Hot Off The Press

Ok folks, the report from Russel McLean is in. The background for this formal critique of the first three chapters can be found here. As I promised right at the beginning, the reason for this blog is a warts and all thing. I want you to understand and experience everything that I do about the process of writing your first novel. The good the bad and the indifferent.

My thanks to the Authors Workshop and Russel for allowing me to publish the report in full. You can read the first three chapters of the book on which Russel based his report here. Russel’s report can be found here.

I would welcome any and all comments, and I want to put on record my thanks to Russel for his report and the attention to detail contained therein. He really did read it folks.

As to my thoughts on his observations and suggestions, well those will follow on from his report as and when I have time to digest and think about them.

In the meantime as previously mentioned, I am now off to Canada for three weeks so this may well be the last update till end June beginning July. During that time I shall be concentrating on reviewing and editing the text to date rather than new dialogue etc.

See you out there.

Writers Workshop

Russel D McLean

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…is definitely important as the novel evolves. I am lucky in that I have a number of followers who are charged with reading the ad hoc chunks that I fling in their general direction. Here is a recent example.

Follower – more please, have read up till end of Chapter 11

Me – here you go, what did you think of it?

Follower – It’s made want to read more, always good in book!

Hmmm, well it’s positive if not terribly informative. As some of you are aware, I recently took the plunge and have paid a professional editor to review and critique/savage the first three chapters of the first draft. This was on the 1st May and I was led to believe the report would be with me in four weeks…….. Well needless to say I am still waiting  and getting a little frustrated/tense. I know it’s not a big deal to them, but it sure as hell is for me! The other reason for getting anxious is that the management and I are off to Canada in a weeks time to visit offspring and uncles. Offspring is doing post doc research and you can catch up with him here. Uncle is a semi-retired Professor of Oncology and part time Father Christmas. If I get the report by the end of the week I shall, as promised, post it in all its gory detail. Interestingly, I re-read this section a week or so ago and compared it to my more recent outpourings. That section was written at the turn of the year and since then I have managed to progress the narrative by over 70k words. As this is my first novel I was interested to see if my style had changed, after all I can hardly be described as a seasoned/consistent writer. I am a novice with no track record or “voice” of my own yet.  My own feedback to myself would be “slightly too affected and trying too hard to create characters by reference to actual quotes from them as opposed to creating them yourself.” other than that I was pleasantly surprised how consistent the style and approach was/is. I suspect this has something to do with a regular writing schedule, something which many writers talk about and the one aspect of writing a novel I find the most invaluable. JKFW folks, that’s the trick.

In other news the draft is up to 78k and I feel much more at ease with the narrative, now that I have a clear picture in my minds eye of the setting. As suspected, once I could visualise the boat (Nemesis) the story telling became much easier, even though my version of the boat has gone through some substantial alterations courtesy of The Cadre.

Canada is a three week jaunt, and updates and writing are going to be patchy, so if I don’t post for few weeks, that’s the reason. Oh and I have set myself the target of finishing the first draft by September. Hmmmm that maybe a bit rash, but we’ll see.

See you out there.


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Time And A Place

Ok in a break from the normal I shall do things in reverse order this week. First in other news the draft has gone up to 73.5k. This is less than in previous weeks for two reasons. One of them book related the other not.  The non book related item was a production by my local am dram group Ellesmere Arts of the Vicar of Dibley in which I took part. For those not familiar with the piece, it is a classic British sitcom revolving around class and religion. Perfect middle class fodder, but in it’s defence it is very well written and has some cracking jokes.

The other reason is one of a growing self awareness of my need to understand and visualise a setting before I can progress my characters actions and interaction. It seems I cannot easily write if I don’t have a clear visual picture of the setting or layout of the place they are in, even if the dialogue is independent of the setting or location. Up until now all of the action has taken place in London and for each of the key locations I have been able to either recreate the setting e.g. Benekey’s the pub at the beginning was a real place, see here  and much of it’s interior is still visible today as the Citte of York in Holborn. In fact I have been there, had a pint and generally soaked up the atmosphere.

For navigation around the Victorian capital, Booths Maps of London Poverty have been invaluable for identifying streets, planning routes, as well as pinpointing the Location of the “The Devils Acre” a rookery or slum that existed at the time. Finally being able to find floor plans of Victorian town houses has allowed me to create the London base for the Cadre in such a way that I can mentally move through it and visualise each room and the relationship between them and their original functions. Now I find myself all at sea.

I hadn’t really considered this until it became clear that as I moved my characters off dry land and onto the ocean, I would need to create a new mini universe for them to inhabit. As soon as I started this new section, I found myself struggling to make sense of what I was writing. It seems I need to fully realise the new setting before I can start progressing the story. So the upshot of this is that I need to fully understand what a Victorian steam warship was like, the crew, their quarters, what they ate, the normal ships routine, even though those details may only surface as passing references in the text and play no real part in the story itself. So it’s off to the library and the interweb for a period of micro world building just so my heroes can continue their relationships, their bickering, encounter new challenges, and that’s before they finally get to Africa, where the real story begins………

See you next week, hopefully with some real progress to report.


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Mid Term Review

Whilst waiting for the paid feedback from a professional editor, this week I shall be indulging in a bit of critical self-feedback based wholly on this serendipitous article that came my way last Saturday. Suggest you have a gander at it as it is quite long and the comments after are as illuminating as the article itself. Ok, how am I doing?

  1. There are no rules – Well if that’s the case then the rest of the article is a bit of a waste of time. Fair point though. I’m making it up as I go and ignoring all the texts on “How to write a novel
  2. Your first line – Yup got one of those. Not sure it’s opening up my ribcage and grabbing my heart though.
  3. Don’t write what you know – Well I know bugger all about Victorian society so check. Actually to be more accurate I used to know bugger all. Now I know quite a bit.
  4. The terror of the white page – Haven’t suffered that yet. I find the routine of a twenty minute walk down to local library allows me to work on what today’s mini target/challenge will be. This has the effect of ensuring when I actually sit down I already have today’s first sentence in my head.
  5. Creating characters – All the feedback to-date has mentioned that they believe my characters are strong each with a singular voice. I concur. I now find their individual voices easy to summon. Often the characters will create their own dialogue, consistent with the situation and their motivation, without any conscious thought from me.
  6. Writing dialogue – The bit I enjoy most, probably due to writing and editing pantomimes, which are basically all dialogue. Take issue with the removal of “hmmm and err….” Sorry I find this does work in better informing the reader about the state of mind of the character and avoids cliché descriptions of dialogue. But what do I know?
  7. Seeking structure – Basically tell a story not just a plot. Agreed. I am attempting a narrative structure whereby the story unfolds from the (inter)actions of the individuals, cause and effect. Consequences arise directly from the characters personalities rather than just following contrived external drivers. The story emerges, the reader should only be able to guess what happens based on what they know and feel about the characters and how they might behave and react to the situation they find themselves in.
  8. Language and Plot – Yup, got both of those. It is a balance between dynamic and the languid. The beat of the plot and the intricate solo of a character, their background or the need to place them in a detailed and precise location. Pace vs. place. You need both. All creative processes seek to create a dynamic, a tension. Hold back then release. Tease and reward. Explain and
  9. Punctuation – Oh dear, my Achilles heel. If there is one constant in the feedback, it is that I don’t like punctuation, especially commas. But, in my defence that is what an editor can help me with. I need to tell the story, bring characters to life, entertain and enthral. I cant be arsed with prepositions and the use of the subjunctive clause and I’m damn sure my characters cant be either. Sorry.
  10. Research – Oh yes, with actual knobs on. Do it, then do some more. After that, even more. I find it gives me a complete mental picture of where my characters are. Research fuels the detail you can add to a scene. E.g. contemporary descriptions of Victorian slums has allowed me to describe The Devils Acre – a real slum or rookery. Architect drawings of the design of Victorian townhouses has allowed me to create the London base of the Cadre. I feel better and more confident in my creation knowing it is rooted in fact. Oh and Wikipedia is the greatest gift the internet has given us.
  11. Fail, fail, fail – Almost certainly, but that does not put me off, neither should it deter you. The world doesn’t need another book. But if it’s good it’ll find a space.
  12. Throw it all away – Sometimes you can be so enamoured with a bit of prose you fail to see that it is getting in the way of something more important. If a reviewer or editor says it doesn’t fit, they are almost certainly right. Don’t ever get too attached to some clever wordsmithery, it’s only code in a word processor.
  13. Your last line – I’ll let you know when I get there.

In other news the first draft has reached 70k, and I have concluded the first major section of the plot. Many questions remain unanswered and will be left to hang and mature/rot. Now for a change of scenery and a different set of issues for my motley band of heroes to suffer/solve.

See you next week.

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Sometimes I Sits And Thinks…Sometimes I Just Sits

Inspiration, something all writers crave. But if I have learnt one thing so far about the process I am going through is that it’s a dammed elusive beast. The more you strive for it the less likely you are to find it. Everyday I sit down to write I am confronted the same fears and trepidations namely.

Will I find my characters voices again. Will the tone be consistent or will I unconsciously veer off into some stylistic anomaly.

Will I be able to progress the plot sufficiently without either being too enigmatic or too patronising.

Is the plot credible, have I “jumped the shark” and am no longer in control of events, inventing ever more bizarre co-incidences to keep things on track.

Will I hit my arbitrary daily word target and just move the damm thing forward.

Is what I am writing just utter self-indigent crap.

So what do I do to offset these daily horrors, which seem common to a lot if not all writers. (note to self, don’t include yourself in that august body just yet sunshine – nothing printed, nothing gained). Here are my solutions. I offer them not as tablets of stone, just what works for me. Just the facts ma’am, just the facts.

If you write regularly, the consistency of tone voice and character will come. Familiarity breeds content(ment).

Once established effectively, your characters will exist and come to life when you need them. They will tell you what to say on their behalf.

Always progress the plot, even if it just putting in a remark or action that will only become clear later on. Don’t just sit their wallowing in a scene just because you like the words.

Allied to that is never be precious about any phrase or passage. Your opinion is just one out of (hopefully many) If someone else says something is not working – they’re probably right. But only you can fix it so don’t be defensive about it. Do something about it.

Conscious inspiration is an illusion. Just let your subconscious work on things behind the scenes. The solution will emerge. Mine is currently mulling over several variations in the way the current chapter could go. The only thing I have decided is that what I have currently written will need to be re-worked.

Write automatically, in free-fall, just let it flow, don’t judge whilst you are writing, review after and amend if required. Usually you don’t need to . I have found that the strongest passages (imho) are those that just emerge without any apparent conscious thought.

Create the setting in your minds eye. Know where the people are in relation to each other and visualise the room or location, then just describe what happened next.

Keep reading, not just to see what works with other writers, just keep yourself informed, you never know when it may come in handy. Not sure how a shadowy cabal can influence world events? Think it too far fetched? Just check out this and this. Now wonder how to translate that into a Victorian setting. Hmmmm ideas aplenty. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Accept that your brain does not work in a linear fashion. Ideas will pop up for sections of the book at random. Just note them down for a later date. Last week I found myself researching the American Revolution. Why? My brain had an itch that needed to be scratched so I let it wander for a time. Now it knows there is useful material for a much later issue ready and waiting and is now letting me return to the task in hand.

The above are not unique to me, you can find them dotted all over the literature of the writing process. For example here.

Ok, in other news the draft is up to 65k and reaching a critical point that will cause numerous consequences. Time to fire up the plot particle accelerator and crash some characters into each other and see which fragments are left and which ones (if any) emerge unscathed.

See you next week.



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No Turn Left Unstoned

This weeks blog is all about reviews. The title comes from this wonderful book. A sobering read for any of us with artistic pretensions.

First off I have decided to pay someone to review the first three chapters of the current draft. The idea came as I happened across this site The Writers Workshop. Its a useful place for some of the technical as well as business issues of writing a book. It’s the brainchild of this guy Harry Bingham who appears to be a successful professional author in his own right. Hey he even has his own Amazon page. The sight claims to be the leading consultancy for first time writers. One of the (paid for) services it offers is an opportunity for an in depth review and critique of the first “chunk” of your manuscript. Ok I thought, time to put your money where your mouth is. Cough up and let’s see what a professional editor makes of your plot and prose. So money sent file uploaded. Couple of days later one of the editorial team informs me she has sent the draft to Russel D McLean. You can read about Russel here. I can expect my report in around four weeks. As I promised when I started this blog, it will be a warts and all process, so I will let you see the report when I do and share the pain/glory/indifference with you. I am hopeful as Russel has one really good thing going for him, he likes Iain M Banks, easily one of my favourite writers.  I had the privilege of meeting Iain on one of his last book tours. A humble yet bitingly funny speaker, fiercely intelligent and sadly missed.

Secondly I have had more feedback from another of my followers, which apart from a couple of redacted plot points I reproduce in full below.

“You have a great cast of characters assembled. They are quite distinct from each other, which is essential. The …….. chap is an interesting addition to the cast, not to mention the ‘Forty Elephants’. Is this based on a real organisation? Most intriguing, not to mention the flag idea.

 I also like the way you give details of the Police station and the dollop of history that comes with it (and indeed other details of the Victorian city throughout the story so far).

 One wonders how Perrin’s character is going to develop….he seems to get a little tougher at times which stops him becoming a stereotype. The …………are a really good touch. Mary and he are ……….. by hiding this information. What will happen when (if) ….. finds out?

 There’s so much going on in London, one wonders if they are going to leave the city at all?

 Actually, you have so much going on here it almost feels like it has turned into a different sort of story….a good old Victorian thriller, with lots of twists and turns, violence and dodgy loyalties, seedy backdrops and mysterious villains.. And Empire of course….

 Will await the next bit. Be very interested to see how it goes.”

To which I say, sorry the flag bit has been ditched – too pat. The Forty Elephants did really exist at the time this book is set, and yes they will leave the city and set sail for Africa, just as soon as I have wrapped up this bit of the plot, which is setting the scene for later in the book. And subsequent ones too. As to it being a Victorian thriller, well yes it is, but there is more to come…..

Finally the draft is to to 60k and a critical new chapter looms, which has been keeping my brain ticking over for the last week, both night and day. If I can just remember all the stuff I have been thinking about, it should be a breeze, otherwise……..

See you next week.

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It’s All Just Talk

Was discussing my first draft the other day with a friend who has graciously agreed to follow my progress. The friend in question is a fearsome sub editor, amongst other talents, and the first thing she said to me after reading the first few thousand words some months ago was, “you don’t like punctuation much do you?” This was somewhat surprising, as I consider myself a generous fellow, especially when it come to commas. But apparently not. I was driving her nuts (she is a bit OCD, as she herself will admit) and the only way she could continue the story was to completely ignore all the technical aspects of the actual writing, and just read the story. Now the interesting thing about this is I like to write a lot of dialogue, and I strive to keep it naturalistic so I asked myself how do we punctuate our own speech when we talk to one another? Well the interweb has no direct response to such a question. But there is a lot about how to write dialogue, which you can discover here.

When I am writing dialogue, and more importantly when I read it back, the main thing I am looking for is flow. How well do the words link together? Is it natural? Now this is a bit tricky in my case, as I am writing in a somewhat faux Victorian style, which is deliberately more wordy than is common in present day speech. So for me it must obey two internally set rules. First is it relevant to the story and what the previous character has said. Is it consistent with the tone of voice I have set for the character (a good test for this is can you write dialogue without using “said Harry/Maude/Philip” and still follow who is talking without being reminded). Finally when reading it do I actually get a sense of how the character is talking, with pauses, stutters and hmmm’s that feel natural and not forced. Okay that’s three rules, oops…..bit like the Spanish Inquisition eh? So how I punctuate speech is entirely based on what feels right to me. So, in all likelihood, I am breaking every “rule” in the book. However, my friend and I  agreed that as long as the reader can “see” the dialogue being spoken by the relevant character and it flows, how it is actually written and punctuated is not really important. Phew!

Ok, in other news, the first draft is now up to 56k and by this link I am approximately half way through the book. Woohooo! Of course, the number is irrelevant. I am telling a story not meeting a word count target.  I was reminded of that fact by a brilliant quote from the late lamented Terry Pratchett .

“The first draft is merely you telling yourself the story”

Indeed, so how long is this story going to be? Hopefully just the right  length to tell me everything I, and ultimately you, need to know. See you next week.

P.S. I have added extra commas this week, just to keep certain people happy.

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