12 Books in 12 Months

writing books and blogging about it



Author Interview: Duncan Barrett

The Sugar Girls by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi is a social history of women in London’s East End who worked in the Tate and Lyle sugar factories after WW2.  The book takes the stories of four women as a focal point and weaves in snippets of other people’s lives and memories. I haven’t been reading a lot of non-fiction since leaving university but I really think this is worth a look – especially for young women who don’t realise how much life and opportunities have changed for them since the fifties.

I spoke to one of the authors, Duncan Barrett, about how the book came to be written, stories that didn’t make the final cut, and collaborating with co-author Nuala Calvi.

Continue reading “Author Interview: Duncan Barrett”

28 Drawings Later – Day 2

I thought I’d experiment with a few character sketches from the play.  First on the list is ‘A kind but poor gentleman’.  I’m not sure exactly how old he is, or whether he wears a hat…  So I drew a couple of kind men.  In hats.  Hats make the gentleman, probably.  I imagine him sort of shabby but refined although that patently doesn’t come over in either of these, they both appear quite well to do.  OH WELL.  This is why we do research.

Kind But Poor

Got An Agent Yet?

As regular readers are hopefully aware, I am trying to write a book every month with a vague future aim of publication and possible literary stardom.

One question I am asked on an occasional basis (by two people, but they have asked multiple times so I deem it pertinent) is “HAVE YOU GOT AN AGENT YET?”

The answer to this is no, and I can tell you for why.

Continue reading “Got An Agent Yet?”

Sci-Fi Suggestions

I have to go back to work tomorrow, after a full 12 days off.  That’s 12 whole days where I have not written a word of any of my 12 books. How apt.

There may come a time (I’m guessing Sunday) that I feel guilty as hell for such negligence, but right now I’m confident it was The Right Thing To Do – for my sanity and for the sake of the project. Plus:


Admittedly four are aimed at young children, which I am not, and are very short.  Also I actually started One Good Turn quite some time ago, so technically only read half of it during the 12 day period… but the thought of having had the time to read six books makes me happy.

Now I must get back into the habit of writing them.

You may remember that the fast approaching month of August is dedicated to sci-fi, for which I have a concept that is actually rather dark, but potentially a bit good.  As ever I have yet to name any of the characters, and if you have any suggestions for classics of the genre I should have a look at please leave a comment (either containing a title or cliff notes on the text) below.

Not Another Article on Self Publishing (it is, though)

There’s a lot of hype around self publishing at the moment, related at least in part to John Locke (an American author, not to be confused with the father of liberalism or the bald sociopath in Lost) becoming the first self-published author to sell a million e-books for the Kindle.  He’s put 9 titles out, the latest of which is How I Sold 1 million e-books in 5 months.  A cynical man, then…

If the internet is any judge, people have mixed feelings on self publishing.  This is because there’s a perception of it as a vanity project, as you’ve probably heard.  I’m not sure who specifically thinks that, but I’ve read several blog posts assuring me most people do, and explaining why they are wrong.  What a bold premise…

Continue reading “Not Another Article on Self Publishing (it is, though)”

How To Name A Character

I often come up with character names ahead of their personalities.  Not always, but often.

But when someone else comes  up with your character for you, it’s a little bit harder to name them.  I am in the process of writing book five, and before I started I had a suggestion from the lovely Arielle Bosworth (click her name to go to her blog) that “your protagonist should be a talking sheep who is also a wizard. It could be amazing.”

She went on to explain, quite rightly, that “sheep are entirely unrepresented in the fantasy genre.”  And if I don’t rectify this glaring omission, who will?

However, I had to then come up with a name for this character.  So I thought about it a bit, and decided perhaps I would gain some insight from looking up ‘sheep’ and ‘wizard’ in other languages.  This is what transpired:

I googled the Latin first.  Dead languages are pretty fantastical, after all.

In amongst all the adverts I found my answer – ‘Ovis Aries’.  Naturally the first two names that came to mind that sound a bit like these were ‘Ovid’ and ‘Archie’ – both of which could work.  Ovid, Roman poet who was very popular in the middle ages, unusual first name which could mark him out as special; and Archie, short for Archibald, a fairly old fashioned name meaning ‘brave’ which this sheep will have to be in order to complete his quest.  Whatever that is.

There was only one thing for it – I had to appeal to the internet for help.

And Twitter spake unto me saying:

And I thought ‘hm, the ideas I have for this are less mystical and aloof and probably more suitable for ten year olds.’  So I went on the facebook page to see whether they were in agreement.

And although the writing was rather small you could see that the Ovid tally rose ever further.

So, for the time being at least, that is what my wizard sheep is called – Ovid Archibald McHaggis.  One wonders how characters were named before the days of the internet.

How do you name your characters, other writers?  Do you have a set process, or is it a bit ad hoc, like me?  And do you ever change a character name half way through writing and then have to go back and check them all?

Writer’s Block

My last email from Edinburgh blogger Elaine from Dreams and Whispers covers the tricky subject of the creative block…

My last question is about creative writing in general, and blocks that can hinder creativity -for example perfectionism, comparing your work to others, an internal critical voice, etc. Personally I got stuck when I attempted Nanowrimo last year: I’d think “Ugh, that last sentence was horrible, I can’t possibly leave that in. I’ll just go over that for a second…”, then suddenly a whole paragraph would be edited and the word count would actually reduce! So my question for a prolific writer like yourself is: do you ever get stuck with “writer’s block” and if so, what helps you move past it?

I think everyone gets creatively blocked from time to time.  I’ve lost count of the number of blog posts and tweets I’ve read that claim sitting in front of an empty page or screen is the hardest part of the writing process.  But to be honest, I don’t find it to be as much of a problem as I used to.  I found it incredibly hard to write fiction when I was at uni and only finished a few things. For those four years I blogged (although not as regularly as now) and did journalism (mainly singles reviews and occasional comment pieces) and spoof news stories for the uni satirical paper… but I rarely finished any stories.

After graduating in 2008 I continued that trend for a bit.  By that point I had sort of decided that my fiction style was a bit too flippant or glib for anyone to really care about, but I continued with blogging and started to write news stories and stuff for hyperlocal websites.  So yeah, I have been known to go ‘no, I can’t do it, and even if I did have an idea I wouldn’t do it justice..’

So I merrily continued with short articles and blog posts till November 2009, my first go at NaNoWriMo.  What I liked about NaNo was that they recognise this tendency people have to lose confidence in what they’re doing, like me, or as you mentioned in your email, to start but then sit and get stuck, re-reading and editing and worrying about it all  and never getting anything done and eventually giving up and moving on to something else.  As you know, that is why they set the 50k in 30 days challenge – the idea being that you do not physically have time to stop and go back over stuff because you have to get at least 1,667 words written every day as well as going about your daily business.  In order to get there you need to accept that a certain amount of stuff will in all likelihood not be very good, and do it anyway – you can go back and fix it later.

Although I didn’t finish in 2009 because work was insane, I got about 15k done and I think I was cured of the notion I’d developed that fiction wasn’t for me.  I also had a strong sense that I probably would have finished if a couple of specific and relatively unusual incidents at work hadn’t got in the way.  Which is good, because the whole time I was growing up “author” was one of my top career choices, refined to “children’s author” when I went to high school.  Then when I reached the age of 15 and realised “author” was unlikely to be my first job, I decided to go for “journalist” and then segue once I had ten years or so of writing for a living under my belt.

NaNo 2010 cured me completely I think.  I guess I’d been resolving to do it for a year, mulling over these ideas of not editing and just writing anything that comes to mind, so by the time it came around it didn’t even occur to me to read back over what I’d done already!  I do genuinely think of editing as a totally separate entity to the initial writing process now, and with 12 books I quite often don’t read back over anything at all.  In fact there are only two scenarios when I read things over again: when I haven’t written for a day or two and can’t quite remember where I left off, or when I’m putting an excerpt on the blog – because I do read back over blog posts and edit them a bit before putting them up.

It also reminded me not to take myself too seriously.  There is no freaking way that the first draft of any novel is going to be the next Moby Dick, War and Peace, or whatever, regardless of how much you’ve planned and researched.  There’s no point in panicking because it isn’t perfect, because if you’re going to give up after the first draft you probably aren’t that passionate about it.  Crafting something literary takes time and effort – writing is a job and you have to work at it.  And anyway, those aren’t the sorts of things I want to write – you remember I said I convinced myself nobody would want to read my stories because they tend towards the silly or glib – but then I thought actually, I’d read them.  I like books that make me laugh, and I can’t be the only one.  Otherwise Terry Pratchett would be out of a job.

12 books has continued the good work of NaNo in helping with creative blocks.  It means I have to force myself to write, to the extent that it feels odd if I haven’t done anything that day, and when I get into the way of it I can get a lot done in one sitting – my WPM has definitely got quicker over the past few months!  And because I’m doing one a month, plus a lot of other short articles at the same time for other blogs and websites on different topics, I never have the chance to get bored with any of them.  I still get frustrated, but that’s often as much because I know exactly how I would fix things if I had the time to do a bit more research or whatever.

Trying to publicise it has also forced me to talk about what I’m doing, which can help a lot when you’re stuck.  I used to be very anxious about sharing anything before it was finished – I couldn’t even sit next to my boyfriend writing out a blog post on my laptop because I felt like it was raw and unfinished and if he happened to read any over my shoulder he would be thinking ‘well that isn’t very good’.  He wouldn’t, of course, but I was paranoid anyway.  But with 12 books I have to talk about it so that people will give me suggestions, and I’ve done a couple of interviews with local news sources about it too, which has helped me lose that fear of somehow failing or people thinking badly of me.  And also, talking about a story and the problems you’re having with it out loud quite often gives you ideas of how to fix it yourself, even before other folk jump in with their suggestions.

The other thing that helps creative blocking is reading lots.  I know it can make you despair at times because you feel there’s no way you’ll ever be as good as whichever author has captured your imagination on any given day, but it can also help you decide who to emulate and who to avoid, it gives you ideas about how you would approach something, and it all feeds in to the imagination lobe of your brain (I don’t think it’s called that but there must be a bit that deals with that type of stuff) and stews in there and recycles itself into new ideas and a better writing style.  It can also make you insanely jealous that someone else has created something so awesome, which can be quite motivational :p

The main thing I would say though is to never ever beat yourself up about not having written anything.  If I was doing that this project would have been over before it began.  Feeling a bit blocked is fine and normal, and it’s OK to give yourself a few days off.  The thing about writing is that even when you aren’t physically doing it, ideas are probably floating around in the back of your mind, whether you’re conscious of them or not.  It’s alright to not get anything down for a while.  But, if you suspect that it’s less a case of not having anything to write and more about being lazy, then just sit down and start.  Start in the middle, or at the end, or with a generic ‘Once upon a time’, and write whatever the hell comes into your head, for at least ten minutes.  Chances are you’ll get into it and keep going for longer than that.  Don’t worry that you have nothing to say – everyone has something.  Something they like or hate, or that they think everyone else should know about; a terrible secret of their own or someone else’s; a funny anecdote; a hope or aspiration.  And if it turns out when you’ve written a few hundred words that actually that isn’t what you wanted to say, that’s OK.  It’s a first draft and it’s up to you whether anyone ever gets to see it.  Just don’t delete it till you’ve gotten the thing you actually meant to say out there on the page.  And backed up.

Which One Will You Choose..?

It’s the third day of questions courtesy of Elaine from the Dreams and Whispers Blog, and she asks something I’ve never really thought about before… to choose which of my children I love the most!

Today’s question is about the characters in your books. For me as a reader, I find that interesting characters can really make a book brilliant. With you being on your fifth book now, you must have invented and thought about a fair few people, so which of them stand out the most – which two have been your favourite and least favourite so far?

I agree with you that characterisation can make or break a book.  Good characters stay with you and you want to find out more about them – this is presumably why so many authors write in series.  Whereas bad ones can make it difficult to carry on reading (although I’m pretty tenacious – it’s rare that I don’t drag my way kicking and screaming to the end of a book).

So far my favourite character is probably Caligula, if I can legitimately claim him as a character!  I enjoyed trying to get into his mind and second guessing why he did the crazy things that he was meant to have done – that’s the revisionist historian in me trying to come out, I think.  The sources on Caligula are fantastically biased but it makes for interesting reading.

I have a lot of affection for Victor McGlynn as well – he was the main character in the Western and I gave him quite a rough time of it with a pretty sad back story and a not amazing here and now, but he coped with dignity!  I am also really looking forward to writing the main characters in my kids’ book in July, because I’ve been developing them in my head for about two years.

There aren’t any characters I haven’t enjoyed writing at all, but I suppose my least favourite is Jennifer, the protagonist of the last book.  This is partly because I swithered an awful lot over how to write her – this has been the most difficult book so far.

I was trying to write her as a stroppy teenager but I think I may have gone a bit overboard with her lack of empathy and self involvement, so I’ll have to sort that out when I go back to edit it!  Think I should make her a bit more likeable!  Although having said that, Stephanie Meyer didn’t bother making Bella likeable and she did alright.  Maybe I’ll just leave it….

Mister Grumpy

My last email from Andrew of Far too Snug and Twitter fame.  You may remember the other day we spoke of what book shops do with genre fiction and where I would like to be shelved if I was a published author.

I think when you are editing the 12 books you should insert a recurring character. I always meant to do that with a guy called ‘Mister Grumpy’ but I’ve never quite got round to it. This is mainly because when you are trying to sell an individual story to lots of different magazines it doesn’t really make any sense to have a character whose presence is explained in another story.

I think most people write based on an initial idea that develops and snowballs. It isn’t a conscious effort on most people’s parts to think ‘Today I will write a space opera’. However your interests will certainly shape the kind of ideas you have. In your case you have had to do research into the genres you haven’t been as familiar with as others, yes?

Do you feel that writing lots of different genres will actually sharpen your voice, as you will have to find your way of writing each one?

Maybe when you’re published you find yourself having to write a certain way. Madeleine Wickham wrote her  books before finding success with the Shopaholic series under the Sophie Kinsella pen-name, but the latter’s success allowed her to return to her initial interest in writing more Wodehouse-esque novels (which, incidentally, got described as ‘Literary Fiction’ on World Book Night. They seem more like comedies based on the descriptions though).

For example, I have recently read The City and The City by China Mieville and The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. Mieville’s previous books have been fantasy/steampunk, so City… was shelved in that section. Raw Shark… was Hall’s first book, and is shelved in Fiction, but there’s certainly overlap between the two to my mind involving conceptual space and the human mind’s compartmentalising of things. Either could be shelved in the other’s section.

Both are very good, by the by.

With that in mind, would you rather be a popular fantasy author who moved into other territories but still got shelved in the same place, or a critically acclaimed Fiction author who dabbles in other genres?

I think that writing in different genres will challenge me and develop my voice in other ways, yes.  I hope it does, anyway.  And of course the more research I do the more likely that is to happen, because reading other books in the genre gives you an understanding of what works, what doesn’t; what has already been done to death and what might benefit from a different spin being put on it.  The main thing that’s come out of this so far is that I need to spend more time reading and absorbing other people’s stories – I perhaps don’t yet know enough to be as clever about things as Dianna Wynne Jones or Neil Gaiman, but I’ll get there!

I think I’d rather be popular than critically acclaimed, to be honest.  I would like to think people were reading my books because they enjoyed them, rather than because they’d been told by a panel of self appointed experts that it was clever or deep.

I don’t think I’m in too much danger of being critically acclaimed though, because my sense of humour comes through in everything I write and unfortunately I do tend towards the silly.  I would edit things out that looked in danger of becoming too serious or po-faced.  That isn’t to say that I don’t write well or have interesting ideas… but I’d rather be Pratchett than Tolkein.  Although if I come out with anything as good as China Mieville does I’ll be insufferably smug.

I do sort of think I’d get annoyed if I got pigeon holed in one genre, but there again it would depend on what that genre was.  I can’t envision writing the same character for 30 crime books, like Ian Rankin or MC Beaton – but if I was writing fantasy, the nature of the genre might well involve overlapping without having to focus on the same protagonist every time.

Freedom to write and do different things is always nice, because if you open yourself up to new experiences it can give you other viewpoints and ideas that work quite well in separate contexts.  As well as writing fiction I do local news journalism, cultural comment and reviews, and the odd comic or illustration; then when I return to 12 books I’ve got different ideas and perspectives to filter in there on top of specific genre research.  However, if I had a character like Harry Potter or Rebus that people really loved and wanted to hear more about, I can’t imagine that I would say no!

In summary – I would like to be popular and able to dabble in a few different genres, but my main hope is that people enjoy reading what I write.  Preferably enough that I can make a living out of it, one day…

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