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Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Tue, July 18, 2017 14:03:08

I’m very happy to announce that my YA novel, The Misper, is to be published on 1st December with Conrad Press.

Those of you who follow this blog will know that I wrote some months ago about signing a publishing contract – and then it all went mysteriously quiet.

The reason was that I initially signed with another publisher – Accent Press. What happened there is a story for another day – and I promise to blog about it soon.

But for now, I want to say a huge thanks to my patient and hard-working agent, James Essinger, and I am now really excited to the prospect of the book hitting the stores this winter.

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Mapping our Stories

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, July 01, 2017 18:14:48

This post was originally published on the Author Allsorts site on 30.06.17

When I first saw the suggested blog post idea of using maps in fiction writing, my initial thought was that I wasn’t the one to write it. After all, I don’t write the kind of epic fantasy that requires a map: I am no C.S. Lewis or JRR Tolkein.

In any case, in real life, I’m afraid I let the female side down when it comes to map-reading – I read them backwards, sideways and any which way that doesn’t make sense and gets me hopelessly lost.

But then I thought a bit harder about it. And I think that most writers of fiction do “map” as they write – even if they don’t produce a beautiful and plausible topography of their world.

In my case, I had in my mind a clear picture of the eleventh century leper hospital where my character Annie finds herself in The Serpent House (Curious Fox, 2014). After all, it was based on a real place: the long-lost hospital after which my village, Spittal in Berwick-upon-Tweed, gets its name. So I knew how close to the sea it was, roughly how big it would be and (based on other such places) how it would be laid out.

I was delighted to find this little plan by local historian Jim Walker and to be given permission to use it when I talk to schools about the book.

How does “mapping” help a writer then?

It’s amazing how often new writers forget about setting. They have a great concept for a story and they know (or should know!) the importance of fully rounded characters. But no story happens in a vacuum. I think it was Paul Magrs who said that if anyone wrote an experimental novel that was not set anywhere, readers would find themselves inventing their own setting in their minds. We want to be able to see where the action happens and imagine ourselves there.

And that’s why our story world maps have to somehow leap off the page. It’s not enough to describe things visually. That mountain range: what winds come off it? That patch of farmland: how does it smell? When the character’s in their top floor city centre apartment, what traffic can they hear?

I like to get new writers to know their fictional world really well. It’s always important, even if that world is a fantasy one: they need to know its rules, its language, its culture and any other detail that may or may not creep into the story.

You the writer are the explorer, the pioneer. So draw that map for those who’re following your journey! It doesn’t have to be a work of art. It’s just a start – and then you can add in all the extra information, until you have your own version of a Rough Guide to your own story world.

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Into Deep Water

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Fri, June 09, 2017 17:22:48

Into Deep Water

I had a green-eyed moment recently.

I’m not too prone to these. I’ve abandoned the fantasy that writing is going to make me a lot of money and that I’ll be able to give up the day job. I do it because I love it and I have stories I want to tell and to be read. I’m very happy that I have had four novels commercially published and that these have won some acclaim in some prestigious national competitions.

But recently a very famous author – who is now well-off enough to give up work to write full-time, the holy grail for all of us – has had a lot of publicity over her new novel, which is also likely to become a million seller.

And here’s the thing that gave me my green-eyed moment: the plot sounds really similar to one of my novels.

In In Too Deep (2013), set in a small and small-minded Northumberland town, a woman is drowned in a manner very similar to the old tradition of witch-ducking. This happened because she was a troublesome woman, a journalist who’s about to expose some unwanted information about some local people. It’s down to another woman – her friend – to eventually reveal what happened to her.

I’m very proud of this story: it was my debut novel in terms of writing and of publishing. And I happen to think it was a strong and original concept.

Now let’s turn to a brand-new book you will almost certainly have heard of. Into the Water is the second novel by Paula Hawkins, who of course shot to fame with The Girl on the Train.

I hadn’t read it, though I enjoyed Hawkins’ first novel. I was aware of it, though: it’s been reviewed in every national newspaper and magazine I’ve seen lately, there are humongous posters for it in the railway stations and if you go into Waterstones, someone runs up and beats you around the head with it.

But it really came to my attention because someone I know read it and said, “It’s very similar to your novel.”

In what way? Well: it’s set in a small and small-minded Northumberland town. A woman is drowned in a manner very similar to the old tradition of witch-ducking. This happened because she was a troublesome woman, a writer who’s about to expose some unwanted information about some local people. It’s down to another woman to eventually reveal what happened to her.

Hmph. Sounded pretty familiar to me. I had a brief moment of jealousy – that was “my” story and not only is it likely to make Hawkins more millions, she’s already signed up for the film rights. You see, when others dream of winning the Lottery, I dreamed of the day a script editor would pick up In Too Deep in a charity shop and love it. Hawkins’ success means that’s now even more unlikely than it ever was.

When I posted this on Facebook, my friends rallied round and shared my outrage. One even kindly looked up the copyright laws. But actually: I just wanted a bit of a moan. I had no intention of doing anything about it – nor should I.

I honestly don’t believe this is a case of someone nicking my story. I don’t think for one second that Paula Hawkins has even heard of my novel, let alone read it. The similarities are genuinely coincidental. The fact is, there is no copyright on ideas. And nor should there be.

There’s a theory – you may even have read the book – that all stories are a variation on just seven general themes. Who’s to decide who told the very first version of star-crossed lovers, or of children with magic powers, or of a quest to defeat a monster? And who’s to rule that no one else can have a crack at telling their own version of any story at all? The world would be a lesser place if every story had to be 100% new. And of course, once you get past those plot points, there are more differences between In Too Deep and Into the Water than there are similarities. Because you can give any number of writers the same inspiration and they will all do something unique with it. That’s the wonder of storytelling.

So I wish Paula Hawkins all the very best of luck – genuinely. Any writer who gets to where she has in a tough environment deserves her success. And after all, it’s a really terrific storyline. Who wouldn’t want to read it?

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Sunsets and Humbugs

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, May 21, 2017 10:20:54
This blog post was originally published on the Author Allsorts site on 19th May 2017:

Perfect lives. Everyone has them but ourselves. Or at least, that’s how it seems when we view people’s Facebook or Instagram posts.

How come? Because we’re all being highly selective with the information we share. We only post the cute dog pictures, not the poop bags and hairy-drool trails. We only share the best sunsets, not the average grey and dusty days. We show off our best chocolate cakes, the Walton-esque family photos, our good hair days and five-star reviews.

The problem is this highly stylised version of semi-reality isn’t doing us any good. In a 2014 poll of around 1,500 social media users by the charity Scope, 62 per cent said these sites made them feel inadequate about their own life or achievements and 60 per cent said they make them feel jealous of other people’s lives. We all tut-tut about airbrushed models in magazines, but we constantly air-brush our own experiences – even though it’s likely to have the same inadequising (I may have made that word up!) effect on others. There’s a fine line between the social media post and the social media boast.

It’s not surprising that writers are particularly good at this ruthless editing to create the image of a perfect life. Many authors are also particularly skilled at that subtle but insidious interaction, the ‘humble-brag’ – as in: ‘I’m such a flake – just can’t decide between my two publishers!’ or ‘Eek! About to talk about my book on national TV! So nervous!!’ Grrr.

I’m not saying writers have to be perfect, model citizens, of course. But on social media some of us become a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu): defined as ‘a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting’. We as writers should know better than this – and yet on Facebook and twitter we turn ourselves into an impossibly sweet, relentlessly positive ideal of who we really are.

But writers, of all people, should be leading the charge against this kind of thing. Why? Because although our job is to make up stories, the purpose of making up those stories is actually to get at a kind of truth. We’re trying to make connections, to have a reader recognise themselves or relate to the characters we create. We write about dystopia in order to expose what’s wrong with society today. Characters who don’t tell the whole truth, in children’s fiction, usually get what’s coming to them. The golden, popular kid is never the interesting one and very rarely the hero.

I may have posted the odd sunset in my time. Guilty as charged. But anyone who follows me on social media knows that I am more likely to post my fails than my successes and that I am frequently given to grumpy comments. Because that’s what I’m really like. Hashtag:NotPollyanna.

So writers: let’s stop this sunsettery and humbugginess. Let’s become more honest and rounded on social media – and let’s confine our ruthless editing to our fiction. We’ll all feel better for it.

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Getting the Facts Right

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Tue, April 11, 2017 09:35:59
I'm over on the Author Allsorts blog talking about 'getting the facts' right in historical fiction:

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To new beginnings

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, December 31, 2016 14:54:19

There are days on the calendar that we like to imbue with some kind of unworldly power. Often, these are religious feasts such as Christmas and Easter. For the increasing numbers of us who don’t subscribe to a faith, these are days we join in for reasons of convention (or just for the chocolate).

But for me, there are days of the year that do have a special kind of magic. They are these nameless, quiet days in between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The lights and greenery still decorate the house, but the sense of anticipation is gone and the busy-ness has died away.

I know that some of us get wrenched straight back onto the work treadmill. But for many, these are strange days that feel somehow out of normal time. We forget what weekday it is. We sleep longer and we drop all rules about what we should eat and drink and when we should do it. There are often days when it barely gets light before it’s dark again – as I write, it’s just after two in the afternoon and it’s definitely dusk.

That closed-down quietness feels nurturing. Not having to read other people’s writing has cleared my mind and I have written more productively in the last week than I have for much of the year.

And there is the feeling that we’re all about to be somehow renewed. 2016 is shutting down. Our rational minds know that time and the calendar is an artificial construct, of course. Although those terrible events and losses were nothing to do with some sort of cursed year, when the clock ticks past midnight we will all feel that we can, in some sense, close them off. January the First is all about promises and possibilities.

Whatever we did or did not achieve in 2016 belongs to the past and we are on a clean, blank page. And for a writer – what could be more exciting?

May 2017 bring you everything you wish.

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Season's Greetings!

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, December 25, 2016 13:55:02
Have a fantastic time this festive season! Here's to a hopeful 2017. x

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Merry Christmas

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, December 18, 2016 20:12:17
Yes, I know. More months of radio silence. More weak apologies. What can I say?

Here come the excuses:

In September, I started a new job. This is full-time and teaching journalism at Leeds Beckett University. So far, I am loving every moment of it. The course is rated fourth in the whole of the country by The Guardian. So I am proud to be here. But like any new job, it's taken some settling in!

Here I am with some of the third year students on our last newsday - the festive dress code was to raise money for Save the Children.

And in October I started another new job (part-time!). I'm tutoring on the Open University's brand new creative writing MA course.

Add that to my other stuff (the OCA, the Penguin Random House Writers' Academy) and I hope you will forgive me for letting the blog slip (again). I will try to do better.

It's been a great year for me personally, in terms of the new jobs. The YA novel The Misper is to be published in 2017 - and if you think I am being vague about the detail, then you'd be right, as there are still some contract issues being sorted out (months after I thought we were home and dry!).

To be honest, though, what with Trump and Brexit and Syria and all of that shiz, I don't think I would count 2016 as one of the best years ever. This Stephen Collins cartoon sums it up - do check out his work, as he always makes me laugh.

Thanks to everyone who's supported me and my writing this year and for following my all-too-sporadic blog.

Have a lovely Christmas - try reading and writing. They always work for me!

I wish all of us the gift of hope in 2017.

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