NaNoWriMo Day One

slogan by moonsword27, poster by pianochick66
slogan by moonsword27, poster by pianochick66

It’s that time of year again. 50,000 words in 30 days. And today is Day One.

I love writing, but I have always struggled with fluency – letting Left Brain loose on the keyboard without suffering constant interruptions and criticism from Right Brain. That’s why NaNoWriMo is so great. It’s all about producing a first draft – a pile of words out of which something beautiful can later be crafted.

When I visit schools I sometimes recommend National Novel Writing Month to students. Writing a novel seems daunting, but NaNoWriMo provides the perfect way to face up to the task in a fun, non-threatening way, in the company of many thousands of other people. I hope that some of the students I’ve met in the last couple of years might take up the challenge this year.

In preparation for NaNoWriMo I have spent a lot of time thinking about the characters and getting to know them. Plot flows from character. If you know your characters well enough, you’ll be able to put them in difficult situations and watch them do and say stuff, and spark off each other in interesting ways.

This morning I set my alarm for 3am, got up and wrote solidly until 6am – 2000 words on one cup of coffee. I set my font colour to white so that I would not be able to see the words I was writing. If you can’t see them, you can’t change them!

Yes, the inner editor was writhing. But the inner creator was glowing with happiness.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Please do leave a note below…

Hampshire ‘Meet the Author’ event

Hampshire’s ‘Meet the Author’ programme aims to support literacy and to inspire reading and writing by giving children the opportunity to meet authors.

My participation in the programme took place last Thursday, first at Berrywood Primary (with visiting pupils from Shambleshurt Primary) and then at the New Forest Academy (with visiting pupils from Blackfield Primary and Wildground Junior School).

In the morning we did silly actions to help us remember the ingredients of a good story. Then Jamie got dressed up as a Saharan camel herder and Anna from Hedge End told a story about a girl who turns things pink wherever she goes (including a classic scene where a strawberry truck collides with a Post Office van and turns the road pink).

In the afternoon we watched some book trailers and talked about what makes a strong concept for an adventure story. One lad suggested ‘donkey on a bus’ – I’m not sure that has the same visceral appeal of ‘snakes on a plane’ but I’d be intrigued to read the story! We looked at pictures of children around the world and chose the girl below to base a story on.

Where children sleep beauty queen

We used the picture as a launch pad for discussing (a) the character of the girl and (b) possible ‘what ifs’ that could kickstart a story.

When you write a story, don’t go straight into describing the action, but take time to think first about your main character. Who is she? What’s she like? Is she loud or quiet, kind or mean, confident or shy? What does she like doing, what does she find hard, what is she afraid of, what are her secrets? And most importantly of all, WHAT DOES SHE WANT MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD?

Don’t go for the obvious. If you’re writing a story about a beauty pageant entrant (like the girl above), throw in some completely unexpected aspects to the character. One student had the idea that this little girl could be a terrorist mastermind. Another suggested that she might be a boy in disguise. Be as strange as you like – just don’t be predictable.

One student suggested that the girl is being entered into beauty pageants by an evil aunt who then steals all the money she wins. The girl longs to escape and travel the world. What might happen if she finally plucked up the courage to do so…?

Many thanks to Hannah at SLS for organizing the Meet the Author events and to Colin Telford at Hayling Island Bookshop for selling lots of lovely books. His is a small independent shop but also one of the most prolific events organizers on the south coast of England. The table cloth he uses for the book signing table has on it the signatures of Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Widdecombe, Ian Whybrow, Kate Mosse, Derek Landy, Chris Ryan, Darren Shan, Louis de Bernieres, Sandi Toksvig, Julian Fellowes, Sir Andrew Motion, Lord Robert Winston, Alan Titchmarsh, Claire Tomalin, Sir Patrick Moore, Sir David Attenborough and many many others.

The purpose of author events such as this is to inspire the next generation of readers and writers. If your school is interested in booking a visit, please see my school visits page.

How I Write

I am still reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and still working on my own new novel THE PRINCE, an action adventure set in an International School in Dakar. Today I reached 12,500 words, which is about a quarter of the way into the book. Each day at 9am I go to the library, sit at the same desk, and write 1,500 words. I stop at noon and go outside to eat my packed lunch. Then I go back in and carry on till 4 or 5. While I write I listen to one of two albums on my headphones: Alice by Tom Waits or Vagabond by Spiers and Boden. The two albums are very different styles of music, but they’re both about storytelling, love and death. I find them inspiring, even after a thousand listens.

Here is something else I found inspiring today – a well-conceived and very personal video by Mark Rober of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He has worked on the Curiosity Rover for the last 7 years of his life, and finally got to see the culmination of all that work. Watch and enjoy…

Why novel writing should be an Olympic sport

haruki murakami running

Today at the Olympics, Great Britain has won a gold medal in show jumping and later on has a good chance of another track cycling gold, too. It sounds like that old Australian joke about Team GB only winning medals in the sitting-down sports, but of course this year that has not been the case at all, with plenty of deliciously exciting track and field successes already.

I’m still enjoying Haruki Murakami’s excellent book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and in the light of that excellent book I have another sitting-down sport to propose: novel writing. I have blogged before on the importance of physical exercise to writers, but have never fully appreciated that novel writing in itself is like a form of manual labour! Over to Murakami:

Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process – sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track – requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s gruelling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.

(What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Vintage Books, 2009, p.81-82)

I can see it now. Individual novel writing. Team novel writing. Synchronized novel writing. Welterweight novel writing. Can we get the IAAF on board in time for Rio?

Water from the rock – good news for bleeders

What I talk about when I talk about runningWriting comes easily to some, less so to others. I have heard the two species of writers described as ‘gushers’ or ‘bleeders’. I am definitely among the bleeders – a daily target of 1000 words is like a daily Everest to climb. But I have been encouraged this week by reading Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s an odd and wonderful little book, a very personal collection of musings about running and novel writing, two daily disciplines which Murakami has woven into his life. Here is Murakami’s take on gushers and bleeders. If you’re a bleeder, take heart!

Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do – or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me. I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin another novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole. But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I noticed one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their only source, they’re in trouble.

What do Julian Assange and Jason Bourne have in common?

Ecuador Embassy in London

Today’s instalment of the Wikileaks true-life spy story saw Julian Assange take refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy.

These events bring to my mind one of the strongest scenes in the Bourne Identity film (indeed, in the whole Bourne franchise to date) – the scene at the American Embassy in Paris. Bourne cluelessly seeks refuge there, but finds out that it is not the safe haven he had imagined. His arrival is memorable – Parisian cops outside baying for blood and being restrained by American security officials as Bourne slinks inside. His exit even more so – he is relying purely on his instincts and his training as he procures an agent’s headset, consults the Evacuation Plan from the wall of the corridor and makes his way cool-ly to the roof. Fantastic stuff.

Interestingly, the whole embassy scene is an addition to the original Robert Ludlum novel. In the novel, Bourne does not go to the American embassy in Paris – he goes straight from the bank to the hotel, where he meets Marie, or rather takes her hostage. Well done to the writers of the screenplay for conceiving the embassy scene and setting up one of the best action sequences in film history ever (yes EVER, I went there!)

When I am writing a thriller I start by writing character profiles and then go on to put together the plot as a series of set pieces. When I was outlining the novel OUTLAW, I had the idea for the embassy scene before any of the others. I won’t go into detail because the scenes in question come near the end of the book and would constitute a spoiler. Suffice to say that embassies (and the Treaty of Vienna which protects them from any ‘violation of dignity’) carry vast potential for tension, drama and conflicts of interest. In the stories of Jason Bourne, Julian Assange and Yakuuba Sor, the drama is heightened because we are seeing our protagonist at his most vulnerable – one man taking refuge in a fragile shell of a building, protected only by a few sentences of diplomatic legalese, whilst the fiercest of tempests is gathering outside. ‘Chase your character up a tree, and then throw stones at him,’ goes the thriller-writing adage. Refuge is temporary – our man is about to be battered by the full force of the Receiving State.

Here’s hoping that Julian is intimately familiar with the layout of the Ecuador embassy – or at least knows where the Evacuation Plan is pinned.

Updates (29 July 2012)

1. It was the Zurich embassy, not the Paris embassy. Bourne told Marie to drive to Paris from there. (Incidentally, there is no US embassy in Zurich – only a consulate!)

2. Broadly speaking, I am not pro-Assange. Some of the Wikileaks material was probably in the public interest, much was not. He also stands accused of rape under Swedish law.

Present tense for novel writing

So I’m reading Matt Haig’s wonderful novel The Radleys. I usually don’t like vampire stories but this is about a very English family of vampire ‘abstainers’ living in suburbia – it’s warm, sympathetic and very funny.

Anyway, The Radleys has got me thinking about present tense narration, and even considering it as an option for the thriller I’m writing at the moment. So I have been reading various opinions this morning about present tense novels – do they work, do they irritate their readers, and so on.

Never one to shy away from expressing a strong opinion, Philip Pullman has weighed in on the anti-present-tense-narration side of the discussion, calling it a ‘silly affectation’. Really? Always?

Opinion on the Writewords forums is divided when it comes to present tense narration:

Re: Writing in the present or past tense? EmmaD at 21:09 on 02 November 2005

Reading an extended piece in present tense often makes me feel as if I’m being hit repeatedly over the head with a teaspoon. Even a wonderful novel like Helen Dunmore’s The Siege.

More seriously, though I’ve read some wonderful work in present tense, I think it’s often a cop-out by the writer. It seems to save the trouble of constructing suspense by being naturally suspenseful, but just reads as a string of events. It tries to create a sense of immediacy which hides the fact that the writer isn’t really imagining out the scene completely. It’s also less flexible: I think it’s much harder to move clearly but unobtrusively in and out of flashback and backstory, and can lead to some terribly crunchy changes of gear and tense. I suspect it looks easier to do well, and is actually harder.

Re: Writing in the present or past tense? Luisa at 19:27 on 01 December 2005

No disrespect at all intended, but I’m struggling to understand the point of view of people who dislike books written in the present tense, or who see its use as trendy, or liken reading it to being hit over the head.

I strongly disagree with the comment that it is not natural to tell a story in the present tense in English. It is perfectly natural. Have you ever told a joke? Or talked about what a bad day you’ve had? Sometimes you use present tense, sometimes past tense. In both cases, you’re telling a story. They are both natural in our language. Do I speak a different language from the rest of you? (Don’t answer that!)

We’re talking about writing fiction, not newspaper reports. There are very few strict conventions to be adhered to, as I see it. Writers tell stories how they see fit to tell them.

We have a straight choice. We write in the present tense, or we write in the past tense. It’s the same as deciding whether to use first person or third person. It’s an important decision, and has implications for the whole story, but I can’t see how choosing one tense over another would cause such extreme reactions in a reader.

Luisa

Preach it, Luisa! Molly Spooner’s take on it is similarly nuanced.

I think the author needs to be prepared to defend his or her decision, because if there aren’t good reasons for it, stylistically it’s the writing equivalent of ‘shopping all your photographs into sepia tone to make them look deep and artsy.

So what might be a good reason to write a novel in the present tense? Richard Lea of The Guardian has this to say:

It’s no accident that Christian Paul Casparis traces the recent upsurge in present-tense narration to the beginning of the 1960s – the moment that Harold Wilson proclaimed a new Britain forged in the white heat of technological revolution. As the pace of modern life accelerates, the present that we’re all living in seems much more immediate, much more fragmentary. In a world of Watergate and Wikileaks we’re much less prepared to accept a final version, an official story. The internet, mobile phones, Twitter: all gnaw away at our capacity to reflect; all push us to experience life as a series of unconnected moments. As we blog our lives away to the accompaniment of the 24-hour rolling news, can it be any coincidence that novelists are reaching for the present tense?

I’ve got nothing against present tense narration per se – I’m devouring The Radleys, I loved J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and I even quite enjoyed The Hunger Games. But as a novelist, you need a reason to do it and you need to be aware of some of the technical problems it throws up. Like how to convey time-lapse without a sensation of ‘grating gears’. How to maintain immediacy and pace without stressing the reader to the point of exhaustion. And most importantly of all, how to avoid sounding like you’ve just done a Creative Writing MA and are wanting to show off your shiny new toolkit.

What do you think? What novels have you read which use present tense narration particularly well? Is it a portal to vivid, immediate, thrilling experience of story at its rawest and purest? Or is it like being hit over the head with a teaspoon?

The Importance of Physical Exercise for Writers

Garry Kasparov the greatest chess player of all time

Writing, like chess, is a famously sedentary activity. Authors spend their days sitting hunched over a keyboard, and the only exercise they get is wriggling the fingers, wrinkling the brow and reaching for Rich Tea biscuits. As the deadline nears, the hapless keyboard-basher begins to ignore her body’s needs for sleep, social interaction and physical activity, which is no good either for her health or for the quality of her resulting work.

In 1997 the best human chess player in the world Garry Kasparov prepared to play a six-game chess match against Deep Blue, the best machine chess player in the world. Kasparov had won their first encounter the previous year, but the supercomputer was back on the stage with a heftier processor and an indecent quantity of RAM. I was twenty-one at the time, and being an Artificial Intelligence fanboy I was cheering for the machine. After five games, man and machine stood equal at 2½ games all. The sixth game, the most extraordinary chess game of history, began with Deep Blue executing a daring and very un-machine-like knight sacrifice, after which – anyway, you’re not interested in this, are you – my real point is that Garry Kasparov did a lot of physical exercise to prepare himself for an entirely mental activity. Here is an extract from an interview which Kasparov gave IBM just before the Deep Blue match.

I do a lot of physical exercises, including swimming, running, weights and other athletic training. I think it is very important for a top chess player to be as physically fit as possible. At the very highest levels, games can often be decided by whether a player was in good physical shape or not.

The quality of a book can also be decided by whether the author was in good physical shape or not. Discuss.

In 2009 my wife and I were back in England awaiting the birth of our first child. I had a book contract and a deadline and the luxury of being able to write full-time. Was it really a luxury? I don’t know. Life was less challenging than our lives in Africa, and I missed the variety of doing something different every day. The lonely hours in my attic study got to me so much that I started commuting to the public library to write. I put on three stone (forty-two pounds) in the first six months and acquired an author’s tan so pale I was practically translucent. 30,000 words into the new novel, I realized I was on the wrong track, and started again. I was unfit and unproductive.

And to think that all I needed was an antique hourglass, or its equivalent. Here is an extract from Dan Brown’s High Court testimony during that famous plagiarism case a few years ago:

For me, writing is a discipline, much like playing a musical instrument. It requires constant practice and honing of skills…If I’m not at my desk by sunrise, I feel like I’m missing my most productive hours. In addition to starting early, I keep an antique hourglass on my desk and every hour break briefly to do push-ups, sit-ups and quick stretches. This helps keep the blood, and ideas, flowing.

Press-ups every hour on the hour – now there’s a practical tip for writers of all kinds. Here’s another zinger, the Couch to 5k running plan. Most people try jogging and then stop because it’s too hard. Chances are they’re doing too much too soon. Couch to 5k is a not so much a running plan as a walking-and-running plan, and it’s excellent, enabling a gradual build-up of fitness that will benefit your heart valves and your Work In Progress.

Jogging in Africa is considered almost as odd as reading on public transport. When I first started jogging in the afternoons, I was flagged down by an old Fulani herder. A walaa haaju, he said. You have no need to be doing that.

‘What do you mean?’ I panted.

‘There are only two reasons for a man to run,’ he replied. ‘Either there is someone behind him with a big stick or there is a grain distribution in front of him.’

The old herder had clearly forgotten the all-important third reason – the potentially bestselling novel – but I didn’t argue the point. Now I run in the grey calm of the early morning before the prayer call sounds from the minaret. There’s nobody around at that time, and I get to see some beautiful sunrises. I’m not at 5k yet, but I’m enjoying it – I think.

If you sit down for a living, do your body a favour. Get up and stretch. Go for a walk. Learn capoeira. Hang upside down. Your work will be better for it.

10 Best WordPress Themes for Authors

Authors are well aware of the benefits of blogging, and a serviceable blog is now a tool of almost every author’s trade, alongside the HB pencil and the moleskine notebook. As an author, and as a recent but enthusiastic WordPress adopter, I thought I’d put together a list of ten WordPress themes which are ideal for authors. I am aware that WordPress is not the only blogging platform, but in 2011 WordPress is by far the most popular of the various options, so with that in mind, allow me to present my personal selection of the 10 best WordPress themes for authors.

The following countdown reflects my preference for clean white themes. It is a matter of personal taste, but also seems to be a logical choice for authors, who want the focus to be on words and book covers rather than on snowflakes and dancing penguins. Branding is important, of course, but all of the themes below can be easily customized to reflect your unique author brand. Think of them as blank slates on which to write.

10. Typominima

Typominima - a typography wordpress theme for writers and authors

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I like themes which focus on beautiful typography, and this theme is definitely heading in the right direction. But in my opinion the header and the sumptuous swirls take up too much space and leave the content straggling behind. In fact, I only included this theme here because of the lovely typewriter graphic.

9. Wp-notes theme

WP Notes wordpress theme - the perfect theme for a writer

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The right-justified sidebar in this theme is very unassuming and gives the blog a nice shape. At present the WP-Notes Theme seems popular with computer engineers like Jared and Jennifer and Max, but no doubt it would also make a good-looking quirky blog for a good-looking quirky author. Especially if used for frequent short posts. Just replace that letter b in the top-left corner with a greyscale close-up of your grinning face or your fingers dancing across the keyboard.

8. the Seven Five

The Seven Five wordpress theme - a great theme for authors

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I’ve always liked the typeface Lucida Sans, and this theme puts it to great use. Seven Five is not so much a blog theme as a ‘lifestream’ – a diary of your electronic life. The homepage has sections for ‘Latest Post’, ‘Latest Tweets’, ‘Latest Pics’ and so on. This would be a great theme for authors who tweet regularly.

7. Oulipo

Oulipo Minimalist WordPress theme for writers and authors

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The demo site for the wordpress.org installation of Oulipo is so sparse it does not do the theme justice, but check out the Oulipo demo on wordpress.com, which is much better. I love the way the left sidebar is pinned in place, keeping your page links (or your book covers) in view. Great design.

6. Structure theme

Structure Theme - a great wordpress theme for writers and authors

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Structure theme is a great freemium theme – a free theme with the design quality of a premium theme. It boasts well thought out typography and well laid out elements. It is content-focussed, uncluttered and stylish – this is a great theme for authors with a significant amount of content to organize.

5. Wu wei

Wu Wei - a white wordpress theme for writers and authors

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I dislike it when blog themes code their ‘blockquote’ with a single quotation mark graphic; talk about being left hanging. But opening quotes without closing them is Wu Wei’s only crime and it more than makes up for that with its clean, original design and tasteful hints of colour. I also like the big fat titles on the left of the posts (rather than above the posts) and the comment numbers in their little speech bubble icons. These space-saving gizmos mean that nothing will detract from that big full-colour jpeg of your new book cover. Let the colour and dynamism come from your content, not from the frame.

4. The Erudite

The Erudite wordpress theme - ideal for authors

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Lots of good things going on in this carefully coded theme. It has a very literary appearance with its highlighted initials, its elegant typography and its sophisticated white-on-black widgetized footer. Hmm, sophisticated and widgetized aren’t words that usually sit comfortably together – that shows you just what a special theme The Erudite is. I love the way it gives prominence to recent posts and just includes excerpts of the rest.

This would make a good blog theme for Martin Amis or Ian McEwan or for a Martin Amis or Ian McEwan wannabe. Maybe not for a children’s author, though, and maybe not for an author who wants to post a lot of images (unless the images are greyscale, mmm).

3. Smart Portfolio

Smart Portfolio - the perfect wordpress theme for an author displaying books

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Coded by the inimitable Curt Ziegler, this is one very smart theme indeed. All right, so it’s a whole content management system, not just a blog, but look at it – just perfect for the needs of an author. Have a play with the demo and you’ll see what I mean. All you need to do is to change the menu item ‘portfolio’ to ‘books’ and you’re away . Curt Ziegler’s tagline is ‘creating sites that breathe’. This theme breathes so deep it must have lungs the size of mulberry bushes. It has a good aesthetic, good line length, good icons, good footer, good contact form, good tagline area and good technical support. The demo looks a bit corporate, but once you have personalised the theme with your own pics and book content, it’ll look great. A $25 Premium Theme, Smart Portfolio is well worth the money. Think about it – how much would you pay a professional coder to make you an author site that looks this classy? Hundreds of dollars, that’s how much.

2. Manifest

Manifest WordPress Theme by Jim Barraud - a great theme for writers and authors

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I used to dislike Times New Roman so much that in the early days of Facebook I joined a Facebook group campaigning to ban Times New Roman from the web! Then I saw Jim Barraud’s Manifest theme and everything changed. It’s a natty one-column typography-based theme and I use it as the basis for all three of my blogs.

NB. The wordpress.com version has been tweaked by the folks at Automattic and is even better than the self-hosted version – it has a classier header and ‘post formats’ enabled. But I’m sure Jim will get around to updating the self-hosted version soon. Won’t you, Jim?

1. Minimal

Minimalist WordPress theme - a beautiful classy white theme for writers and authors

Demo – Download

I’m not being paid by Curt Ziegler for putting his themes at numbers 3 and 1 on this list. It’s just that he has produced two of the nicest looking wordpress themes I’ve ever seen. Minimal is a seamless portfolio / blog theme with great attention to detail. I love the alternating shading on the recent posts area, the greyscale social media links, the muted red-brown links and those fantastic shouty taglines. Again, if it’s still a bit corporate for your liking, just slap a big cartoony header in place of the ‘minimal’ graphic. Or a moody black and white photo of you hunched scowling over your Macbook. This theme costs $25 and would be a bargain at twice the price.

So there you have it: the ten best WordPress themes for authors, IMHO.

I’d love to hear your own suggestions so please do comment.