Construction of a Novel: Sleight of Mind

When it comes to novel writing, I’m a pantser. Or at least, I have been in recent years. This brings its own share of challenges and thrills, but one of my favourite things about it is the element of surprise. When I don’t know (or only have a vague idea) what’s going to happen next in my story, I’m frequently surprised by it. And there are times when that surprise truly astonishes me.

There’s a secondary character in my current novel who makes a few brief appearances off-screen (the protagonist never even meets him), and then sort of disappears. He plays an important role, but I wasn’t sure what happens next with him, or even if it was important. I sort of left it open-ended, with no plans to reintroduce him, yet also aware that I should probably go back and tie up those ends properly during edits, as it’s all a bit ambiguous.

And then, yesterday, tens of thousands of words after his last minor appearance, he showed up again, completely out of the blue. I had to seriously question myself to figure out whether he belonged in this section of story, or even if it fit what I’d already written about him. I ran a search for his name and read all my previous references to him, and to my astonishment, his reappearance fit perfectly. I didn’t need to rewrite anything. I didn’t need to shoehorn references in that would later fit with his return… I didn’t need to foreshadow it. Because I already had. It turns out I’d been foreshadowing it almost from his first appearance, and I had no idea. Re-reading the last references I’d made to him, it was almost like I’d gone back in time to write them from this point, knowing where he would end up and just how important he would actually become to the story.

So. Weird. And kind of mindblowing. When my brain conjured him back into the story, it’s almost as if it went ‘ta-da!’ as it did so. Like my subconscious had been performing a long, elaborate magic trick on me, and it was finally revealed.

Amazing. And I still have no idea how it was done.


Music and Words

There seem to be two types of writers: those who need silence to write, and those who need music. I’m one of the latter type. That’s not to say I can’t write without music playing, but if I’m not feeling inspired when I sit down to get some words on the page, the number one way to up that inspiration and get my fingers flowing across the keys is to put on some suitable music.

It helps put me in the zone. It shuts out the distractions that try to pull me away from the story. And if I get the right music going, it can spur me on like nothing else. The right music is key. Radio is hopeless, with all its distracting chatter and randomness. Music with lyrics is rarely helpful, as the lyrics carry me off in a different direction from the one I’m trying to head. They impose themselves on my brain while it’s coming up with streams of prose, and generally interfere. So it’s almost always instrumental stuff for me.

I’ve found that the most useful instrumental pieces to write to are pieces of music that are in themselves telling a story or seeking to create a deliberate atmosphere. Contemporary composers like Ludovico Einaudi and Max Richter are excellent for this. The repetitive nature of their melodies can almost hypnotise me into a writing state while inducing the necessary emotion to carry the story.

But the music that achieves this best is soundtrack music. Film scores are designed to elicit emotion, to place the viewer in the story and impart a sense of urgency, or tragedy, or scope. There’s something about the work of a composer who has specifically written that work to accompany a story. That sense of story, of conflict and emotion and character, is imperative to writing, and having it conveyed through the medium of music really helps to uncover whatever story I’m trying to tell.

A good playlist is essential. There are some tremendous ones on sites like 8tracks – just type in ‘writing’ and you’ll get a massive selection of playlists put together for just this purpose, with all kinds of perfect scores and tracks you’ve never come across along with the familiar ones.

When I need to get in the zone, a cup of tea, a stash of salt liquorice, and an amazing playlist of audio inspiration is my ideal recipe for wordcount success.

I’ll leave you with one of my all-time favourites, from the sorely-missed master of emotion, James Horner:

The Power of Friendship

I’ve written about friendship before on this blog, in terms of what it means to me from a story perspective. I’ve always been drawn to stories about friendships, just as friendships have always played a crucial role in my personal life. My friendships mean the world to me. They’re some of the most important relationships in my life, and they always have been.

But as a society, I feel like we don’t honour friendship enough. Romantic relationships are always upheld as the ultimate in personal interaction. We denigrate friendship even as we distinguish it from romantic partnerships. We use terms like ‘just friends’ or ‘friends with benefits’, as if platonic friendships don’t have masses of benefits above and beyond sex.

Just friends. Think about that for a minute. If we celebrated friendship the way we celebrate sexual relationships, such a description wouldn’t exist. Yet friends are the people we stick with through life. They’re the people we turn to in need. They’re the people we want with us when we’re celebrating. They’re the people who know us best. The people we can be our true selves with. The people who love the things we love and fight for the things we fight for. The people who’ve been with us through thick and thin, who’ve outlasted those lauded romances and hugged us through breakups. They’re the people we bond with on levels that far surpass the biological influences of reproduction.

Yet those influences are the ones we turn to, the ones by which we measure ourselves, the ones we see constantly highlighted through the media and in fiction.

I’m the first to admit I’m a sucker for a good romance. I’ll root for my favourite fictional couple any day of the week. I’m sad when real-life romances don’t work out. But fiction in particular comes with a certain expectation of romance. How often do we wait for the central pair in our favourite TV show to finally get together? How many times do we expect the platonic friendship to finally graduate to a sexual relationship? As if it’s not valid unless it does so? As if the true potential of that relationship hasn’t been fully explored until they’ve admitted their true feelings for one another and got it on?

I call bullshit on that. The true potential of a relationship lies in what those two people can achieve together. On what they share above and beyond what they have with anyone else. On what has bonded them and continues to bond them. On the absolute trust they have in each other. Whether that involves romance or not is irrelevant. When a romantic partnership has all those things, it’s one of those partnerships that’s built to last… a partnership that’s based on friendship. And friendship can, and does, have all of those things without the need for romantic attraction.

Mulder and Scully didn’t need to get together to prove the true worth of their friendship. Ron and Hermione could have stayed friends for life without getting married. Xander and Willow didn’t need to go through that weird phase of sucking each other’s faces off (at least they grew out of that one). Their friendships were amazing as it was. They had nothing else to prove. They didn’t need to ‘graduate to the next level’… they’d already reached the ultimate levels of trust and support two people can reach.

I want to see more friendships in fiction. Celebrated, appreciated, adored friendships without the need for romance. I see the Finn/Poe shipping and there’s a part of me rooting my arse off for it… but a larger part of me looking at the amazing potential to explore a deep friendship between two men. A friendship that doesn’t need to prove itself by morphing into romance. Friendship is worthy in and of itself, and I think it’s time we started celebrating that. Friendship has been an underlying theme in my stories for a long time, but I’m making a conscious effort to bring it to the surface. To really focus on it and allow it to be exactly what it is.

Not second best. Not ‘just’ anything. But among the most meaningful and worthwhile relationships it’s possible to have with another person.


Every so often, I come across an image that transports me into itself. It’s like the immersion that comes from good writing. The sense of being in a place, feeling it, the warmth, the scents, the sounds it evokes.

I came across one of these today. So beautiful I might have to put it in a story…


Why We Write

It’s been a scary year. The events of the past three weeks have felt like some kind of demon cherry on top of a glut of instability and fear-mongering. No one can know for sure what happens next, but the signs point to very unsettling possibilities.

I’ve seen all kinds of reactions from the writing community, ranging from dearths of creativity to fierce rallying cries. All those reactions are valid. Personally, I’ve been somewhere in the middle.

But it’s all got me thinking about the power of what we do. Writing is art, it’s communication, it’s portrayal of the world. It can be used for wondrous ends and horrendous ones. You’ve only got to look at the average British tabloid to see ample evidence of the latter. In many ways, those examples make it all the more encumbent on the rest of us writers to balance the scale in the other direction.

We write to process our thoughts and our ideas. We write to work through past hurts and present difficulties. We write to explore possibilities, to warn of dangers and to sow our hopes. Speculative fiction does this in ways other genres can’t, because it isn’t restricted to the world as we know it. Its scope extends to the futuristic, the fantastic, the alternative… with all of those things we can explore ‘what ifs’ and share visions of things that haven’t yet happened or delve into human nature from entirely new perspectives. The blog post I wrote on the importance of science fiction amply describes my thoughts on why it matters.

Our writing can draw attention to world issues by portraying them, veiled or openly, through the viewpoints of our characters. In doing this, we’re taking ideas beyond the factual, beyond informative articles and projections, and actually turning them into real-life situations. We only truly relate to these things by empathising with others going through them, and fiction provides that empathy in a way no other medium can. When I show what my persecuted refugee character is feeling, I enable my readers to connect with her and others like her. When I show how my rebel protagonist stands up against her totalitarian government, I enable readers to experience her anger and determination to put things right. When I show my alien character struggling to overturn her species’ discrimination against humans, I hope readers will see parallels in the way we continue to treat those we deem ‘inferior’.

Fiction is a reflection of its era, and the one we’re in now is rife with pitfalls and possibilities that we need to investigate. We need to explore the dangers through story before it’s too late for empathy. We need to show the bright alternatives before we’ve steered our path too far away from them. We need to work through our own fears, putting them into words both as catharsis and signpost.

This is why stories matter. This is why our society needs them more than ever.

This is why we write.

The Eight Stages of Story Writing

Well… my eight stages, anyway. I’m pretty certain all writers go through some form of these different states while a work is in progress. For me, these are the ones that invariably occur, and generally in this order.

The first (or even second or third) time you encounter this process, you think it’s just you. You think it’s just this particular story that’s got you on such an emotional rollercoaster. You feel sure Real Writers don’t go through all this unprofessional emotive instability. Then it happens on the next story. And the one after that. And you start to realise it’s a pattern, and it happens every single time. It’s true that some stories garner stronger emotional connections than others, and sometimes the dips on the rollercoaster are less noticeable, but they’re always there. So these are the stages I’ve come to recognise and even embrace, in all their wonderful/frustrating/schizoid glory:

1. Inspiration

This is where it all starts. Sometimes it’s the spark of an idea that sets your mind ablaze and demands you scribble notes down on whatever scrap of paper you happen to have hanging around the bottom of your handbag (I always have a pen. I try to always have paper or a notebook, but ideas don’t care whether you’re prepared or not). Sometimes it’s a slower-burning concept that’s been smouldering in the back of your mind for ages and suddenly comes to life. But either way, this is always an awe-filled moment, even if it’s occasionally the fearful awe of wondering how the hell you’re going to pull this thing off.

2. Cohesion

Now we’re talking. The inspiration has grown legs (and usually, teeth), and suddenly there are protagonists in your head, carrying out the ideas of the previous stage. There’s the shape of a plot. There are secondary characters clamouring for their own fifteen minutes of fame. It’s not just an idea any more. Now it’s a story. Now you have to write, at all costs, and corner this thing into submission before it runs away.

3. Immersion

This is the best bit. This is the beginning of a high that doesn’t culminate until the final sentence of the first draft is in place. This part is the love affair. You’re heady with it, unable to think about anything else, unable to make constructive headway on anything but writing this story. You love your characters. You’ve developed a relationship with them. You want them to succeed, even while you’re throwing deliberate hurdles in their way. (You also love seeing them jump and scramble.) You believe in this plot. You believe in this story, you’re having an absolute blast, and even when a plot snag comes along, you know you can overcome it, because SUDDENLY YOU ARE GOD AND YOU CAN DO ANYTHING.

4. Relief

No matter how awesome that immersive excitement is, getting the final sentence on the page brings the most wondrous sense of relief. You’re higher than a kite, and now you get to breathe again. It’s done. (I mean, it’s not done. It’s nowhere near done, and you know it. But first drafts like to believe they’re finished, even for just a few moments. And you let them have that.) Usually, you read through the completed draft right then and there (depending on how long it is, of course), and you look on what you’ve done and you smile with satisfaction. Phew. Another story complete. Another confirmation that I’m more than just a bag of unrealised ideas.

5. Apathy

Aaaand here it comes. You’ve hit the peak of the wave, and naturally you have to come gliding down the other side. A day goes by. Maybe two. You read the draft again, and pick up on typos and errors and words that don’t read quite right. You keep reading it. You keep revising paragraphs and scenes, and gradually your wonderful, amazing, all-consuming story feels stale and worn out. It’s not really the story. It’s the fact that you’ve read it over and over until the shine has completely worn off. You experience a certain numbness to it. It’s done. It’s okay. But you honestly can’t tell if it works any more. Or if it’s any good. Or if maybe it’s not so original after all…

6. Doubt

…or if you’re any good at this writing jaunt anyway. Argh. Why are you even bothering with this? You send the story out for critique, to try and pinpoint the weaknesses (and strengths) you simply cannot see any more. You get critiques from fellow writers. Many of them are complimentary. You’re buoyed by the good things they say. And some of them aren’t so complimentary, and somehow the negative points become far more consuming than the positive ones. Sometimes these points unwittingly strike right at your insecurities. Other times they denigrate something you thought you’d got just right. Either way, you’re at the doubting stage, so no matter how constructively the advice is given, or how many positives they give you at the same time, you’re seriously questioning yourself. Maybe you’ll never be any good at this thing. Maybe you suck.

7. Renewed belief

But, like all the stages, doubt is temporary. It’s actually constructive, if you channel it right. You can use it to improve, to overcome the issues you feel plagued by, and to keep persevering despite the hurdles. Often, you have to let significant time go by before renewing your belief in a story. Some stories take longer than others, but it’s always best to put them aside, let the critiques mull away in your subconscious, go and work on something else, and finally come back to the original story with a clear mind. You go back and read it, and it’s fresh again. You remember what you saw in it in the first place. You can clearly see where the weaknesses are and what needs improving, and you revise those areas. You thank your wonderful critiquers for giving you their invaluable outside perspective, and you know that the changes you’re making are strengthening the story and taking it to the next level. Now it’s a story you can root for again. You fell in love with it, you fell out of love with it, and now you’ve regained your respect for it and value it as a friend.

8. Vindication

It’s ready. You’ve done everything you can to it, revised it to within an inch of its life, and have a piece you’re proud to stamp with your byline. It’s time to start submitting. You research your markets, you aim high, and you send it out there to be judged by slush readers and editors. You get rejections. You know you’ll get rejections, but they’re never fun. Here’s where you can end up on a little merry-go-round, where Doubt crops up again and again. But you don’t listen to Doubt at this stage. If an editor provides constructive feedback (it happens!), you take it and you damned well use it. Either way, you send the story back out again. Over and over and over, if need be. Because one day, one of those editors replies to your submission, and you sigh, expecting rejection by virtue of the odds… and then your whole day lights up because it’s an acceptance. Your belief is vindicated. Someone thinks you’re good enough. Not just okay. Not just pretty good. Worthy, of a place in their publication and of receiving payment for your work.

And that’s what makes the whole rollercoaster worthwhile.

Listening to the Voices

Sometimes stories falter. It’s in the nature of writing. The trick is being able to pick up and start again even when you reach a seemingly insurmountable wall. The thing is, as a writer, you’re not the only person invested in your story. You’re the main person, sure. It won’t get written without you, and no one will care more than you whether it is or isn’t successful.

But. There are other people, without whom you don’t even have a story. People you rely on wholeheartedly in order to write in the first place.

They’re your characters.

Your protagonist, your antagonist, your secondary characters and side characters. They’re the focus of the whole thing. The story is about them. I could argue that there’s nobody more invested in your story than its characters, because without it, they don’t even exist. Or if they do exist and now you’re faltering, they risk being left in limboland, dangling and inconclusive because you can’t figure out where to go next.

In some ways, you and your characters are a team. You need each other. When encountering problems in other walks of life, we talk with our team mates, colleagues, partners, spouses, whomever, and conclude how to proceed from there. For me, it’s no different with characters. My consistently best solution to writing-related stumbling blocks is to talk to my characters. It works every time.

I don’t strike up direct conversations with them per se. For a start, they don’t even know I exist… But if I can get them talking to each other, conversing on something that’s just happened or is imminent, or even just regarding how they feel about a situation, solutions come flooding in. Sometimes these conversations will make it into the story, although they’re usually abridged, because these guys can get mighty chatty and they don’t give a liquorice clog about word counts. Sometimes the conversations themselves don’t get written down, but they still provide massive insight into where my characters are at a given moment, and they always manage to dig me out of a pit.

It’s amazing how much insight comes through in these visualised chats. When I can get into the characters’ minds and feel what they’re feeling, I end up knowing what they’ll do next, even if that might not be what I’d envisioned. It leads me away from the trap of forcing them to behave the way I need them to (which never works) and allows them to show me how they’ll behave, what they’ll do next, what it is that really matters to them at the specific point in the story. I don’t know of any better way to discern these things. Listening to my characters, observing their discussions, and trusting what they feel has always shown me where to go next and frequently throws up all kinds of surprises that end up making perfect sense down the line. As well as being my number one problem-solving tool, there’s something organic about it that I love. And it’s an amazing way to get to know my characters better.

So, my number-one rule of fiction writing: always listen to your voices.