Category Archives: Subtext

Self Editing: Eveything you need to know

I had planned a post at some point similar to this, but when I read the talented Sharon Zink’s page I decided to share it.

Sharon is an amazing writer and I have had her on my blog. She also does the same job as me in that she offers manuscript appraisals; the same level of detail.

So I decided to share this link because it really is a masterclass in writing and everything on here is exactly the kind of thing I say to clients all the time when I assess their manuscripts…

Take heed fellow scribes!

I am now about to write the homecoming chapter on Pelicans… this is exciting, it’s the final chapter when we reveal the last of the missing pieces… and it’s raining so I am loving the sounds of rain on the roof as I write! The morning goes pitter patter… ❤

Have a wonderful day everyone!



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Seeking page-turnability …

One of the things I tell readers I work with is you decide when your reader pauses. You set the pacing.

Creating the kind of book that really grabs has always been one of my missions. There are so many stories and so many novels where I falter, am not as gripped as I ought to be and any excuse to put the book down, go make a coffee can lose your reader. But how do you keep those pages turning and stop that happening?

Clearly you need a good plot, one that keeps moving and this means not overloading it with filler. By this I mean too much back story, complicated sub-plots that do not tie into the main plot, extraneous detail. Readers will see through this and it will turn them off. So this means you have to really tighten your plot so it all feels credible and it moves the story onwards. Anything that can be removed without the main plot tumbling probably can be removed full stop.

It’s the function of the second BIG edit where you address issue sf plot, characters that don’t need to be there, filler etc.

And also think about narrative devices, teasers that end  chapters and have you read the next chapter right away!

The validation comes with the kinds of comments I am getting with reviews about like not being able to put the book down I say a big “PHEW” . You can get there, but you have to be brutal when you edit and tight with your plot and your devices.

Well that’s it for now, have a wonderful day. I am now trying to resolve some plot issues with the current novel… means a lot of note jotting and rocking in my chair … now there’s an image for you … complete with cats too! In fact I am feeling like a real writer! And what a wonderful way to spend the day!


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Getting inside your head

The aim of a truly great novel is really to get into your reader’s head. To ‘possess it’ for a while in the best possible sense. Or at least that’s my aim when I write anything.

I just love it when I can disappear into the pages of a book and lose myself for a while. People ask me, as an editor, and a writer, if I find it hard with some books to turn that off and find myself reading the book as if I’m critiquing and the short answer to that is yes — in a way. I hate it though as I think well look this is published, edited etc, so who do I think I am? But I guess it goes with the job. But then again if I can truly lose myself in a book then I see that as a measure of how great it really is.

The role of the writer is to create a world that lives in someone else’s head and what lives in one reader’s head will not be exactly the same as what lives in another’s but so long as you write it well and show what you want to show, the world you create will be pretty similar for each reader. And as I have said many times it’s so important that you connect to your readers. Or should I say — that the characters do. This is why I have such an obsession with getting voice right. For me it’s not the author the reader wants to hear but the characters and that’s why when I give readings I have to act a bit as well. (Help!)

And to effect this I truly believe the reader has to be part of the story. I have found myself working on a lot of manuscripts of late where I say SHOW it, FILM THE SCENE. What I mean is don’t tell me how a character feels or why they said something. Or even how what someone says makes them feel, SHOW it. What is so often lacking, or so it seems to me, is SUBTEXT. To complete the whole getting inside a character’s head and that total immersion I think you need, the reader has to be active not passive to the process. By this I mean they have to be watching events unfold, part of those events, rooting for the characters and trying to second-guess. It’s vital they have to work to resolve things, pick at the threads, try to work out what’s really happening in the story. If you tell them too much it becomes a much more passive process for the reader.Subtext, body language, things SHOWN allow the reader to think, to become part of solving the dilemma the novel poses and without that and too much telling, the reader becomes of a passive bystander and so the story lacks the WOW factor. This for me is why you have to SHOW and not TELL.

So, I had a busy working weekend although I did have a lovely mean in Chester with my partner in crime from Bridge House on Saturday but of course we talked writing and books! What else!

I am so looking forward to next Saturday when we have the official launch party for Wild n Free Too when I get to meet all the talented children and their families!

Tonight remember I am signing at Hintons Bookshop in Conwy and I so hope people show up! If you let me loose in a bookshop with no guests but lots of books to look at I might spend too much money!

So, best write but one final plug for the event tonight. Hope to see some of you there!

And remember -- my novel is still 99p on Kindle and made it into the top 500 Kindle books and was 94 on Crime and Mystery yesterday!

And remember — my novel is still 99p on Kindle and made it into the top 500 Kindle books (now at 344!)  and is 77  in Crime and Mystery this morning! DOWNLOAD IT! Tell all your friends!!! Thank you!

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The art of story telling — the question a novel asks

Writing is not just about having a good idea.

It’s not just about being clever with words and finding new and interesting ways of combining them,

It’s the whole deal and that’s why it can take a long time to really get that to work, to learn this craft of ours.

And burning at the heart of any good novel needs to be a question, one that  makes the reader want to read that book and then keeps them hooked throughout, even to the last page!

Some stories are what we call high concept, the kind that often end up as movies, a great idea, something that feels like it surely must have been done before and has real universal appeal. I hope While No One Was Watching might be that.  It’s not like something I set out to do, and I am not so sure I Am Wolf does that, but we’ll see!

I was thinking about ideas that hook yesterday when the lovely Roy Noble interviewed me for BBC Radio Wales. It airs on Sunday morning, 10.30 onwards.  We talked a lot about Kennedy and about this idea of what’s happening at the same time, who was Eleanor Boone and why did she disappear? Of course I wasn’t going to answer that exactly. He also asked after all my research who did I think killed Kennedy? Well not sure I can answer that either, only to say I was quite convinced it could not have been a lone assassin. I suspected a cover up, and I tried to evoke many of the ideas and theories in my novel — I would say no more. No spoilers!

Roy did also say the idea of being apart from a child is one that is current and he talked about the film Phil0mena.  I’d like to see that.

Yes I think there are two things that I hope have that universal appeal with While No One Was Watching. One is that it deals with an iconic moment in history where everyone, who is old enough to remember, recalls where they were and what they were doing, as does Edith Boone who was standing on the grassy knoll.  But we take it a step further with her  because she got stuck in that moment forever. Can you imagine turning around, distracted for a moment by the gunshots and the panic (and can you blame her? Does this make her a bad mother?) — and then turning back and the child is GONE.

That in itself is a horror story for any parent, right? But amidst an assassination, a moment anticipated with excitement at seeing the President turns into a murder in front of you  … and not only is your child gone but  she is never found.

So why?  Why does she disappear? Is the story really what it seems? Is the question that beats at its heart (as has to be the case in good story telling) and the hook to add page turnability, what really happened to Kennedy? Or what happened to Eleanor Boone? I think it’s this:  if Kennedy had not been assassinated that day, would Eleanor Boone still have disappeared?

That is the one I set out to answer.

So what about your novels — can you identify a single question?

With the anniversary week approaching and the conspiracy theories rearing their heads  again, there was an interesting programme on Channel 5 last night, although not sure when it came to suggesting an accidental gunshot by a member of the Secret Service, I can buy into that. They glossed over quite a lot and when it came to the key elements of the argument, like that the magic bullet could have been right as Governor Connally has a lower seat than originally suggested there was no real evidence to show this or the trajectories, just a sweeping ‘so the Warren Commission was right after all and the ‘magic bullet’ could have passed through Kennedy and Connally etc.’  And in concluding the final head shot that tore the President’s brain apart was an accident,  the agent in the car behind reaching for his gun and falling onto it and that was the fatal shot made me say — hang on, show the evidence? And why go to such lengths to cover that up when they had one man to blame. Okay one that would cast terrible shame for the US if one of their own secret service agents (Hickey) had fired the fatal shot, but in fairness  a response to a real assassination attempt by Oswald. But really? It could be that simple? And would an agent (even though they did say he was not experienced) have made such a mistake? Hmm …

Not convinced.

What about you?

There is another TV show on tonight ITV 10.35 that I will await eagerly.

I do wonder at this incessant need for conspiracy, but there is little doubt for me with this story that this is what we have and with records remaining sealed until 2029, what do they have to hide?

I think this obsession with conspiracy in any story taps into the same primeval need for a good story. Diane died tragically in a car accident as many do every day, didn’t she? Or something much more sinister? Add a cover-up and you have all the ingredients for a high concept bestseller, right? Do we like to wallow in tragedy?

Maybe as humans who seek pleasure in escapism, be it film, TV, books, plays etc, there is an inherent need to inhabit other lives and for things to be bigger and better and  at the same time far worse and more sinister than they might be. So maybe that’s why we buy into it, who really knows.

All I know is we constantly seek new angles and so I hope that what my novel does, is find a different  angle that makes an old story feel new.

But you will be the judge of that.

Some wonderful reviews coming in! Thank you and if you read it and enjoyed it, please do post a review on Amazon too!

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Engage engage engage …

Hope everyone had a great weekend.

I will keep this short and sweet this morning as I have been updating the Paws Website and am pleased to announce that the next Paws Animal Writing Competition for Children is once again open for entries (link at the end of this email).

I was watching something at the weekend where someone was talking about the need to engage. He was in fact talking about radio and segments of time where you need to wholly engage the listener or you lose them.

The same can be applied to your writing. I am always waving my banner for character voice being the key connection you have to your reader. So it’s not you but the character the reader wants to engage with. And so I got to thinking about this whole process of engagement. How many times have you read something and got distracted, laid the book down, gone to make tea? Sometimes this is you, you’re not really in the mood, but if the writing really does have that grip factor and the story is compelling with a burning question the reader has to know the answer to, perhaps tea can wait, that TV show can wait, just let me get to the end of this chapter … etc. You have all been there. So now ask yourself what about that book, that particular one that had you lost in a fictive dream state for hours, what made you like that? What engaged you?

Now it’s hard to say any one thing that does this, right? So how will you know if you  have woven that magic ingredient into your own writing? Indeed  what is this thing you need? Well I think it’s a combination of knowing how to write well so your narrative is strong, exactly the right words in the right place so they flow like velvet. A voice that’s interesting, not generic, quirky, even odd but odd in an intriguing way, characters I want to invest the next few days of my life with (for a novel) and hopefully ones that will stay with me long after I finish the book. So they need to have something at stake I care about. And then page-turnability so tea turns cold on the table, I can’t put it down, marital relations are strained by the one more chapter thing. Right? Not that I want to be responsible for a breakdown in marital harmony — but then again, if it’s because of my book. Why not?!

Engagement is key and the reason why a lot of books fail is down to the weaknesses in the writer in not knowing how to do that. This is why I sometimes talk about narrative devices and technique. And why rejection should fuel the drive to make your work better. Learn what isn’t working. You can learn a lot from your own reading. Look at how scenes and chapters end, and what about that makes you turn to the start of the next chapter, even though you promised your wife one more chapter. I’ll turn out the light at the end of this one, I promise …

You must think about your reader as you write and remember it’s not just about telling a story, it’s how you tell your story, or should I say SHOW your story, because believe me — you film it and create the tension and narrative drive that way, it will start to have that can’t put down yet engagement. And always think active voice, not passive! Telling, too much exposition, clunky phrasing … and they’re making tea or turning out the light. Maybe better for martial harmony — but …

What kind of writer are you?

More tomorrow and if you know children who write, here’s more about the Paws Competition …


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Clunkedy clunk

No I am not talking about fastening your seat belt.

I am talking about one of the phrases I use a lot when I edit — clunky — also sometimes: awkward, unnatural, overwritten.

As writers we often want to show off — to demonstrate why we’re writers. We don’t just say it as it is,  we say she felt the adrenaline surge through her body making her hands shake and her body sweat with anticipation of the event she knew was coming. But is this okay? Well apart from the cliché of the surging adrenaline it’s clunky — especially the ‘in anticipation of the event she knew’ 😦  …  and it’s telling.

But I see sentences like this all the time in work I edit.  I think we all do this as we learn but the more experienced we become as writers the more discerning we also become. Often less is indeed more and while you should always look for ways to show emotion like this rather than report it, also look for simple ways to do it. So let’s look at this sentence I plucked from the air by way of example.

What does it mean?

Adrenaline = fear? Excitement?

Sweat= panic? Fear?

Anticipation = expectation, she knows what’s about to happen.

Well the knowledge that something is about to happen is a good teaser for the reader —  and this thing evokes fear or angst —  so we need to think of that as the function of this sentence.

So how can she show her fear?

She pushed her hands into the pockets of her jeans — shows they might be trembling?

She raked her lower lip?

She sucked in a deep breath, held onto it.

Sweat soaked her blouse.

A line of sweat snaked along her top lip?

She closed her eyes.

There was no way to stop it now  (better tease?) 

All some or none of the above?

Also of course it’s hard to avoid clichés because even raking her lip might be seen as that.

Try to visualise the scene is a filmic way and show the reader how she moves, what she thinks, provide subtext so the reader assigns the emotion and the feels the uneasiness rather than simply tell the reader this is how she feels.

As part of your editing make sure you read your work out loud as this is a great way to capture these clunky phrases. Be succinct but that doesn’t mean you can’t be poetic, but think about the language you use, making sure it’s in voice and if you really can’t do it without the clunk — just say it as it is.


Have a great day everyone!


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The moment when everything changes ….

The title of this post is a line plucked randomly from one of my many writing books.

Aptly it is something I often discuss in relation to plot when I work with clients.

Of course you all know change is the most important action of any key character in terms of both the character arc but also the story arc. Without change, is there even story?

But what brings about this change and how do you get there?

One of the common weaknesses in story is not so much a lack of change, although I do see this too, but it tends to be either a lack of real motivation for change and/or a lack of credible reason at the moment when everything changes — and these are different.

Let me explain.

I have come across stories where the motivation for a character to change is lost or ill-defined but how can you have a true story if you don’t know or you don’t believe what’s at stake? The conflict needs to be established early and it needs to be believable and as we ‘cross the threshold’ into the story (to coin Christopher Vogler’s much-used expression in The Writer’s Journey) then you will also need to crank up the tension, raise the stakes just at that moment so now the character has no choice but to — take the challenge, get the bus, confront the inner demon. This is fundamental to good story telling in any form or genre — be the conflict internal or external, small or large. The reader needs to believe the character and feel there is no other action ‘they’ can now take. And now we have mapped out an arc where we know the climax will be the point where ‘that’ question to be answered, ‘that’ conflict resolved in one way or another.

Of course this sounds simplistic (and yes I have talked about this before) but it’s how you do this that makes all the difference. The reader knows what’s to come but they don’t know what curve balls will be thrown along the way or what the outcome will be at that moment of resolution. Throw in strong believable characters and I can tell you one thing — the reader does know if they’re rooting for that character or not and what outcome they want, already. And they should or at this point they’re putting down the book! Note as well that we need the conflict as early as we can, stories that take too long to set it up can lose the reader before they get started!

So make sure you the motivation for action is defined enough — something really important (life changing even) has to be at stake for ‘that’ character.

So if you get this right, what about that moment when everything changes?

Well in a story with good subtext and character development the change begins with the journey just as we start to age as soon as we become adult! So the key plot functions will not just be how the character seeks his goal and overcomes his dilemma but in the way the events of the story start to change him or her. So by the time we reach the climactic scenes we believe why the character is now able to walk in a dark room, confront the enemy etc.  We believe it but it still needs more …

The biggest change has to be the one that pushes the character to ‘their’ limits at the key moment after which we head for the resolution and of course the ending, the homecoming usually shows the effect of this change afterwards.

Again this might seem to be a simplistic interpretation of the story arc — but that’s the point, it is simple and it should be simple. It’s from that you build the intricacies of the real story. What you don’t want is a character to have an unexpected change of heart at a key moment that breaks down and is inconsistent with everything we know about him so far.We need to have seen the gradual change and then the big one at the key moment. A sudden change of heart would only work (I think) if it has also been built into the character’s development and foregrounded. A flaw of the character but one we kind of see coming?

Now some of you might think this doesn’t apply to the more subtle more character-driven ‘literary’  story and it sounds more like a plot-driven dragon slaying adventure but you’d be wrong. That’s the reason for the inverted commas today for ‘that’ character and ‘their’ conflict. The story can be Harry Potter with a huge external quest where life and death stakes are there bold and clear, we know exactly what’s at stake. Or it can be subtle, internal, psychological but it can still be life and death for that character.  Remember my OCD story I talked about in the dim and distant past (probably not!) well all she had to do was press three odd numbers on a mobile phone — call 999. Hardly life and death for Harry potter or indeed most of us — but for her, it was and ‘that’ story set out to show that and make us believe why.

Whatever the form of the story when that pivotal moment comes — we need the reason for the change that brings about the resolution to be credible. If there is a change of heart we need to see why and buy into it completely.

Have a look at the books you’re reading and see how and indeed how soon the key conflict is established. How does the plot slowly change the character and what happens at the climax of the story?

Getting to grips with story is key to writing a good one — a memorable one, one that stays with the reader. It isn’t just about how you write it and those narrative devices. You need everything to work together.

Have a good one everyone!


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