“My name is Toby Ziegler, and I work at The White House”

At the moment, I’m editing something for a friend. She hasn’t written a lot of fiction, and I haven’t edited any fiction at all apart from my own, so it’s good practice for both of us. My most consistent comment at the moment is that I think she needs more dialogue between her characters. I love dialogue. I love the way it quickly establishes character, infuses subtext and speeds plot along.

One of my favourite TV shows of all time is The West Wing, created by and for the first few seasons at least, written mostly by Aaron Sorkin. I resisted watching it for years. It’s about politics, for one thing – American politics, at that. Moreover, everyone kept telling me it was the best thing since sliced bread and I absolutely HAD to watch it, which automatically made me dislike it on principle. (I do this a lot, with everything. It’s a flaw. I think I know the psychological reason for it, but I won’t bore you with that now.) Anyway, suffice it to say that when I did actually start watching it, I fell in love with it immediately. Because of course, it’s not really about politics at all. It’s about the characters – and the dialogue. Always the dialogue.

Dialogue is one of the greatest joys of an Aaron Sorkin show or film. It is fast, witty and can go on and on. In the The West Wing, he regularly put his actors through long walk-and-talks, in which they would walk miles but go nowhere and have great conversations while doing so. At one point, Sorkin himself made an in-script a joke of it. Josh and Sam leave their offices and embark on a walk, talking all the while about some deep point of government policy. They reach the end of the corridor at the same time that they reach the end of the point they were each making and stop, looking at each other and at the two directions they could now take.

Sam: Where are you going?

Josh: Where are you going?

Sam: I was following you.

Josh: I was following you. [beat] All right, don’t tell anyone this happened, okay?

And the scene ends.

Dissenters often criticise Sorkin’s dialogue with the words, “It’s so unrealistic. No one ever really speaks like that.” Of course it’s unrealistic. It’s entertainment. No one really and truly – and be honest now, please -watches a TV show to see realism, do they? I mean, not even people who watch Reality shows, right?

Anyway, I maintain that watching The West Wing is a perfect lesson in how to write dialogue. In fact, one of my all-time favourite episodes, 20 Hours in America, neatly unspools around a single repeated line of dialogue that at first seems completely inconsequential. In the episode, the White House staff is on the re-election campaign trail. In the hectic course of events, the Presidential motorcade departs without three key members of the team. They’re stuck in the middle of nowhere in Idaho, or Indiana, or Iowa, or one of those other states with a name that makes you feel that it might be the size of forever, and might as well be for the three city folk trying to make their way across it.

Toby, a character who can occasionally be pompous and is always irascible, loses a bet. The forfeit is that every time he introduces himself, he must say, “My name is Toby Ziegler, and I work at The White House.” At first it seems to be calculated merely as a joke. The line makes him seem arrogant. It gets him into trouble with locals who didn’t vote for this POTUS the first time around and don’t plan on re-electing him. It makes the audience laugh. This goes on and on throughout the episode, as Toby becomes more and more frustrated with their journey, the fact that a key piece of policy is eluding them all, and the idiot that losing the bet is making out of him. Then, in the final act, when they’ve finally reached an airport and are killing time waiting for a flight back to Washington and the action of episode is ostensibly at an end, Toby has a chance meeting with a man in a bar. They talk, without introducing themselves, about what might make this man’s life just a little easier as he tries to put his only daughter through college without much spare cash. And Toby slowly realises that he might be able to do something solid to help this man – and many others like him – because he is who he is and he works where he works. The man has no idea why this stranger is interested in his troubles. Then, when they finally get around to shaking hands and introducing themselves, Toby realises that all he has to say to explain himself is:

“My name is Toby Ziegler, and I work at The White House.”

I love the neatness of how that one line has meant so many different things throughout the episode. It’s just one line of dialogue, which at first looks as if it has no point but to be a thorn in someone’s side. Yet it’s a demonstration of how powerful dialogue can be.

Dammit. Now I want to watch The West Wing again.



Parental Guidance

They f**k you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

The year before last, I had a short course of counseling with a psychologist. It’s something I probably should have done long ago, and something that I probably should still be doing. I signed on for six weeks. About three weeks in, as often happens, I struggled out of the depressive mire I had fallen into. By week four, it was clear that I was pretty happy again, despite the fact that our sessions had prodded some rather difficult aspects of my life that we definitely hadn’t worked through enough to resolve. I was, however, writing again, and really, that’s the only thing I cared about. When I’m writing, I can cope with anything. When I’m not writing, the world feels like a weight just waiting to crush me the first chance it gets.

To her credit – and I still think this shows that she was both genuine and genuinely good, she asked me if I wanted to halt the sessions early, even though I had signed a contract for six weeks. She said she didn’t want to disturb the equilibrium I seemed to have regained, and since I had come to her specifically because I was having trouble writing, she felt she had done as I had asked.

“I do, however, think that you should seek more help in the future,” she said. “I think there are still some issues that you need to resolve.”

“You’re probably right,” I said, smiling, perfectly at ease and a long way from being in any form of emotional distress. “Though I can’t think of any at the moment.”

She nodded, smiled, and then after a moment said, calmly, “What about if I ask you to talk about your parents?”

I burst into tears. Literally, just like that. It was the most concise example of anyone seeing right through me I think I’ve ever had.

“Yes,” she said. “Not now, but in the future, I think that might be something you want to address.”

Like I said, she was genuinely good.

Yesterday, I got an email from an American publisher, asking me if I would like to submit a non-fiction essay to an anthology of work by YA writers about their ‘coming of age’ experiences. It could be something that had been published online before, as long as it hadn’t been published in hardcopy print. The first thing that sprang to mind was a blog I wrote three or four years ago for Mothers’ Day, about my mum.

You might think, from the story I told above, that I have a bad relationship with my parents. I don’t, at all – quite the opposite. My angst in that direction comes from guilt and fear about not being able to look after them the way I would like and the way they deserve.

Anyway, this morning I dug out this old blog and started editing it into something that I might submit to the anthology, if I can get it into better shape and if, when I give it to my parents to read, they don’t completely freak out about the idea of it being in print.

Somewhat inevitably, I’ve also spent most of this morning in tears, which is about a million miles away from how I was feeling when I woke up this morning.

Yeah. I should probably do something about that.

Incidentally, the stanza above is the most remembered from Philip Larkin’s famous poem, This Be The Verse, but it’s not my favourite of the piece. That would be his parting shot, which is:

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.


That Whole Writing Thing

I haven’t blogged for – well, far too long, basically. So I thought I’d try to start it up again. Since I last blogged, I’ve had a wonderful year of writing – and now releasing – the sequel to The Diamond Thief, The Ruby Airship. It came out a couple of weeks ago, and can be found here. Woo hoo! Great cover, right?

Now, of course, I’ve moved on to writing other things.

Yesterday, I had what I would call an exceptionally good day of writing. It was one of those days where everything seemed to flow, what I wrote came out exactly as I had imagined it in my head (this doesn’t happen often) and I was genuinely happy with just about everything I wrote (this happens even less often). It was one of those days where I kept going back to the words that had flipped themselves out of my fingers from some unknown well in an often inaccessible part of myself and asking, ‘Why can’t I write like that every day? Where did that come from?’

None of it is saleable. The first piece was a short story that I wrote as a present for a friend, based on two characters from her favourite television series. (Yes, it was fanfiction. No, there wasn’t any sex in it.) The second was a question and answer interview for my US publisher. I don’t usually like doing interviews of any sort, but I had fun with this one. The third was the write-up of a power tool-based encounter I had with one of my elderly neighbours in our village, Major Jim. In between all three I made plot-based revision notes on my current WiP manuscript.

To be fair, the notes and second and third pieces mentioned above weren’t a waste of time, since the Q&A was a marketing thing that’s part of the job, and Major Jim… Well, he really should be a character in a book anyway. In fact, the whole village should be in a book, and there is the basis of one floating around in my head. So that could be classed as… making notes.

But the first thing, that little piece of f-word tomfoolery – yeah, there was no point to that at all, other than that it made me happy to write it and it made my friend (and the 200+ other people that have apparently read it since I posted it yesterday… oh how wonderful if they’d all paid just 25p to do so, that’d be the petrol bill for next week) happy to read it.

Last week I was at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival. It was wonderful fun – I did four great school visits to primary schools and I met loads of lovely and extremely talented fellow authors. I also had chance to meet people from my publishing house that I hadn’t met before. I have trouble doing these sorts of events on all levels. Part of that is experience, as I haven’t done many of them yet, and part of it, particularly the part that requires me to interact with my peers – is a lack of confidence. I always feel out of my depth and as if I shouldn’t be there, because at any moment someone’s going to realise their mistake and call me out on it. “You’re not a real author! You’re just a lucky idiot! Go away this instant!” That sort of thing.

Anyway, during one such group encounter, I overheard one of the other authors say that, as a professional, it didn’t do to ever write anything for free. This is absolutely true – that is the difference between a professional and an amateur. I have close writer friends whom I admire and strive to emulate who say exactly the same thing. Hearing it this time around, though, at the end of a year where for the first time ever, my only job has been as a writer, really struck a nerve with me. I think probably because, despite the fact that now it really does matter whether I sell stuff or not as I don’t have any other way of earning a living, I’ve realised that I’m never going to be able to stop myself writing for free. I’m never going to grow out of being an amateur.

I write constantly, whether or not I actually get it all down on paper and whether or not there’s any prospect of getting paid for it. Oftentimes, what I write when I’m not getting paid for it makes me happier than what I write when I am. I write because I am not myself when I don’t. I write because there is genuinely nothing that makes me happier than when I’ve written something that I know is good, whether or not it’s going to pay a bill and whether or not I should be embarrassed to admit that I wrote it at all.

I write. I just… write. I wish I could be more disciplined, but I can’t. I wonder whether, in twenty years’ time, I will look back at my younger self and regret my lack of discipline? I can hear at least one writer friend yelling ‘YES!’ at this screen. I’m not sure that knowing that makes any difference, in any case. I’m not sure I know how to write differently without losing the spark that makes me occasionally look at my words and think, “Yes. I can do this. I really can.”

Oh, and just in case anyone’s interested, here’s the power tools-based encounter I had with Major Jim. The only thing you need to know is that besides writing stuff, I have a tendency towards making things out of other things that most people would consider rubbish…

As I’m standing in our sunny front garden, struggling to deconstruct my pallet with a handsaw and a claw hammer, Major Jim strolls past. He’s no doubt on his way to the Post Office, which, if I haven’t told you before, is open two mornings a week, 9-12am, for gossip, pensions and even, very occasionally, stamps. 
“Hello, Jim,” I say.
“What are you doing now, lass?” he asks.
“Just trying to take this pallet apart.”
“I’ve got a sledgehammer.”
“Thanks, but I want to use the wood.” I show him the Rosebud-style sledge that we’ve had lying about for the past year. “I’m going to turn this into a vegetable rack.”
Inevitably, he looks at me as if I’m a nutter. “I’ve got a chainsaw,” he offers.
I shake my head. “I’ll probably chop my legs off if you let me loose with a chainsaw.”
“Ah well,” he says, strolling on, “I’ll leave you to it.”
About twenty minutes later he’s heading the other way again. “How are you getting on?” He asks. “Are you winning?”
“I’m getting there,” I say, even though I’m obviously not.
“What I have got is a jigsaw,” he says. “If you cut there and there all the way along, you’ll have ten 12-inch planks. Would they be big enough?”
“Probably,” I say.
“Right, wait there,” he says.He appears five minutes later with a hand-held Bosch jigsaw. Then this 85-year-old veteran and honorary Mountie proceeds to kneel on the hard pebbles of our front yard and starts sawing up this stupid pallet. I have visions of him having a heart-attack right there and then.
“Jim, please don’t – let me do it,” I beg.
“I’ll just do these two, then you can have a go. Watch.”
So I do. Then I help him get to his feet and he watches me do two more.
“There you go, lass, you’ve got it. I’ll leave you to it now.”
He disappears home again. Ten minutes later I hear him shout across the road from his front door. He’s found me a piece of wood he thinks I should use as a frame.
“Mark me, though – come winter you’ll wish you’d just kept the sledge,” he says, vanishing back indoors.




Comic Interlude

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to blog, or, in fact, much of anything writerly to blog about. Christmas and New Year were lovely, and the break gave me a chance to let my head fill with all the projects I want to work on this year. I’ve been raring to go but not entirely sure of where to start. Yesterday, though, I woke up, sat down at my desk, and almost without consciously deciding to do so, went back to working on something I started a couple of months ago. As a result, this morning I finished the first draft of the first script for the first issue of the first comic I’ve ever written.

I actually didn’t set out to write a graphic story – I love them, but it’s not a field I’ve ever supposed I’d be able to enter. I have several incredibly talented comic writer/artist friends whose abilities I am in awe of and could never even hope to emulate. But a couple of months ago, I had a nightmare that was so linear, complete and vivid that when I woke up, I immediately wrote down the plot. It was a very filmic story, and I could immediately see it as a graphic novel. So I thought I’d give it a try. Even if nothing comes of it, it’s practice in a different discipline. My friend Steve White, an extremely talented writer, artist and editor of comics as well as many other things, kindly gave me one of his own comic scripts to learn format from, as well as other advice, such as the fact that he thought I should break it down into four issues.

Though I’ve never tried writing one before, I have written audio scripts, and looking at Steve’s example, it struck me that the two are quite similar. The main difference is that of course a comic script contains many more references for the artist to follow for visuals. Some people have told me that they find my prose writing of descriptions to be very visual. That might be because when I write, I often have a static image in my head that effectively I’m describing – a very clear ‘snapshot’ of where my characters are. In fact, I often find that for me, story ideas begin with a single image in my head and then expand and coalesce into something larger as I think about them.

With this story, I already had a whole series of images in my head from my dream, and all of them lent themselves very well to comic tableaux. I’ve spent the last couple of months making sense of the bits that were, in true dream fashion, jumbled up, and also researching a few extra things to tie together to make it a complete story.  It’s not my usual sort of fiction at all, but it feels whole to me, and I guess there’s no better reason than that to make it a physical piece of work. I wrote the initial six pages of the first issue around the beginning of December. The rest of it has come out very quickly over the past two days. I’m under no illusions that the other three issues will flow as well, but I feel pleased with what I’ve managed to get down and how closely it resembles what’s in my head.

The story is set on an old timber plantation in Sweden’s far north. Don’t ask me why – that’s just what was in my dream!

Designing The Diamond Thief

So, last week I promised readers an interview with Jo Hinton Malivoire, the designer who came up with the wonderful cover for The Diamond Thief, which,
in case you don’t know, looks like this:


Gorgeous, isn’t it? I love it – and I also love Jo’s fab answers to my very nosy questions about how a designer goes about developing a book cover…

Can you tell us a bit about your background as a designer?

I’ve worked in publishing for oh, about 18 years (yikes), designing children’s books. Most of the books I’ve designed are for school libraries along with some trade titles, for both the UK and the US markets, and now some fiction.

I think you mentioned that The Diamond Thief was your first fiction cover. How does the process differ between fiction and non-fiction?

Creating covers for fiction or non-fiction is a big team effort. There are editors and picture researchers involved in the design process, as well as a myriad of other important people who all get a say in how the final cover will look. It’s the job of the designer to interpret the brief and create the best cover for each title.

In my experience the process for designing fiction and non-fiction is quite different. Non-fiction requires a more practical approach. The cover needs to be very clear, and concise. It’s all about creating simple, bold, attractive covers that easily lets the reader know what the book is about. Designing fiction covers is a whole different story. You can be a bit more creative in your thinking and interpretation of ideas.

When you’re in a bookshop, wandering past the shelves, what is it that makes you stop, look at a book, stroke it (yes I do that) and pick it up? I hope this doesn’t sound too ‘designer-ish’, but for me fiction covers should tease you with a sneaky flavour of the story inside without giving anything away. There also has to be the ‘pickupable’ factor. Great fiction covers are attractive and interesting, with an element of intrigue. Something about the cover makes you stop and take notice. Occasionally as a reader I visit a bookshop to buy a particular book. More often than not I like to browse. I have no idea which book I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I find it. That’s when a great cover can work its magic, catching your eye, convincing you to pick up the book, turn it over, read the back cover, open it and read the first line. All of that before you even think of buying it. A good cover piques your interest and lures you in. It makes you want know more, to open the book and start reading. No pressure then!

Can you tell us what sort of brief were you given for The Diamond Thief?

I had a discussion with the editor, Laura and I was given a synopsis of the book, but I knew I had to read the whole book to be able to design the best cover.

Where do you start when you begin to design a cover? Like The Diamond Thief, for example – what was your jumping-off point? How did it evolve from there?

I read the book. That was the most important and obvious starting point for me. I needed to immerse myself in the story and to feel it. And I loved it, by the way!

As I was reading I jotted down ideas and words from the book, which I used to create a mood board to show the team. Pulling together visual representations of my ideas giving a flavour of the themes, elements and ideas that I wanted to use for the cover. Hannah the picture researcher then searched out some fab images for me to use. I love this part of the process, it’s a bit like Christmas, unwrapping your presents to see what you have in your stocking. Seeing how someone else has interpreted your ideas and put in some of their own adds another dimension to the design. I like seeing what images I have to use and how I can fit them together. It’s an exciting challenge and a crucial part of the creative process. Then, my favourite part begins. I can play. Well obviously I am working really hard (if my bosses are reading this, hello) but essentially designing feels like playing. Trying different fonts, textures, images and colours together. Coming up with various ideas on a theme. Seeing which ideas work and which really don’t. It’s the nearest I’ll get to being Heston Blumenthal – but without the dry ice!

The final cover didn’t vary wildly from my initial ideas: The circus; Victorian London; steampunk; a diamond. I researched steampunk as I didn’t know anything about it. It was like opening a door to a secret world I had no idea existed! I really liked what I discovered but I was also keen that the cover for The Diamond Thief should not look too masculine, so I made the steampunk element a little softer. Saying that I didn’t want the cover to look too girly either so there is a bolder edge to it too, using a slightly beat-up distressed look. I like the contrast. It’s also how I see the character of Rémy in the book. Multi-faceted. She’s not someone to be underestimated!

Were there other variations on the cover that ended up not being used? If so, what was it specifically about this one that made it ‘the one’?

Yes, there were three or four other cover designs, all of which I designed first. Looking back on them now I can see how the process of working through each one helped me to construct the cover that would eventually be chosen. It was very different to the other covers, but there was something complete about it. Whole, (sorry, its that pesky designer voice again).

I took all the covers to an approval meeting and I had no preference for which one I wanted them to choose. I’ve learnt from experience that being too precious early on about a particular cover design that everyone else may dislike can tie you up in knots and make it really hard to move forward and try new ideas. The purple cover was quickly chosen (yay!) and apart from a few minor tweaks, it was full steam(punk!) ahead!

And here are those alternatives:


The colours – gold and purple – are really vivid and really fitting with the theme. Did it take you time to find the right palette, or is that something you do first?

In all honesty it was just something that happened. It was my final design, and I actually designed it in blue first. Then I tried it in red. And for whatever reason I thought I’d try it in purple too. It really was a happy accident. Saying that I can’t imagine it being anything other than purple now, so it was meant to be. Sometimes designing is something you feel rather than think.

I’m so happy that you like the cover Sharon! Staying true to the book and designing a cover that you, as the author would like, was forefront of my mind throughout the entire process. Thank you for writing such a great story and giving me so much inspiration for my first fiction cover for Curious Fox!

The Next Big Thing

The excellent Alex Woolf  suggested that I take part in the ‘Next Big Thing’ writer meme, and I thought it would be a good way to open my new blog, in which I shall attempt to write properly author-ish things, instead of my usual stream of consciousness rubbish.  The idea is for writers to talk a little about their next project. So, here goes…

What is the title of your next book?

The Diamond Thief. The story is set in Victorian England and follows the exploits of 16-year-old circus performer and jewel thief, Rémy Brunel. Brought to London from France to steal a famous diamond on behalf of her evil circus master, Rémy finds herself pitted against a young detective called Thaddeus Rec, who is determined to save the diamond. Together they are drawn into a dastardly plot that takes them into the heart of the city’s criminal world. It’s a children’s book for ages of around 9-12, and is my first ‘proper’ novel. Previously I’d published a few non-fiction titles.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

I always find it hard to pinpoint how ideas start. The Diamond Thief had quite a convoluted evolution – I love the steampunk genre and I wanted to write something within it. My original idea for the main character, Rémy, was actually as part of an adult science fiction novel set in a far-future London, on an Earth that had been abandoned by the quickly-advancing colonies she had established in space. Technological disaster had then resulted in a strange mish-mash of pre-industrial, just-industrial and far-future technologies existing side-by-side. I still love that setting and I will use it for something else one day, but somehow, when I thought of her as a younger character, Rémy morphed into a French circus urchin visiting Victorian London.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s got a strong steampunk element to it, and it’s quite fantastical. There’s a lot of action, and perhaps a little bit of romance, too…

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ooh, good question. Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, would probably make a very good Rémy – although she may still be a year or two too young. I’m really not sure about Thaddeus. While I was writing the book, Kew Steam Museum had a steampunk exhibition, and when I went to see it there were a group of teenagers dressed in full-on steampunk gear. One of them was so close to my idea of Thaddeus that I took a picture, and now that’s the only face I have in my head for him! Claudette, Rémy’s older, fortune-telling friend, has always been an actress called Lucy Brown in my head, and her daughter Ameilie would have to be little Pixie Davies, who recently made her screen debut in BBC1’s The Secret of Crickley Hall.

What is the one-sentence synopsis for your book?

Um… Imagine Enid Blyton’s ‘circus’ series meets Sherlock Holmes, with a little Jules Verne mixed in.

Will your book be self-published or are you represented by an agency?

It’s being published by Curious Fox, a new fiction publisher. I don’t have an agent. The Diamond Thief is out in February – and you can pre-order it from Amazon!

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Eleven weeks. It was actually first written for a wonderful company called Fiction Express. They publish choose-your-own adventure ebooks, where each chapter has questions at the end so that the readers can vote on the direction of the plot. They are now concentrating on producing brilliant interactive e-fiction for schools – it’s an excellent way of getting children to have fun with reading.

What other books in the same genre would you compare yours with?

I deliberately try to make my books as little like others as possible, and try not to read novels that I think may be very similar for that reason, though I’m sure just by osmosis there are things that people reading it would say are comparable to other stories. But perhaps Marcus Sedgwick’s The Dark Flight Down, just in terms of tone.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The development of the book as a whole, and specifically the tone, was very closely tied into the development of the main character, Rémy Brunel. I’ve been fascinated by Victorian women for a long time. For all it was a society built on restriction and restraint, there were some extraordinary women who managed to carve out phenomenal spaces for themselves, in a way that few of us do even today. I have a collection of female correspondence and also of books written by female travellers from around the time The Diamond Thief is set. My favourite of these accounts are by Isabella Bird, a pint-sized, rotund spinster who travelled all over the world, alone, to places like Hawaii, India, Tibet, Japan and China. One of her most famous trips was riding 800 miles through the Rocky Mountains. On her own! Through places with no tracks, let alone roads! I wouldn’t do that now, forget about then. When she finally agreed to marry her long-term suitor, it was on the tacit understand that she would still be allowed to do whatever travelling she liked – without him. When she died, in her sixties, she was in the middle of planning another trip to India. It was the independent adventurousness and indomitable spirit of women like her that inspired the character of Rémy.

What else about your book might pique the readers’ interest?

It’s a very London-centric book, and a lot of the places I mention in still exist, such as Limehouse basin and The Grapes pub. When I was writing it as an ebook, I used to take walks around the east end and tweet pictures of where I was and where Rémy had been. I think, when it comes out in February, I will do the same here, on my blog.

And that’s it! Thanks for reading. I now encourage you to follow the link to Stewart Ross’s Next Big Thing, which will be updated on the 19 December.