Category Archives: Advice for Authors

On Writing: Plotting Advice from Tim Weaver

For a reader, there’s nothing better than a book that twists, turns and surprises you – all tied up nicely with a satisfying end. It’s fair to say that while books like that are easy to read, they’re certainly not easy to write. So in this instalment of our On Writing series, we talk to Tim Weaver, whose ingenious plots never let a reader down, and ask him how he keeps the reader guessing to the very end.

I Am Missing

I Am Missing by Tim Weaver is out on 27th July – get it here

What’s your starting point when coming up with a plot?

All of my books are about weird, unexplained disappearances, so because they’re part of a series, I suppose I have a slight advantage, in as much as I know they’re going to begin with someone going missing. But, even if you’re not writing a series, the theory’s pretty much the same: you come up with a hook, something that’s going to jump-start the novel and immediately get readers interested. Once you have the hook – a man gets onto a Tube train but never gets off again; a family vanish midway through dinner, leaving the table set and the food cooking on the stove; a man with no memory searches for himself – you have the foundation on which to build a novel.

But the hook is only a foundation. I think a mistake that’s often made is to believe that one cool idea is enough. Sometimes, in very rare circumstances, it is; very occasionally, you can hold an entire novel together with one amazing concept. However, most of the time, you need to work harder than that. So many thrillers run out of gas in the last third because they’ve been built on just a single, neat idea that has already run its course by the midway point.

Your plots are very intricate, with real surprises. How do you make sure you’re always one step ahead of the reader?

Meticulous planners will definitely disagree with this – I’m thinking of people like Jeffrey Deaver here, who writes plans almost as long as the finished novel – but, for me, a lot of staying ahead of the reader comes from consciously not planning. Of course, ultimately, you have to approach a novel in the way you find most comfortable: planning gives you a terrific overview of the book from the very start of the writing process; not planning is a terrifying leap into the unknown. But where a lack of a plan starts to make an impact, I believe, is when it comes to delivering effective twists, avoiding over-used thriller tropes and – most importantly – constantly surprising and exciting the reader.

At a basic level, if you’re writing a twist that you never thought about until you got there – in essence, if you’ve surprised yourself, because something you’ve written was never part of any plan – there’s a very good chance you’ll surprise the reader too. And these moments can only come from that organic approach. If you know a twist is coming a mile off because it’s been in your plan from day one, the novel will be bent and shaped in preparation for that twist, giving readers a hint – consciously or not – of what’s coming down the line  (Remember, crime and thriller readers are smart. They read more thrillers than you do, so they know all the tricks. Outwitting them is very hard, which is another reason why there are benefits to a less formulaic approach.)

Sometimes, of course, none of that matters because your twist’s so mind-blowingly good no amount of set up can ruin it, but a great twist has to make sense, and it has to remain true to the story you’ve told, so you have to lay the groundwork for it, and in that groundwork, there will be some foreshadowing. There will be, because there has to be. So there’s definitely a lot of value from being more free and easy with your approach to plotting – in theory, because it’s more spontaneous, it helps disguise some of that groundwork.

Of course, as I’ve already hinted, this is also a scary and frequently very stressful way of working, because you’re never ‘ahead’ of the story – you’re discovering what the characters are like, up to, the decisions they’re making and the consequences of those decisions at the same time as they are. And, again, it’s important to underline that my method might not be for everyone. Some authors may argue that it’s actually detrimental to the writing process because it adds an extra layer of stress and anxiety to the mix. But I’m already a very anxious writer, constantly trapped in a whirlpool of doubt and self-inflicted stress, so what’s a little more?

Do you have any methods  for keeping track of all the aspects of the plot and how they fit together?

It’s possible that I’m the worst person in the world to ask this too, because I do so little planning. I may write a couple of pages of set-up at the start – covering, say, the first 10-20,000 words – and I’ll always have a relatively clear idea of where it’s going to finish, but everything in between is up for grabs. At about 70,000 words, as the book slowly begins to make a turn towards the finale, I may start to write out important things to remember on Post-It notes and stick them up, but at no stage will I commit anything to a proper plan. Those last 30, 40, 50,000 words are huge: this is when you deliver on everything you’ve set up, so those great, umprompted moments are even more important now, because they will be what readers remember.

Normally, if you’ve grown your book organically like this, it means – when you’re done – you’ve got things that don’t quite tie up or fit together, and that’s fine. I normally do a second run-through, fixing loose ends and tightening those twists (sometimes changing them completely!). It isn’t a rewrite, not even a second edit, just a really focused attempt at ensuring the book keeps readers on their toes. (This lack of drafting, or rewrites, or whatever you want to call it, is a consequence of another weird habit of mine: I can’t move on to the next chapter until I’ve got the current one as perfect as possible. If you’re a speed writer, who prefers to get a first draft done quickly and then go back and edit, edit, edit, this will obviously be different.)

Of course, at the end of the writing process (it takes me 10 months to write a book), it’s very hard to judge how effective anything in the book is – I’m lucky that I have an agent and an editor to help me – so once you think you’ve done as much as you can, it’s definitely worth giving it to someone you trust to read. Ask them to be honest. Honesty, as much as it can sometimes hurt, really is the best policy. However good you think you are, you can always be better.

Have you ever painted yourself into a corner, plot-wise? If so, what steps did you take to tackle the issue?

This, unfortunately, is one of the worst parts about not planning. Very often, you will write yourself into corners, and won’t be able to see a way out. When this happens, I normally take a day or two off to clear my head. I go walking, which is often where I do my best thinking, or I’ll do really boring things like admin, or VAT returns, or really great things like answering reader emails. Basically, anything but the book itself. The worst thing you can do, I think, is chain yourself to the desk and keep writing. Often, in a ten-month project, I’ll have moments where I don’t have a clue where I’m supposed to go next, but I always, always find a solution. It might not come straight away, but it will come. So don’t panic – this is a perfectly normal part of being a non-planner.

There will also end up being lots of times when you’re really trying to make a character arc or a storyline work, but in your heart of hearts, you just know it’s not happening. The reason a lot of people don’t turn back from there is because they look at all the words they’ve wasted – sometimes thousands of them – and feel frightened/guilty/dismayed about all the hours they’ve ploughed in and see the culling of those efforts as dispiriting and reductive.

Cull them. If you don’t think it works, it’s because it probably doesn’t. If you’re going to avoid rigid plans, you have to accept this will happen and factor it into your writing time. However, even if you don’t end up using what you’ve just spent a couple of weeks writing, never throw it away. I’ve re-used tons of stuff I cut from one novel in the next, or the one after that. Sometimes what I cut at the time I absolutely loved (though most of the time I didn’t!), but even if you’ve written something gorgeous, ultimately it has to adhere to the world you’ve built in this novel. That’s one of the most important things: not trying to shoehorn in something you like because you can’t face dumping it. Nothing is ever wasted, even if you decide never to use it again, because writing itself is a constant learning process.

 

I Am Missing is published on 27th July by Michael Joseph PRH. Follow Tim on Twitter: TimWeaverBooks

On Writing: The Magic in Storytelling with Polly Ho-Yen

Do you remember those stories that used to make you feel like you could do anything? The magic that was sprinkled in your world from the chapters of books like Matilda, A Little Princess, Tom’s Midnight Garden or the Chronicles of Narnia?

Today’s instalment in our On Writing series is from Polly Ho-Yen and examines the art of magic in storytelling.

Polly is a critically-acclaimed and Carnegie nominated author who writes especially wonderful middle grade fiction. Her books, whilst real world set, are peppered with magic and the extraordinary.

As her latest novel, Fly Me Home, has just been published, we wanted to share Polly’s tips for creating those extra-special magic moments in children’s fiction…

FLY ME HOME

Your novels always include an element of wonder – why do you think it is important to have this in books for children?

Children are full of wonder. They are curious, amazed and fascinated by the world. I’m always reminded by this when I spend any time with my young nephew (who is captivated at the moment by switching a lamp on and off.) Writing an element of wonder into my books for children is something that has happened quite naturally for me and not exactly by design. It is though perhaps heavily influenced by being part of many wondrous children’s lives as a primary school teacher and now, as an auntie, and I see its importance in its reflection of its audience.

I like to throw around the idea of stories happening in a world that is just like our own, but with one thing that’s different. I then explore how that one thing has a knock-on effect on everything and everyone around it. Having this is in mind has also led me to delving deeper into wonder – and so perhaps it’s particularly important as a way of investigating difference.

 

Does the magical element of storytelling need to represent something more significant or can it be there purely to entertain?

 I’m often surprised when I’m reading over what I’ve written how themes and issues are interwoven throughout the story that I made no conscious decision to put there. I might think that a magical aspect of a story I’m writing is merely entertaining. I might believe that it is designed to engage the reader (and I hope it is!) but when I look back on it, with the benefit of perspective, I realise what my unconscious was really trying to do. I then see the representation, and its significance – the message that lay hidden, even to me!

 

Are there any books/authors in particular that inspire or influence your work? What do they do well?

 Too many to list! I’m always grateful to the authors who wrote the books that I’ve reread and reread and never tire of – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diddakoi, Northern Lights are just a few. Reading the current (and brilliant) work of authors writing currently – Patrick Ness, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, Meg Rosoff – made me itch to pick up a pen and get going myself. I think what they all do fantastically well is creating a world and characters that feel incredibly real to me.

 

Is magic just for kids?

Magic is for anyone who has an imagination and likes to use it.

 Fly Me Home was published by Random House Children’s Books on 6th July. Make sure to follow Polly on Twitter: @bookhorse

 

On Writing: Pace and Tension with Tom Bale

The latest instalment in the On Writing series, which features our authors who are no longer debuts, examines the art of pace and tension. Tom Bale is well on his way to becoming a classic thriller writer. In his signature style, he takes ordinary people, often families, and throws them into extraordinary and terrifying situations -the bestselling All Fall Down is a particularly scary but brilliant one!

On the publication day of his latest nail-biting thriller, Each Little Lie, we wanted to ask the seasoned author just how he keeps the reader on the edge of their seat…

Each little Lie FINAL.jpg

Are you consciously structuring the pace and tension in the first draft of the novel or is this something that you consider more in your editing?

My first drafts tend to be quite messy and unwieldy, but fortunately I love the process of getting stuck into a really intensive rewrite! For me, the twin priorities of the first draft are to get the story down in a coherent way and bring the characters to life. Having said that, I do pay attention to pace and tension from the start, because these components are so fundamental to the success of a thriller. One of the clearest indications that I’m falling short is if I find myself losing interest in a particular scene or a storyline – that means it’s time to back up and change something.

During the editing stage, a lot of work can be done to speed up the pace and increase tension, and this is where some of the famous screenwriting tips come in handy: start each scene as late as possible, cut away anything that doesn’t move the story forward, etc.

 

Are there particular techniques you use to heighten the tension, or pace? If so, what are they?

If you’re writing thrillers, the essential thing is to create both empathy and suspense. The reader has to fear that something bad is going to happen to someone they care about. To that end, there are various techniques that can be employed. The key is to withhold information, introducing a series of little mysteries or questions and then gradually revealing the answers. It’s a delicate balancing act: release too much information and the tension is lost, but not enough and the reader may become frustrated or bored.

Even if you’re aiming for a breakneck pace, it’s important to have some variety. The slower moments give the reader time to breathe, and these scenes are a great opportunity to build character. Interest can be maintained by introducing new questions, or perhaps a little foreshadowing of what is to come. One of my favourite ways of raising tension is to allow the reader to know something the protagonist doesn’t about the dangers that lie ahead.

 

What is your signature masterstroke in creating real tension that shocks and grips the reader?

I’m not sure if I have any masterstrokes as such, but I do always try to introduce a few twists or setbacks that come out of nowhere. Even if a novel has been plotted in detail, new ideas tend to pop up during the writing and I’ve learned to trust my instinct and go with them, even if I have no idea how they’ll tie in with the main storyline. It could be an entirely new character, or perhaps an element of someone’s backstory – and it’s a wonderful feeling when I approach the final quarter of the book and suddenly see how the random idea I introduced two hundred pages earlier can dovetail neatly with the climax of the novel. Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way, but any extraneous additions can be removed during the rewrites.

 

What storytellers do you consider to be the greatest at creating and controlling pace and tension?

There are many writers that I admire in this respect, but I’d say Lee Child is an absolute master. Even during the quieter sections there’s an absolute compulsion to turn the page, and I think a lot of that comes from his prose. The sentences are so perfectly formed, and build on each other with such a compelling rhythm, that it’s almost impossible not to get drawn in: “Just one more line, one more paragraph, one more chapter…” and then you realise you’ve stayed up half the night to finish it.

Each Little Lie is published by Bookouture today. Be sure to follow Tom Bale on Twitter: @t0mbale

On Writing: Olivia Levez and The Second Book

For a debut author, the publication of your first novel feels like a dream come true. An exciting and very rewarding end to, possibly, years of blood, sweat and tears.

But now you must write your second novel which comes with a stricter deadline and the added pressure of living up to the hype and enthusiasm of your first. It’s known to some authors as Second Book Syndrome. So what are the some of the problems you come up against? And how do you deal with them without pulling all your hair out and eating every single thing in the fridge (including the mystery condiments)?

In the second part of our On Writing series, Olivia Levez talks about her experiences writing The Circus, the follow-up novel to the critically acclaimed The Island.

P.S. Olivia really had nothing to worry about as The Circus is an exceptional YA novel with a truly distinctive voice – check it out!
Olivia Levez The Circus launch

Olivia at the launch for The Circus

Writing a second book is hard. Really hard. The first one is written for yourself, with the freedom to explore, to be creative, to find your own style, to dip in and out of different writing methods, to lose yourself in words. That feeling of being in the zone, utterly at one with your writing and your passion. No one’s looking over your shoulder, not really.

Then comes the second, and the deadline looms just as you’re in mid publication frenzy for your first ever published book. This time it’s different: as well as writing the thing, you have your daily life to maintain, complete with job, (in my case lesson planning, teaching, exam marking), and family commitments and all of the tiny things that make up your daily existence. Eating. Food. That sort of thing. But this time, there’s another set of pressures, because now you have to learn how to be a self promotion guru, a whizz at keeping up with the white noise and nuances of social media; an organiser of events, school visits, trips to London, split train tickets, best Premier Inn offers; an arranger of school assemblies, book tours, book sales.

And somehow, in the midst of all of this, you have to try to find the time and head space to write another book. You have to keep your head clear as reviews come in, news of others’ successes, triumphs, fellow authors who all seem to be doing bigger and better things than you. You have to not cringe as you post yet another promo author post on Facebook, wondering whether your friends are truly sick of the sight of you and your damned book yet.

It’s hard. And scary.

I hit the wall three times at 30,000 words with The Circus and each time had to start from scratch. It got so that I started to sweat as my word-count crept up to the 27,000 mark, wondering when that truly awful blankness and book hatred would strike. And it did. Every time. By far my best circus act with this one was Hitting The Wall: a death defying feat of pure unperformance and inaction.

Slam. Three times.

What should I do? My deadline was scarily close, and all I really had to show for it was a girl named Willow and a few nicely described circus scenes. What did she want? I wasn’t sure. Why was she running away? I didn’t really know. Where was she actually running to? Nope. Didn’t know that one either.

I did have her voice though. I knew she had a story to tell, if I could only access it and stop panicking. In the end I took a deep breath and sent my agent, Clare Wallace, an email with the header: HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

She phoned me straight away and listened calmly as I hiccupped my way through all of my worries and frets. Within the hour she had got my deadline extended, offered practical help with my upcoming launch and reassured me that she got this a lot from debut authors and I wasn’t alone. Immediately the huge burden had lifted and I was able to focus on enjoying the publication of The Island.

Clare gave me permission not to write anything at all for a few weeks. And paradoxically, because I wasn’t supposed to be writing, the ideas came flooding in. I grabbed the dog, took myself off to my caravan and sat outside the pub with a pint of SA, staring over unspeakably beautiful Cardigan Bay, daydreaming.

And that’s when it came to me. Willow needed a friend. Of course she did. She needed someone to complement her spoilt selfishness and lighten up the darker moments of her experience of being on the streets. I thought about my favourite film, The Midnight Cowboy, the poignant tale of a naïve country boy seeking his fortune in New York City, starring Jon Voight as Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as his trickster friend, Ratso. That was it:

Willow Stephens needed her Ratso.

So Suz was born, Willow’s companion through all of her adventures. She was already present in my story, although I hadn’t realised it. In an early scene I had a brief description of a homeless girl feeding ham to the pigeons in Charing Cross, and this girl grew to become Suz, Willow’s friend and circus manager.

Next, how to fix the setting? Originally, The Circus was set in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, an evocative town which manages to be seedy, magical, squalid and glamorous all at the same time. I’d visited Plovdiv the previous autumn as part of my research and watched children throwing each other up into the air on trampolines outside its Cirque Balkanski. Miniature ponies pulled at trampled grass in the circus grounds – a carpark outside Lidl. I sat in our hire car, scribbling notes and watching. I loved the juxtaposition between the tawdry and the surreal. Those descriptions made their way straight into my circus adventure, but I kept drawing to a halt every time I tried to get Willow there. How to get a runaway to Bulgaria? I didn’t have enough technical information, hadn’t had time to travel by train to follow her possible journey.

I tried setting it in Paris, made her a stowaway in a coach (that was the second draft that grinded to a half at 30,000 words). No good. Panic.

Then I visited my brother in Hastings. Immediately I stepped off the train I knew I had found my setting. Hastings has it all: edge, street performers, a creative vibe, down-at-heel bits, upmarket bits, tattiness, an ineffably lovely seafront and plenty of weird and wonderful places for Willow to stay as she attempted to find the circus and herself.

Suz. Hastings: the missing ingredients. The rest was a whizz to write, a breeze after all of the juggling acts, the tightrope walk, the knife edge.

Ultimately, there was the final performance: an amazing book launch at my school, complete with talented student and staff performers!

What have I learnt about writing book two? What I’ve always known, what all writers know in their hearts. You’ll get there. Just keep doing what you’re doing, one wobbling step at a time.

The show must go on.

The Circus was published by Oneworld on 4 May 2017. Follow Olivia on Twitter: @livilev

On Writing: Cesca Major talks Plot

For any writer, first time or otherwise, you are inevitably going to come up against some issues with your plot: Is there enough drama in the second half? How do I get from A to B in an exciting and original way? Who should I kill off next?

In the first of our ‘On Writing’ blog posts, Cesca Major, author of the evocative and beautifully written The Silent Hours and The Last Night gives you 3 Top Tips on how to get yourself out of a plotting rut.

The Last Night is out in paperback on Thursday 4th May.