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Brighton Fringe and Broadway Baby (and me)

History of Ireland's cast wear colourful ballgowns in the Rose of Tralee beauty pageant

History of Ireland’s cast in the Rose of Tralee beauty pageant

I’ve joined Brighton’s Broadway Baby review team, which means we’re only four days into Brighton Fringe and I already have a favourite venue & place to stand at the bar.

Brighton Fringe is:

Brighton Fringe is the largest open-access arts festival in England. It is an international festival that is at the same time rooted in the community. It embraces every art form and every form of artistic expression, and supports both new and established performers in trying out new work and taking risks.

and Broadway Baby is a:

performing arts hub containing thousands of listings, reviews and articles about everything on stage in the UK.

So far I’ve reviewed Poets v Mcs (Brighton v Sheffield) and the History of Ireland–and both were a delight. They made me laugh at things I didn’t expect, they inspired me about what writing (in all formats) can do, and they both made me dance.

I’ve got at least six more shows to see, including Shakespeare, sci-fi and more spoken word shows. If you’re in town I’d recommend Dead Happy, You’re In A Bad Way and Witch-Hunt as the three shows to check out. Happy fringing!

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Review: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

cover of an absolutely remarkable thing by Hank Green

What I’m reading

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

by Hank Green

I received this book free from the publishers in exchange for an honest review

I beginning-loved this book. But it beginning-tricked me.

I went from addicted, ‘just one more page’ reading sessions to thinking ‘who is this person and do I really care.’ I wanted moar robots but got pages upon pages about internet fame instead.

A third of the way through I forgot the main characters name, even though she’s called April May. Maybe that’s why I forgot it? Was it my brain rebelling? Her name put me off in the same way I abandoned (500) Days of Summer halfway through, despite everyone saying I’d love it. Too artificial-cutesy-whimsical. I can enjoy cutesy, but it needs to earn its place.

I think I was supposed to forgive April May some of her failings because she was ‘Quirky,’ but really I needed her to be strong enough a character for me to forgive her quirkiness.

I don’t think it’s a bad book, and when I checked the blurb it did say it’s a book about

“how the social internet is changing fame and radicalisation; how our culture deals with fear and uncertainty; and how vilification and adoration can follow a life in the public eye.”

I enjoyed some of the riffs about marketing, and I liked that the characters were older than most YA casts (post-college, first job, still uncertain about money & love). But the pacing was patchy, the theme over-wrought, and getting to the end was a slog. I understand why other people like it, but I was relieved to move on to my next read and I won’t be back for the sequel.

Setting

The New York of action movies, all bustling sidewalks and apartments too tiny to sneeze in. A city so full of wonder and activity that when a giant robot appears on a street one night, no one cares. Apart from April May…

Favourite character

Miranda, the scientist.  I recognised my own science-y friends  in how enthusiastic & unstoppably-inspired she gets. My BFF’s eyes light up when she talks about genes & she loses track of time, the same way Miranda gets excited about the strange, giant figures in NY.

What can I learn as a writer?

There are lots of writing books and classes who warn novelists not to mislead the reader about what kind of book they are getting.

Holly Lisle talks about Promises in her writing classes, Les Edgerton’s Hooked is a book all about controlling what you’re signalling with your first chapter, and my writing lecturer swore by Nancy Kress’ Beginnings, Middles and Ends.

I’m not saying Hank Green personally wanted to trick me, but a couple of tweaks to the start of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing could have re-framed my expectations in time for me to like it more.

File with

Not Transformers 😉

 

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How to write a book: resources for the first time novelist

best writing craft books

When I tell people I write fiction, sometimes they say ‘Hey, I’d like to write, too!’

Then I geek out on recommending craft books, resources to change ‘I’d like to write!’ to ‘I write!’, and their eyes glaze over because hours have passed & my enthusiasm has turned scary.

This page is a restrained list of the resources I most often recommend.

It’s a list for first-time novelists. I love reading about craft & have a teetering sub-list of other, nerdier writing books I adore, but I’ve kept this batch broad, & applicable to any genre.

Note: this is what I needed when I was starting out. At that point I’d been practicing & going to writing classes enough to know I could write a few thousand decent words, but had no clue how to turn those into a novel.
You might be at a different stage. Or you might prefer a different book on the same subject (though I’m willing to bet it will be the same advice, just in a voice or style that’s more you).
If none of these appeal, ignore me. Just start writing, and keep reading other people’s fiction until you can figure out what they are doing to bewitch you.

Important: Don’t stop writing while you’re reading: keep your hand in with some kind of practice along the way. It’s easy to trick yourself into feeling productive because you’ve read about doing something, instead of actually doing it. Most of these books have exercises to follow: use them. It’s the best way to learn.

My top three desert-island, heavyweight champs of writing craft books:

The Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass. Skip the accompanying book & go straight to this workbook.  It’s full of exercises to make what happens in your novel matter.
Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder. For when you don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. This is classic on how to structure a story (though you could easily substitute Weiland, Bell or Hawker’s books on structure for it (see below), this is the one I read first, & I wish I’d found it sooner).
Spellbinding Sentences, by Barbara Baig, advanced reading & practical exercises on how to make clever, beautiful sentences.

Other strong contenders

Structure & outlining

Outlining your novel by KM Weiland. KM’s books are always friendly & sensible. Good for beginners on where to take your baby idea next.
Take Off Your Pants  by Libbie Hawker. This is the outlining book I refer to the most. before and during writing (despite always getting Blink 182 songs stuck in my head).
Super Structure by James Scott Bell.  Another simple explanation of story structure that gets you up & started, quickly.
(Psst, if you’re writing romance, supplement these with Gwen Hayes’ Romancing The Beat)

What the hell is a scene, anyway?

How to Write Page Turning Scenes, by Holly Lisle

Revision

How To Revise Your Novel by Holly Lisle. I have no other resources for revision because this mammoth online course covered everything. EVERYTHING. And taught me a huge amount about novel writing in general, not just revising.

Editing

Before You Hit Send Another online course, this one for gussying up that revised novel. Run a few times a year by a thorough & well-respected editor who answers questions personally in the forums. Take notes, as you only have access to course content while you’re enrolled.
The Emotional Thesaurus and The Fiction Thesaurus will help you to show not tell, & the actual thesaurus, Rogets, will give you a hand when you’re absolutely sure there’s no other word to describe your character than ‘nice’ or ‘good’.


For remembering writing is fun, & staying in touch with your creativity:

(‘step away from the beat sheet, ma am’)
Use A Writer’s Book of Days  and How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play for prompts & exercises that will get you playing around with words, & remembering why you thought writing a novel would be a good idea in the first place.

The Artist’s Way is what you need if your brain is playing up & talking crap about you & your creativity.

Last but not least, you’ll need:

All of your favourite books, and some you dislike.
Tear yourself away from the plot & characters & examine how they transport you, or turn you off: How much of the page is dialogue? How much is description? How is sensory detail used? How does the setting reveal detail about the characters? What is irritating about the books you don’t like? Why don’t they suck you in, or how do they let you down?


There. C’est tout. For now. Happy writing!

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Editing The Dream Feeders

A witchy bar in the mountains of Switzerland

Found this witchy bar in the mountains of Switzerland

Edits & self-doubt

I cautiously went back to my Dream Feeders edits this week, after 5 months away. That’s how long it took to go near it without flinching. Even after reopening the Scrivener project, it took 3 days for me to actually look at the contents.

And…

I think it’s going to be alright. I think I’m going to be alright. I think I can finish this without going mad. Maybe?

With fresh eyes, and a rested brain, this feels manageable. Big, and complicated, but not beyond my reach.

I can see how i got tangled up – the start of my edits list makes sense, and my optimism grew while reading it. ‘Hey, this might be more than just finishable, it might even be good!’

Then, blam! kerpow! my notes-to-self turn into a black lump of confusion & lostness, & I’m not surprised I ran away. I might just delete those notes, rather than try to unpick what I was trying & get trapped in the same messy worries as last time. Bravo, self-doubt, you did a tremendous job.

Reading: Borne, by Jeff Vandermeer

borne by jeff vandermeer, illustration by keith negley

Borne illustration by Keith Negley

I chose a Jeff Vandermeer novel for my holiday read, because I always get gripped & absorbed and can read for hours. I hate airports and there was a 4 hour train journey to follow the flight, so I took Borne.

I hadn’t factored in how creepy his stuff is though, & forgot that sometimes I’m obsessively page-turning Vandermeer stuff because I’m too terrified to look away.

So my holiday reading experience was an odd mix of stunning Swiss scenery past the windows – model villages, alpine flowers, snow topped mountains – and Vandermeer’s warped, dark-tech version of the future in my e-reader, alive with mutant children and giant, flying bears.

I finished reading on the midnight coach from Heathrow, and without spoilering I’ll just say that the shadowy, slippery landscape & lights of a late-night motorway (combined with very little sleep) was a suitably eerie backdrop.

Verdict: do read it (I rated it 4/5 on Goodreads), but maybe not in the dark…

Borne print (& other cool illustrations) available from Keith Negley at Society6

Writing advice I liked this week

The creative process will always have downs. It’s part of the cycle. Everyone gets them, and it doesn’t mean you are failing. The next part of the cycle will come along soon if you just keep going.

That’s my paraphrasing of Joanna Penn’s interview with David Kadavy on the Creative Penn podcast:

Joanna: ‘It happens every time and you have to go through that part…it is a cycle…this creative process, it has these stages and it’s not like you can skip any… One of those stages is fear and anxiety and it seems to happen wherever you are on the journey unless perhaps, you’re a sociopath.’

David: Yeah. ‘And if you are, then hey, go for it.’

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