Timing is everything

I spent seven months writing a book about the world 100 years after it has recovered from a pandemic virus, rising sea levels and massive solar storms and what happens?

The same month I started sending my manuscript out to agents, we get a pandemic corona virus and a threat that the western Antarctic ice sheet may fail (that alone would raise sea levels by an estimated three metres). All we need now is a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859 (now overdue) and I’m three for three.

As my son put it. “Who will want a book that anticipates disasters that are actually happening? That’s too bloody scary.”

Do you write within a genre?

writer thinking about plot and genre

I didn’t set out to write in a particular genre. In fact I’m not sure where the plot for my first novel came from, but I am fascinated by the way most of us make decisions in our teens that inform and influence the rest of our life.

I have heard, on more than one occasion, that the protagonist in a first novel can strongly resemble the authors imaginary life.

Not wanting to risk writing a veiled autobiography, for my first novel I chose a female protagonist. Then she needed to have one of those life defining problems, so she became pregnant – without being sure who the father was. Looking back I now realise that I didn’t entirely escape the ‘borrowing from real life’ syndrome, but at least it wasn’t my life, just someone close to me.

In fact my daughter pointed out that I’d also used someone I know as a template for the villain of the drama (fortunately nobody else has noticed, especially the person in question).

I didn’t think about a categorising my work until after I’d finished that novel and someone asked me which genre I wrote within. It took a few years, and a lot more writing, for me to feel comfortable with the phrase ‘commercial women’s fiction’ – and I’m still not sure that’s accurate. I write about relationships between people – that’s what interests me more than crime, science fiction, history, mystery, murder or fantasy.

Having said that, the novel I’m currently working on is set 100 years in the future and may stray into YA fiction. But it’s still basically about relationships – about trust, betrayal, love and greed.

Did you set out to specifically write within one genre?

Choosing character’s names

choosing character's names in a novel

My character’s names often change as a novel develops. Sometimes the original name just doesn’t seem to suit the way the character or their backstory develops.

There’s a theory called nominative determinism which speculates that your given name might define what you do in life. I don’t subscribe to that theory, but names do need to fit the characters.

I used the name Marcus in a novel recently, but you have to resolve the possessive suffix, either Marcus’ or Marcus’s. I would instinctively go for the former, but apparently this is a contentious point. I resolved it by changing his name to Martin.

Has anyone else experienced this problem?

For my current novel in progress all the characters have been given names from the Old Testament – no idea why, but it appears to be working and it feels ‘right’ for the story – for me at least.

They are Ethan, Abby (Abigail), Hannah, Isaac, Martha, Beth (Bethany), Daniel, Simon, Peter and Mary.

In my head there’s a connection between my novel, set 100 years in the future, and names from over 2000 years ago.

Does anyone have a better way of choosing character names?

Book Titles

It’s just a matter of getting those pesky little letters in the right order
And there are only 26 letters in the alphabet – so how hard can it be?

woman sat on floor on laptop

Every now and then my mind gets sidetracked onto book titles and I hear potential candidates during everyday conversations. I ought to stop and write them down because I have usually forgotten them by the time I find a pen and a quiet moment.

Then there are song lyrics. There I am minding my own business, a song playing in the background, and I hear a phrase that sounds like a great book title. It even happens during supper parties, but as nobody else shares my obsession I try to keep quiet about it.

In a moment of desperation, a few years ago, I tried using an online title generator – that was as useful as a chocolate frying pan.

Here are just a few of the potential book titles I’ve culled from lyrics (I don’t claim they haven’t already been used).

Caught in the Race
Belonging to the Living
The First Time We Fell
The Life Museum
Dancing to Forget
Blue World
Everybody’s Watching
Metal Thorns
Restless Hearts
Autumn Falling
Terminally Pretty
A Piece of Time
One Thing in Common
Suicide Blonde
At the Drop of a Name
Neptune’s Daughter
Blinded by Daylight
Flowers for a Wedding
All the Time
Fancy Things
Dangerous Boys
Magicians Never Tell
Walking on Clouds
Touch and Run
Losers and Fools
A Stranger’s Touch
Lucky Girl
Wasted Time
Dreams About Tomorrow
What Was Left Behind
Ribbons and Bows
Across the Sea
What is Yours
In the Name of the Past
A Small Family
Not for the Money
Running Everday

Does anyone else share this obsession?

How do you start a novel?

Book cover for White Lies and Black Sheep

I had heard from many different sources that there is a tendency to put a version of yourself front and centre of your first novel. I wanted to avoid this trap so decided to write from the perspective of a young woman. Writing is a form of escapism and jumping both gender and age was an interesting challenge.

The original concept
I started with the premise of a girl thinking she might be responsible for someone’s death. In law she might be guilty of manslaughter if not murder. Of course she isn’t, but doesn’t know the full details of that fateful night.

So she had to have some terrible grudge against him to make her feel guilty of wanting him dead, or at the very least punished. She would have to move away from the scene of the crime, create a new life and then return later to discover the truth. 

I planned for her to fall pregnant, but not want to reveal the father because it could have been one of two people. One being her boyfriend, the other his father who raped her when she was drunk after a party.

I also wanted to write from the point of view of a woman aged eighteen and her return, at the age of thirty-six, to the village where she grew up. 

And I wrote all this before the #metoo hashtag came into prominence.

White Lies and Black Sheep probably falls into the genre of ‘commercial women’s fiction’, not chic lit as it covers too many serious topics in an otherwise light novel. I still like the story structure and the characters, but it would be odd if I didn’t think my writing hadn’t evolved since my first novel.

Those first 500 words

book cover for Hannah's Island

The first 500 words of a novel are the most important – maybe as few as the first 300 according to some people.

I have read through the profiles of over 150 agents, watched their video blogs where available (this is an excellent one from an agent I immediately warmed to because of his honesty) and read their twitter feeds (that took a while and wasn’t very productive). But one frequently mentioned desire is to be immersed in a place, a culture, a character – almost immediately. They want to know how it feels to be there. They want to be captivated.

My own writing has been strong on plot and characters, but I may have found a possible weakness in my previous novels in terms of this immediate immersive feeling. I am now trying to correct that with my fourth novel and am sharing my work in progress here. This opening may have to change a little as the story develops because plots evolve and characters develop.

ps The title of the novel is going to change, Hannah’s Island is just a ‘working title’. The cover image is apt and will probably remain if I end up self-publishing. This opening has not been edited yet – warning, there may be literals.

Hannah’s Island – Chapter 1

Hannah dived, leaving only a ring of ripples on the mirrored surface of the sea as it closed behind her. A trail of bubbles marked her progress as she knifed deeper, hands pulling confidently against the cool water. She eased herself between the roof timbers and into a space lit only by flashes of shattered sunlight on the swaying weedcovered walls. Swimming down the line of the stairs she searched for the kitchen, where any valuable items would most likely be found.

That day a soft mist had stretched along the horizon, obscuring the mainland, so that the island appeared to be afloat in an endless ocean. Even though it was not yet noon the sun-scorched rocks had burned against the soles of her bare feet. The sea shimmered with the ice-cold clarity of a reservoir and looked no more than a few feet deep, but the rafters of a roof were clearly defined, stark beneath the surface, a skeleton picked clean like carrion on a field. A shoal of small silver fish flashed against the bare ribs of the abandoned house.

Most buildings covered by the rising seas were stripped in the decades before she was born, but Hannah enjoyed the silence of exploring old submerged houses. She imagined a family there once, clustered around a television, each with their own personal phone, chatting to friends and to each other – technology that was no longer viable. Her occasional discoveries of aluminium pots and pans, copper items, even iron tools could all be weighed and exchanged for small luxuries when the packet steamer called on the second Tuesday of the month. Most of what she earned was saved towards a gift for Ethan.

After drifting out through the open back door, still empty handed, she glanced to one side and saw two large coalbunkers. They must have been overlooked when the house was abandoned to the waves. The timber covers had rotted and between missing planks they looked to be still full of coal – worth investigating with fresh air in her lungs. Hannah pushed off from what had once been the doorstep, a slab of dressed slate that might also be worth salvaging. She let her natural buoyancy pull her upwards. In no hurry, Hannah watched the ever-changing patterns of sunlight and blue sky flash and dance on the surface above her. With only a few feet to go a shadow cut across the water. The hull of a small boat sliced through the sea, the daggerboard missing her shoulder by inches.

Hannah broke the surface and gasped for air as her eyes followed the line of white water left by the dinghy. She heard wood grind against shingle as the boat rode onto the beach. The sudden contact unbalanced the woman at the tiller. The sail slapped like sheets drying in a fresh breeze. The boom swung, it struckthe woman on the side of her head and pitched her into the water. Hannah took a deep breath. Her hands dug hard as she swam towards the beach and the body, which lay face down in the shallows.