Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

How do writers develop their stories

Author Cath Staincliffe guest blogs

I've been experimenting recently with different ways of developing stories. I've always recommended  my writing students to work in a structured way - knowing their endings before they begin, developing storylines; writing character biographies and knowing more about them than they know about themselves; writing step outlines, so they know what is going to happen in each chapter. That way, a novel should almost write itself. As a non-fiction author, I always spend more time on the research and expert interviews, so that I know my subject well. Then the writing is quick and easy.

Not everyone works this way and some authors find it too laborious. They're eager for the words to pour out of their heads and for the characters to make it all happen. This can often lead to a hiatus halfway through and is the reason why many manuscripts lie half-finished in a drawer. But I decided to give it a whirl one day. I'd had an idea and some characters but I wasn't happy with it. So I sat down at the computer and let my fingers do the walking. Imagine my surprise when a cast of new characters poured onto the page and moved the plot into a different direction altogether. I had such fun watching it happen, especially as it turned into a comedy and made me laugh. I have reached the expected hiatus but with time, I should be able to get beyond that, as I'm curious to see what happens in the end.

Cath Staincliffe's method

I still think some structure is needed at the start but I decided to ask a successful writer how she develops her story ideas and characters. Author and scriptwriter, Cath Staincliffe is my guest blogger this week. Cath's first book, 'Looking for Trouble' (1994) launched the start of her career as a crime writer and since then she has written many more crime novels and won several awards. She also writes scripts, like ITV's successful 'Blue Murder' series starring Caroline Quentin and the radio 'Legacy' drama series. And she's written three books based on the 'Scott & Bailey' TV series and is a founder member of Murder Squad, 'a virtual collective of northern crime writers. In a move from crime, Cath's stand-alone novels tackle various social issues, like adoption and growing up in the 1960s.

Cath's latest book, 'Half the World Away' has just been launched. It's about student Lori, on a gap year in China, who disappears, leaving her distraught parents to search for her in a country in which they're unfamiliar with the language and customs. So, how does she begin her writing process?

Author and scriptwriter Cath Staincliffe

Idea: the What If?

It begins with the initial idea, often in the form of a question:

  • what if someone asked you to help them end their life?
  • what’s it like to testify as a witness to a murder?
  • what do you do if someone is attacked on a bus?
  • how do you cope if a member of your family kills a child in a road accident?
  • can you ever forgive a murderer?
  • what if your child goes missing abroad?
These are all situations I hope never to find myself in, prospects that frighten me and I’m fascinated by what it might be like to live through that sort of nightmare.


My next step is to decide who the people are, whose story is it? Some stories will have a number of different narrative voices, others are just told from one point of view. I find it almost impossible to go any further until the characters feel real and I know their names, what they do for a living, what they look like, how they think, what their vices are, and their flaws, their secrets and dreams, how they talk. Quite often I will write biographies in note form for them, working out key dates and life events. I have to know what’s moulded them, what life has thrown at them so far to make them who they are today. Sometimes I have done mood boards too, looking at colours and physical elements and visual symbols to further differentiate characters.


Why names are important

Names are a perennial problem, they have to fit my image of the person but I try not to pick names I’ve used before and 22 books in, that’s getting tricky. I also have to avoid giving people the same initial letters or names with similar vowel patterns as that can be confusing for the reader. I’m living with a group of characters for up to a year while I’m writing and often find myself thinking about them even when I’m not actually working, thinking about what will happen to them next and how they’ll respond. It’s important to me to be as authentic and realistic as possible in the way the story unfolds. As a reader it doesn’t matter how twisty-turny or clever a plot is, if I don’t care about the characters (I don’t have to like them but I do have to have a keen interest in them) then it leaves me cold.


So once I have discovered my characters I can begin to explore that initial question. As for planning the story, I’m not someone who finds it easy to follow any of those systems that give you guidelines to structure your book. For example the whole ‘three-act story arc’ is beyond me, my brain doesn’t function like that. Or if it does then it’s instinctive and not consciously applied. I work more organically. At the outset I have a general idea of where the story will end up (I need to follow the question through to its natural conclusion, consider all the repercussions) and I’ll be aware of key staging posts in getting there e.g. an arrest, a trial. But other developments, new ideas and material I hadn’t thought of before, tend to come with the writing and the interaction of the characters.

That sometimes causes problems when I reach a point and don’t know what happens next. Then I sit down and list all the possibilities I can think of and one (the one that makes my skin tingle) will usually get me back on track. I don’t always write in chronological order but will write separate sections and then fit them together. That involves the use of a lot of post-it notes and flip chart paper. The fiction I write aims to tell a good story above anything else and so the fundamental rules of story-telling have to be met – there has to be resolution, a clear ending, an answer or answers to the question posed at the beginning. And for me it is always an adventure.


You can read more about Cath's work on her website: www.cathstaincliffe.co.uk
Twitter: @CathStaincliffe

Friday, 17 July 2015

Ruby Wax saved my life!

Sane New World

A couple of years ago, I was struck down by a mystery illness, or at least, something my doctor couldn't diagnose because the NHS tests revealed nothing she could peg a label on. The newspaper stand at my local supermarket looked inviting. I don't know why. As a former journalist, I never read newspapers because I need to be cheered up. I chose one, wondering why I was doing this.

At home, I leafed through the disasters of the day until I came to an article about Ruby Wax. I carried on wondering why I was reading an article about Ruby Wax. It seemed she had taken time out to study for a Master's degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy at the University of Oxford. Nice one Ruby. She had also written a book called 'Sane New World' about Mindfulness, something I had never heard of before. And the more I read about it, the more it was taking the place of my sugar cravings. I needed a copy, immediately.

Mindfulness course

And so it came to pass that I gave up a night's sleep to read the answer to my problems (I'm too old to have 'issues'). The next day I googled for the nearest place to study Mindfulness, which happened to be Breathworks at Manchester's Buddhist Centre. I dragged myself along, step by step, with laboured breathing and pains all over my body to join up. After three weeks of an eight week Mindfulness course for Health, I was able to breathe regularly again and learned to observe the joint and muscle pains dissolving as I meditated.

Restorative yoga

I also signed up for a wonderful course in restorative yoga, which involves lying down, breathing properly and moving my arms and legs about covered in a blanket or draped over a chair. Comfort yoga, like hot toast with butter oozing out of it. Two years on my life has moved in another direction. 'Keep on with what you're doing,' said my doctor. 'You're doing all the right things.' At least, I didn't have to take her drugs.

2nd reading

I've since re-read Ruby's book, as I appreciated it more having done the course. The value of her book, to me, was the sincerity of her story but most of all, the humour, so typical of Ruby's personality, which lightened an otherwise serious subject. (Never mind the brain bits: I loved the snippet about her mother looking for dust balls under the bed while her father waited outside in the car.) Mindfulness doesn't suit everyone and since then I hear the word bandied about in the media daily. But it makes a lot of sense and it works for me. I think those who sneer must be people who have never tried it.

And it beats walking about with your head down gazing into an overused I-phone all day like zombies, oblivious to the sky above. For anyone over 50, we live in a new world now and unless we were born into it, it can be hard to comprehend. We have to change and adapt to dealing with it, even if it doesn't suit us to live in virtual reality.


Ruby Wax

In her book, Ruby clearly outlines how our brains work; she explains what Mindfulness is; the research that has been done; how beneficial it is to us just being aware of what is going on around us, using the senses and being in the moment; kindness and compassion and lots of exercises. It's well-written, instructive, knowledgeable and, at the same time, entertaining. And it's a great starting point if you want to do a Mindfulness course yourself.

Other books and courses

'Mindfulness for Health', a practical guide to relieving pain, reducing stress and restoring wellbeing, is a handbook written by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman. It's the course book written to accompany Breathworks' Mindfulness course for Health.

'Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world' by Mark Williams and Danny Penman is the handbook for their Mindfulness for stress course. But you can buy them without doing the courses and follow the CDs and exercises in them or do the course online if you can't physically attend.

Mindful piano playing

So, thanks Ruby for pointing me in the right direction. I'm now developing a strategy for incorporating Mindfulness into my piano teaching: there is so much that can be used for focussing on what is going on in the moment, instead of wondering what you're going to have for tea while you're playing broken chords. My students always laugh when I say that because it's precisely what they are doing. And teaching them to be kind to themselves, instead of uttering expletives every time they make a mistake; and kind to others, in particular their teacher!

Manchester Breathworks can be contacted at www.breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk

Ruby's website - www.rubywax.net/
Ruby's tour, 'Sane New World' is taking in lots of UK venues from September to November 2015 - details on the website.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Blessed Brian for Guildford Bookfest

Glittering lineup for Guildford Bookfest

Guildford launches its annual Book Festival this year with a bellow, for national treasure, actor Brian Blessed makes a return appearance to read excerpts from his memoir full of anecdotes about his career.

Spies galore

The 2015 Festival kicks off from 11 October until the 18th and it hosts some big names, whose books should be worth reading. Actor Roger Moore talks about his colourful life, including his time as HM's longest-serving 007 agent. And real-life spy stories come from journalist Max Hastings who reveals some World War II espionage tales in 'The Secret War - spies, codes and guerrillas, 1939-1945.'

Other guest writers

Writer Deborah Moggach discusses her latest novel, 'Something to Hide', 'a warm, witty and wise novel about the unexpected twists that later life can bring.' I'm with her on that. S J Watson's new psychological thriller, 'Second Life' asks: 'How well do we really know ourselves?'

Other guest authors include Catherine Mayer, who has been writing about the Windsors for three decades and brings us a new book about HRH the Prince of Wales, 'Heart of a King, Charles, Prince of Wales', which promises something new and HRH Princess Michael of Kent, will talk about the third book in her 'Anjou' trilogy. 'The Voyage of the Golden Handshake' is likely to be an eye-opener from former Lebanon hostage, Terry Waite for it's a comedy about life on board a cruise ship. I doubt he would be stuck for research there.

Another funny session comes from award-winning actress Sara Crowe with her debut novel, 'Campari for Breakfast', described as 'a quirky coming-of-age novel'. And 'Gin Glorious Gin: How mother's ruin became the spirit of London' sounds fascinating as author Olivia Williams explores the vibrant cultural history of London.

Readers' Day

Readers' Day this year brings Gill Hornby's new work, 'All Together Now', an amusing tale about a singing group in a small town; Lez Fenwick, author of three popular romantic novels set in Cornwall; Guy Saville with the sequel to his action thriller, 'The Afrika Reich'; Saira Shah with her funny and frank novel, 'The Mouseproof Kitchen' which tells how motherhood doesn't always turn out how you might expect and Kate Williams, whose debut novel, 'The Storms of War' tells of the tumultuous lives of the De Witt family during World War I.

Comedy production

And the list goes on - in addition to which Austentatious will make a return to the festival. This is an improvised comedy based on a title from the audience performed in author Jane Austen's incomparable style. This year sees the 200th anniversary of the publication of her novel 'Emma', which ties in nicely.

For children

Children haven't been forgotten, for there's an exciting programme promised for schools. A strong children's section is led by Piers Torday, who will talk about the final instalment in 'The Last Wild Trilogy'.

For would-be writers 

Finally, for would-be writers, there's a plotting workshop with romantic comedy novelist Chris Manby and a How To Get Published session led by author and books editor from Woman & Home, Fanny Blake and journalist/writer Lucy Atkins. I'd really like to know that these days!

Advance tickets on sale late July at www.guildfordbookfestival.co.uk or box offices at Guildford's Tourist Information Centre and Electric Theatre. Check out the website for the latest updates and facebook.com/guildfordbookfestival