Tag Archive: Novel


Half term. I’m sat in the window of my apartment at a newly created workstation strategically placed so I can look out over the busy road, the commuters bustling through the train station and those handsome Welsh mountains in the background. I’ve been meaning to set this spot up since I moved in almost 15 months ago but only now have I managed to take action.

The last half term, in October, was a bit of disaster. I don’t have a good track record when it comes to half terms. Christmas, Easter, the Summer – they’re all great, but it’s these week long holidays in between that I can’t seem to handle properly. I always end up with cancelled plans or no plans at all. I just can’t do half terms! This was one, however, was going to be different.

For a few weeks I’ve felt myself bubbling. Frustration tightening a knot around my waist (but for more of that, see last week’s rant!) and I knew that this half term I needed to fix it. The most prominent activity in my busy schedule is ‘writing time’. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to grab quality writing time. A run of a few hours where I can lose myself in an idea. In fact, since September I have only managed to write for the odd hour here and there. And that’s not enough for me.

Saturday night, I settled down in my new spot and began to type. I’ve barely thought of anything else since. I seem to be having some sort of inspiration overload. Closing the gates on work for a week has unlocked a boxful of ideas and I am loving the luxury of time.

My first project to hit was the big one. Reset. I’ve been working on this since 2010 and I’m finally at the stage where its feeling polished. It’s ready. It’s my pride and joy and I hadn’t realised just how much I’d missed it.

After a few re-workings of Reset, I bounced over to my second pride and joy – After Caitlyn. Shorter than Reset by a country mile and totally different in tone and style (hmm…perhaps I need to squeeze some poetry into this week) but I couldn’t be prouder of this story. Although it brought unwelcome reminders of the real-life elements that run through the story, I enjoyed being reunited with these characters and adding tweaks to the story here and there. This one is almost ready.

A project that has taken me by surprise this weekend is something I didn’t think I was ready to do. In September, I agreed to lead Performing Arts Club at school. We have lots of fun and the children are buzzing with creative ideas and energy. When the time came for us to consider our big production I was adamant I didn’t have the time (or the energy) to write it. We’d have to order a script in. End of.

Well, here I am, 16 pages into an epic tale of Welsh Myths and Legends. I have to give credit to the children for their inspirational passion. I just couldn’t stop myself and I hope my script provides them with the material they deserve.

And on top of all that, I’ve even had time to re-visit that sitcom (the sitcom that’s not a sitcom. Don’t worry, I’m just as confused as to what it is at the moment) I’ve been talking about for years. If I can get the pilot done by the summer, I’ll be very happy.

So, I’m at an inspirational peak. I find myself thinking about a Reset sequel in the car and those first stirrings of excitement leave my fingertips tingling. I listen to a soundtrack – RENT, some of the most raw, evocative lyrics you’ll ever hear – and I start to think about the characters in After Caitlyn. I look down at the road bringing people to and from my town, and I start to think about a new project altogether, the characters already having a blazing row in my head. I finish The Girl on the Train and I’m in awe of the storytelling. This is what I want to be capable of. My mind is bursting with ideas and I’m relishing the process of channeling them into words. I’m feeling creatively rejuvenated and after a very dry few months, it’s about time too!

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The first book on my 2016 reading list was After Alice by Gregory Maguire. Maguire’s signature move is to take familiar tales and flip them on their head. This time it was the turn of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. After Alice begins shortly after Alice has taken that faithful tumble and we join Ada on the search for her friend. Ada encounters Alice’s snooty older sister, Lydia, who is reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream beneath a tree. The story splits off here as we follow both girls in the aftermath of Alice’s disappearance. Ada finds herself crashing into Wonderland whilst Lydia remains above ground, bickering with the Victorian servants and falling for the charms of an American gent.

It’s this split in storytelling that makes After Alice a bit…well…odd. It’s hard for me to criticize Maguire’s work (because I really do think he’s a genius) but I can’t help feeling like After Alice is a bit rushed. The majority of the story takes place above ground in Victorian Oxford. A place which, let’s face it, is considerably less interesting than Wonderland. I found myself hoping that the next chapter would rejoin Ada down under but was disappointed to find another chapter set in the grounds of Alice’s home. It feels like Maguire has wasted an opportunity to Oz-ify Wonderland – expose the darkness and revel in the absurd. That’s what he does best. Ada’s encounters with the inhabitants of Wonderland – particularly the Mad Hatter and the March Hare – do feel wonderfully genuine and reminiscent of Carroll’s original creations. Maguire has certainly captured the quirky style of Carrol but too much time is spent in the real world. It feels like Alice is having all the fun in Wonderland and we’re stuck on the wrong side of the rabbit hole, missing out on one hell of a party.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this book, it’s just that I was expecting more from it. Wonderland, like Oz, is an impossible place and therefore bursting with possibilities. To get the chance to write in a setting like this is a writers dream and, whilst it’s clear Maguire has a lot of admiration for Carrol’s work, it feels like more could have been made of his opportunity to explore this world. There are some lovely moments – Ada’s freedom from her iron equipment, Siam’s decision to stay and a reference to Victorian’s needing a whacky fantasy novel – and Maguire has created a likeable character in Ada.

The Wonderland stuff works pretty well. It just feels like we should have more of it. The London based stuff is where the novel sinks slightly. A lot of conversations seem more like extracts from a thesis rather than a novel and I’m not really surely what the point of Lydia’s hinted relationship with Mr Winter was. It was an interesting touch to have Charles Darwin appear as a friend of Mr Winter’s and Alice’s father. Darwin and Carrol are two figureheads of the era so Darwin’s presence feels right. His final words on the human being’s capacity for imagination is also a neat way to end the story.

Overall, After Alice is a must for any fan of Maguire or Carroll but don’t expect another Wicked. The front cover declares it a ‘Christmas gift to the dear reader of Wicked in memory of Alice in Wonderland.’ I think this is pretty accurate. I’d be grateful to read any new work from Maguire, particularly if it’s within his fantasy style, and After Alice does feel like a love letter to Carroll’s work, but to not explore Wonderland further, Maguire is clearly mad. Then again, all the best people are.

Warning: This blog contains spoilers.

In the autumn of 2006 I was introduced to what would become my favourite ever book. I’ve made no secret of it in previous posts – I love Wicked and I love Gregory Maguire. Autumn, for me, has become synonymous with Wicked (as each time I’ve seen the show and read the books it has been September/October) and every year I find myself listening to the soundtrack or reaching for the book. Musical aside, what’s special about Wicked is that each time I read it I spot something new. I always take something different from each re-read. My last re-read was in 2012 so I decided I was long overdue a visit to Oz. The story never ceases to capture me and I am always devastated to reach the end. It’s one of those rare books that you cannot get enough of but are wary of visiting too many times in case the magic wears off. (Though, I don’t think that’s possible).

Maguire manages to re-vision Oz in a completely new light to Baum’s world by using vivid and powerful imagery (who would have thought the yellow brick road would be described as ‘a noose’ around Oz? A symbol of its controversial political implications). Maguire’s Oz is magical but it is also a horribly sinister place – which makes it a lot more like our own world. Maguire’s Oz is real. Yes, there’s magic and talking Animals (note the capital) and TikTok robots but there’s also political unrest, discrimination and conspiracy.

One of the brighter highlights of the novel is the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda. In earlier chapters, Glinda’s snooty judgements are often comically countered by a sarcastic sting from Elphaba. As the two settle into a friendship they develop a powerful bond which leaves the reader genuinely saddened when Elphaba sends Glinda back to Shiz, leaving her in the Emerald City. Their brief reunion at Colwen Grounds years later is a treat to read with Elphaba’s spikiness continuing to douse Glinda’s snobbery. By their last meeting, it’s touching to see that Glinda truly cares about Elphaba, a stark contrast to their initial meeting. It’s also poignantly clear that Elphaba cares about Glinda but is too proud and enraged to show it.

From this year’s visit to Oz I picked up to two references to previous Oz stories which I hadn’t noticed before. Firstly, the sands surrounding Oz are said to be considered in some cultures as ‘deadly poison’, a reference to the wheelie’s description of the sand in Return to Oz. I also yelped when I deduced that the famous scene from the movie where the Witch spells ‘Surrender Dorothy’ above the Emerald City could actually be Elphaba asking the Wizard to ‘Surrender Nor to Me’, as she pleads with him at Colwen Grounds. (Oh! I just love Gregory Maguire!)

A major issue throughout Wicked is the struggle between good and evil. Elphaba tells her son, Liir, that ‘evil is always more easily imagined than good’, which links in to my discussion last week about finding villains easier to write. This phrase struck me as an unfortunate truth as, as well as when writing, us humans do tend to focus on the evil within the world and ignore the good. It’s evident in our newspapers, our televisions, even our classrooms sometimes. What is it about evil deeds that fascinate us so much?

Maguire’s main achievement with Wicked is that he casts doubt over the position of the Wicked Witch of the West on the evil-o-metre. Though it could certainly be open to interpretation, I don’t think Elphaba is evil, just a victim of injustice, society and…well…bad luck!  In this latest re-read I really felt for Elphaba in her pre-death descent into paranoia and desperation. She has harboured this urge for forgiveness for years and Sarima slyly refuses her that by befriending her and forbidding her to discuss Fiyero (talk about cold anger!) It hadn’t moved me so much before. Following a life of neglect, failure and loss, it’s no surprise Elphaba sinks into an alcoholic and sleep-deprived madness following her failed attempt to kill Madame Morrible.

Her apparent death at the hands of Dorothy is a final insult and indignity to a modern literary hero.

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For about two months I’ve been haunted by one of my own creations.

I’m in the middle of a re-draft and I am constantly querying my antagonist. Do we need to know more about her? Why is she like this? What would she do in this situation? What would she say to this person? Who is she?

I see her everywhere I go. She’s in the supermarket, she’s in work, she’s in my car, and she’s even joined me in the bath!

I know this is the case with every writer but the troubling thing is…… She is pure evil.

She is the most outrageous, offensive, cruel and manipulative character I have ever written. She’s Voldemort, Patsy Stone, Cersei Lannister and Darth Vader all rolled into one.

Last time I wrote her she was about to be challenged spectacularly in the women’s toilets of a bar by one of my (sort of) protagonists in what could be the campest showdown I’ve ever written. (Seriously, Kathy and Sharon? Pfft!)

To me, she is now real. I’ve created someone who I love to hate.

Now, I’ve always been one for a good villain. When I was a child I was more inclined to be fascinated with Ursula, Captain Hook, Scar and Maleficent than the heroes of their stories. It’s no secret that my favourite book is Wicked by Gregory Maguire that delves into the backstory of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. I am just a sucker for a good baddie. I’m intrigued as to what makes them tick and if they are misunderstood, like Elphaba, that earns them even more points.

I had two sets of villains in Reset. There was the elusive Marston, whose wickedness was probably crafted due to the pressures and experiences of his former career, and then there were Roache and Tremaine. These two weren’t pure evil, they were just doing their job, but happened to be pretty horrible people.

Caitlyn is a different story. From the beginning she is cold and mysterious and as the novel progresses she turns into a spiteful, poisonous bitch. By the end, the only redeeming feature is that she is…well….kind of funny. Her put downs and one liners are cruel and often upsetting but sometimes they can’t help provoke a chuckle. Those who have read the story have all said that it’s a shame she is so evil as she is such an interesting character. Isn’t this the case with all villains? For me anyway, the heroes are safe and boring but the villains have the real fun and there is something satisfying about unadulterated loathing. Look at Joffrey (and many other characters) in Game of Thrones. I hated him so much but his wicked doings were super entertaining (and I did cheer loudly when he finally bit the dust).

Anyway, anyway, anyway, my point is villains are just far more interesting than heroes. I think there is so much more scope for a gritty, powerful backstory with a villain and they, of course, can get away with fantastically wicked deeds. They can also say exactly what everyone else is too scared to say, which is something of a theme in After Caitlyn. I believe Caitlyn is a brilliant villain because none of the other characters realise it until the end. She connives, schemes, manipulates, bitches and backstabs right until the end, remaining mysterious and elusive even up to her sudden exit.

When I think of Caitlyn, I think of Shakespeare.

‘One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.’

Saturday night. Whilst other twenty-somethings were downing shots, snogging strangers and being sick in the back of taxis, I was blissfully reading through the full first draft of my second novel with a glass of milk and a Cadbury’s Flake.

I wasn’t bothered about how tame my Saturday was because in front of me was something I had done all by myself. I love that sense of achievement and I will always crave it.

It was all there in front of me (and now I’m going to say the title for the first time…oh God…ready?) – After Caitlyn, draft one. The total opposite of Reset – shorter, more humble and grounded – but still holding enough power in those few pages to make me feel totally fulfilled.  I’d written the whole thing in about two weeks after a sudden and unstoppable burst of inspiration (see last post!). So, again it differed to Reset which took me about a year and half to write.

Now the tough part begins – editing.

Tough for a couple of reasons (mainly because the editing stage is where I find myself most distracted to a point where I can no longer be arsed. Soon, months have gone by and I’ve disengaged with the story completely and have to re-read!). I’m sure it will be different this time. I start with a team of readers (who are reading as I type) then carry out a second edit following their feedback.

Tough, also, because I can be very indecisive. Several characters in this story have emotionally complex backgrounds which are often given as excuses for their behaviour. The dilemma I have is – how much backstory do I give them? I’ve been careful not to explain too much so as not to distract from the main story. I know what happened to my characters before After Caitlyn begins, but I’m not sure I want/need to share all of that with readers. In some novels I’ve read, the fact that a characters backstory is left uncertain contributes to the brilliance of the book, but in others it’s been necessary to know about the character’s history in order to make sense of their actions. I wanted to make this story as real as possible – focusing on real, human people in a real, human situation – so omitting details from a character’s past might work to promote that as, in life, we can never really know anyone.

One character has their background heavily alluded to but details are not given. I think I’ll stick with that. But another prominent character, who carries out really despicable deeds and behaves in a totally unacceptable way, does not have their history fully explained. By the time I’d reached the end of the story I couldn’t help worrying there was a danger of this character becoming 2D and…hmm…slightly pantomime! This character has had a very tricky past and I’m unsure whether explaining that would make their actions a bit more understandable (but not forgivable!) I don’t want to lay on this character’s backstory too thickly as I think their story needs an element of mystery to fit with their sudden arrival and subsequent disappearance. So, is it necessary to know a character’s backstory? Or can great characters often come from mystery and the reader’s own assumptions?

Isn’t it funny how inspiration can hit at any time?

After finishing Reset last summer, I found myself itching to start a new project. I’ve got a sitcom that has been on a slow burn for a three or four years (and has recently turned into a drama series), but I found myself craving prose. I needed to write another novel. I wasn’t looking for commitment as epic as Reset (which ended up at 62 chapters and is a bitch to edit) – I needed a quick literary fling. I’ve started three short stories over the last year but neither of them got finished due to the life-consuming PGCE but when the summer holidays came I had no excuse not to get writing.

Over the summer, I pledged to start writing again but, besides this blog and the odd adjustment to the sitcom/drama, I’d produced very little. Inspiration had evaded me. I sat for hours in front of the laptop but would get distracted by facebook, TV, reading, my dog….etc.

Until last week when – hallelujah! – Inspiration hit! I suddenly realised a story that had lurked at the back of my mind for months could suddenly work! Cue lots of late night planning and writing.

When I’m searching for inspiration I usually turn to three things:

  • Music – I have an eclectic mix of songs on my iPod which can fuel my creative ideas. From Michel Giacchino to Fleetwood Mac – anything works.
  • Walking/Driving – Sometimes I just need to get out and go. Whether it’s a drive around my hometown or a walk along the beach, staying put stifles me.
  • Setting the mood – Writing comes best to me late at night when I’m sat in my room, listening to some music and burning incense. Often with the curtains open so I can see the moon (romantic, right?)

But it wasn’t any of these that worked this time. I was visiting family in a wi-fi free zone. No distractions. I was thinking about a memory which rolled into an idea which suddenly grew into a story. Within two hours I’d written 30 pages. Within just a few days I’d finished a first draft which is such an achievement for me as I usually plod quite slowly through stories. So, for the next few days I will be disconnecting the wi-fi, turning off my phone and locking myself in my room with food and water until editing is complete! If anyone wants to buy me a writing retreat on a remote island you are most welcome.