The first 500 words


Okay, so last week I said I’d worked out how to take the feedback about the start of the novel and use it to reshape the book. This week, mainly so I can keep to my goal of a blog a week, you get to compare the first 500 words.

For new readers, my agent had suggested the start of my novel:

a) had too much dialogue between people we didn’t care about yet, and

b) didn’t shout ‘YA Horror’.

She’s right. The first page is the one that needs to grab you from the outset. The one free preview to make a reader download the rest, or take the book to the cashier. Every single word needs to count.

So here’s the first 500 words of Draft Three. Compare it to the first 500 words of Draft Two. Hopefully you’ll see the difference. Each does a different job at introducing scene and character, but which one works better to open a novel. There’s tons of refinement still to do, of course, but see what you think… You can read the whole of Chapter One, Draft One here and get a sense of how the shifting of the scenes will (eventually) work. As ever, let me have your thoughts below…

The Whispers of Lindhurst Park – Draft Three

Don’t go through the Park at night.
That’s what she’d said. That’s what she always says.
Don’t go through the Park at night.
It’s ridiculous, thinks Ben as he strides down the hill to the road. I’m sixteen and can look after myself. Following the main road will take twice as long.
And I’m not afraid of the dark. I’ll never be afraid again.
He pulls the straps of his bag closer together, tugging them to his chest as he walks towards the main road. It’s colder than it’s been in a long time and the crisp February wind that’s followed the rain bites as it whips through his jacket. He walks a little faster, imagining how high he can stack the burgers that wait for him in Gemma’s kitchen. It would have been light, of course, if he’d left when he’d wanted to, but today had been one of those days. Mum had needed help. Of all the weeks, this would be the one where she’d need him the most.
So now, as he walks to the edge of the estate, it’s dark.
During the day, it’s not a bad walk to Gemma’s house. Five minutes to the road, ten minutes across the park, and five minutes the other side. Skirting the park, keeping to the dual carriageway and the lorries which tear past, adds another fifteen to the journey. He pulls his hood a little tighter.
Mum had been clear. There’d been no argument.
Don’t go through the Park at night.
Ben walks on, not noticing the puddle before it’s too late. He wades right in, and curses as the water soaks into his new, and not nearly waterproof, trainers. Of all the times!
He shakes his feet in a useless attempt to dry them, and jabs the button five times to stop the traffic. The cars speed past, and as he waits, Ben watches his breath escape into the cold air, dissipating into the evening sky. He stares at the gate to Lindhurst Park, the trees arching over the entrance just the other side of the crossing. They make the broken ironwork look like the entrance to a cave, covering the gravel with a canopy of branches which sway in the wind.
After a cold second minute the cars stop and Ben crosses, his trainers squelching beneath him. With a sigh he turns left and starts along the side of the road. Traffic races by once again, and each one creates a fountain of dirty water which crashes over the path twenty metres in front.
He looks to the gate, and the gravel beyond which disappears into the night.
Back to the road, as the second, third and fourth cars crash water over the path.
Back to the gate. Back to the road.
Never afraid again.
He turns around, thrusts his hands into his pockets and walks into the park

The Whispers of Lindhurst Park – Draft Two

It isn’t just the game at stake, thinks Ben as he kicks the ball a little too softly to the left.
It isn’t the lack of goals, or the frustrated shouts of his team mates.
He just doesn’t want Gemma to realise she’s better at football than him.
He’d like to go home with a little bit of dignity.
‘I thought you were trying to keep up,’ she shouts as her team celebrates a fourth goal and the end of the match. ‘I’ve only been gone a couple of months. I was going a bit easy.’
‘I noticed,’ Ben gasps, his hands resting on his muddy knees. ‘It took you twenty minutes to score that last one. I thought Jack was going to have to do it for you.’
Gemma smiles and, gripping a hair band between her teeth, adjusts her brown hair back into the pony tail she started the game with. As the others stretch and cool down, she alone looks like she did an hour ago.
‘You still coming to my place?’ she asks, ‘We’ve been back a week. Mum thinks you’re avoiding her.’
Ben grins as he walks over to his bag and removes a bottle of water. ‘She making burgers?’
‘It is Sunday. Give me five and we’ll head over.’
He sits at the edge of the path and watches her jog back to her friends. Most of the other groups who use Lindhurst Park have long since gone, and the darkening sky threatens to soak any who remain. Every week it’s the same, although the losses are different. But the past three months haven’t felt as whole without his best friend by his side.
‘So was that an open invite, do you think?’ A tall boy crashes haphazardly next to Ben. His messy crop of blond hair contrasts with the tidy crop of his friend and his legs stretch on for longer than Ben thinks natural. ‘I mean, between you and me, I wouldn’t want any food going to waste.’
Ben laughs. ‘Listen, mate, if you want to go ask her out go and do it. I’m not going to stop you.’
Jack’s eyes dart back to Gemma. ‘You think I could be in there?’
‘I think she’d make mincemeat of you.’
‘Nah,’ he says after a second too long. ‘I’ll keep it platonic. Never ask anyone out on a Sunday. Me dad always told me Sunday’s were for resting. You don’t want to do anything too strenuous. Sounds like a bit of an effort.’ Jack pulls his legs underneath him and sits cross legged as he puts on his jacket. ‘Besides,’ he says, ‘we all know there’s only one in the team she’d ever be interested in.’
Ben’s sweater lies crumpled in his bag and as he picks it up he shakes his head and smiles to his friend. There were many who came to the park on a Sunday for a kick around, and had done for years. Gemma had never shown the slightest interest in any of them

Week by Week by Week…

Ah, I remember these days. Picking up the laptop, writing two words and putting the laptop down again. 

It’s not procrastination. It’s tradition. 

To be fair, I’ve had a mad, mad few weeks at work which has seen the culmination of a year’s worth of blood sweat and tears. The last thing I wanted to do at the weekend was lock myself away in a room with another computer and dissect The Novel. Take it apart like a jigsaw and put it back together again. 

But, as I said last week, all that advice you read about writing kinda works for a reason. And you know which bit I’m relying on this week…

The power of staying away. 

Yep, they say you have to walk away for a few weeks. I’m counting on that, actually. 

But, do you know what? It’s sort of working. I’ll be walking down the street and – Bing! I’ll think of something to make the plot a little smoother, or explain something a little better. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

I don’t have to feel guilty about not editing, or not writing the bits that are needed. 

Not if it gets me to a better place in the end. 

And on another note…

Procrastination only works for so long – so I’m going to now try to blog once a week. I rediscovered a tweet from a while back where someone had told me it has helped them struggle with their own novel. We’ll see how long this lasts. Week by week by week. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to work out how to move The Breath of Ages six months later than currently set. It’s not very dark in August, and Ben Stafford is about to be very, very afraid of the dark…

And on to Draft Three…


“Don’t go through the park at night.”

The Breath of Ages: Chapter One – The Whispers of Lindhurst Park, draft three.

So yesterday was the day I finally met up with Suzy to discuss the complete draft of The Breath of Ages for the first time. It was last summer that I’d sent her the first fifteen chapters of draft one, and despite having read various chapters at the London Writers’ Cafe over the past eighteen months, she was the first person to read the complete manuscript from start to finish.

When you read writing blogs, you tend to end up reading about the same issues, or reading the same advice – all of which you never think applies to your particular manuscript. “Start in the middle of your story.” “Kill your darlings.” “Never drink coffee when you can drink wine.”

The last point you can have for free.

But many people give you this advice because it works. The meeting was over quite quickly, and whilst I never come away from these things overjoyed at an hour dedicated to telling me where I was going wrong, the advice was the same. The conversation turned into a brainstorming session about how things could be seeded earlier into the story, how certain elements could maintain an internal logic, and where reveals should happen to maintain credibility. All stuff I knew needed fixing.

One thing was a little surprising. “Your first chapter needs work.”

“But you saw it last year! It was okay!”

“Yeah, but you’re spending half of it having two people talking. We don’t care about them yet…”

“We don’t?”

“Nope. And nothing tells us what sort of novel this is.”

“Oh. Okay.”

But it’s true. Have a look at Draft One here. Look at the first line. It was always meant to be temporary (as I know it’s crap), but still:

It isn’t just the game at stake, Ben thinks as he kicks the ball a little too softly to the left. It isn’t just the goals (or lack of them), or the shortness of breath he’s trying to hide. He just doesn’t want Gemma to realise she’s better at football than him. He’d like to go home with a little bit of dignity.

Now, that was supposed to immediately set up the relationship between two major characters, but who cares? It doesn’t shout YA Horror at you – and we go pages and pages before anything happens.

The story really begins here:

Don’t go through the Park at night.

So. Draft Three. That’s where we start. Don’t go through the Park at night. A warning on line one, and everything stems from there. The preceding two scenes get cut and fed in shortly afterwards. We still establish what is ‘normal’ before we mix things up, but we do it in a matter of lines, not a matter of pages.

As, I said last week, notes are still scary and receiving them can still be uncomfortable, but they can also be a source of inspiration and a way to make a novel better.

And wine helps.


High Notes and Scary Stories

‘Look at Patrick. Look at him right there, right now, and save him.’

The ground shakes sending them all to their knees. The worms move around Gemma, and as she gets back to her feet they move another inch to her ankle. Ben keeps his eyes on Patrick. Stay strong. Don’t run. This isn’t like last time. He looks so small, lying there on the ground. He swore he’d protect him; swore he’d do anything to keep him safe.

‘Stafford boys together,’ he whispers.

Chapter Twenty-Six: The End of the Road, draft two


Is this thing on?

I… I finished The Breath of Ages.

Well, I finished two drafts of it. There are going to be at least three more, I bet. It’s now with Suzy, who’s going through it with a fine tooth comb. “I want to give you as much feedback as I can,” she says.

I hate this bit.

If you spend the best part of eighteen months on a project, as a writer you naturally want to get the best feedback that you can – but feedback isn’t easy. Waiting for feedback is possibly even worse. Everyone has a terror of receiving notes, not because you’ve spent all that time crafting something that’s perfect, but because you know, deep down, you’ve crafted something you know is not.

I remember when I finished The Axe & Grindstone and gave it to my husband to read. He’d sit opposite me on the train with his kindle, reading it.

And then he’d stop, and tap his screen.

And make a note.

WHAT ARE YOU WRITING? I’d scream in my head (because it’s uncouth to scream on a train unless you’re a child and even then it’s very frowned upon), but I’d have to wait, and nod politely at the appropriate time. And then tell him he was wrong.

I was talking to another writer the other day in the pub. “Notes are just notes,” he said. “You can take them on board, or you can ignore them.” That’s true – I spend a lot of time at the London Writers’ Cafe smiling at people whilst ignoring their comments. But when your agent says things like “bit complex” or “bit disappointing” (thank you, abandoned generic dystopian project), you’ve just got to buckle up and listen. Take a step back, remove yourself from the last eighteen months and start again.

The Breath of Ages. Day one. Draft three.


Audio Drama News – Dark Shadows: Echoes of the Past

Anyway… sending The Breath of Ages to Suzy left me with a little writing hole. So when an opportunity came to pitch for a Dark Shadows short story, I couldn’t say no.

Confession will be released in June, and you can pre-order here. I’ll write about it nearer the release date, but seeing my name on the Big Finish website is exceptionally exciting. The story is one of the darkest things I’ve written, and I can’t wait to hear it performed. If you’d like more details, click the link at the top of the page.

The Art of Novel Kintsugi


The nurse clips Ben’s notes onto the wall. ‘Hmm,’ he says as he draws the curtains. ‘I patch up a fair few lads your age, Ben. Kids who have been to hell and back and I’ll let you into a secret. I’ve seen in their eyes what I see in yours. We can mend broken bones and pack ‘em with pills, but often the real pain is up here.’ He taps his temple. ‘Only you can fix that, because only you know what needs fixing. You’re better qualified than any of us lot. Think about it. Talk about it if you want to. Just don’t bottle it up.’ He draws the curtain behind him as he leaves.

Chapter Nineteen: The Memory of Time Spent Healing, draft one

Ben Stafford is a broken kid. I mean, properly broken, and the worst thing is he refuses to believe it.

I haven’t updated this blog in six months.

I haven’t completed a chapter of The Breath of Ages in three or four.

The Novel is broken. Properly broken.

I used to think Writer’s Block was a myth – that if you sat in front of your laptop for long enough you’d find inspiration and the words would type themselves.

No. I don’t believe that any more.

I used to think, if I just wrote The Bill and Ted Way I could fix plot holes and go back and mend things at a later stage.

No. It doesn’t work all the time.

This Summer I started to think differently. The joys of ‘pantsing’ a novel mean you can be completely surprised by the twists and turns of a story as you type it. But it also means you can find yourself down a random ally that turns into a dead end.

The story was going nowhere.

I’d introduced two new characters and one new – huge – villain who, whilst exceptionally fun to write, was diverting the story away from its roots.

The story of one, broken, kid and his two friends.

So, last week, I recognised what Ben cannot. It was hard, but I’ve ripped at least 5,000 words from the novel and started the middle of the book again. And, do you know what? It’s worked. By going back to basics, I’ve rediscovered the story I want to tell. I want Ben, Gemma and Tam to all complete the journeys I’ve laid out for them in my head. I want to tell their story. By stripping away what wasn’t necessary – and working out where the true heart of this book lies – I’m rediscovering what I enjoyed about it in the first place.

In the antique shop at the beginning of the book, Ben spies an old dish that had once been shattered but repaired with gold. At the end of the book he discovers its nature. It is an example of Kintsukoroi, or Kintsugi – the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer. Like him, he is told, the bowl is more beautiful for having been broken.

Perhaps, in order to achieve their true worth, sometimes novels need to get broken too.

photo credit: 20140920 via photopin (license)

Writing the Bill and Ted way

St Jude's Church, from The Breath of Ages

The Crypt of St. Jude’s Church, from the Breath of Ages – photo credit: Capt’ Gorgeous via photopin cc

The dust storm surrounding Tam darkens, and soon even the meagre light from the church upstairs seems distant and forgotten. Ben gives off a silver glow, splintered and fractured as if light shined through a prism from some other place. Indistinct shapes spin through the storm. The half face of the small boy, fixed with terror. Eyes filled with a terrible rage. Teeth, snapping and dissolving as they snarl.

‘The first steeple shall rise.’

Chapter Thirteen: The Call of the Summer Night Sky, draft one

Marriage seems somewhat unproductive to writing a novel and a blog. As I mentioned in my last post, I got married at the end of August, so all work on Book Two stopped around then. Then, for a blog about procrastination, I began to procrastinate. Five hundred words a day became two, and then the two became ‘a couple of thoughts and a slight nagging guilt’.

It’s now May, and I’ve been working on the book for about a year, so that guilt is somewhat more acute. I’m around eighteen chapters in, and approximately 50,000 words.

Half-way, then, and stuck in the middle.

Middle bits of novels, or any writing project, are the pits. I’m the only person I know who tries to wing it. Most of my writer friends have a plan, and those who write professionally have no choice but to map out precisely how the story flows, in order to bag themselves the job in the first place. As I’ve said before on this blog – as hard as I may try, that’s just not me.

The middle is hard. I know where the characters need to end up, just not necessarily how they get there. How do I manoeuvre them to that point, whilst developing their integrity so the end seems natural?

Two ways I’m trying to tackle this. Both involving time travel.

First of all – I assume the second draft has already been written.

It’s what I call ‘writing the Bill and Ted way’. The vital plot point you need? The character trait you’ve just invented? The handy pistol hidden behind the bush? Take it, use it, assume it’s been there from day one because at some point it will be. Once draft one is out of the way, you effectively go back in time and place the device you need in its proper time and place. Don’t do it there and then, because it takes you out of the moment – wait until the end of the film: the end of your draft.

Secondly, I time travel in a different way. I wrote the climactic scene where the plot is explained.

Yes, I know where the characters will end up, but it helps to see them there. I’ve been having problems exploring why a character does what he does – so I skipped to the end. One scene, two characters shouting at each other. “I trusted you! Why did you do this terrible thing?”

It’ll never be kept in, of course, but it’s helpful to see the scene, and let the characters tell it, rather then me imagining. Once I hear them say the plot, I’ll know the plot in more detail.

Hopefully, this blog about procrastination will stop being a victim about procrastination. This post is the first step. 50,000 words down, 50,000 to go.

I have a larger version of this on a sheet of wallpaper. I still haven't quite worked out the 'oh shit' moment. It'll appear on its own accord.

I have a larger version of this on a sheet of wallpaper. I still haven’t quite worked out the ‘oh shit’ moment. It’ll appear on its own accord.

The Sound of Book Two


photo credit: Gemma, from The Breath of Ages – Pierre Lognoul via photopin cc

‘Ben needs the open air and his friends around him. He needs to run, to swim, and be free.’ She looks at Tam, and he frowns as he senses her question. ‘So why did he get a job with you in Fireside Lane?’
‘You’ll have to ask him that.’
‘I’m asking you.’
‘You might think it crazy.’
‘I’ll never think Ben’s crazy.’

Chapter Nine: The Sign of Four Steeples and Sunlight, draft one.

The majority of this week’s writing has taken place on a train to Cardiff. I’m getting married in a few weeks, and this weekend is the one where we’re seeing the registrar and having the nuts and bolts of marriage getting explained to us (“Don’t worry,” came the advice, “there’s nothing much to remember…”)

The good thing about writing on a train (and the reason I try to do it when commuting a lot of the time) is there are fewer distractions. The patchy phone signal means I spend less time checking Facebook and Twitter, and as pretty as the Great Western rail route is, I’ve seen it far too many times for it to hold much interest any more. The other advantage is permission to be anti-social. The first thing my partner and I do when we get on a train is to fish out our headphones and drown the world out with music.

The link between music and productivity is key for me, and I do my best work when the music inspires the scene I’m writing. I was talking to someone the other day about this, who prefers to write in silence. The music inspires the pace of the narrative. A slow, reflective piece of music will show itself in slow, reflective prose whereas a chase scene needs music filled with danger and drama.

One day, I’ll podcast The Axe and Grindstone. I’ve been meaning to do it for ages, and it was this which got me thinking about how music ties into each scene. What would be in the background. If this scene were being filmed, or recorded, which track would fit? What would complement the words and enhance the setting? Below is a track called For the Win by Two Steps from Hell. It played on repeat as I was finishing my first book. Its pace and drive reflects the tension and chaos at the end of the book as the main character, Mark Adams, flees the forces of evil before turning the tables and embracing his destiny. There’s running, fighting, danger and death before the world is put right once more.

What will be the sound of book two? I’m still finding out, but every new piece of music I try gets me that much closer to finishing the project.

Do you listen to music? How does it inspire you?