Friday 31 May 2013

Child Writing Study


Found this quite fascinating: What can we learn from children's writing?

A BBC Radio 2 short story competition aimed at children up to the age of 13 has had 90,000 entries. It's an exercise in creativity but the words they used have also been put into a database which gives us an insight into the way they think.

There's also a database of adult stories, which have been used to compare in places.

The main finding have been:

  • Mums feature much more than dads
  • Kids use similes like the Devil counts rice (- a lot)
  • Kids invent an infidefinable number of new words
  • Boys like cars (as if we didn't know)
  • Txt spk iz not taking over the world lol
  • Short words cause moor spelling upsets than longer ones
  • Cats are less interesting than dogs, dragons or monsters
  • As we grow up, time machines, space ships, and tree houses lose out to car parks and kitchen sinks, however ice-cream unites us all

It's the second year they've run this study and it will be interesting to see how things stand next year. It's nice to see some concrete proof that computer games and technology haven't negated the basic childhood thirst for fantasy and adventure. Thankfully, it has made it easier to type and spell-check your stories, whatever age you are.

Thursday 30 May 2013

Novel Idea: 35%

End of week two, and I still had time to pop out to meet a celebrity horse.

So, have I managed to keep up with my 1k a day


Although I haven't managed to match last week's daily average of 1,056, with a drop of 1.6% to 1,039. Still, not bad though.

Now 35% of the way through the novel, and looking good. Very happy with it so far. I've deliberately not been editing as I go, though I have trimmed a word here and there. Over the past two weeks, I've added a total of 14,646 words.

Won't get blasé about it yet. Let's see how things look this time next week.

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Reading List: Charity Shop

Last August, I ended up trawling bookshops with a friend in Scotland. As well as making the awesome discovery of Stirling Books, we also popped into a village charity shop on the way home. It was one of those oldy worldy charity shops where you can buy an entire dining set for 20p or a new wardrobe of clothes for under a fiver, with shoes and accessories included.

I couldn't help myself, and ended up pulling a few titles off the shelf. My selection process was fairly random, although you may - looking at the pictures - assume it was done on the basis of colour coordination.

I finished the last one in December, having alternated them with the booQfest list.

Here's what I thought, in the order I read them.

Ingo by Helen Dunmore was the last one I pulled from the shelf. I liked the cover too much to put it back. Indeed, it is a beautifully presented book. Everything, from the choice of font to the section divides, is very atmospheric.

Turned out to be Young Adult, or YA as it's commonly referred to. Not one of my preferred genres, unless it's Point Horror. However, I found myself pulled under by its connection to Cornwall and its evocative opener on Midsummer, which appealed to my heathen sensibilities:

I'm too big to be carried, but it's Midsummer Night and Dad says that's the one night when all the rules can be broken.

The next morning, he disappears from their lives forever. 

I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I might, though it leaned a little heavily on the morals of children dealing with divorce. Their father is missing, presumed dead, and a new bloke comes along. Some poignant observations on child psychology. Also, a fascinating character in the old lady who keeps bees, and the struggle between earth magic and water magic.

My only upset is that the book is a set up for a series, and I didn't know that at the time. After starting so strongly, it didn't really have much of a conclusion, because you're supposed to read the next four novels to find out what happens. At present, you can buy the whole set for around £35. Narnia for kids who love wild and watery adventures.

From YA to an extremely adult novella: The Dreamers by Gilbert Adair

What can one say? It was a short book. In a nutshell (probably an inappropriate word to use) a brother, a sister, and their American friend find themselves with nothing to do after the cinemas of Paris are shut down, so hole themselves away in their apartment and have sex whilst a riot occurs outside. 

That's sort of about it, really. Apparently it's been made into a film

One thing that always makes me smile about stories set in Paris, is that the authors tend to feel the need to write about the layout of the streets. Perhaps it's a stamp of authenticity? Victor Hugo devoted an entire chapter to it in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Adair throws in a paragraph or two. Even one of my favourite rainy day movies, Sabrina, goes off on a wistful tangent about which road shares a junction with which road, and how many bridges there are.

I think this one is rather of an era. The era of coffee shops and typewriters, baguettes and Bitter Moon.

I bought this one because I had seen the film, and because a lot of friends had recommended it. I'm one of these types who actually prefers to see the film before deciding whether or not I like the story enough to find out what really happened. 

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold absolutely blew me away.

Having bought it, I was reluctant to start. I still remembered the film fairly well, and wondered whether my attention would hold. By the end of the first chapter, there was no question. It is absolutely magically written. The sort of writing you look at as a writer and think damn.

By the end, I was absolutely inconsolable. I finished up in one sitting until 4am, and I sobbed pretty much the entire way through. Haven't been that affected since The Generation Game.

It truly is worth a read, whether you've seen the film or not. Sebold's powers of emotional observation are delightful. I make it sound terribly sad, but it's hopeful, beautiful, and life affirming all at the same time. Once read, never forgotten. It joins the selective list of books I will always keep a copy of on my shelves.

I think you can probably guess why I picked this one up? Just look at that cover, it's glorious.

Another nice book to hold, like Ingo, with funky fonts and cute illustrations.

Actually, the illustrations are an interesting one as it's written in the style of a diary, with the character's sketches included. Unusual, and quaint.

The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale is also YA, but not so obviously. Sort of in the way that Shrek is a kid's film, but works quite happily on an adult level too. It's also extremely easy reading. I got through it in twenty-four hours whilst on holiday in St. Davids.

It's all about a lowly servant girl who gets walled up inside a tower with a brat of a princess. There's a prince involved, a yak, and a happy ending. It's very uncomplicated, but it's quite good fun. Apparently based on the Grimm brothers' tale Maid Maleen. There's a lovely theme within it: that you can sing away sickness, if you know the right songs.

In the same way that there's a defining ambiance around certain French literature, there's one around literature from the Americas, too. I'm not entirely sure what it is, it's particularly hard to pinpoint, but this one certainly has it.

Visible Worlds by Marilyn Bowering is a fairly docile, meandering story, much like Plainsong, or British novelist D. J. Taylor's tales of the Mid-West in Ask Alice. Not always a bad thing, but, if you're after a quick thrill, this isn't the book for you. Again, one of those 'of an era' classics.

It did provide me with one of the most impressive uses of alliteration I've seen in a while: " the whole wide white world of winter they have only each other."

Worth it just for that.


Hope you enjoy some of these. In retrospect, I should probably have called it the Blue List. 

You never can tell what you'll find lurking on the back shelves of a charity shop. Worth taking the chance sometimes. 

Tuesday 28 May 2013


I learned from a guy at booQfest last year that International Talk Like a Pirate Day is actually a religious holiday for the followers of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Who knew?

One to keep in the diary for 9th September.

Monday 27 May 2013


Just a quick shout out to my dad. If you enjoy reading my blogs, you might also enjoy his: RoaminRascal. He has plenty of adventures with Marilyn, Aunty Jean and his (Bedford) Rascal van. His travels include Rwanda, Malta and many Landmark Trust moments, including an Egyptian house in Penzance! He's also been to Japan and South Africa... I think adventuring runs in the family.

Sunday 26 May 2013

Novel Idea: Golden Number

Well, lovely news today. I have well and truly passed the 20,000 word mark.

Every writer has their own pace, and places their own significance on word count. Last year I was listening to Ian McEwan at Cheltenham (incidentally, another 1,000 a day writer according to his interview), who suggested the first 5,000 words of a new novel to be the foundation point. This is the point at which you're playing with the tone of the piece and prodding it to work out whether it's got longevity. For me, 10,000, same ethos. If I haven't ditched it within the first 10,000, the likelihood is it has potential. If I fly past the 10k mark, I'm happy with it. Once I pass 20k - my golden number - I'm committed.

20k is psychologically, for me, quarter of a novel. It's also the point at which I have a minor panic. It's habitual. Up until 20k I sit there thinking: There's no way I have enough material to keep this running to a novel. The moment I hit 20k, I inevitably panic: There's no way I'm going to fit all of this into a novel. It's the turning point between not enough words, and too many words.

The moment I think that, I know I've got a good story. 

Technically, there's a wide variance in the size of novels. The significance I place on word count targets isn't necessarily the reality of those counts:

10k - Does it have potential?
20k - It's going to be a novel
50k - Halfway there
60k - Relax and enjoy
70k - Time to wrap things up
90k - Panic if you can't see the end

50k is usually more than halfway, but I don't tent to relax until I get there. 60k I really relax because I know I can stop whenever I'm ready, provided I can knock out another 10k, which is puppy piddle by that point. Anything over 70k is a bonus. If I ever made it to 90k and couldn't see the ending, I think I'd feel a bit uneasy. Usually, by this point, things have tied themselves up neatly. Although it would be nice to write a novel at 100k, the further over that you go, the more the novel has to be a stunner to retain reader attention. 

You really shouldn't be obsessed with word count, but I know few people who aren't. The first 10k are a little like Angry Birds. Very soon after releasing your pig, you get a sense of whether the trajectory is going to hit its mark. Like McEwan (and so many other writers) I don't know where my story is going until it's on the page. I begin with a sense of the theme, but I don't plot things out. I stop to research things as and when I need to know about them but, other than that, I'm completely led by the characters. Not knowing how long the story is going to be, or even what's going to happen, can leave you nervously glancing at the word count, wondering how it will measure up to novels you've previously written, and whether it will come in on target.

For the time being, though, it's enough to know I've passed the golden number. The story, and the characters, have life. Having too many words is far preferable to having not enough. 

Next stop: 50k.

[NB: As it turned out, Blood Rose ended up at around 100,000 words, and the one after, Children of Lir, at 120,000!]

Saturday 25 May 2013

Hay Festival

Went to Hay Literature Festival today for the first time. Generally a regular visitor to Cheltenham, but hadn't been to Hay before. It was certainly very busy. 

Couldn't quite decide how big it was in comparison. Cheltenham is spread over two gardens in the centre of town, so it feels a little more spacious. Though there are more art and craft shops at Hay, as well as many of the houses in the village opening up to sell refreshments and souvenirs. Gives it more of a community feel.

We didn't book to see anything, just wanted to go and soak up the atmosphere. It's perhaps the most famous literature festival in the UK, and regularly attracts big name authors, actors, and world politicians. Hay itself has something like the most number of book shops per capita of any town in Britain, perhaps the world? We wandered into one incredible second-hand book cellar that seemed to go on for miles.

Stopped for tea at a tent selling the best homemade Welsh cakes ever. They also deliver via post, the perfect treat to nibble whilst you're writing. Get your order in: / 07827778344

On the way back to the car, I picked up the above retro typewriter. A Remington Rand DeLuxe Model 5, I believe. I've read a little about them on ozTypewriter. Model #EBT120433 - any help dating it would be much appreciated. Circa 1952/3?

Not sure why they called it 'portable'. Weighs a ton. Guess you can call anything 'portable' if it comes with a case? Love it, though. The whole room smells of ink ribbon.

It's been a glorious, sunny day. The drive to and from Hay was like a trip through Middle Earth. Such beautiful, rolling green countryside. We stopped off at Arthur's Stone on the way back.

Friday 24 May 2013

Novel Idea: 1k a Day

Image courtesy of Drew Coffman

For the past week, I've decided to try something I've never done before.

I'm really not someone who enjoys routine. As a writer, I tend to go through phases that range from incredibly productive to not writing at all for several months. I write when I have a story to be told.

My personal best was 10,000 words in one day, whilst writing Georg[i]e. The past few months, since finishing Splintered Door, have involved nothing but blog posts.

So, in order to meet my New Year oath of finishing a novel this year, I've set myself the target of writing one thousand words a day. A daily word count is something I've never set myself before, and I strongly doubted that I would last more than a couple of days before raising my middle finger to the screen and immersing myself in online colouring, or the entire back catalogue of Jenna Marbles.

Instead, I sit here surprised.

This time last week, the novel sat at 10,432. Over the past seven days, I've written at an average of 1,056 words per day, with a low of 834 and a high of 1,203. I've deleted around 41 words and added a grand total of 7,389 to the manuscript. It's now at 17,780. How chuffed am I?

The hardest day was yesterday. I find it difficult to settle into writing when I know that I have something to go out and do, so I put off writing until I got home from horse riding, at which point I was absolutely shattered. All I wanted to do was soak in the tub and drink wine.

The easiest was probably Tuesday, when I became so engrossed in the action that I went 200 words over before realising I should stop. I could have carried on, but I've found it's not a bad idea to quit on a high. I fall back into the plot much quicker the next day. 

Thankfully, so far, I haven't hit any major blocks. Knowing that I have to clock off after 1,000 words releases me to spend the rest of the day, guilt free, contemplating where the story will go tomorrow, doing my research, and working out any fiddly details that need resolving. Once I've filled my quota, knowing that I'm not allowed to type until the next day often makes me want to type more.

Having said that, once the page is open, it isn't always an unstoppable outpouring of words. Sometimes I'll do a paragraph, check Facebook, do another, and write a blog post. Other times, I start, then realise I need to go and read Wiki for an hour to work out how the politics of a nineteenth century Middle Eastern harem worked, before I can go on.

It doesn't matter how long it takes me to complete my quota, just so long as it's filled. I'm not allowed to miss a day and then aim for 2,000 the next day. It has to be every day. Though, if I fall short by fewer than 200 words, I can carry that over, so long as my daily average remains 1,000 or above.

So far, one week has not been at all unpleasant. It's actually started to feel a little more like a vocation than a hobby. Let's see how I feel about it in another couple of weeks.

Thursday 23 May 2013

Novel Idea: Get Out of the House

Cotswold Trail Riding

One thing that has to be said about writing: it does terrible things to your waistline.

Having returned from Scotland feeling fairly trim for all my walking adventures, I've now spent an entire week sitting in front of my computer, writing.

Lardy-arsism is a terrible disease.

Exercise is also a fantastic way to pick out those knots in your plot. If you hit a writing block, the best thing to do is to head for the door. Forget about it for a while, or meditate upon it whilst putting one foot solidly, and physically, in front of the other. We do our best thinking on our feet - well, and on the toilet, but mostly on our feet.

Different people prefer different methods of exercise. Some like to burn it out at the gym a couple of times a week, some like to take the dog for a daily stroll - for me, it's horses or swimming. Energetic full-throttle, knacker myself out, fall asleep when I get home, no need to do it again for another week type exercise.

Today, I headed to the Cotswold Trail Ride. I can't recommend them enough. A thoroughly pleasant afternoon with panoramic views of the Malvern hills and Severn Valley, bluebell woods, and sun-dappled green woodland. Truly enchanting this time of year. 

Their horses are broad-shouldered, rolling-gait kinda beasts. Lovely temperament, like cantering a rocking horse. I tend to get Lump, so named for the lump on his shoulder. He may seem to plod along but, when the wind picks up and you let out the rein, the boy can fly.

Quick tip for those, like me, who adore horses but happen to have a hideous allergy to them. Vitamin C is the answer! 1,000mg an hour or so before you go. Promise you, it's a miracle cure with none of the drowsy side effects of antihistamines. Provided you throw your gear in the wash, and yourself through the shower, before it wares off, it's like it never even happened.

The other advantage to being an irregular rider is that, after a couple of hours in the saddle, I walk like John Wayne. So, I'm pretty much forced to sit in front of my computer and write for the next few days.

See, win-win situation.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Novel Idea: A Stitch In Time

(Jazz it Up, Designer Clocks)

I mentioned briefly in my last post that I'd opted for working on historical fiction.

Having done this once before, with my debut novel Angorichina, I know that, when it comes to HistoFic, timing is everything.

If you're going to undertake historical fiction, you need to be prepared to invest in the research. You also need to be prepared to be kind to yourself. No matter how meticulous you are, you will never be perfect.

One particularly famous example is Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe series, who wrote a wonderful article in the 2010 edition of Writers' & Artists' Yearbook titled: Notes from a successful historical novelist (P.245) regarding his adventures in Arthurian legend:

You are going to get things wrong. None of us mean to, but we do. There were no rabbits in King Arthur's Britain, which I knew, but a helpful reader (there's always a helpful reader) wrote to tell me there were no snowdrops either. Got that wrong.

Apparently, they're of Turkish origin. A fact I only discovered whilst visiting Colesbourne Park. He goes on to give some really good advice regarding not trying too hard to be an historian, but a storyteller. Worth a read if you're interested in this genre.

For my rather less famous part, I made a similar blunder with Ango, which resulted in me contacting my publisher crying "The King! The King! God save the King!" Having just realised that I had suggested my characters were gathered around a piano in 1932 singing God Save the Queen, which, of course, they couldn't have been. It was rather gutting, and a tad embarrassing, after all the research that went into every other aspect of medical, political and social history, to slip up on something as relatively minor.

Thankfully, it was caught early on. If you ever happen to find yourself in possession of a copy of Angorichina imprinted with the words 'God Save the Queen,' consider it a collector's edition.

What I will say is that there's probably never been a better time in history to be an historical fiction writer. The amount of knowledge at our fingertips is incredible. Then again, you might argue that Shakespeare's time was a better time to be an historical novelist, as very few people had access to any form of information with which to contradict you. For all most people knew, Bohemia really did have a coastline.

For modern writers, however, 'a stitch in time saves nine.' Or, rather, 'google it to avoid a headache.' A few hours of research on Wiki, and the wider web, will really help to avoid slips. One of the reasons I've delayed getting into writing Blood Rose, is because I know just how much research is required. I've spent the past couple of days with my nose pressed against the screen. 

Blood Rose is set in Northern Iran during the mid-1800s. Sticking with the theme of 'time', one of the most mind-bending issues I've had to deal with so far has been the fact that the location of my story has three calenders.

We begin in 1850 anno domini, by the Christian calender. Generally, this works out as 1268 anno hegirae, by the Islamic calender, and 1231 anno persico, by the Persian calendar. There's a wonderful tool by the Iran Chamber Society for working it out.

However, I say 'generally' because the headache doesn't end there. All three celebrate New Year at a completely different time. The Christian New Year is 1st January, the Islamic New Year, signalling Muharram, is generally early November (similar to Samhain in the UK), and the Persians celebrate New Year, or Nowruz, on the vernal equinox in March.

Thankfully, someone has also very helpfully developed a tool for calculating the date of the spring equinox in Tehran, even as far back as 1852.

This is perhaps the point I'm getting to. No matter what your question is, try typing it wholesale into Google. I'll guarantee someone else has already asked it and, hopefully, come up with an answer. Such is the marvel of modern technology.

Monday 20 May 2013

Novel Idea

(Free HDR Photos)

Welcome to my mind, ladies and gentlemen.

Those who haven't been here before may find it slightly disturbing. I assure you, the nausea wears off after a few posts. 

Back at the beginning of this year, I made an oath that I would finish another novel in the first half of 2013.


Having just spent the past three months traipsing around Scotland, I think we can safely assume that didn't happen. 

But, I'm back now.

I'm one of those writers where the desire to write comes in waves. Sometimes I'll be ridiculously productive, other times I won't write for months on end, blogging aside. Funnily enough, I never lose the desire to blog. If only I could wave a magic wand and turn my accumulative monthly journal count into fiction, I'd be rivalling War and Peace.

Well, I'm in the mood now. It's novelling time. 

Inspired by a documentary last year, in which Ian Rankin proved to audiences across Great Britian that writing a novel truly is quite a dull process, whilst teaching us all the meaning of the word mondegreen, I thought I'd take you with me on my little journey to complete the next beach/bedtime/bathroom read.

From this post on, any entry starting with the title Novel Idea: and labelled as such, will be a post relating to my current project. Every book needs a working title, so we'll call this one Blood Rose.

In a departure from what I promised in my original oath, I'm actually picking up an historical fiction project, rather than a fantasy one. Unlike the fantasy project, which was knocking on for halfway at forty-five thousand words, this one really is starting from scratch, at just over ten thousand.

Like most authors, I'm more easily distracted by social media than a child with keys. However, I'm hoping to use this to my advantage. I'm banking on the fact that the pressure to deliver informative updates on how my novel is progressing, and how terribly traumatic (in a sort of painfully middle-class way) the life of an author is, will keep me plugging away with focus and determination.

You, dear connoisseur of contemporary literature, are my reason for writing.

Now you'd better bloody read it.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Word Counters

After yesterday's post on 'how many words make a novel,' here's a handy tip on word counters to help you keep track of them all.

After spending the first half of this year on the road, I'm nailing myself to the desk and cracking on with my New Year's oath. I've actually opted for a different project: a work of historical fiction rather than fantasy, about thirty thousand words less developed.

Here's how my project stands at present:

10432 / 70000 words. 15% done! 

Really easy to set up, though you might find an HTML colour chart useful.

10432 / 70000 (14.90%)

There are some things about this one I really like, and a couple of things I don't.

Negative: The site looks a lot more complicated, even though it's basically the same as the NaNoWriMo one. When you click in the code box and 'select all' it selects the entire page.

Good Stuff: Piquing my geek, you have a lot more control over appearance. You can choose a background and a foreground colour. When you choose the colours, it automatically calls up the colour chart for you, so you don't have to be an HTML expert. You can set it to 'overflow,' so that, if you do reach your limit, it'll keep counting. You can resize it and even choose the font.

It is a lot smaller, which is either annoying or discreet, depending on how you view it.


Mood enhanced:

Heh. Good fun, and easy once you get the hang of it. Only tricky part is that it's set to 50k by default. If you want to up your goal and change the mood you need then:

words=<number you're at>&target=<goal number>&mood=<mood code 0-9> 


Then copy/paste the picture to your blog or website. Perhaps a little complicated for tech newbies, but worth getting to grips with.

Another thing I've noticed is that they each have a different way of rounding your word count for the percentage. The NaNoWriMo meter is by far the most encouraging, rounding my 10,432 words up to 15% Curious Device's curious device was very exact about it, rounding to two decimal places: 14.90% Whereas Writertopia sort of burst my bubble by rounding down to 14%

Figure out how much encouragement you need in order to feel good about your writing before you decide which one to opt for. 

Saturday 18 May 2013

Count On It

(Image courtesy of Larah McElroy)

As the title of this post might suggest - it's all about word count.

A lot of people ask 'how long is a novel?'

That's sort of like asking 'how long is a piece of string?'

But there is a general rule of thumb:

< 500 words = flash fiction
 500-30,000 = short story
30-60,000 = novella
60-90,000 = standard novel
90,000-120,000 = long novel
> 120,000  = excessive

Many people say that 50,000 is the watershed between novella and novel. Though, the majority of standard novels tend to fall between 70-95,000.

Genre makes a difference. Sci-fi and Fantasy often run to the upper ends of the scale, whereas  Young Adult (YA) and Romance often wade in at the shallow end.

These are ballpark figures, and there will always be exceptions. One of the biggest considerations is the typeset. If your book is set in 12pt rather than 10pt, it is going to take up a few extra pages.

See my post on Formatting a Novel.

Sadly, you do have to write a lot of words to make a novel. In my experience, it isn't the wonderful magic trick: one side of A4 equals at least two pages of a novel. I don't know who came up with that oft-repeated phrase, but it's a fallacy. There tends not to be a huge difference between the number of word-processed pages in a manuscript and the number of pages in the printed book.

For example, my novels worked out thus:

(click to enlarge)

The word count is the original, largely un-edited manuscript that went to the publisher, plus the number of pages. The last column shows the total number of pages in print, including acknowledgements and verso.

As you can see with Lucid, it actually worked out less in print!

That's largely to do with font size and removal of double spacing.

For a first time author, it's inadvisable to go over 120,000. This is because larger books are apparently harder to sell (people prefer a quick read) and more expensive to produce. Fewer publishers are likely to take the risk on an unknown.

If you do find you're getting to that amount of words, consider whether you might be better off serialising your story. For example, a fantasy trilogy. This can help on other levels, too. If a publisher likes what they read enough to print the first one, it's nice for them to know that there's another two to follow if it's successful.