The Plotting of Perils and the Perils of Plotting

Swanwick Writers’ Summer School is an annual week long residential course for writers of all kinds, featuring workshops, speakers, various other events, and large quantities of pie. I’ve been there several times and it’s how I met my agent. This year, for the first time, I graduated from pupil to teacher, and delivered an hour-long session on how to plot fantasy novels. It seemed to go pretty well – my timing was spot-on, nobody fell asleep, and some of the attendees came up with really good ideas. I celebrated with a cup of tea and some more pie.

Now you lucky people get to enjoy a condensed version of my session. Here we go:

The Plotting of Perils and the Perils of Plotting

The great thing about writing fantasy is that you can do whatever you like – dragons! Goblins! Wizards! Elves! Magic! Did I mention dragons?!

The problem with writing fantasy is that, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. The existence of things like magic in your setting shouldn’t be an excuse to let basic story logic and decent characterisation slide. Sadly, some fantasy books fall back on lazy cliches and ‘A Wizard Did It’ style explanations for plot discrepancies. Here are a few examples:

*spoiler warnings for the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, the Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb, and the Black Magician by Trudi Canavan. All of which are recommended texts.*

The Dark Lord

A primal force of evil who lives in a dark tower and wants to take over the world because he’s evil. Usually has magical, evil powers like necromancy and likes to dress in black spiky outfits. Sauron from Lord of the Rings is the classic example. While evil plans to take over the world are cool and all, maybe ‘for the evulz’ isn’t the strongest or most believable motivation.

An excellent example of a subversion is the Lord Ruler in the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. These books explore the idea ‘what if the Dark Lord won?’ The first book starts in a world which has essentially become Mordor after a thousand years under the thumb of the immortal and despotic Lord Ruler. Then, after he’s defeated, we understand why he did what he did – and the characters have to then deal with the same problems he faced.

The Magician

A powerful wizard – usually with a long beard, pointy hat, and a magic staff – who aids the protagonist, dispenses wisdom, and controls things from behind the scenes. Gandalf, Dumbledore etc. Very convenient for the author to explain bits of backstory and get the main characters out of scrapes. A bit too convenient.

Akkarin from the Black Magician trilogy by Trudi Canavan is a subversion of both the Magician and the Dark Lord. The High Lord of the magician’s guild, supposedly a great and wise magician, he’s revealed to be using dark powers

– and then revealed to be doing so for very good reasons. He also becomes the love interest and tragic hero. This trilogy in general shows the elder magicians as being just as faction-riven and human as anyone else – and they are very much not in control all the time.

Plot Coupons

These are the magic whatsits that must be collected and/or destroyed by the protagonists to defeat the Dark Lord. A handy way to set characters off on a quest to find them in various locations – but arguably lazy storytelling. The Horcruxes from Harry Potter are an example, while The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper is full of them.

Did I mention dragons?

Dragon Eggs

The protagonist finds, or is given a dragon’s egg. Which duly hatches into a dragon which imprints on the main character – who then becomes a badass Dragon Rider. Might seem very specific – but this trope crops up more often than you might think, with Game of Thrones the most prominent recent example. The whole idea is subverted/deconstructed to hell and back by Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, in which it turns out that the objects humans had thought were logs – and have been cutting up and making into ships – are actually the cocoons of the now-extinct dragons. When one dragon is born alive, she’s not very happy.

The challenge I set for my eager pupils was to think of ways to avoid, subvert, twist, deconstruct, or otherwise play around with these overused tropes. And they did well at it, with some cool ideas in just the few who read out at the end of the ten-minute writing segments. I’m hoping one day I’ll pick up a fantasy novel and see myself credited in the acknowledgements as providing inspiration.

I’m calling that a roaring success. More pie!


One Year On

Today marks a significant anniversary for me. It’s exactly one year since I left the safe harbour of my nice, secure, well-paid but ultimately unfulfilling office job, and threw myself upon the tempestuous waters of full-time writing. In some ways the year seems to have gone by quickly, in other ways it feels like I’ve been doing this forever.

How’s it gone? Well, I’ve soon got used to the no-alarm-clock lifestyle, and I haven’t struggled with boredom or lack of motivation. I’m progressing well with my new book, The Silvergreen Sea. No publishing deal as yet but my synopsis and first three chapters are currently out on submission. And I’ve got an – albeit unpaid – tutoring gig at Swanwick writers’ summer school on 10th August So it’s not fireworks-and-champagne but all told, I’m satisfied. And have I ever regretted my decision to take the plunge? Not for one nanosecond.

Of course, not everything has gone smoothly. Getting a part-time job hasn’t really worked out – I’ve had to quit Clarks after three months because I found it impossible to juggle the unpredictable shifts with my writing, family, and social commitments. And my internet addiction is as bad as ever… my spell of cold turkey last summer completely failed to fix that problem. Oh well, it’s the malaise of modern life I suppose (she writes on the internet).

Occasionally I’ll catch myself moaning or stressing about something, and have to remind myself that I’m incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to devote myself fully to writing. Maybe I won’t ever catch my dreams, but at least I have the chance to chase them. When I quit my job last year, one of my colleagues said to me ‘You should do what you want to do. After all, you’re a long time staring at the wood.’ Last week, his words were very painfully brought home to me when I learned that another colleague – who this time last year seemed absolutely fine – has just died of lung cancer.

Nothing like the spectre of mortality to make you appreciate what you’ve got. So I will raise a glass to Steve – may he rest in peace – and feel grateful for a good year.

I’ve just come back home from my second stint at the Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick. While many things were similar to last year – the inspiring courses, the entertaining speakers, the stodgy food – the overall experience was very different. For starters, I managed to pace myself a lot better: instead of greedily hoovering everything up until my brain burst, I was more choosy in what I attended, and made sure to take time out to relax and recover. Instead of meeting dozens and dozens of new people, I caught up with the friends I made last year, checking on progress and celebrating success. And I did find the time to make some new friends too.

Highlights of the week included: Alexa Radcliffe-Hart’s course on literary fiction, which enabled me to develop an interesting idea throughout the week and gave me some very useful exercises; Alex Davis’ course on horror, which helped me outline a scary tale; and of course, the evening speakers, especially Deborah Moggach, Syd Moore, and Curtis Jobling. Sadly this year the ‘TopWrite’ scheme, which offers subsidised places to younger writers, did not run, but a generous donation from an old Swanwicker means it will resume next year.

In addition to the outlines for a literary novel and a horror story, I was also able to make a plan for a new novel, Forever 27. This started life as my NaNoWriMo project in 2011 and has languished on my hard drive for nearly two years while I finished The Heartland of the Winter. This week I dusted it off and worked out how to extract a strong story from the mass of infodumps, continuity errors and unedited verbiage. It’s a complete departure from my previous work, a magic realist novel inspired by the ‘27 Club’ of musicians who have died before their time. I’ve drawn up a detailed plan, and I’m feeling sufficiently inspired to create a playlist of songs to go with it. My intention is to write it whilst waiting for a response on Heartland, and get it ready as a ‘Plan B’ in case the response is negative. Of course, if a publisher calls and says they want to give me a three-book deal for a fantasy trilogy, I’ll have to drop it and start work on the sequel to The Heartland of the Winter instead, but hey, I think that’s known as a problem I’d love to have, and I can always come back to it later.

All in all, an excellent week – the only problem is, it has to come to an end, and drop me back into mundane reality for another year. I’ll just have to try to keep the buzz going as long I can.


Websites of the tutors and speakers I mention:

Alexa Radcliffe-Hart:

Alex Davis:

Deborah Moggach:

Curtis Jobling:

Syd Moore:

The school:

Flash blog – exciting news!

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve had some exciting news brewing – and now that I’ve signed on the dotted line and it’s all confirmed, I can share it with the world. I am very, VERY happy to say that I am now represented by a literary agent – specifically, Meg Davis of Ki Agency.

I first met Meg at the Swanwick writers’ summer school in August 2012, nearly a year ago. I had signed up for a one-to-one session with her at the cost of £20 – which, it turns out, was perhaps the best-spent £20 of my life so far. To my surprise and delight, she really liked the first three chapters of my fantasy novel The Heartland of the Winter – and asked me to send her the rest. Of course, as previously chronicled here – – the book needed quite a lot more work before it was ready to go anywhere near the light of day, and Meg’s advice helped me get it into shape. Then, a few weeks ago, I sent her the finished version -THoTW 2.0 (now with 10% more plot!). And the rest is history. Or rather, a lot of time spent trying to get my head around a) some scary-looking contractual language; and b) the concept that my book – MY BOOK – could soon be sitting in the inbox of an actual editor, at an actual publisher, together with a letter from an actual agent telling her it’s actually worth reading. Gosh.

I’ve been having a pretty manic time lately with both work and non-work, so I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet. Life goes on much as before, with the difference that I get a big grin on my face whenever I remember that I’ve got that little bit closer to my dream. Of course there are no guarantees of anything: securing an agent does not necessarily mean I’ll go on to secure a publisher. But it’s a step in the right direction. A big step.

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has helped me reach this point – I certainly couldn’t have managed to finish the book without all your advice, encouragement, support, beta-reading, proof-reading and the occasional cup of tea.

What a fortnight!

Golly gosh wow, it’s been quite a fortnight. Since my last blog post, I have, in no particular order: been to Glasgow, had a tooth extracted, finished my novel again, gone on a very long and hungover walk in the Peak District, been very very busy with the day job, and had two bits of writing-related good news.

The first piece of good news is that I have won 3rd place in the Swanwick short story competition, details here:

Swanwick is the summer school for writers which I went to last year and am attending again this August. The competition was for short stories on the theme ‘65 not out’ (because the school celebrates its 65th anniversary this year). Steering away from the obvious cricket reference, I tried to do something a bit different and, loosely inspired by someone I know, I wrote my tale in the form of a letter from a retired schoolteacher to one of her former pupils. ‘Dear Mary’ will be published in the Writing Magazine Competition Special October 2013. Congratulations to all the other winners, and hope to see you at Swanwick.

My prize is a year’s subscription to Writing Magazine, which isn’t quite as good as the 1st prize, (a free place at the summer school), but is a lot better than the proverbial slap in the face with a wet haddock. I’ve been entering a few competitions lately, and it’s great to have some success. Fingers crossed for those other competitions whose results are still pending…

The second piece of good news is more exciting, but I’m still just a little bit too paranoid that something is going to go wrong to want to broadcast to the world just yet. So it’ll just have to wait for a future blog post.

What next? Well, it’s 5 weeks until summer school starts, and if last year was anything to go by, it’ll be both inspiring and exhausting. Before then I have a busy schedule of work trips, visits to friends and family, barbecues, and a wedding. So I’m actually thinking I might give myself a little bit of a break from writing and try to recharge my creative batteries. But rest assured, I’ll be back on here to share any important news.

Reflections from Swanwick

So, it’s very nearly a fortnight since I last posted on this blog, getting perilously close to my self-imposed time limit. Well, stuff happens. Real life takes me away from my desk. I feel I should be able to make sense of events through the medium of writing, but sometimes it’s just too soon for that to work. Sometimes, you need a little time to pass before you’re ready to write. And so, today I have decided, two months after the fact, to share some of my thoughts about the Writers’ School this August.

The writers’ summer school at Swanwick, Derbyshire, has been going for sixty-four years, with many people returning year after year. It’s a week-long residential event which includes longer courses, shorter courses, one-off lectures, evening speakers, and a whole load of other activities like a poetry slam and freestyle dancing. One of the great things about it is that, with the exception of one-to-one meetings with writers and agents which have to be pre-booked, you don’t have to decide about anything in advance. You just book yourself into the whole school, turn up on the Saturday, and see what takes your fancy for the rest of the week. Found the first class in the series boring? Heard a different speaker was a great laugh? Skip the first class, show up at the second. Some people skive off nearly everything and just treat it at a writers’ retreat.

It’s possible to go along as a ‘day girl’, and, given that I live very close to the venue, I was tempted to do just that, but everyone says that you don’t get the proper experience unless you’re a boarder. So I signed up for the full monty and I’m very glad I did. Because the other thing everyone says about Swanwick is that you get just as much from the people you meet there as you do from the actual classes. And of course you see so much more of everyone if you’re around in the evenings. Also, the slightly odd school-dinner system of serving meals, where the person at the top of the table has to play mother and dish out the grub, definitely encourages you to bond with your fellow diners. So if you can stomach the stodge-fest, it’s well worth staying for dinner.

I met lots of interesting people at Swanwick, and heard a lot of different views on writing, the publishing business, and life in general. Every single conversation was an eye-opener. Quite a few of the people I met were totally bonkers. But that’s all right, I think to be a decent writer you have to be at least a little bit bonkers, because it’s that slanted perspective which gives you a unique angle, and something new to say. It’s also very refreshing to be able to sit down at a table with some complete strangers and start with the ice breaker ‘So what are you writing?’ At the end of the week, I could safely say that I hadn’t had a single boring conversation. How often does that happen?

One thing I hadn’t been adequately warned about was how tiring it would be, and how much of an information overload. By Friday morning, I felt like a) I needed another week off to recover; and b) I had a huge funnel on my head, full of new knowledge and ideas which were slowly dripping through to my poor overwhelmed brain. Having to go back to interacting with ‘normal’ people again, and back to the office, was a real shock to the system. Next year, I am definitely clearing the diary for the following week.

Swanwick was enriching, exhausting, intriguing, inspiring, infuriating… sometimes all at the same time. It’s taken me at least six weeks to digest it (and not just the stodgy food). But two things are for sure: it has turned me into a writer in a way I simply wasn’t before, and I’ll be back again next year for a second helping.