”
During an editing consultation with someone this morning, we decided between us that editing (as part of the creative writing process) gets a hard time – not to be confused with editing is a hard time. Of course, sometimes it is. But is it any more difficult than staring into the abyss of a blank screen for upwards of an hour waiting for “that great idea” to come out?
The fact of the matter is editing is a process through which we make our work better. So, for many of us, we grin and grit through it because we’re aware of the finish line – and the potential rewards for reaching such a line. However, I wonder whether there’s space to enjoy editing more as a creative practice, which could make the whole editing-mare easier overall.
This summer I’ve edited a fair amount of work by other authors, and I’ve sincerely enjoyed it. At the moment I’m editing accessibility documents written by other authors and, again, there’s a fair bit of enjoyment to be gained from it. I feel a sense of, ‘Ha! That showed that misplaced comma!’ on getting things into a better state than they were in when I found them.
Off the back of that, then, I wonder whether it isn’t editing that’s the problem so much as editing our work that causes issue. So, what about if we break-up with our manuscripts before we edit them? Okay, maybe not a break-up, but at the very least we should say, ‘I think we need a break from us…’
My point being that editing, as a creative practice, has grounds that we can enjoy running through. It might not be as joyous as the initial spark of creativity, I’ll admit. That said, sometimes my initial spark of creativity is a hot mess by the time I’ve finished typing, which makes editing the saving grace.
Either way, a perspective shift on editing might not be the worst thing in the world for us as writers. There’s a way to enjoy it more – insofar as a recrafting of our initial craft – and that enjoyment might make the dreaded “Please see attached edits” email not quite as bad as it used to. If editing is a necessary evil – which, I can assure you, it absolutely is – it makes sense to go easily into the dark side than to always be fighting back to the crisp white light of a fresh document. Everything will need the red pen sooner or later…
Disclaimer: If there are any typographical errors contained here assume that they’re deliberate and merely an editing exercise for you, reader, from me, the writer. If there aren’t any, please ignore.
In November 2018, I started panic-writing Copycat. Little did I know then that the book would be the beginning of a long-term relationship with my central characters: DI Melanie Watton, DS Edd Carter, and DC Chris Burton. These three were the central figures of the story, and they naturally became the central figures of Play, too, which came out earlier this year. Not one to let go of my loves easily, I also went ahead and wrote a third book. Untitled (it definitely hasn’t a title, but I don’t know whether I’m allowed to tell you) was accepted by Bloodhound Books just last week; the contract was signed, and the date was sort of set.
But that will be the last of my DI Melanie Watton novels. For the time being, at least.
My publisher – my kind, open and honest publisher – suggested that I try a psychological thriller next. It would be my first since Intention, which came out in January 2019. That book is a story and a half, given that the novel itself was actually my doctoral thesis, and I can’t tally the days, weeks and months that went into that book because of that. That might also be the reason why I’d steered away from another first-person thriller. Gillian, my protagonist, was a hard woman to love, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of commitment again.
Flash-forward to now.
I am writing a new first-person psychological thriller. I know, I know! I absolutely caved based on my publisher’s advice, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t good advice. My new novel is a first-person narrative of an unnamed narrator, and I am utterly obsessed with it. In the first week of writing I got down 20,000 words, a writing rate that I’ve never managed before – and, realistically, will likely not manage again. We’re into week two now and the writing has slowed, but the obsession definitely hasn’t.
It’s the first book I’ve written in a series of parts. While writing part one, I was busy planning part two – using a spreadsheet no less, but we’ll talk about that another time. While rolling through my chapters – all of which were planned with the above spreadsheet – I was also quietly thinking about chapters for the next section. Then, quite out of nowhere on Sunday morning, I decided the final parts of the book, including the ending. Now, if you’re a writer, you’ll know what a freakin’ hallelujah moment that is. If you’re a reader, let me tell you, you’re in for a treat if this book gets to print because I’ve done pretty well with this (that sentence is the literary equivalent of “felt cute, might delete later” if ever there was one).
What I love most about this new book is my enthusiasm for it. I am constantly thinking about it; how I can make this more obscure or that more tense. Of course, I’ve loved every second spent working on the Watton novels (and I still love the characters completely), but a change of pace in terms of character and (sub)genre has encouraged just that – a change of pace. In my thinking and my writing alike, I’m moving a little differently because my character calls for it.
It wasn’t until I thought, “Wow, this has never happened before,” that I realised, actually, it has – when I started writing Copycat! It’s no coincidence, then, that Copycat was the first detective novel I’d ever written, making it a huge change of pace from everything I’d worked on up to that point. Both then and now, there has been a shift in my writing that has – I don’t know – loosened something in my brain, my inhibitions, maybe even both.
The whole experience of working on this new book, if nothing else, has been a welcome kick to try something new – or rather, something old, considering that psychological thrillers were where I started. Either way, it turns out that sometimes a change really is as good as a rest – at least when it comes to writing.
Before I launch into this discussion as something that applies exclusively to writers, I’d like to add an opening disclaimer that I heartily expect this is something that all artistic types might suffer from. I give you this scenario byway of testing the theory: you have recently announced a new publication/an art showing/a gig for yourself or your band. It’s a huge accomplishment and people are delighted for you. It’s one of a few good things that have happened to you in your career this year, and you’re delighted to share the news. People congratulate you and tell you that you deserve this, on account of the hard work you put in.
You respond by saying:
Earlier this week, my fourth book of the year was announced. I am incredibly lucky. I’m also incredibly self-conscious about what a good year it’s been, on the off chance that people think I’m somehow undeserving of it. However, the real truth of the matter is that those books came out of a lot of writing hours and an awful lot of editing ones (and then some more editing hours on that). I approached publishers – too many to even remember, for my first novel – and I collected rejections like rare stamps for a scrapbook. All of that aside, I still count myself as being lucky, or getting lucky, to get those books past the finish line and into print – as though there weren’t literally hundreds of hours of work put into those books beforehand.
On the day that book four was announced, I said, ‘I’m just so lucky,’ to three different people – and they all had the good grace of correcting me. One of them – a fellow writer – told me that every time I felt like telling people I was lucky, I should instead tell them that I’m proud. That’s something else that I am, of course, incredibly proud, but somehow it feels inappropriate to say so.
I don’t remember anyone ever sitting me down and telling me that I shouldn’t feel proud. My mum – my number one fan – has always been hugely supportive of my work and she’s always been quick to tell me, and anyone in the English-speaking language who would listen, how proud she is of everything that I’ve done, and everything I do. So why now, nine years into adulthood and eight years into writing, have I decided that luck somehow trumps pride? There’s nothing wrong with modesty, but there’s a fine line between being modest and down playing your achievements as something that happen outside of your control. When the reality is in fact much closer to the opposite when it comes to trying to establish a career in the arts. Everything has to be at least a little in your control, because you have to go out there and make these things happen for yourself, and for your work.
At one time or another, we’ve all heard the idea that you make your own luck. Or even, the more luck you have the more luck you’ll get, as though it’s something that advances with the right rub of the right pot of gold – and maybe that’s a little bit true. That said, it seems more likely to me that the Jefferson quote that opened this essay is closer to the truth. The harder you work, the “luckier” you are. It’s that mentality entirely that I’m going to try to adopt a little more often – and I’m writing it down, and sharing it, in the interest of voicing these ideas and these hopes in a public forum.
The friend who told me to be proud is right – I won’t name and shame her, in case she’d rather I didn’t, but she’s absolutely right. It is okay to be proud of your accomplishments without passing them off as something entirely independent from you – i.e. something that exists elsewhere in a field of leprechauns and unicorns (oh, what a place to live). On the contrary, our accomplishments and achievements are actually inextricably bound up with us; they’re the fruits of hours of labour, the products of a hundred missed family occasions, and a hundred more missed nights out with friends. And I think it’s okay – more than okay, entirely acceptable and justified, in fact – to be proud of the results of that work.
Or at least, I think it’s entirely acceptable and justified when others are proud of it. I’m not there yet. But I’m going to work on it.