Venturing south

We spend part of our year in the Charente in France, endlessly renovating a tumble-down barn we bought some time ago. This trip we decided to actually take a holiday, so hitched up the old caravan we use as a respite from the building work, and headed a couple of hours south into the Dordogne.

The lovely Le Paradis campsite, just outside Saint Léon sur Vézère, was almost deserted this far into the autumn term. our-little-corner-of-paradiseThis is Cyril, looking a bit forlorn about being tied up.

a-pool-of-ones-ownThe water was a little nippy, but I had the whole pool to myself!

flowers-at-le-paradisLe Paradis lived up to its name, and many of the plants were still going strong at the beginning of October.

lovely-plant-at-le-paradisNo idea what this is, but it was impressive.

pool-planting

pool-planting-in-dordogneHard to believe we were in central France and not somewhere tropical.

bamboo-tunnel-at-le-paradisFabulous bamboo tunnel.

big-bamboo-at-le-paradisAnd an even more impressive bamboo grove down by the river.

perigueux-cathedralSaturday we drove into Périgueux to go to the market and ogle its amazing cathedral.

last-stop-perigueux-roundaboutI was also rather taken by this locomotive parked up by a local roundabout.

dordogne-humourI couldn’t help being amused by this building firm.

all-aboardcyril-and-chateauThe next day we ventured out in a couple of kayaks, taking a dog apiece. We left number three, Mrs Perkins, back in the caravan – the last kayak trip we took her on, she kept throwing herself into the river out of sheer desperation. Cyril and Stan, on the other hand, only tried to drown themselves a couple of times.

stan-on-the-prowheading-downstreamIt was the most gorgeous day, but Cyril and Stan seemed less than convinced this was the best way to spend it.

under-the-treesweird-place-on-the-vezereNo idea what this was, but I was the only one brave enough to paddle inside.

an-island-of-our-ownWe even discovered an island of our own, right in the middle of the Vézère river.

dejeuner-sur-lherbeTen minutes downstream we came across the French riverside cafe of our dreams, Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe at Saint Léon sur Vézère. It did feel a bit like being in a Manet painting, and the food was delicious.

saladdog-under-the-tableCyril was clearly hoping something would fall off the table.

dordogne-post-boxThe next day we were all achy and exhausted, so took it easy with a bit of light sight-seeing and another stop at the riverside cafe before heading back to the building site we call home. Loved this postbox near Lascaux!

What’s in an idea?

It’s that time of year again. No, not the end of summer or even going back to school – thankfully that’s something I no longer have to worry about – but the time when I’m faced with planning what I’m going to write next.

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Some authors love this stage, and are blessed with a huge vat of ideas just bubbling away, waiting to be written. Lucky them. Usually I have only the vaguest idea of what I’m going to do next, and even when I have something clear in mind, I find the process of building it into a full length novel a bit of a slog.

At the start of my writing life, I began as many do – typing Chapter One at the beginning of a Word document and flinging words at the page. Over the years, however, I’ve become a somewhat unwilling convert to a more organised approach. Mainly because thrillers rely on plenty of twists and surprises, and building those in as you go can be pretty tricky. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s easier to change things in an outline than when you already have 50,000 words in that novel file. So now I’m committed to planning a story in some depth before I even open up that Word document. (Actually, I always start in Scrivener, but let’s save that for another day.)

That said, front-loading your plotting is never easy. While writing produces a natural momentum – you’re in the character’s head and you’re galloping through the story – planning feels colder, more clinical. Rather than being there, in the heat of the moment, you’re drawing right back and looking at the overall arc of the story. It’s a bit like having a collection of bones and trying to form them into a skeleton, all the while forcing yourself to imagine what it will look like when it’s covered with flesh and muscle and a snappy set of clothes. But it’s nevertheless worth doing: get the bones in the right places, and your job is going to be a whole lot less messy further down the line.

So how do I outline? Through a process of trial and error I’ve come to rely on four main tools that help me tackle story structure.

Character prompts

These are basically just a list of questions to help you get to know your characters as fast as possible. I’m a fan of character prompts, though I’ve seen some lists that take this to quite a ridiculous level of detail. I’m not interested in each character’s favourite colour or their preferred brand of knickers, so I’ve developed a pared-down set of prompts: name, age, occupation (if relevant); where they live; their family and friends; significant others; defining characteristics or interests. At the top I include a quick overview of the storyline from their point of view, then I consider things like what they most want in life, what they most need, what they believe in, what they fear, their biggest mistake or deepest regret, as well as what they are most proud of. I’ll identify their strengths and weaknesses, and I also think about how they will change over the course of the story ie. what, if anything, they will learn.

I’m not religious about any of this. Some questions will be more important for some characters, some I don’t bother even to fill in if it doesn’t seem relevant. But just having this a checklist not only helps me to know my characters better, but it always throws up something useful in plot terms, something that will deepen the story or give it more drive.

Story prompts

As well as for characters, I use questions and prompts in another way – to think specifically about the story and its intended effect on the reader. These make me consider things like why I want to write this particular idea; who will tell the story and why; what initial hooks will draw the reader in from the first chapters; what is at stake for the main character; how I can introduce more subplots or complication; how plot twists will relate to the narrator and her dilemmas, and how she will have to change to overcome this particular crisis in her life. And finally, I always think about what I want the reader to feel as they close the final page of the book.

Mind maps

Prompts will only get you so far. When you get into the real nitty-gritty of planning – and writing and editing – you’re going to fall into all sorts of plot holes and you need some good tools up your sleeve to dig yourself out. Mind-mapping is my favourite, and I use it not just in the initial stages, but through the process of writing and editing the book. Whenever I get stuck or realise I need to know more (invariably the cause of getting stuck) I define the central issue – usually as a question – stick it in the middle of a large piece of paper, then start radiating out with everything my mind tosses up.

Here’s one I did for my latest novel, Cruel Heart Broken. There were dozens, but I think I’ve thrown most of them away. (Spoiler alert! Probably best not to scrutinise this too closely if you’re planning to read the novel.)

Mind-map

 

The trick is not to censor yourself, but stick down everything that occurs to you – what seems like a stupid idea may lead to something more useful. When I’ve exhausted everything I can think of, I take a look at what I’ve got – 99 times out of 100 there’s an answer in there somewhere. Mind-mapping has never let me down yet – it forces the brain to come up with lots of different possibilities, and to make connections between all the different elements of your story.

Journalling

Sometimes a problem is too large or nebulous for mind maps, such as uncertainty that I’ve chosen the right story, or whether, as I start writing, I feel it’s heading in the right direction. When this happens I open a word document and type out how I’m feeling and what is bothering me, and then… I just keep on typing. I let all my concerns, fears, anxieties unravel onto the page. Somehow this always helps me to come up with a solution, even if it’s simply to reassure myself that my fears are overblown and I need to stick to my guns.

So that’s it really. The four tools that get me from Chapter 1 to The End. I use them in any order I feel like, often circling round and round. For instance, a character prompt might throw up a problem, or an idea, and then I’ll explore it further using a mind map, which will then reveal something else about the character, and so on. There’s no rules, and every novel is different – what worked for the one before might not work for the next. The trick is to have faith that you’ll find a solution, until suddenly – voila! – you have a fully-fledged outline of your next novel.

I should say briefly that some people take outlining to a whole new level, including planning each scene and chapter. I don’t bother. I just need to know roughly what is going to happen when, and why, and I’m good to go. But more on that later…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy publication day!

Just a quick post to announce the publication of Cruel Heart Broken today. So it’s buns for tea chez Haughton, and maybe a small bottle of this:17Champagne_CNT_16nov12_iStock_b_1Love this picture of Team CHB over on Usborne YA Shelfies – look at all that rock!tumblr_inline_o98adgjUMP1taa2fx_1280Meanwhile there’s been some nice reviews rolling in – check out the Lancashire Evening PostJasmine Pearl Reads and The Nocturnal Fey. I’ve been busy over on the Usborne Tumblr – answering seven fiendish questions, talking about how I became an author and picking my top favourite spots in Brighton, the setting for Cruel Heart Broken.

And pleased as punch that Fiona Noble at The Bookseller picked it as one of the top YA reads for July. Cl9NxvuWEAAdbSW

Countdown to July 1st

Six weeks to go to till Cruel Heart Broken hits the shelves and I’m at that stage where I can barely wait any longer to launch it into the world. You spend so long working on a new book, that the final run-up to publication can feel both agonising and nerve-wracking.

To mark the run-up to publication, Usborne are giving away 10 early copies – you can enter the giveaway here. Here’s a preview of the cover:

CHB covertumblr_inline_ny9xblMtic1taa2fx_1280 (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was chuffed the book got a mention in The Bookseller:

bookseller

Though I’ve been having a breather after finishing the copy and proof edits for the new book, I’ve been doing a bit of blogging, including a piece on writing YA thrillers for the Writers & Artists website – you can read it here. And over on Author Allsorts, I explained why I love writing high octane fiction.

Meanwhile, there’s been plenty to keep me occupied, including three dogs and a garden growing more weeds than you can shake a spade at. And I’ve been busy on the crafting front, recently finishing this green Mayhem shawl for cosying up on rainy days. Don’t you just love that zingy green? And below the Coast ripple blanket designed by Attic 24 – a present for my daughter’s birthday.

Mayhem-shawl Coast-ripple-blanket

 

Never a dull moment

Been a busy start to 2016 with a lot of getting my head down and editing. But the light is visible at the end of the tunnel, with just the copy and proof edits to go for Cruel Heart Broken. Phew!

Meanwhile I had a lovely visit to Glenmoor and Winton Academies in Bournemouth, with a warm welcome from all the staff, and especially the lovely Miss Hillier, the school librarian who organised the visit. I had a great time talking about the role story plays in our lives, as well as running a creative writing workshop on generating ideas. Pupils came up with some fabulous contributions, some of which I may just steal for my next book. Bournemouth 1

I’ve also had a nice time in cyberspace. Especially discovering that Better Left Buried had been picked by The Independent as one of their teen books of the year. You can read about it here. In addition, the lovely Kendra Leighton chose it as one of her favourite reads for 2015 – thank you, Kendra!

I had a lovely review for Now You See Me from the Story Explorers Club, and blogged about why I love writing thrillers over on Author Allsorts.

Still, there’s been time and energy left for coping with three dogs including a lovely walk at Hestercombe Gardens in Somerset with fellow YA authors Emma Carroll and C J Skuse – all three of us live in the West Country, and we’re all terrier mad. Here’s a lovely picture Emma took of all five dogs frolicking together. Dogs - Hestercombe Gardens

Little Cyril has settled in well to his new home. He has the appetite of ten dogs, and an attitude to match. Here he is, cuddling up to Stan. Look at that curly hair!Cyril and Stan

Goodbye 2015, hello 2016

Seems like ages since I last did an update. Hell, it is ages. Time flies when you’re having fu…err…editing. Still, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for Cruel Heart Broken: we’re nearly down to copy edits, and meanwhile I have all this yummy rock to consume – if I can bring myself to bite into it. So pretty!Cruel Heart Broken rock

And watch out on Usborne’s YA Shelfies tumblr on Monday for the full cover reveal. *makes eek noises* *gets funny looks from the dogs*

Meanwhile I had a fab time appearing and meeting up with other authors at YA Shot, held in Uxbridge at the end of October and organised by fellow YA author and general amazing lady Alexia Casale (you can check out her wonderful The Bone Dragon and House of Windows here).

I did a session on Crime and Punishment with fellow YA lovelies Keren David, Cat Clarke and Laura Jarratt, but there were dozens of other brilliant panels and workshops to attend. I know I speak for everyone when I say I had the best time, and really hope this is something that will be repeated every year.

Me apparently demonstrating what a hand looks like.

Me apparently demonstrating what a hand looks like.

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Those boots I’m wearing above – I’m third from the left, in case you’re wondering – are the ones I tripped up in outside the Edinburgh Festival, resulting in two broken fingers. Now named the Boots of Doom. I don’t wear them often, for obvious reasons.

In other news, we have a new baby in the house. A furry one with four legs called Cyril, who arrived just before Xmas.

cyril D3822 (241 x 250)

This is what he looked like when we picked him up from the marvellous Ferne Animal Sanctuary – he’d been found abandoned with his brother, poor soul. (He’s lying beside me, snoring, as I write.) Three weeks on he’s more of a gangly teenager, with an attitude to match, striking terror into the heart of our other two terriers and keeping the rest of us on our toes. When I track my camera, I’ll post more pics.

In the meantime, happy New Year!

 

Introducing Cruel Heart Broken

Yes, the title for Book Three is now official – Cruel Heart Broken. I love it! And as the story is set in Brighton – my old home town – we’re going with a seaside theme, hence this gorgeous rock commissioned by Usborne. Sarah, my editor there, kindly sent me some sticks of my own. I have them sitting on the kitchen shelf, taunting me, but I can’t bring myself to eat them. So far.Cruel Heart Broken rock

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CHB Usborne mixSarah’s written a brilliant taster – check it out here. Or you can read the first chapter here. Cruel Heart Broken will be out next summer, which feels like an age away but will probably go by in a flash.

 

Bourbon Boy

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Excited about tomorrow’s YA Shot book festival in Uxbridge tomorrow, where I’ll be talking crime and thrillers with Keren David, Cat Clarke and Laura Jarratt. If you’re in the area, do come along – over 71 YA and MG authors are appearing, so it’s going to be an amazing event. Find out more here.

And to mark the occasion, Usborne has picked Jack from BETTER LEFT BURIED to feature in their regular Boy and a Biscuit slot. My favourite character personified as a Bourbon!