Thursday, 27 March 2014

Document Map, Microsoft Word and Plotting Novels

How to plot novels and other forms of long fiction is a burning question for many of my writing students. I mentioned The Plotting Problem in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, and how it relates to the plot being more than a head-full of information. 

Document Map in Microsoft Word is helpful to me in tackling this problem - particularly in the stage where I have already written some tens of thousands of words but do not yet have the whole structure clear in my mind. I use it to provide a map of the chapters and sections of the novel – presented in a side bar at the edge of the computer screen. Armed with that visual overview I find the emerging structure easier to comprehend. 
Clearly, this system won't be appropriate for everyone. But I thought I would share it in the hope that it might be useful to some.

Document Map as a novel writing tool
Screen-shot, showing Document Map enabled
In this screenshot you can see my setup for novel writing using Microsoft Word. The first thing you will probably notice is the colour tint in the background of the page. Background colour can be defined as part of the page setup. Like many dyslexics, I get a certain amount of visual stress when reading black text on a white background. Having an ivory, amber or straw-coloured background is far more easy for me to work with.

The document map can be seen down the left hand side of the page. Every bit of text in your document that is defined as a heading will appear there. I use the ‘Normal’ style for the body of each chapter, the ‘Heading 2’ style for chapter headings themselves and the ‘Heading 1’ style to mark out my act structure: Part One, Part Two and Part Three - or more if necessary.
Styles are accessed under the Home tab at the top of the page in Microsoft Word. Document map is enabled by checking the appropriate box under the 'View' tab.
Styles on the 'Home' tab
In the screenshot, I have clicked ‘Part One’ in the document map to open out that section, revealing all the chapters within it. I could similarly collapse it down with a click and open up any of the other sections.

Document Map close-up
To assist me in navigating the document, I the chapters names. These are memory joggers to help me know what is in each chapter. But once the novel has been written and edited, I remove the names. They are like scaffolding - taken down after a building has been constructed. The act structure markers are also removed at that stage.


The screenshot is from the opening page of my novel The Bullet Catcher's Daughter, which is being published by Angry Robot in September.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Tastes and Tales at the Delish Deli

The Delish Deli and Kitchen in Rugby is the sort of place that makes your mouth water. Literally. Just step through the door and inhale.

But last night it served up something different. Tastes and Tales was an evening of munches and moody readings from three novelists: bestselling crime writer Samantha Hayes, dark fantasy author Joseph D’Lacey and myself.

What’s a deli doing hosting a literary evening? That was the question in my mind when Joseph invited me to take part. Readings only happen in Libraries and festivals, surely?

Apparently not.

I arrived to find rows of chairs filling the shop (all tickets had been sold.) With the lights turned down and clusters of candles artfully positioned around the room, the atmosphere was perfect for the dark readings ahead. And did I mention that yummy smell?
Samantha Hayes reads from Until You're Mine
Samantha Hayes reads from "Until You're Mine"
I don’t want to review the readings here (except to say that I had great fun listening to Sam and Joseph, who are excellent writers. I would happily have sat there listening to each of them for much longer.) What I do want to say is how much I admire the creative thinking of the people at Delish Deli for putting on such an evening.

Between each serving of literature, they circulated with platters of food for the delighted guests. Being unable to eat anything with gluten (and not having told them beforehand) I had to watch most of it pass by. But I must mention the vegetarian scotch eggs which, to judge by Joseph D’Lacey’s expression as he bit into one, must have been exquisite. Happily the strawberries dipped in chocolate were gluten free.    
Joseph D'Lacey at Tastes and Tales
Joseph D'Lacey at Tastes and Tales

This is a time of rapid change in the world of books and publishing. Our wonderful publishers, bookshops and libraries are having to adapt as they try to find their place in the digital world.  It is a challenging time for those who don’t like change. But for those who embrace it there are new and exciting opportunities. One of the things that has impressed me about my new publisher Angry Robot (who also publish Joseph’s books) is their fresh thinking and adaptability.  

Where do Dark Tales at the Delish Deli fit in to this new world? All I can say is this: they sold all the tickets, the atmosphere was excellent, many books were bought and stories listened to, the authors were paid and everyone went home happy.  All this at a time when writers are struggling to make ends meet, bookshops are closing at an alarming rate and libraries are cutting their hours.

Such was the success of the evening, I feel sure Delish will put on more similar events in future. And if they invite me to go, I will jump at the chance.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Land of Broken Promises - by Margaret Penfold

Patsy by Margaret Penfold is the first novel in the Land of Broken Promises trilogy. On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the book’s launch in Leicester.

Margaret and I belong to the same writers’ group, so I have seen many extracts from the trilogy over the last few years. I knew roughly what it was about, but I was still in for some surprises.

The three novels are set during the British Mandate of Palestine. Each follows the story of a different woman, one English, one Jewish and one a Muslim Arab. In seeing those formative years from three different perspectives, the series manages to give a beautifully balanced view of what is a tangled and bitterly contested piece of history.
Margaret Penfold - Land of Broken Promises
Margaret Penfold reads from Patsy - Land of Broken Promises

All this I knew. The surprise for me was learning the lengths to which Margaret went to get to the truth of each story. Part of it was based on memories of her own childhood in Palestine. But the research she needed to do in addition was extensive and painstaking. But even after that she knew that in order to be faithful to the Jewish and Arab perspectives, she would need to find people from those backgrounds to talk help her. This included travelling to Israel.

But the most stunning part of Margaret’s excellent presentation was a reading (one I had not heard before.)  In it she describes the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 from the point of view of someone inside the building. It was an extraordinary piece of writing, made all the more so when we learned that it was based on her father’s first-hand account.

When people describe novels, the word ‘important’ is bandied around quite loosely. But in this case it is appropriate. This is an important book. And an important series of books. Conflict would be easier solved if we all did what Margaret has done so successfully here, and saw the story from the other person’s point of view.

Bravo to the publisher, Bluewood, for grabbing the chance to get this story out.


Saturday, 8 March 2014

The power of the edit suite - part 2

Further to yesterday's post about a movie being a story told three times, here is another fabulous re-cut trailer. Yesterday we saw a children's story turned into a horror trailer. This one takes one of the scariest films of all time and makes it into an up-beat romance.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The art of telling a story three times

A movie is a story told three times - once in the writer's study, once in front of the cameras and once in the edit suite. I had heard this said, but it was during the making of the feature film “How to make a movie for £43” that I saw the proof.

I came up with the concept behind the movie. I wrote the screenplay. I might have fondly thought that it was therefore MY story. But then I saw what other people did with it: the genius of the director Rhys Davies in being able to take scenes I had written and transform them into a visual vocabulary that told so much more than I had anticipated, the actors, discovering depths and comedy in the characters that I could not have imagined. I could go on and list all the different production roles, because each of them is a storyteller, from make-up artist to DOP and everyone in between.

As for the editor - anyone who doubts the amount of storytelling that happens in the edit suite should definitely watch this re-cut trailer for Mary Poppins. The same footage used to tell an entirely different story. Not for those of a nervous disposition!

Five ways to generate story ideas

Where do you get your story ideas from? Here are five tips:

Many stories come from asking questions. What would happen if... Thought is free so be as wild as you like. What would happen if a whale materialised high above the planet? No, wait - someone already wrote that one. Stories can come from extrapolation. Read the driest news article from the most serious paper, then ask yourself about the people the story implies. The people in the background.

Don't be afraid of using up all your story ideas. The more stories you tell, the faster you'll find new ideas coming to you. The world is full of stories. All we have to do is train ourselves to notice them. One way to do that is to keep a notebook and get into the habit of jotting down ideas when they flit through our minds.

Other people's lives are a great source of story ideas. Happily, people love to talk about themselves. It is their favourite subject. Be a good listener and you'll have more stories than you can write.

I have a faulty digital radio that cuts out at random, usually leaving sentences unfinished. It is exasperating at times, but perfect for a storyteller. When the radio dies, my mind jumps forward, trying to complete the story.
Pure DAB radio
I am willing to sell the faulty digital radio/story generating machine. All reasonable offers considered. Now, that gives me an idea for a story...

The first version of this article was first published in the original Author Intrusion blog in September 2010.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Plotting Problem

The plotting problem goes like this:

  • The plot of a novel can fit in a barrel.
  • The plot of a feature film can fit in a bucket.
  • But the working memory in our brains only holds a cup-full.
  • Therefore, the plot of a work of long fiction is more than fits in your head.

The miracle is that writers DO manage to conceive of and manipulate the plot of long fiction.

But how they do it - this seems to vary from writer to writer.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Can Creative Writing be Taught?

Hanif Kureishi has apparently said that creative writing courses are a "waste of time". You can read an account of his statements in The Guardian online and other papers. The subject is something of an old chestnut. It gets kicked around periodically when someone of note pronounces on the subject.

Hanif Kureshi
Hanif Kureshi - photo from the Telegraph

Here below is an article I wrote on one such occasion back in May 2009:


There has been a fair bit of discussion recently on various blogs that I follow and on Facebook about the question “Can creative writing be taught?”

Some people subscribe to the ‘pure genius’ theory of great writing. To characterise it (possibly unfairly) this is the idea that great writers emerge spontaneously. They are born. It is in their genetic code. Thus, creative writing cannot be taught. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Set up in contrast to this is the ‘sweat and suffering’ theory. This states that anyone can become a great writer, given enough effort on their own part and given enough teaching. Great writing is achieved. Thus, the teaching of creative writing is highly desirable.

If this dichotomy sounds familiar it's because it is a re-statement of the age-old nature verses nurture debate.

My views begin from an observation: creative writing classes definitely helped me. I’ve been fortunate to attend classes given by Graham Joyce, Simon Brett, Sarah Maitland, John Gallas and others. I have also been privileged to see some of my own students progress very rapidly – particularly when they were prepared to listen to criticism and willing to work.

There is also evidence to support the other side of the argument. Some students never seem to progress, however many classes they take, whilst others jump forward at an astounding rate. Difference in capacity seems to be in-built.

Instead of the ‘pure genius’ and ‘sweat and suffering’ models, I subscribe to a third theory. The ‘buried treasure’ theory (put forward in the 19th Century in the writings of Baha'u'llah) states that every individual is like a mine rich in gems. The nature of those gems will be different from person to person. Some people may have the capacity to become great novelists. Others great poets. Others still will never achieve anything as writers and will have strengths in different areas. But whatever the potential, it will remain unexpressed without a process of education.

As teachers of creative writing it is not our task to put writing ability into our students. That ability is already there in potential form. Thus I partly agree that creative writing cannot be taught. However, I do think it is our role as teachers to create the environment where the students’ innate abilities can develop. In this I agree with the ‘sweat and suffering’ theory - creative writing can be taught.

It all depends what we mean when we say ‘teach’.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

2D Cinema vs 3D

The 2D vs 3D debate rumbles on, though the studios seem committed to the new technology.

In the old days of cinema, before polarising glasses, I never used to sit irritated in the dark thinking - this is far too flat for me. Why? Because through the art of the cinematographer, the image projected onto the 2D screen had 3D depth.

It is a trick of the mind and the eye so subtle that I was never even aware of it until I started to make films myself. The subject - the thing on the screen which the film maker wanted to direct my eye to - was in perfect focus. Other things, closer to the camera or further away, were softened. The slightest of out-of-focus blur.

2D seeming 3D in a photographic image
2D seeming 3D in a photographic image

This so closely maps onto the way we experience depth of field in everyday life that in watching a 2D movie, the mind tells us some things are further away and other things closer. A flat screen becomes 3D.

But in the old days those three dimensions were trapped behind the screen. Modern 3D extends out into the space between the screen and the audience. It offers that spooky moment when the Cheshire Cat hovers in the air just in front of you and speaks in Stephen Fry's voice.

The Cheshire Cat - Alice in Wonderland (2010)
The Cheshire Cat - Alice in Wonderland (2010)

For that moment of magic however, a payment is required. A 30% loss in colour. The hassle of having a pair of uncomfortable glasses pressing down on your nose - over your own glasses if you are short sighted like me. And a substantially more expensive cinema ticket.

There is also a strange mismatch between the old and the new systems of indicating depth. The subject is still in focus, the background and foreground are out of focus. But now some of those out of focus things are floating around in the air just in front of you. I find my eye is no longer pulled only to the thing I should be looking at, but jumps between things at different depths. They remain out of focus, which my brain finds hard to accept. The experience is disorientating and mildly unpleasant.

Perhaps we are in an age similar to the end of the silent era, when cinematographers were experimenting with the new technology and hadn't quite got it right. Or perhaps this is an unneeded technology. Time will tell. But for now, given the option, I'll be going for 2D screenings.

And here, for your enjoyment, is Mark Kermode and Simon Miller's revolutionary invention - glasses that allow you to see 3D screenings in spectacular, immersive 2D.


The above article was first printed in August 2010 on my original Author Intrusion blog. It is interesting to note how much has changed and how much has not changed in the intervening years. We still have parallel theatrical releases in 2D and 3D. But I suspect more people now go out of their way to avoid wearing the dreaded glasses. A few films have made a success of 3D - I would say Gravity is a good example. But the art of the 2D cinematographer has not yet been displaced from its position of primacy.

I wonder what the next three and a half years will bring.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Durham University and Dyslexia - Response

Durham University and the Dyslexia Debate was the subject of a post on this blog yesterday. The front page of the university website was giving such prominence to claims by one of their researchers that the word dyslexia "should be abandoned" that it seemed likely to put off dyslexic students from applying there. Indeed, I have been contacted by several dyslexics since yesterday who have said that they would not have considered applying there had they seen such a website front page.

I wrote to ask Durham university if they had a policy on dyslexia and if they had considered the possible unintended messages their website might be sending to prospective students.

This morning the front page of their website was changed to a far more positive article on International Women's Day, though it still only takes one click to reach dyslexia debate articles. The before and after screenshots are posted below:

Durham University website front page - before

Durham University website front page - after

Ten reasons people read stories

"There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."

Ursula Le Guin’s famous observation hints at the fundamental importance of story and storytellers. But how has narrative come to have a central role in every culture?

Ursula Le Guin - photo by Eileen Gunn
Ursula Le Guin - photo by Eileen Gunn
Some years ago I decided to try to find an answer. I started asking people why they chose to spend time with stories. In book clubs, film clubs and writing workshops - whenever I had a group of people together, I asked what stories meant to them.

My investigation is a work in progress. But having already canvassed thousands of people, I can share ten reasons that people put forward to explain their love and need for story. We start with the most common responses and work down to rarer but deeply insightful answers at the bottom of the list

1.      Escape from the daily grind. Escapism is always the first answer to be called out. On hearing it, others in the audience will nod. “Yes, I also read to escape.” It is the desire to be taken away from the difficulties of our lives and to be transported somewhere else.

2.      To learn. This is another common answer, usually offered by an older member of the group. “I like to learn about people who’ve lived in different times and places.”
3.      A favourite character. Many people admit to enjoying the company of characters from stories. Harry Potter perhaps. Or maybe the character they fall in love with is the distinctive voice of the author. Either way, once the story is finished they find themselves missing their friend. The hunt for a sequel begins.

4.      Escape from self. This is slightly different from the first form of escapism. It is not tasks or surroundings that are being fled, but internal conflict or sadness. “I read novels so that I can disappear.”

5.      To understand ourselves. Some people choose to engage with fiction concerning life events that they have experienced in reality. Reading about the struggles of a fictional character who is dealing with bereavement, for example, may shed light on our own real experiences of the same thing.

6.      To find means of expression. We value our story makes for their insight and ability to express subtle realities. We may agree or disagree with Tolstoy when he says “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But either way, he has given us the words to express an idea.

7.      To see the world differently. When storytellers show us the world, they are lending us their eyes. Once we have seen through those eyes, the world may never look quite the same to us. This is one of the distinctive qualities of real art - that it changes the way we see things.

8.      Vicarious pleasure. When we identify with the characters in a story, we start to feel what we imagine they are experiencing. If they are excited or triumphant, we feel the same. If they gain power or pleasure we get a share of it.

9.      Vicarious trials. Identification with fictional characters also gives us a share of their fear, pain and loss. It may seem strange that people would voluntarily look for those experiences. But our real life fears are soothed by going through the ritual of facing trials in fiction. Each time Red Riding Hood is not devoured by the wolf, we have defeated death once more.

10.  To heal. Fictional characters seem to be a series of different people, quite separate from us. One of them may be angry, another kind, another lustful, another sad. These are things that we will have felt at different times in our lives. Therefore all these aspects subsist within us. When fictional characters talk, argue, fall in love or come to blows, it can be as though our own different aspects are interacting. And when the story finds resolution, so may we. Some people believe that fiction can work in this way to promote healing.  
Like I said above, this investigation is a work in progress. If you can think of a reason for loving stories that I have not mentioned here, please let me know. And if you have any comments, I'd love to hear your views.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Durham University and Dyslexia

Prospective students visiting the website of Durham University are at present faced by a series of articles about the research of Professor Julian Elliot, calling for an end to the use of the word 'dyslexia'.

I have written to the university asking if they have considered the potential for this front page to have an unintentional effect discouraging dyslexic students from applying to study there.


If they respond, I will report back.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Imagined Worlds in Charnwood Museum

Charnwood Museum in Loughborough is playing host to an exhibition of painting and poems by Mary Byrne, entitled Imagined Worlds. This morning I had the chance to pay it a visit.

Artist Mary Byrne
Artist Mary Byrne

Mary, who is based in Loughborough, works in acrylic and mixed media. Narrative is the connecting thread that runs through the exhibition. Several paintings depict characters from Greek Myth. Others seem to be items of evidence, carrying the suggestion of a story just out of our sight.

The theme of flying or wanting to fly is repeated in several of the images. A woman balances on a flying carpet, doves escape from an opened suitcase. Greek artisan Daedalus is re-imagined as a contemporary young woman, sometimes wearing wings. In one image she checks her mobile phone, perhaps between flights. In another she is wingless, focussed on the distance, so intent on the thought of becoming airborne that its impossibility has become unimportant.

That wingless image kept drawing me back. The act of flying seems to stand in for the act of creation. Don’t we all set out to fly when we sit down to write?    

Mary’s exhibition “Imagined Worlds” runs until 27th April 2014.