Sunday, 14 August 2016

Behind the Curtain


Image result for behind the curtain wizard of oz

One thing I like to read on author blogs is what they are up to and how they write. I've just made a submission, so here's a quick peek behind the curtain.

My next Young Adult novel is called The Mayfly but while the publishing cogs are turning I thought I'd set myself a challenge and write something else before The Mayfly comes out.

I decided to go for Middle Grade (age 8-12). All I had was a very basic idea but no plot and no outline. On the 3rd July, I started writing.

Over the next three days I wrote about 8,000 words of nonsense to get a feel of what I could and couldn't do and began to develop a character I could work with. Once I had a better feel for where this might go, I went back and started again. I didn't have a plot at this stage, but I did have certain markers - a short list of scenes and ideas that I'd been thinking about. The plot developed as I followed the MC along the route. 

At the halfway point I mapped out a basic overview with a few chapter markers. I didn't really have an ending in mind, but it was starting to take shape. I returned to the main draft and knocked out another 10k. The plot began to develop so I went back to overview to get a God's view of what was going on. It wasn't perfect, but enough to push on and finish. Most writers speed up as they reach the end of a book. On my second last day I knocked out 6,500 words, writing the final 1,500 the following morning. In all, it took 26 days for that first draft 

So... job done?

Not really. Next comes the structural edit. This is a story edit, and involves reading through to search for mistakes and weak points in the story. What makes this difficult is it's very easy to slip and begin to correct grammatical mistakes. The purpose of a structural edit is to make sure the plot works, that clues are foreshadowed and found items are where they need to be. This is also the time to keep track of point of view, and that characters are motivated and react believably. Another important part of this stage is to strip out anything that doesn't push the story along, no matter how good the writing or idea. 

The structural edit isn't done in a single draft. Because it involves taking the story apart, there is a lot of backtracking and bouncing from one point to another. It can be very fiddly - often because changing one thing has knock on effects with the plot. Some writers try to do this at the planning stage - the snowflake method, for example - but I find planning in that amount of detail almost impossible. The result is the same though - a finished draft with a plot that works. 

Next is the storytelling edit. This is reading through (aloud if possible) to see if the story flows well, that it has a nice beat. I suppose you could call it style. It's where I look at sentence structure, grammar, control of voice. I try to strip out any repetition and try to work out if the simple stuff like dialogue tags or pronoun vs proper nouns causes confusion or slows down reading. 

Example: 
  • Emily looked at the wolf and said, 'Stop right there.' 
  • She looked at the wolf and said, 'Stop right there.' 
  • She glared at the wolf. 'Stop right there!'
stuff like that.

So now I'm at the stage where I've got a full draft, the story works and reads well. But there will still be a few copy errors.

Copy edit. Time to read through again. This time there should be no hiccups in the text, nothing that makes me think, 'Oh hang on,' and start to fiddle. I'll be honest here and say there were a few, and I also noticed a couple of plot quirks that needed tweaking - that sudden moment when you realise character A would have realised what character B was doing much earlier. If that happens, I fix it then go back to the start of that chapter and copy edit all over again. 

And that's it. Finished. It took 26 days for the first draft and 16 days for the edits (I had a couple of days rest during each edit).

So what happens now? Now it goes to my agent - Joanna Swainson of Hardman and Swainson Literary Agency, and there's several ways this could go. 
  1. Agent loves it. It's the best thing I've written and she wants to send it out right away. In that case, we'll work on a short pitching blurb together and it will go out to editors. And here, my control ends. If things go well, Joanna will negotiate the contract, at some point I'll get a copy to sign and I might be included in cover blurb and art. That's a long, long process though. Probably 18 months, so I might as well work on something new.
  2. Agent loves it but it needs a few tweaks. I tweak the problem areas, clean and copy edit and send it back. Go back to step 1.
  3. Agent likes but doesn't love it. This is the tricky one, and probably the most frustrating for authors trying to get an agent, or authors that have an agent and think they simply don't get their latest book. An agent's main job is to sell, and in order to sell successfully they have to love the manuscript because they are putting their reputation on the line. An agent that makes sale after sale is going to have a better reputation than an agent who sends out any old shite in the hope it will stick. It doesn't necessarily mean the book is bad, but it's a good sign that something is missing. Agents have different ways of delivering this news. I feel very comfortable that Joanna doesn't sugar coat her responses. In that respect, number 3 is really number 4 in disguise.
  4. Agent doesn't like it at all, but still holds the belief that I can write. I've written a lemon. It's a one off. I tried a different genre and it didn't work. Get back to what you do best and write a decent book.
  5. Agent suddenly realises she's made a massive mistake in ever taking me on because I can't write for toffee. This is probably the worst outcome, short of taking out lawsuits, injunctions or attacking me with an axe. Realistically, an email or telephone conversation steering things towards a mutual split. Termination of contract. Author goes for another agent or decides he knows best and self publishes.
Ideally, option 1 would the best outcome, but 2 would be okay. 3 and 4 are pretty much the same, and the aren't the end of the world. You simply move on and write something else. 

Fingers crossed it isn't 5.

In the meantime, I can read, relax or start on something new. And that's it. That's writing. Good, eh?

Colin Mulhern

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Review: Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland

Every Falling Star is the first novel to bring the reality of North Korea to a Young Adult audience. It's the true story of boy brought up in relative comfort of Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, when suddenly, and without explanation, he is thrown into a world of unimaginable poverty.

At first, he is told is that his family are going on vacation, only to find that the house they are staying in is basic to the extreme. It soon becomes clear that this isn't a vacation at all and their new life is fraught with danger. All he can work out is that his father, who had an important job in the military, has done something to warrant this punishment on his entire family.

At the age of 12, Sungju finds himself alone and has to rely on his wits and the support of a small gang of street kids to survive. He learns to fight and steal while trying to avoid arrest, imprisonment and the fear of execution.

Every Falling Star is an incredible tale of hardship, friendship and survival - how someone really determined can adapt to impossible circumstance, and the painful cost that entails. A horrifying eye opener to a world shrouded in secrecy. Highly recommended.

The Authors


Sungju Lee speaks across Europe, Asia, and North America about his experiences and about North Korean political social issues. He lives in South Korea but studies in England.

Susan McClelland’s first book, Bite of the Mango, was a worldwide sensation, published in more than 30 countries. She lives in Toronto, Canada.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Review: Moth Girls by Anne Cassidy

Two's company, three's a crowd, and Mandy never quite fits in with two close friends Petra and Tina. Maybe it's this feeling of not quite being part of the gang that causes her to hang back while Petra and Tina go into the old house they are so drawn to. And maybe that's why Mandy is alive to remember events of the night when her two friends went missing. The story kicks off five years later when the house is finally demolished and Mandy sees something that turns the whole mystery on its head.

The three main characters are drawn well and the friction of the three-way relationships is spot on. I really enjoy realism and grit in YA fiction and this certainly delivers in that respect, and there are aspects of the thriller that really grabbed me. It certainly ticked a lot of boxes for me as a reader.

Moth Girls takes a while to get going, and for me, there was a lot of meat on the bones that could have been trimmed - in particular, Mandy's interest in boys at school and the Tommy vs Jon subplot. While I understand the importance of this, it just didn't grab me the way the relationship between the girls did. It felt like it was beefing the story out when all I really wanted was to get back to the main mystery.

The ending is rather subtle and so understated that on first reading, I thought it was a case of deus ex machina. Having looked at it again, I think it's rather clever, but can't help feeling than Anne Cassidy missed a trick - but maybe that's just my taste. Sometimes, a bit of harsh reality (as is the case with Moth Girls) can resonate at a deeper level than plot twists and shock tactics.

Overall, a very good mystery thriller. Great stuff.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Coraline: Book vs Movie

Books are better, right? That's what I always hear, but I've often thought it was a snobbery - ie, "I'm more intelligent, therefore I can enjoy the depth of a book... bla bla bla." But sometimes a movie comes along that expands and develops a story. With Coraline being quite a short book, I wondered if this would be the case.

I read the book earlier this week, when realised I'd never read Neil Gaiman (other than a Sandman comic in the 90s) and keep hearing good things. And then I watched the movie last night.

First of all, I love stop motion animation. The movie of Coraline looks fantastic. The models and animations are fantastic, with stunning sets and some brilliant visual jokes (esp Miss Spink and Miss Forcible's musical number). However, there are other differences which really nail the difference between the format of a novel versus a movie. In particular, Wybourne.

Wybourne Lovat is a character that doesn't appear in the novel. That's because he isn't needed. A lot of Coraline's questions and thoughts are internal, and without a voice over, it's difficult to get these out in a movie - so Wybourne comes in. He has some great moments, and the stitched-on smile is grotequesly wonderful. But with Wybourne included - especially the ending - it undermines the heart of the book. Coraline is a book about a girl facing her greatest fear. This comes out in the book in a brilliant vignette where her father saves her from a swarm of wasps by telling Coraline to run while he stands still to attract the wasps and take their stings. This, he explains was not bravery - it was a situation where he had no option. But later, when he had to return to the same spot to retrieve his glasses, when he knew the wasps were waiting and understood the danger he was walking into - that was bravery. This scene is important because Coraline realises the danger of going back into the other house in order to rescue her parents. So the stakes are so much higher in the book.

And then there's the ending. The book is about a brave little girl who saves her parents and uses wit and cunning to stop the baddy. She is the hero, it's her journey, so she solves the puzzles. But in the movie, when she doesn't know what to do next, Wybourne bursts onto the screen to take over. Coraline makes the final move (much like the book) but because the movie has chosen action over strategy, this move comes across as an impulsive reaction. So it's good for the audience, who want to see the hero make a last minute escape, but rubbish for the character who merely survived, while in the book, she outwitted, overcome and beat that baddie by her own volition.

And that's why the book is better. That's wot I reckon.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Finding a place to write

You know when they say music can take you places. This post is kind of like that.


I got this album when I was eleven years old. I liked horror stories, saw this on a friend's t-shirt and simply had to have it. I listened to it over and over, unable to get over this incredible mix of visual story telling and incredible rock music. As I got into my teens I moved onto other stuff and this old album slipped away.

And then a few years ago, something popped into my head, so I went out and bought it again (my old vinyl albums went in the skip years ago). I got a massive bolt of nostalgia and started listening to it more and more.

When I take my son diving, the Aquatic Centre can be really noisy. I started putting this album on to drown out the noise around me. At first, it did the same old thing that most music does - it takes you away to a place. In my case, that's usually being on stage with a guitar (because in day dreams I can actually play one) and seeing a sea of fans jump about. But after a while, the music did the job it was meant to do - it cut out everything else allowing me to slip into my own world and write.

So now, when I go off to write, I put the same album on. It's become a trance thing - as soon as I hear those first few chords, I can go straight into writing mode. And then, a half hour or so later, I realise I haven't heard a single note.

Good music is like that. It's such an intrinsic part of you that it allows your mind to wander, to dream and visit other places.

Having said that, at night before I go to sleep, I stick my iPod on and listen to the same album and I'm right back on stage.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Review: The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Isabella knows that a world exists beyond the confines of her island, and she has maps to prove that. But since the new Governor arrived, no one is allowed to leave and half of the island is strictly out of bounds.

But when a girl is murdered, and then the Governor's daughter goes missing, Isabella adopts a disguise in order to join the search party. What she discovers makes her realise the mythical stories her father told her as a child have living roots that run deep into the heart of the island.

The Girl of Ink and Stars is an enchanting piece of storytelling with a magical mixture of visual wonder and spellbinding action. Wonderful.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Review: The Three by Sarah Lotz

Loved this book.

Generally speaking, it's not YA, but I've added the YA tag - more on that later.

For the most part, The Three is a book within a book, and then follows the story of the author to see the long term effects of having had that book published.

I'm going to keep this short to avoid spoilers, but the basic plot is that four planes crash on the same day. In three of the planes, there is a single survivor and each one is a child. Perfect ingredients for conspiracy theories.

What follows is a collection of interviews and transcribed chats, webchats and tweets. Sounds complicated, but the stories grab you tight and pull you in. Very, very readable. But what really takes it to the next level is that each voice is so individual - so take note if you're interested in writing, because this book is quite simply a master-class in controlling your writing style to fit different characters.

I particularly loved Chiyoko and Ryu's story. (This is the reason for the YA tag). Thanks to this, I have a new favourite emoticon: Orz - meant to look like a figure kneeling down and banging his head on the floor.

The book has had some negative reviews for the ending, but for me, it's the ending that made the book what it is. If you're a fan of the TV series LOST, you might remember how the ending caused a big stir, and a lot of people spitting their dummies out. Same thing here I suppose. Some people like their threads all nice and neat and tied up; others enjoy something a bit more unsettling, something that keeps your brain ticking after you close the book and creeps into your dreams. That's me. Right there.

Great book.