Insta Live Creative Writing Class: The Crap First Draft

8 May 2020

It took several years to write my first novel, The Missing One. At least nine months of that was spent finessing the opening three chapters. I obsessed over every sentence, word and description. When I sent the book to Judith Murray, who is now my agent, she said: ‘I like it, it needs a bit of work. I have notes’.

 Her main note? ‘Lose the first three chapters, you don’t need them.’

This was my first lesson in ‘kill your darlings’.  I slashed the first three chapters – and the book came alive.

What I’d been doing there was working out who my characters were, their backstories, where they lived, how they spoke. I didn’t realize that those chapters really belonged in the crap first draft (CFD).

Writing them brought the characters and set up alive for me, but the reader didn’t need to be led gently into the story. The reader needed the story to reach out, grab them by the throat and yank them in.

The Missing One by Lucy Atkins

Writing, for me, is a process of (often brutal) editing. It took me more than three years to write Magpie Lane, but most of that was spent cutting, rethinking and reshaping, rewriting.  I can only really do this when I have the CFD. This first clumsy, intense, wild attempt will be something like 70-80,000 words. And it really will be crap.



TIPS:

1. Adopt an attitude of experimentation and recklessness – YOU DON’T NEED TO START AT THE BEGINNING. Try writing random scenes.

2. Ignore the voice that’s hissing ‘this isn’t a novel’ (it’s right: it isn’t. Yet). 70,000 words may sound like a lot, but if you aren’t crouched on your own shoulder criticizing every sentence you type, it can be surprisingly doable.

3. Forget about elegant prose or your plot hanging together. Ignore clichés, allow hackneyed crap.

4. Try to stop on a high each day or at least not on a total low – stop before you run out of juice completely.

5. Vow never to show it to anyone.



Your CFD will contain moments that quicken your heart, characters that feel alive. These are the bits you’ll develop.

5 ways to get the CFD DONE:

1. Try a daily word count target – I don’t do this, many writes I know do

2. Devote actual time to it: Anthony Trollope wrote 47 novels, mostly whilst holding down a job. He swore by 3 hours a day and called writers ‘literary labourers’.

3. Find your best time of day. Create optimal writing conditions. For me it’s early mornings, with coffee.

4. Switch off the Internet and all social media during your writing time.

5. Spend time – when it’s not your optimal writing time – researching and reading. This gives you inspiration and energy, the fuel you need, for the next day’s work.

The CFD gets you over the massive psychological hurdle of the blank page. For me its the path from buttoned up, hypercritical, conscious mind into the fertile subconscious where the story is hiding.  

Conversation with Mick Herron

17 Apr 2020

Planning a novel: A conversation with Mick Herron.

Mick is the author of the bestselling Slough House series of spy novels. Val McDermid has called him ‘the John Le Carré of his generation’.  He is also my dear friend. We meet regularly in Blackwell’s café in Oxford and talk about writing – our own and other people’s. Before lockdown, we were due to run a creative writing masterclass together at a literary festival. We decided to have the conversation on email instead, and to publish it here.

Mick Herron

How much should you plan a novel before you start?


LA: I always thought you had to have an idea that included a beginning, middle and end before you started writing a novel. It took me years to work out that this isn’t the case. All four of my novels have evolved from the vaguest of nuggets – a place, a character, something I’m just weirdly interested in (eg. killer whales or beetles or priest’s holes). The end result has been almost unrecognisable from the first idea. Is this something you find too? I have a feeling you might set out with a bit more of a road map than I do?

MH: More like a sat nav: I ask for a destination, and it takes me on a route of its own devising. I was remembering a line from the movie Sunset Boulevard the other day – it’s a long time since I’ve seen it, but the line’s delivered by the screenwriter character, played by William Holden, and goes something like “The most beautiful script I ever wrote was all about Okies in the Dust Bowl. By the time it reached the screen, it was set in a lifeboat.” He was complaining about the iniquities faced by the writer in Hollywood, but it strikes me that it’s not such a bad image of the creative process, and the way the original idea behind a novel – say – can become transformed or even discarded in the course of the book’s being written. I’m thinking of some of the talks we had when you were first planning Magpie Lane. A lot of those original ideas never made it to the final page, but they remain part of that novel inasmuch as they were necessary to its creation.

LA: Yes, I’m trying to figure out how it all does develop without a plan. I think I tend to get interested in a setting, and then find the character’s voices (with Magpie Lane I spent 5-6 months rewriting the first five chapters till I got Dee’s voice). Then I’ll start researching a few bizarre things that fascinate me – in this case, I remember getting very into wallpaper restoration and Oxford’s secret graveyards. I don’t write chronologically. I think I generally stay one small step ahead of myself, but often something will become really interesting to me, and then I’ll find it turning into a whole section, or even a bigger theme, and the whole novel shifts and goes in a different direction.  This means I expand the book from within. For a long time the opening line of Magpie Lane was: ’That was the day I found her in the priest’s hole eating dead bees.’ Now that’s at the start of Chapter 18. 

MH: And a very striking line it is too – I remember thinking it should be slapped on the front cover to pull readers in . . . I’m with you on character being key to a novel’s development, but I’ve also found, over and above that, that every novel has its own voice, even when it’s being written as part of a series. The mood, the tone, the colouring, has to be distinct from what’s gone before. Writing standalone books, as you do, requires even more of a tonal shift, and these ‘bizarre’ interests you follow help you achieve that, both in Magpie Lane and The Night Visitor. I love it when authors invest their books with unexpected enthusiasms, whether that’s old wallpaper or exotic beetles or whatever, and when such interests are seamlessly integrated into the storytelling, the results can dazzle. I assume that the development of such ideas in itself helps shape the novel, pointing out directions that didn’t seem available at the outset?

LA: Yes, it definitely does. I think it really leads the way. So, what about you? You don’t think of a plot in advance, but you know the destination. How does that actually work when you sit at your computer each day? Do you have a sense of a scene you want to write next?  How do you actually progress? I’m also interested in how different it must be when you’re deeply familiar with characters from the outset.  Do you feel they have a life of their own? 

MH: Not a life of their own, exactly – I find I still have to do all the work – but their paper-bound existences do at least have defined parameters: I know what sort of things they might do, what things they might say. So that helps. As for plotting, I do as much as I can before starting to write, but that falls far short of being an actual detailed outline. It’s more a series of disconnected events, like an overlong trailer for a movie. In doing the writing, I find the connections (I hope). The daily work often feels like looking for the solution to a problem I had no idea existed before then, which is sometimes trivial (where is this character’s car parked?) and sometimes not (how does this character know this other character is lying?) It’s not that I prefer to work this way; it’s more that this is the only way I seem able to (with this series, anyway). Is it like that for you? Or do you feel you have choices?

LA: I generally feel like things are wide open. The strange thing is that as I try to answer these questions, I realise how little of my writing happens in the conscious brain. It’s all a bit hazy. A lot of it is about sitting down, day after day – getting past my self-doubt, and the intimidating fact of this blank page – and playing around, watching scenes take shape. This doesn’t seem to happen in my conscious mind. This is going to sound totally pretentious, but when it’s really working well it’s a bit like what I imagine lucid dreaming would be like  – I’m kind of steering, but not in control. The serious, conscious work happens later in the process when I have to tighten it all up, and think hard about plot, and what information is revealed, and when, and the logistics of it all  – those parked cars. 

MH: And there’s the elephant in the room . . .the degree to which we don’t actually know what we’re doing; or, more accurately, how we’re doing what we’re doing. A lot of the problem-solving, I find, goes on in the back of the brain – if the plot mechanics are seizing up, I don’t sit at my desk and force myself to focus, I go out for a walk. By the time I get back, I’ve generally found how to get things going again. This sounds oddly passive, but I’m sure it’s common to many writers. All the really hard work has long since been done by the time we pick up our pens. We were doing it without knowing it: it started when we picked up our first story books, without a parent or teacher there to put it in our hands.

Or it started when we put those books down, and let the story continue in our heads. . .

Magpie Lane Virtual Book Launch

23 Mar 2020

All physical book tour events are now cancelled, of course.

But we are going virtual, with a Twitter book launch party.

We’ll be drinking warm white wine, eating sausages on sticks and answering questions about writing fiction, getting published, creating characters and anything else you’re curious about.

There will also be a book giveaway, and discounted online book shopping with Blackwell’s Bookshop.

How I write

2 Mar 2020

Building the novel

 

I used to be afraid that I couldn’t ever write a novel because I could never think of a plot. What I didn’t realise was that authors don’t necessarily have to know the plot from the outset. I’m currently about 30,000 words into my fifth novel and while I’ve got the main characters and the locations, I still don’t really know what will happen. Instead of writing chronologically, I expand it all from the inside, going into scenes that I find interesting, and developing them – following the little shoots until they grow and blossom (or wither and die, at which point, I get out the shears). This process is both liberating and dreadful. It involves shutting down the critical voice, and trying to ignore the constant self-doubt. All being well, eventually I’ll have a first draft – an actual plot! – and then real work will begin: the editing, revising, rewriting, cutting and tightening that will make the CFD (crap first draft) into a novel.

MAGPIE LANE – coming 2nd April 2020

19 Nov 2019

Full of hidden chambers, and some of them are haunted . . .part thriller, part love story, wholly beguiling. I was glued to every page

Mick Herron

When the eight year old daughter of an Oxford College Master vanishes in the middle of the night, police turn to the Scottish nanny, Dee, for answers. As Dee looks back on her time in the Master’s Lodging – an eerie and ancient house – a picture of a high achieving but dysfunctional family emerges: Nick, the fiercely intelligent and powerful father; his beautiful Danish wife Mariah, pregnant with their child; and the lost little girl, Felicity, almost mute, seeing ghosts, grieving her dead mother. . .

Roaming Oxford’s secret passages and hidden graveyards, Magpie Lane explores the true meaning of family, and what it is to be denied one.

Pitching To An Agent – 20 Tips for Success

30 Oct 2018

From the ‘How to Get Your Book Published’ masterclass, by Lucy Atkins and Fanny Blake.

I’ve put together these tips because agents are busy and small (or big) mistakes can put them off reading your work. There is no ‘type’ of person who gets published, other than a person who can write well. Do not feel intimidated. Literary agents  – the people who will sell your book to a publisher – are just people, generally really nice people, who love books.

Pitching to a Literary Agent – 20 Tips for Success

1. Good writing grabs an agent’s attention and nothing else – don’t make your own book jacket or marketing material or perform any attention grabbing tricks or gimmicks eg. shiny wrapping, free gift enclosed.

2. Follow the instructions the agent gives on their website for submitting your work. ONLY do this. Nothing else.

3. Target ONE agent per agency (and not at random – select them carefully according to their list, their stated interests, whether they are taking clients). Try five at a time, from the The Writers & Artists Yearbook, which has a comprehensive list of agents. Keep a spreadsheet or up to date list so you don’t infuriate anyone with multiple submissions.

4.   Proof-read EVERYTHING – grammatical and spelling mistakes can get you on the ‘no’ pile even if you write well.

5.   Most agents want something like the first three chapters plus a synopsis. Make sure those first three chapters of your book are your absolute best work and that they plunge your reader right into your story.  Double space, justify, sensible font, 12 pt.

6. Write a snappy but sensible introductory email. Avoid adverbs, gushing, exclamation marks, emojis, showing off or modesty, false or otherwise. Simply state who you are, any relevant credentials, what your book is, and that you hope they will enjoy it.

7. A  synopsis is a summary of your book. It needs to be short and to the point – just a glimpse of your plot and characters – NOT a blurb (ie. lots of excitable language ‘selling’ the story). Usually 1-2 pages of double spaced 12 point type, max.

8. No silly fonts, coloured paper, visual aids, emojis or ANYTHING in your submission (unless it’s part of your experimental novel).

9. Target an agent according to who their authors are (authors who are writing similar books to you – their agent will be name-checked in their acknowledgements).

10. Show you are familiar with the agent’s existing list of authors (& spell their authors’ names correctly!).

11.  Look on Twitter/other social media/agent websites for agents who are actively requesting submissions. These may be young agents building a list. They tend to say what kind of books they want.

12. Your covering email shouldn’t be any longer than a paragraph or two. Make sure it highlights why your book is distinctive and interesting.

13.  Don’t pitch yourself as ‘the new…’ or ‘x meets x’ because that will probably irritate them.

14. Mention any writing credentials but only if they are solid and relevant. eg. if you’ve won a serious short story prize (the high school English prize isn’t going to swing it).

15. Mention any contact who has referred you – but don’t worry if you have no contacts. Agents don’t care! Plenty of writers with no contacts at all in the literary world get publishing deals.

16. Mention if you’ve previously submitted to them or being in touch with one of their other agents (ie with a previous book).

17. If your work is rejected don’t write back telling them why they’ve made the mistake of their lives.

18. If they want to see more, don’t gush or do ‘OMGs’,  just send them the book in the format they ask for, with a dignified ‘thank you for your interest’.

19. Accept that you will almost certainly get LOTS of rejections and that this does not mean you will never be published/have no talent/are wasting your time.

20. Keep trying. Don’t give up!

 

For more tips, see my other ‘How to Get Published’ blog posts here (some will repeat some of the info above though). 

Female Ambition in The Night Visitor

17 May 2018

 Night Visitor PB final image

 

‘How far would you go. . .?’ Female historians as TV presenters – and The Night Visitor

The historian and TV presenter Kate Williams  tweeted today about the contents of her mailbox at Reading University, where she is Professor of History: ‘Today’s uni pigeonhole haul: exam scripts for marking, a PhD report, a note about the photocopier & obscene & threatening letters based on my TV appearances. The joy of being a woman in the public eye…’ Mary Beard, another brilliant historian and TV presenter who certainly knows what it’s like to be trolled, immediately tweeted back advising Kate to report the letters to the police. They are, she wrote, a crime. And a crime cannot be ignored.

As I watched all this unfold on Twitter I found myself wondering whether anybody is leaving poison pen letters in historian Simon Schama’s pigeon hole? Is anyone Twitter Trolling the handsome David Olusoga about his hair? Or publicly shaming Dr David Starkey for his glasses? Or telling Dan Snow that he’s fat. I doubt it. But when a female historian appears on TV she ceases to be judged on her intellect or wit or presenting skills. Instead she’s judged by the sum of her (body) parts: hair, teeth, bum, age, clothes.

I cannot imagine what this must add to the pressure these women are already under. Their jobs (juggling intense work in both academia and TV) are incredibly demanding. They know they are being scrutinized. As I watched the Twitter discussion, I found myself thinking about my character, Olivia, in the Night Visitor. Olivia, like Kate Williams, or Susannah Lipscombe (who helped me with the research for the character) is a history professor who also presents TV programs. She has a brilliant career, a talented husband, three children and houses in London and Sussex. But she also has a terrible secret and if the truth is ever exposed then her career will be in tatters – she will face public ridicule and shame. When you are in the public eye, with a huge Twitter following and an awareness of how vicious people can be, then the stakes must feel very high indeed.

Only one person knows Olivia’s secret and that is Vivian, the sixty-year-old housekeeper of a Sussex manor. Vivian has become Olivia’s unofficial research assistant and on the surface the two women could not have less in common. Vivian is single, unattractive and socially awkward, devoted to her rescue mutt Bertie. But as the novel unfolds it becomes clear that my characters have far more in common than they might ever believe (or admit to). They are both ambitious and very clever. And they both care, very deeply, about their careers.

In The Night Visitor I explore how far a successful woman like Olivia might go to protect her reputation. Everything she has worked so hard to achieve – her reputation, her public image, her good name, her job, the happiness of her children – is under threat. Is it okay to lie to protect all this? Is it okay to commit a crime?

I wanted to write a nail biting and entertaining book, but I also wanted to examine some moral grey areas. Successful women – particularly those in the public eye – get a bad rap, as Kate William’s matter of fact Tweet about her pigeonhole poison pen letters demonstrates so eloquently. I’ll admit that neither of my main characters is exactly ‘likeable’ (I find writing likeable characters very dull). But still, I felt a growing and powerful sympathy for both Olivia and Vivian as I wrote the book. Ultimately, all these women really want is to be taken seriously, for their minds. They just want to be allowed to do what they love, and to do it well, without being shamed or exposed or ridiculed. And really, where the crime in that?

Costa Book of the Year awards ceremony

31 Jan 2018

costa book awards logo

With fellow judge Freya North & author Jon McGregor

 

Last night was the Costa Book Awards ceremony at IMG_3931Quaglino’s in London, a truly uplifting celebration of some of the best writing in Britain today.  The overall Book of the Year prize went to Helen Dunmore’s incredible poetry collection, Inside the Wave, many of them written in the last weeks of her life. Dunmore, who died of cancer last year aged only 64, is the second writer to win the Book of the Year prize posthumously (Ted Hughes won for Birthday Letters in 1998).  Her family (pictured here) accepted the award last night and her son, Patrick Charnley, gave a short acceptance speech that had everybody wiping away tears.  ‘Poetry was in Mum’s soul’, he said.

‘For Mum to win the overall prize is staggering. We’re so thrilled. But there is a lot of sadness that she is not here. But she would have been really over the moon, particularly because it was her poetry … She’d have been so pleased to know that her win would bring new people to poetry’.

The category winners were:

Novel:  Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (pictured above with me & fellow judge Freya North); Biography: In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott Children’s:  The Explorer by Katherine Rundell; Debut: Gail Honeyman’s  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

 

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Costa Book Awards 2017 Shortlist (Novel category)

22 Nov 2017

Judging the Costa Book Awards has been a demanding, exciting and at times slightly nerve-wracking experience. I’m delighted to have played a part in shortlisting these four wonderful novels (see dog-eared, coffee stained books in picture below) and finally to be able to press them into peoples’ hands.

Here’s a bit about each one, and why we chose them from 170 entries

 

Shortlist for the 2017 Costa Novel Award

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Judges

Lucy Atkins                   Author and Critic

Freya North                   Author

Wayne Winstone           Owner, Winstone’s Bookshops

 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (4th Estate)

Why we loved it: ‘An extraordinary novel – poetic, haunting and hypnotic’.

A teenage girl has gone missing in the English hills, police set up roadblocks and a crowd of reporters descends on the village. But life must go on   – cows are milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured and these timeless rhythms become a force far greater than any isolated tragedy.

Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney (Quercus)

Why we loved it: ‘A novel of huge scope with a tremendous sense of period and place.’

Flora Mackie is twelve when she first crosses the Arctic Circle on her father’s whaling ship. Now she’s returning to the frozen seas as the head of her own expedition. In this remote frozen land she encounters Jakob de Beyn, raised in Manhattan, and part of a rival expedition. What follows is a powerful love story but also an exploration of science, geography, feminism and humanity.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus)

Why we loved it:  ‘A brave and important book that explores themes that feel both urgent and timeless.’

Isma worries about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister, and their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared to follow the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.  When Aneeka becomes involved with Eamonn the charming son of a powerful British Muslim politician the two families’ fates are devastatingly entwined. A forceful retelling of the ancient story of Antigone. 

Tin Man by Sarah Winman (Tinder Press)

Why we loved it:  ‘A tender and deeply moving exploration of love and grief written with deceptive simplicity.’

Two Oxford city boys, Ellis and Michael, are inseparable in adolescence but when they become men life takes them in different directions. Ellis works at the Cowley car plant, smoothing out dents; Michael heads to London. Then Ellis falls in love with Annie, and for a while, the old friends are brought back together again.

Sarah Winman grew up in Essex and now lives in London.  She attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and was an actor for 30 years in theatre, TV and film. She has written three novels including When God Was a Rabbit.

 

 

Judging the Costa Book Awards

8 Nov 2017

costa book awards logoSince May this year I have been reading novels for the Costa Book Awards. I’m judging the ‘Novel’ category so there are authors whose work I’ve read before, but also quite a few who are new to me – and some authors I’ve always meant to read and haven’t, until now. It has been an eye-opening experience. One thing that’s struck me is the large number of historical novels (and a few futuristic ones too, it has to be said). Is this always the case? It’s not something you tend to notice unless you have a stack of fifty books to read on your office floor. The better historical novels, I’ve noticed, are less about escaping into the past, and more about reframing the uncertainties and horrors of what’s happening in the world today. Let’s just say I’ve read more than one reworking of a Greek tragedy.

This week is the most exciting bit. I’m just finishing reading the other judges’ selections (my two fellow judges chose three books each). This Friday we’ll meet in London to discuss those, along with my own selections. It’s going to be a delight to finally meet the other judges and discuss these books – and to choose a final shortlist from them. I’ll report back soon.

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