July 24, 2010



I am stoked.  I rang Cambridge tonight.*  I mean rang it like I almost knew what I was doing. 

So let me hold forth as a Professional Writer with Decades of Experience as if I had a clue what I’m talking about.  The essential truth about writing stories is that it all comes from your gut.**   Or your higher self, if you prefer a prettier metaphor.***   This is not an explicable and quantifiable process.  Remember Kat in SPINDLE’S END miserably telling Aunt that she shouldn’t be her apprentice:  ‘The magic . . . I do feel it, sometimes.  But it just drains through me—it doesn’t stay. . . . it’s just a great dark emptiness with a few broken scraps I can use when I find them. . . .’  And Aunt replies:  ‘What you describe is how it happens to everyone:  magic does slide through you, and disappear, and come back later looking like something else.  And I’m sorry to tell you this, but where your magic lives will always be a great dark space with scraps you fumble for.  You must learn to sniff them out in the dark.’

            Yes.  Story telling, the way it happens to me, is a whole lot like that. 

 And please remember that while chances are, if I haven’t answered your question, it’s because I am disorganised and easily distracted and my head† is full of pegasi, I am not going to answer anything that is either blatantly in the FAQ†† or is easily googleable.  I’m looking a little hard at a few of you out there as I say this.

 I’m in the middle of writing term papers (I’m a graduate student in history) and it suddenly occurs to me to wonder how a professional writer deals with the phenomenon of writing expanding to fill the time and space available.  Any thoughts on this? 

Snork.  You’re asking me?  Who has mentioned on a number of occasions that more than half my novels have started as short stories?   I suggest you get used to it:  if there’s a cure, I don’t know it.  Try not to sign any contracts before you’re done writing the thing, so you know what it is, and how long it’s going to take you to finish.  Generally speaking if you produce good work the admin will find a way to cut you some slack about length.  Hack off the first chapter of your exhaustive examination of tea-making ceremonies through history, or the influence of hellhounds on the British monarchy††† and submit it as your term paper.  You can sew up the rip later on when you submit the whole monster to publishers. 

I’ve always admired the way you write action.  Your fight scenes are gripping and carry significant dramatic weight without being overwrought and over-long.  Do you have any tips for writing good action scenes? 

I get asked this regularly and it makes me scratch my head a little.  But I may have a partial answer:   work on your body awareness.  It will help, I think, if you pursue some kind of sport that requires instinctive response, good reflexes and fast decision making.  I am not saying you have to be good at any of these things.  That’s what your imagination is for.  But it’ll help if you know what they feel like.  In my case it was horseback riding that first forced me to pay attention to what my body was doing and what it was not doing, and made me try to figure out how to make it do what I wanted, ie post to the trot, not fall off over fences, etc.  One of the great breakthroughs was to stop thinking about my body as ‘it and me’.  We’re all the same critter.  But in this modern world it’s rather awfully too easy to live mostly in your head, at your computer, soaring through any world that appeals to you, and as anyone you please.

            Mind you, I’m a lot more grounded in the real world than I used to think.  My first author bio flyer from Greenwillow Books a million years ago said that the only serious draw reality had ever had for me was horseback riding.  But I’ve always liked cooking, and I’ve always gone for long walks, although I used to say that this was a way of distracting my body so I could go off in a story-telling trance, and to some extent this is true.  I still do a lot of plotting on hellhound hurtles.  But Peter has teased me for twenty years that the gardening disease was obviously lying dormant in my blood by the speed with which I took to the game after I moved over here and married him;  and bell ringing?  Okay, it’s goofy, deranged and geeky, but several hundred to several thousand pounds of bell is a very real item.  And yes, I think bell ringing does enhance your body awareness.

            So I may be talking about what works for me—what I need as a writer of vivid action scenes—as opposed to offering good advice for anyone else.  But I think picking up a broom handle and swinging it violently back and forth and seeing what it feels like, and how the motion makes you rebalance yourself, and where your eyes and feet go, and so on, will help when you stick a sword or a laser-pistol or an ugggwerp in your heroine’s hand and send her forth to meet the Ziqquirk army. 

* * *

* Also I have been much blessed in postal deliveries from Friends Who Know Me Well lately.  Highlights include^:


^ Although it is possibly a pity this did not arrive yesterday:

 ** Which could explain why my digestion is possessed by demons.  Or possibly dragons, vampires, pegasi, etc.

 *** Gut.  In my case, it’s definitely gut. 

 † As well as my gut

 †† Although Bronwen and Niall figured out last night the definitive answer to Where do I get my ideas?  It’s the bats, of course.   They’re the Story Council.  So.  Yeah.  I’ll ask them about a sequel to SUNSHINE.

†††  The Mountbatten-Windsors’ problem?  Corgis.


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