Writing about Work

Work and workplaces make for some of the best story material. The reason is quite simple: workplaces have an ample supply of the essential ingredients for a good story: conflict and character. Most workplaces are full of book-worthy characters: the lazy worker, the boss, the scrounger, the guy who wants a rise and will do anything to get it, the new employee eager to make an impression, the spy, the thief, the embezzler, the dirty dog, etc. Then conflict: a potential take-over, hostility between colleagues, two people after the same job, gossip, suspicion, stealing secrets, hacking into the network, and last but certainly not least, love affairs.

The list goes on and on.

Some professions have more conflict than others, which is why so many books and films have been written and made about lawyers, doctors, police officers and detectives. These professions have intrinsic conflict. However, it’s important to understand that you can write about any profession, as long as you have a good setting (the office, the warehouse, etc.) and the characters, i.e. a group of colleagues. Imagine writing about a hairdressers or a computer store. Again, remember that it’s characters that make books. At first glance, you might think that a book about a computer store might be boring, but that would be superficial. Imagine someone is stealing goods from the suppliers and then selling them on to the boss’s business rival. Imagine that this business rival is having an affair with the boss’s daughter or wife. Imagine a new recruit unknowingly becoming an accomplice to the crime, while having a family to support.

Well, all of a sudden it’s not so boring.

People love reading about work. After all, that’s what a good portion of our waking hours are devoted to. So next time you’re stuck for an idea for a novel, think about the humble workplace.



How many drafts should you do for a novel? In my opinion, three (as with many things, it seems) is the magic number. However, each draft has a specific purpose and is not just about vague ‘revision’ or ‘improvement.’

Let’s start with the first draft. This is when you are sitting down to write your story for the first time. Here, things like grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and even style ought to be the last things on your mind. Don’t ignore them completely if you can, but don’t make them your number one priority. The first draft is about getting the story done. Period. This draft belongs to your untamed muse, who wants to fill blank pages with reams of words telling the tale you have in your mind. Let your characters come alive and tell you their story. Write down what you want, without feeling guilty about your repeated use of words or bad grammar. You will improve with time, anyway.

One important point is not to let anyone read your first draft while you are writing it; otherwise you might get derailed by the feedback. At this point, you must have the utmost concentration on writing, and on writing what you want, not what someone else thinks might work better.

After the first draft is done, print it out and put it away on a dusty shelf for a couple of weeks, a month is best. Sometimes (and I know this from experience) you can be itching to start revising and improving, but it’s best to start with a clear head. The only way to do that is to put aside your work for a while. In the meantime, write something different. A short story, perhaps, unrelated to your main work, or even a few poems. Basically, take your mind off that novel.

Once the rest and recovery period is up, get the printed copy first draft from the dusty shelf and start revising with a vengeance. Don’t be kind to your writing. If you see entire paragraphs or pages that seem unnecessary, cross them out without mercy. Drivel is the worst enemy of good writing. You can fix grammar and punctuation, rearrange paragraphs for better effect, decide to insert whole new sections of narrative, or change part of a scene. There will be many, many changes to the second draft, so be prepared for them. Try to get the revision done as quickly as you can, otherwise you will be tempted to keep revising and could end up in the trap of ‘death by editing.’

In the meantime, you might want to give a copy of your first draft to a few trusted friends for some constructive feedback. Don’t cringe on their every word, but see how you can make use of their suggestions. It’s especially helpful if you get members of your target readership to ‘test run’ your book, e.g. children, teenagers, young men/women etc.

Once the second draft is complete, leave it again for a few weeks. The third (and hopefully, final) draft is about doing another revision to make sure your story is consistent, the characters believable, the setting well described etc. In general, the first and third drafts are mainly about story, whilst the second draft is about prose, style and narrative.

In practice (cruel reality!?), there may well be a fourth draft to correct any mistakes that may have crept in during the third.

Once the final draft is complete, you can pat yourself on the back and buy a bottle of champagne. Yes, that was a joke…now comes the hard work of actually getting it out there and into the hands of your readers.

On dyslexia

My recently published novel, Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, is about a girl with reading difficulties who discovers she has a connection with the world of the fairies, and who goes on a dangerous journey with little time to spare. Fairies, dyslexia, and the great outdoors are the three big themes of the story. In this post, I’d like to talk a bit about the second.

When, many years ago, I first had the idea for the story, the main character, Jennifer, wasn’t even the main character. Rather, she was one of three relatively equal characters (Amy, her sister, and Simon, her cousin—both still in the story). However, by the mysterious laws (or anarchy?) of character development, Jennifer seemed to grow and grow until she not only became the main character of the story but also took over the narrative point of view.

Around this time, my mother had begun working as a teaching assistant at a special needs school. I remember one day noticing a book that she had left on our dining room table about the topic of dyslexia. Idle curiosity (or perhaps the Muses of old, who knows?), prompted me to pick up the book and leaf through it. I’d heard about dyslexia before, but didn’t really know in detail about what it was or who it affected.

I wish I remembered the name of that book—I only remember the yellow cover, and that it was relatively old, published in the early 80s. Reading it, I found myself intrigued. Dyslexia is a condition apparently caused by certain issues with brain development that causes difficulties with learning to read and write. People with dyslexia will tend to perform these tasks relatively slowly, often confuse the order of letters in words, struggle (to varying degrees) to absorb written information, and also find it harder than most to follow an exact sequence of instructions.

However, what I found fascinating is that many famous people in history have been dyslexic. In this amazing list are people as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci (his mirror handwriting, remember!), Pablo Picasso, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill. The condition of dyslexia itself may not necessarily have been known about while some of these individuals were alive, but with hindsight, it is clear that many of the difficulties they expressed regarding reading and writing would today be recognised as obvious symptoms.

It is also very strange that so many modern day artists and actors are dyslexic. There seems to be some kind of link between the condition of dyslexia and a high degree of creativity. It is almost as if the same brain development pathways that cause difficulties with reading and writing also enable an individual to sharpen their creative thinking. In fact, many dyslexics will say how much more comfortable they are with images rather than words. Perhaps this is why they will tend to seek out activities that don’t require so much focus on the written word.

Indeed, there is one school of thought that regards dyslexia as a ‘gift’ or blessing in disguise, enabling a person to think in a much more holistic way, using the power of images rather than letters and words. Perhaps, in some sense, there is a dyslexic in all of us. How often have we heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”? We are all able to ‘think in pictures’. It’s just that dyslexics have the capacity (or power, if you like) to take it that one step further.

I think it’s important to state, if it isn’t already obvious, that dyslexia does not affect intelligence or actual capacity to learn. In that sense, it is very unlike autism (which can share some symptoms with dyslexia), with which it is sometimes incorrectly linked (as they are both classified as special educational needs). More specifically, according to NHS England, dyslexia is classified as a “specific learning difficulty”, rather than a “learning disability.”

I should say here that I’m not dyslexic myself. Perhaps, since I always been such a passionate reader, I had my interest piqued by a condition that causes natural difficulties with something I enjoyed so much. By the time I’d finished that yellow book, I’d made up my mind—Jennifer Brown was going to be dyslexic. I hadn’t realised just how profoundly that would alter the story as I continued to churn through the plot. In the final book, her difficulty with reading and writing is as central as it can be to the story, and her desire to overcome her problems and to find a way to be ‘just as good as everyone else’ is one of her great motivators.

Jennifer, in the second and third instalments in the Fairyhand trilogy, will begin to learn to read and write (yes, I’m giving a little tease of what’s to come!). Although there is no ‘cure’ (it is a lifelong condition), there are plenty of excellent teaching methods and support strategies that can be used to help dyslexics learn to read and write, and perhaps some of those may make their way into the books to come.

I like to think, by combining the ‘fairy’ and the ‘dyslexic’, I have in some small way created a character that helps show the condition in its best light, while highlighting the real-world issues that dyslexic people inevitably face.

The Hero’s Journey

In 1949, the American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell published a seminal work called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he described how many of the world’s mythical stories seem to follow the same basic pattern, or are composed of the same elements. He summarised this pattern as the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey is a sort of blueprint for stories: it says what the different stages of a story are and how they unfold. It’s been especially used in Hollywood for making blockbuster movies like Titanic, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and the Matrix. The Hero’s Journey doesn’t map perfectly to every story but the concepts are great. So here are the stages in the journey – as you’re reading them, think about how they map to your favourite film or book. You’ll be surprised!

(1) The Ordinary World – here, the hero is presented in their normal, everyday life. A good place to introduce internal, emotional or personal conflicts. Note that ‘ordinary’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘dull and boring’. For example, for a police officer in a high crime area, an ‘ordinary’ day might involve a pursuit of an armed criminal. On the flip side, the ‘ordinary world’ for a drug addict might mean committing a crime to get money to buy their fix for the day.

(2) Call to Adventure – something happens that makes the hero have to leave their ordinary life and take up a challenge. This is usually because something is threatening their ordinary world and they must do something quickly before it collapses.

(3) Refusal of the Call – the hero is reluctant to take up the challenge and needs some external factor to seal his commitment.

(4) Meeting with the Mentor – the hero meets their mentor, usually an older person, who advises the hero on what they need to do in the adventure.

(5) Crossing the First Threshold – the hero takes the first step into the unknown, adventure world. Note that this could be an emotional journey as well as a physical one.

(6) Trials, Allies, Enemies – the hero undergoes a series of small, but gradually harder trials during which he makes a number of friends and enemies. This tends to be the ‘middle’ of a story, or Act II in a film or play.

(7) Approaching the Inmost Cave – the hero prepares to go to the heart of the adventure world and make the final confrontation.

(8) Ordeal – the hero undergoes a tough test during which their commitment is tested and the success of the adventure is at stake. In an action movie, this is typically where the hero is captured by the ‘bad guy’ and has to escape.

(9) Reward – having successfully passed the ordeal, the hero reaps the rewards of the adventure they set out on. This is usually the first climax of the story.

(10) The Road Back – having completed the bulk of the adventure, the hero makes their way back to their ordinary world, but not without troubles.

(11) Resurrection – the hero performs the final deed that completes the adventure, often involving the resolution of a personal conflict. This tends to be the second climax.

(12) Return with the Elixir – the hero returns to their ordinary world and at peace – all external and internal conflicts are resolved.

In later posts, I’ll start talking about in depth about the character arc and the different types of characters in the Hero’s Journey and in what stages they appear (Hero, Anti-Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Shadow etc.).

Adjectives and Adverbs

When writing fiction, it is important to be as concise as possible and to make every word count. Adjectives and adverbs can be useful at times, but when can wreak havoc with prose when misused.

Let’s recap some grammar. An adjective is a word used to describe a noun, e.g. “the dark forest” or “the young man.” Similarly, an adverb is a word that describes a verb, e.g. “he ran quickly,” or “she screamed loudly.”

There are two cases where adjectives and adverbs can be misused. The first is when the adjective or adverb can be discarded without losing any information. The second case is where the adjective/noun or adverb/verb combination can be replaced with a single noun or verb that conveys the intended meaning more accurately.

Let’s look at the first case. Suppose we have the sentence “The bear roared loudly.” The adverb “loudly” is superfluous (excuse the fancy word!) and can be removed, since “roaring” is by definition “loud.” We don’t need to patronise the reader by reminding them that “roaring” is loud. A similar example that involves an adjective is “The sight of the red blood made him shriek.” Everyone knows that blood is red.

Onto the second case. Suppose we have the sentence “The man ran quickly to the door.” Instead of saying “ran quickly,” we could try “rushed”, “hurried”, “bolted” or “scrambled.” Any one of these single words can replace the adverb+verb combination. “The man scrambled to the door,” reads and sounds better. Another example is “Heavy rain had started.” This can be replaced with “A downpour had started.”

One more example: “The strong wind blew away the woman’s red umbrella.” This can be replaced with “The gust blew away the woman’s umbrella.” Notice the word red was removed, since the fact that the umbrella is red is not relevant in this sentence. If this fact was important to the story, then it would have to be introduced elsewhere, in its own sentence. For example: “The gust blew away the woman’s umbrella. Helen noticed that it was red, reminding her of the blood that she had just seen.”

The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty was one of the folk stories gathered by the Brothers Grimm when they were preparing their famous collection of fairy tales. Many of these have deep symbolic meanings that go far beyond their common perception as simple bedtime stories for young children.

Let’s recap the tale. When the young Princess Aurora is born, she is cursed by the witched fairy/witch who had not been invited to the christening. The curse is that at a certain young age (seventeen, say?) she would prick her finger on a spindle and fall asleep for a hundred years until she was awoken by her true love. Of course, the King and Queen outlawed all spindles and made sure that her daughter could never go near one. Curses being what they are, the witched fairy made sure that the prophecy came true and sure enough, the Princess and the whole castle fell asleep. They remained asleep for a hundred years until a young prince, who had heard of the story of the “sleeping beauty” made his way through the thick forest that had surrounded the castle and succeeded in waking the Princess.

Of course, they all lived happily ever after.

What is the hidden meaning, here? I’m going to set my imagination loose! One can think of the story as essentially about the search for a hidden woman or a hidden beauty that has lain dormant and out of sight. It characterizes every man’s search for the woman of his dreams, who may be far away from him both in space (hidden in the forest) and in time (the Prince is not yet born when Aurora falls asleep). To a certain extent, it is also slightly sexist in nature, as it portrays Aurora as helpless and unable to avoid her destiny and can only be saved by a man who chooses to love her. In the story, it is the Prince who makes the choice to go into the forest and seek the sleeping Princess.

Dreams play an important role in this story. Aurora has grown up with the shadow of the prophecy surrounding her all the time and dreams to be free from it. The Prince dreams of finding the Princess and achieving glory. Last but not least, one cannot fall asleep for a hundred years without having many dreams. What did Aurora dream about while she was asleep? Did she dream at all? What about nightmares? If she did dream, then most likely what she dreamt about was her Prince and saviour. All that is now needed is to write the word “saviour” in capitals as “Saviour,” and the religious connotations become clear. The story of the sleeping beauty parallels the story of Christ saving humanity. The castle and Princess (humanity) lie in an eternal nightmare, unable to wake up and save themselves, condemned by the wicked fairy (Satan). The brave Prince (Christ) comes along and breaks the spell and brings the Princess and castle back into the light (salvation).

It is amazing how subconscious thoughts and ideas can infiltrate the stories that people write and tell without them even knowing about it. I personally know this from the stories I’ve written. In Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, the main character, Jennifer, is constantly trying to increase her confidence and to prove herself. The quest is to find the magical weapon that can help defeat the sorcerer and free the Fairy Queen and her castle, an almost striking parallel to the story of the Sleeping Beauty. The difference in this case, however, is that the “Prince” is now Jennifer herself, a girl.

I don’t for one minute recall planning to base my story on the Sleeping Beauty…

Fairy inspirations

The following blog post was originally published on Tressa’s Wishful Endings book review site.

The UK has a long tradition of children’s stories, which gained a great deal of momentum in the nineteenth century. A big part of those stories are often the landscapes and countryside of the islands themselves, from the rugged Highlands of Scotland to the Welsh valleys and the rolling fields of southern England. An area particularly rich in heritage is the Yorkshire Dales–an area of outstanding natural beauty nestled in the heart of England.

While I was writing my debut novel, Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, I wanted to place part of the story somewhere out in the British countryside, away from the town life that the main character, Jennifer, is used to. As is so often the case, inspiration can come from the strangest and most unexpected of quarters. I’d once read a book about the curious idea that intelligent dinosaurs once roamed the earth–no, I’m not joking–and that ‘evidence’ for this could be found all over the world. Now even though I seriously doubt the scientific premise for this, I still found the possibility fascinating!

One of the places mentioned in that book were the large underground caverns that can be found throughout the Yorkshire Dales. These are full of stalactites and stalagmites–the large pointed pieces of rock that hang from the roof of a cave or jut up from the ground, formed over millions of years as calcium salts drip down with droplets of water. Apparently, this is where survivors of the intelligent dinosaurs might still be hiding out, based on reported sightings of strange creatures in the area.

As my novel is about the world of the fairies, the idea of a real place where mysterious creatures have supposedly been seen struck a chord, and I thought this would be an interesting location to use as a setting. Having made up my mind, I began to investigate to see if there was any actual local fairy folklore from the area that I might use for further inspiration.

Yorkshire was traditionally divided into three regions, or ‘ridings’: west, north and east (don’t ask me what happened to the south one–this is the UK, after all–it doesn’t have to make sense!). This part of the island has traditionally been one of the harshest and perhaps most isolated parts of England. The area also has a distinct Viking heritage, and this is reflected in many of the place names that originate from Nordic languages. The word ‘dale’ itself basically means ‘valley’, and is a reference to the rolling landscape. Throughout the Dales, you will find ‘fells’ (hills), ‘pots’ (ground holes), ‘crags’ (cliffs), and ‘fosses’ (waterfalls). Names such as Cautley Crags, Leck Fell, and White Scar Caves have a certain charm to them, if not a certain magical quality, being so different from everyday English.

I found out that belief in fairies was common here, and may even have continued into the twentieth century. Nowadays actual belief may be rare, but the stories are still told, and if you find yourself at night roaming an isolated, windswept hill, it may be very hard not to start thinking that there is indeed some supernatural creature lurking just around the bend!

Near the town of Buckden is a deep ravine that has been known by locals as the ‘Fairy Dell.’ (The word dell is just a variant on ‘dale’ and refers to a valley or ravine). Incidentally, there is another cave at the base of the ravine, something that appears again and again at sites with fairy traditions. It seems almost that the dark, mysterious places (and what is more dark and mysterious than a cave?) gives rise to these legends of strange creatures in the dark. The inhabitants of the Fairy Dell apparently had a certain aversion to churches (!) and were prone to playing tricks on people, again something that fairies seem prone to do.

Another Fairy Dell can be found at Beck Gill, where tradition has it that fairies live in the brook that flows through the dell.

The Hurtle Pot is a natural rocky hole in the ground near a village called Chapel-le-Dale. At the bottom of this hole is a pool of water that extends down to over 20 feet. The air around the pool is heavy and full of pungent odours from nearby planting, making the whole area feel a little bit gloomy. When it rains, the water splashing against the rocks causes a throbbing noise, almost as if someone is groaning underneath the pool. Legend has it that this ‘someone’ is a boggart, a nasty little fairy that likes to frighten people and sometimes play tricks on them.

Another area that has a fairy connection is Janet’s Foss near the village of Malham. The ‘foss’ refers to a waterfall, and the name ‘Janet’ is a reference to a fairy queen that was supposed to have lived in the area.

Of course, I couldn’t possibly do a post on fairies in Yorkshire without mentioning the famous (and perhaps infamous) case of the Cottingley fairies. Two cousins in the late 1910s, Elsie and Frances Griffiths, took photographs of what they claimed were real fairies near Cottingley Beck (a ‘beck’ is a stream—again notice how many legends around bodies of water). For many years, they insisted that these were genuine, though, eventually, they did reveal that they were in fact faked using cardboard cutouts. At the time, however, they attracted widespread public interest, which tied in with a general interest in spirituality and the paranormal that was present in the UK. The First World War was still fresh in people’s memory, and the loss of so many young men caused grieving relatives to find consolation in new ideas of things beyond this worldly realm. Most famously, the Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took great interest in the case and visited the girls to investigate personally.

So how did I use these tales of old in my own story? The Dales generally, of course, made it in, as well as a ‘foss’ (though I made up the name ‘Redfoss’). A large cove (‘Redfoss Cove’) and pothole (‘The Lady Jane’) also come in the story and serve as a special portal to, well…I’ll resist putting in a spoiler and let you read the book instead! Well beyond Yorkshire, the UK has a treasure trove of folklore and legends, and you can’t go far before walking past a site where a fairy–mischievous or otherwise–might just be waiting for you…

Me fail English? That’s unpossible

Writing good English is still an important part of creating a good novel. Of course, this statement should be almost as obvious as the fact that cheddar is yellow and that finding an agent is like looking for an invisible needle in a very large haystack. There are three aspects to writing good English: spelling, grammar and style.

Spelling is making sure that your words are spelt correctly, i.e. in the acceptable way. Assuming you use Microsoft Word, make sure that automatic spell checking is turned on (you know, the red squiggles.) However, there is something you should be aware of. Word does not do contextual spell checking, so for instance if you spell “I always lose at chess” as “I always loose at chess,” then Word won’t detect the mistake. So there’s no excuse for not reading carefully through the manuscript to make sure that spelling mistakes are found. It’s always a good idea to give the manuscript to someone else to proofread before you submit it, as the eye can become so accustomed to words that it sees what it wants to see. This has happened to me on many occasions.

Next, comes grammar. Correct grammar means that your writing obeys the rules of the English language. Entire books and lives have been devoted to this subject so I won’t dwell over it. The best thing to do is to get a pocket-sized grammar book and to dip into it occasionally. Knowing the precise rules of English is vital for an author.

Finally, comes the killer: style. Style is to writing what hospitality is to a hotel. Even if your spelling and grammar is perfect, it won’t satisfy the reader if your writing lacks style. Style is all about knowing how to use words and sentences in such a way that the very writing itself is pleasing to the reader, which might actually mean breaking the odd grammar rule on occasion (after all, one of the beauties of English is that it is a very flexible language). The de facto standard book on this subject is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

Dialogue Packets

A dialogue packet is a way of avoiding all those repetitive “he said” and “she said”s that can quickly litter a page. Instead, you structure your paragraph in the following format:

Stimulus – something happens to the character, evident from the text
Internalisation – the character ‘internalises’ the event, perhaps by thinking about it or relating it to a previous event
Response – the character says or does something

For example:

Mark walked into the room and saw his sister leafing through his diary. He felt his whole world collapse around him. For months, he’d had a feeling this had been happening.
“Do you really have to do that, Karen?”

Here, the first sentence is the stimulus, i.e. what Mark sees happening. The next two sentences are the internalisation, which intensify the emotional response to the situation. Finally, the next paragraph gives the dialogue. Note that there was no need to add “Mark said” or “he said” after the dialogue, since it is evident from the context who is speaking. In some cases, internalization can be left out, for example:

A door slammed shut and the sound of footsteps came loud and clear from the hallway. Leah shuddered. “Who’s there?”

Sometimes, internalisation can slow things down, so in action-packed scenes, it’s best to limit it or leave it until the end of the scene or the next scene. I’ll talk more about scene structuring in a later post.