Friday, 27 May 2011


By Richard Jay Parker

Title of this week's blog sounds like a strapline for a movie about body snatching pod people but I'm actually curious about other writers and how they road test their material.

Nobody immerses themself in a project if it hasn't fired them up in the first place. But once you've completed your short story or novel where is your first port-of-call for initial feedback?

Obviously if you're lucky enought to have an agent it's their job to scrutinise your work. But whether you're seeking one or you're attempting to get a second opinion who do you turn to?

Friends and family are an obvious choice but you won't always get the most objective response. Readers who are close to you can inhabit the two ends of the critical spectrum. Some of your familiar readers will respond from the purest motives by being full of praise because they know you/want to give you encouragement. It can also go the other way with them being hypercritical because they know you/don't want to give you false encouragement.

Like all criticism and praise it's a good to take it all with a pinch of salt and make your own mind up once you've solicited responses from the most unbiased people.

But finding them is no mean feat. Most authors I know gradually cultivate a group of individuals they can turn to before exposing their work to the world. Finding them is as much a challenge as creating the work they read. Once you've found them, treat them well. They're to be cherished!

Friday, 20 May 2011


By Richard Jay Parker

I've never met an author who has had writer's block. I'd certainly be interested to hear from anyone who has suffered the condition.

Like all writers I've had bad days at the keyboard and even unproductive weeks. It's inevitable that the muse is going to call in sick from time to time. Good stories usually spring from not one but a succession of inspired thoughts and this chain is frequently broken not least by our everyday lives impeding our ability to focus wholly on our imagined worlds.

There are always so many prosaic chores to stifle the thought process - although a lot of writers do most of their best thinking while they're servicing their domestic commitments than when they're seated at their computer.

Writer's block has featured in a lot of fiction but I wonder if there is really a condition that can be blamed entirely for a writer's inability to perform that's not the result of other external influences or events.

I'm hoping there isn't. I'm always prepared to be proved wrong but not happily in this case. I'd hate to think it could be waiting for any of us in the future.

I suppose the key is to keep the brain firing and continue to scribble in the notebook.

You can't live every day like it's your last without seriously damaging your health. I wonder whether we should apply this to our imaginations though...

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Creative Writing

Can Creative Writing be taught? The question has been knocking around in the public arena ever since the University of East Anglia set up its course, with such brilliant alumni as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, and no doubt the question was debated in a quieter way long before that.
It does sound like a contradiction. Creativity is personal; it can be inspired (think Mozart, Shakespeare) a connection with the subconscious on a deep level, an outpouring of... of... heck, I'm finding it hard to define 'creativity'.
Yet here I am, agreeing to teach Creative Writing for a week in France - something I can't explain or describe. Before I put anyone off joining us for a week in France at a wonderful venue with fantastic food and local wines, I should add that this won't be my first venture into teaching Creative Writing. I run successful workshops for the Society of Authors, at Get Writing hosted by the University of Herts, and for a few smaller outfits. So far the experience has proved challenging and great fun.
The name 'Creative Writing' is useful as a label because everyone has a clear idea of what Creative Writing is. Nevertheless the title is somewhat misleading because creativity isn't a skill that can be acquired through training or learning of formulae, although it can be nurtured and facilitated.
What then is the value of Creative Writing classes? The answer is that for most of us it takes more than creativity to turn ideas into a book. Character building, plot development, structure, pace, tension - all the essential elements that make up an engaging narrative, all these are skills that can be acquired and honed, and this craft of writing can be taught.
Perhaps ‘Creative Writing Classes’ is a bit of a misnomer. But ‘Crafty Writing Classes’ doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?

Posted by Leigh Russell
DEAD END is now out in bookshops and on amazon
Creative Writing in France

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Mechanics Of Writing

By Richard Jay Parker

It was announced today that a substantial volume of work by Anthony Burgess has been discovered in his private archives. The work includes short stories, music and scripts as well as unpublished books.

A Clockwork Orange has remained one of my favourite books since I read it as a teen. I know Kubrick purists will want to drag me over the coals but I also think that it’s the director’s best work. Book and movie are two entirely different experiences. The subtext of the story is paid off in the book and not in the movie. The book has an upbeat interpretation of the title whereas the movie has a nihilistic finale. Kubrick wrote the screenplay but one of the finds is the script that Burgess wrote for him that was ultimately rejected.

It already looks likely that the short stories will be published in a single volume. Many of the stories are dark or bordering on horror. Not really what Burgess was renowned for. The previously unpublished stories will now be viewed as an insight into his development as a writer.

I expect his script of A Clockwork Orange will also find a readership. I imagine him dropping it into a drawer in frustration and believing he wasted his time.

I wonder what he would make of today’s announcement? How he would react to the perception of his considerable body of rejected work changing so dramatically that it was suddenly causing a buzz in the publishing world.

The one thing writers can learn from this is to have a reliable filing system! The plaudits may be posthumous but it goes to show that putting away unwanted material is sometimes the equivalent of storing a bottle of wine.

Maybe his definition of A Clockwork Orange is appropriate here. Everything has a natural/mechanical cycle no matter what changes occur or how long it takes for it to be realised.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

To plot or not to plot

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker)

Further to my last blog about the enormous advantages of being on board a cruise ship in terms of time to write, no phone ringing, no shopping to do, lack of distractions, etc, etc, I suppose I should also have added the one obvious disadvantage. Unless you pay the quite high charges for Internet access over the satellite link, you don’t get that reassuring – or irritating, depending on your point of view – ping that tells you an email has arrived, or be able to leap onto the Internet to check some obscure fact which is essential to the passage you’re writing.

The other, perhaps unforeseen, consequence of being on board a ship is the way that one day slides almost imperceptibly into the next, and the complete lack of any external indications to tell you what day of the week it is. There are no Saturdays or Sundays at sea: each day on board is just like any other. The shops and restaurants and bars and services are always open. Losing track of time is all too easy, your horizon being limited to the name of the next port and what you plan on doing when the ship gets there.

On the other hand, maybe that’s almost definition of a good holiday?

Now back to work:

A short while ago, Matt Lynn explained the way he writes a book. Briefly, he produces a highly detailed synopsis running to tens of thousands of words which encapsulates the entire plot of the novel and all the twists and turns along the way, even bits of dialogue.

I have to confess that I envy him that discipline. The one thing I dislike more than anything else about writing is producing a synopsis, though of course I have to construct them on a very regular basis. But given the choice between writing a 10,000 word synopsis or a 100,000 word novel, I’d take the novel every time, and this reflects the way I approach every book.

I always know where it's going to start, and I have a good idea about how it’s going to finish, but the bit in the middle is usually pretty much of a mystery to me until I actually get into it. When I do get embroiled in the novel, I often find that the characters start doing things which I hadn't really anticipated, and then the plot starts running off in unexpected directions.

There's an old description of novelists which seems quite appropriate: they're either tree writers or wood writers. A tree writer perceives the novel like a tree, oddly enough, and is able to stand back from it and look all the way up from the beginning, at the very base of the trunk, right the way to the topmost branch, the end of the book, and see all the branches and foliage in between. A wood writer, and this is me to a tee, knows that he's going to walk into a wood at one end, and walk out of it at the other, but has not the slightest idea what will happen inside the wood itself.

So is one method of writing better than the other? No, of course not. They’re just different, and how any novelist approaches a particular book is entirely personal, and will be the method that suits him or her best.

But having said all that, as the next deadline looms and I'm sitting staring blankly at the equally blank screen of the laptop in front of me, wondering just what the hell the hero or villain is going to do next, I have to concede that working from a detailed synopsis does have a certain irresistible attraction.

Friday, 6 May 2011


By Richard Jay Parker

Summer holidays are on their way which, for a lot of people, means the one time of the year they get to read uninterrupted.

People's attitudes change when they're not on their home turf - towards how they let their hair down, sartorial modesty etc. Do our inhibitions about what we read change as well?

I have very eclectic reading tastes and am currently reading a classic. I've only just started it but I'm finding it a little turgid. Experience tells me that sticking with it may be enormously rewarding, however. At the moment though it's a case of 'I feel I should' rather than 'I really want to' though.

It's not the sort of book I'd choose to take with me on holiday. When I'm relaxing I want an engaging but easy read. The worst situation is arriving at your destination and realising that your book is a stinker. Ebooks are making this a thing of the past - allowing readers to load up with books so they can try something new if their usual holiday choice isn't delivering.

Somebody said to me that they like to read pulp fiction on holiday because nobody sees them doing it! With an ebook there's no cover to give you away.

It's interesting that people often cite their holiday read as their favourite. Is this because of the circumstances or because they forget about what they should be seen reading and go for something shamelessly entertaining? Like our holidays - is it an opportunity to try new things? For me it's all of the above.

There's still something to be said for returning from a holiday with several volumes conquered and sunblock on the pages. And ebooks probably make it too easy to abandon a book that may deliver if you persist.

I'm hoping my classic will do this...before I decide which page slammers/skimmers I'm going to take away with me.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Book sales - or not...

I'm posting early this week as life is hectic when a new book comes out so I thought I'd fit this in now when I have a moment (watching Question Time).
Back in February we read much hype - and some criticism - about World Book Night. I was one of the minority of curmudgeons who failed to understand the benefit to the book industry of giving away a million free books.
“Do they think recipients will respond by putting their hands in their pockets? Of course they won’t! If they aren't already book buyers, those given free books will simply wait for the next free book. It won’t be far behind. Why buy something you can get for free? As for those who already buy books - well, that will be one less sale to them. A double whammy.
World Book Night devalues the concept of books as something authors, editors, publishers, designers, proofreaders, have spent months, in some cases years, planning, researching, writing, revising, discussing and editing. Why wasn’t that time and effort devoted to promoting book sales?

Those in favour of the initiative were optimistic that this event would improve book sales by increasing interest in books.
So how successful did this venture finally prove in the madness of the contemporary book world?
According to the Office of National Statistics overall retail sales in March 2011 rose by 1.3% compared to March 2010 - yet Bookscan figures showed that in March 2011 UK bookshops takings were nearly £9 million down on takings for March 2010 and volume of sales in bookshops fell by over 12%.
I really wish I'd been proved wrong in this instance - and that another World Book Night hadn't been promised for next year.
Posted by Leigh Russell

Free Tickets....

by Matt Lynn

On May 16th, I'm going to be chairing what promises to be a fascinating talk featuring Stuart Tootal and Patrick Mercer discussing how their experiences in the Army have helped shaped their writing. More details here. We have a couple of free tickets to give away. To claim them just e-mail First come first served....

Sunday, 1 May 2011

How To Make Money From Writing....

by Matt Lynn

It might not always feel like it, but there is money in the thriller writing business….eventually. The TV channel Alibi has put together a list of the highest-earning crime and thriller writers, on both sides of the Atlantic. Ian Fleming is top of the British list, with earnings of a £100 million-plus, followed by Agatha Christie, and then by Jeffrey Archer (although I don’t think of him as a thriller writer).

Over in the US, it is headed by John Grisham on an extraordinary $600 million, followed by Dan Brown on $400 million – although I reckon if work it out per book, Brown has done better.

Are there any lessons in this for the rest of us writers? Two, I think. The first is that it takes a long time. All the writers on both lists have been writing for a long time – even Dan Brown published his first book in 1998 and it was a while before he had any success.

The second is that you have to write a lot. All the writers on the list are prolific, knocking out book after book. There are no one-hit wonders.

Anyway, I guess the moral is to keep plugging away. Riches await….although hopefully not after I’m dead.