Category Archives: On Writing

Writing Better Dialogue

Writing great dialogue is an art. To me, it has to be up to the same standard as screen dialogue. If you cover up the dialogue and can’t tell which character is speaking then the dialogue needs rewriting.

Some good advice in this piece:

Using odd syntax & some slang is better way to convey accent than spelling out phonetically suggests Rowena Macdonald


Writers Talk About their Work

Thanks so much to author J.C Wing for inviting me on this tour….I met J.C. through Goodreads. She has two fabulous books you really must read – The Color of Thunder and Alabama Skye.

What am I working on?
I’m at the editing stage of writing a memoir – Castles in the Air: A Family Memoir of Love and Loss follows the life of my mother, Molly Ripley. From Molly’s childhood in colonial Hong Kong and Malaya; wartime adventures as rookie office girl in the far east outpost of Bletchley Park then as a young nurse in a London teaching hospital. It is the story of her life as seen through my eyes as I follow the ups and downs of her life.

In 1990 on a plane from Singapore to London Molly wrote: Met interesting Australian lady – SAYS I SHOULD WRITE MY BOOK.
Twenty years after my mother’s death I finally found the courage to piece together her story from the stash of diaries, letters and photographs I inherited.

It’s a story about secrets, tangled romance, the relationship between mothers and daughters and a portrait of a woman’s life, hopes and dreams.
Why do I write what I write what I do?
I’m drawn to recurring themes. I write about adversity and loss of innocence and I like exploring relationships between mothers and daughters
The first thriller, Revolution Earth was about a loss of innocence and betrayal. It’s that moment when Cara, the main character realises that the cause she thought she was fighting for turned out to be something completely different.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I like writing genre mash-ups. And I like using screenwriting techniques in writing fiction. As my background is in film and TV I’ve structured the memoir the same way I would structure a screen story or a novel. I think in images and sounds first before I think about the words on the page. In writing the thriller fiction one major difference compared with others in the genre is that I work with a co-writer. And many readers have commented that they can’t tell that it’s the work of two people.

How does my writing process work?
The only way I can get a screenplay or a book written is to be immersed in the project. If I’m not giving it 100%, I can’t focus and I’m too easily distracted. It’s akin to a ‘runner’s high’ where you zone out everything else. And if I have to simplify my life to make this happen, I will. Luckily I have a husband who likes to cook! Writer friends understand what it takes to write a book and how hermit-like you have to become in order to get it done. When I’m writing I can’t even read books in the same genre, as I worry that they’ll influence me.

To conclude this post I’d like to tell you about the two other authors who have kindly agreed to participate who will continue the blog chain:
Brenda Cheers is a novelist living in Brisbane, Australia. Her passion is writing suspense thrillers, which are page-turners from the start.
She has published five novels, two of which belong to the highly-acclaimed “Strange Worlds” series.
Renita Bryant is a native of Fort Valley, Georgia. Since obtaining her BS & MBA, she has worked for some of the world’s largest companies on many of the most recognizable household brands. Although she finds the work rewarding, her passion for writing compelled her to complete and publish her first novella, Yesterday Mourning, in May 2013.

Fractured – the prequel to Revolution Earth

fractured-banner.jpgFractured (a long short story) and available shortly is the prequel to Revolution Earth.  All proceeds will go to making the short film version, Fractured Earth, currently in development.

Sometimes it takes more than courage to stand up for what you believe in

Courier rider Cara decides to help anti-fracking protestor Jonie, who is passionate about causes but finds herself caught up in a much bigger operation than she can tackle alone. Cara, resentful, self-absorbed and indifferent to almost anyone but herself, is at first, reluctant.  As they sabotage fracking equipment, wrestle a former cop and are chased through the countryside, Cara learns to put someone else’s needs first.  And Jonie finds out that sometimes even the strongest individuals need to ask for help.

In a damp field in Hampshire just before dawn, JONIE, 23 blonde hair tucked loosely under her cap,  crawls commando style to spy on a secret fracking site.

In Bethnal Green, stroppy cycle courier CARA, 19 is pissed off that she’s  been called in to work on her day off to go and haul Jonie back in to the office. A package has gone missing, the client is threatening to sue and their boss TARIQ, 39, who just manages to make a living at his courier firm, is livid.

While Jonie is on the phone to Tariq, giving her side of the story, he tracks her phone expertly on his computer screen.  Jonie hangs up abruptly. The frackers are on to her.  Cara, always up for a bit of aggro, is suddenly interested and eagerly sets off on her bike to bring Jonie back. Cara pedals furiously through city streets and country lanes with Tariq directing her from his computer.  As the road runs out, he sends her along a rutted bridleway.

Meanwhile, back at fracking central, with the workers on a cigarette break, Jonie steals the keys to a digger.  But when former cop PHIL, late 40s, who hates his job as a lowly security guard, starts his shift, he finds the keys missing and a hair scrunchie with tell-tale blonde hair attached.  A glimmer of reflected  sunlight gives away Jonie’s hideaway. Phil ambushes Jonie.  Then threatens her.  The other workers surround her. There’s nowhere to run.  She throws the keys in the air.  Splat. They land in a cowpat.  The guys snigger. Phil, angry at being humiliated, goes to get the keys but at the last minute grabs Jonie. He frogmarches her across the field and throws her off the land.

Cara is so bushed, she has to walk her bike across the field.  Relief, as she spots a dejected Jonie slumped in the hedge.  But Jonie is furious with her. She tells Cara where to go.  Tariq’s not just a boss but a friend and Cara doesn’t like it when an ungrateful rider tries to dick him around.  Jonie stops Cara in full rant and hands over her iPad to show Cara that Tariq’s client, the PR company, have lured protestors to the wrong sites. The real dirt is going on right here.

Jonie admits that even though she thought she could tackle this by herself she really could do with Cara’s help.  Cara tells Jonie’s she’s mad but that, yeah, she’s in.

As it gets dark and the other workers knock off and only Phil is left, Jonie and Cara make a run for it to sabotage a digger. But the fuel cap is locked.  Jonie finds a screwdriver in her bag and improvises with a stone to hammer it off.  But Phil has spotted the both of them. He runs out of  the nearby portakabin carrying a crow scarer attached to a gas cylinder.  Boom!  At night, in the countryside, to Jonie it sounds like a bomb.  She drops her tools and shivers with fright. But Cara isn’t so easily scared.

She drills the lid off the fuel cap. Just as she’s pouring sugar into the fuel tank, Phil roars up the field in a huge, menacing tractor, headlights on full.  Both Jonie and Cara are momentarily blinded by the light.  Phil leaves the powerful engine running and leaps from the tractor. Jonie is ready for him.   She fends off Phil with karate kicks so precise and rapid that even muscly Phil is no match for her.

Cara and Jonie run for their lives.  Phil floors it in the powerful tractor, gaining on them until he is on their tail. They leap the gate, struggle to find the bikes and set off down the lane.  Phil, at full throttle is determined to catch them but at the last moment the two fugitives escape down the bridlepath.

As Jonie and Cara head off to face Tariq, Cara stands on her pedals in a dance of victory.  She reaches out to high five Jonie.

Back in the office, Tariq hunches over his computer screen. He watches two blinking dots moving side by side on his computer map; his face lit by a hint of a smile.

Food is the Drug and She Needs to Score: Mad Men Season 5

In a well-written novel or TV drama you shouldn’t be able to notice the signposting of historical events.  In Downton Abbey, this can be clunky, mainly because the series is a sort of posh soap opera, about life on the Downton estate.  In order to give the viewer a historical context, the writer has the characters discuss politics and events taking place in the wider world.  On occasions it seems contrived, particularly where Irish chauffeur turned estate manager, Tom Branson is concerned.

With whichever character he is talking to at the time, Tom seems remarkably well-informed about the Easter Rising in 1916 and then latterly the war for independence in Ireland. It’s all the more admirable, when you consider that he spends nearly all his time stuck in the middle of rural Yorkshire. And his only source of news, (apart from letters) are newspapers, as the BBC didn’t even exist before 1921 and radio broadcasts only began at the end of 1922.

Mad Men pulls off the trick of creating the historical story world rather better:

Season 5, Episode 8 is set at Thanksgiving in 1966, when New York is shrouded in a cloud of poisonous smog. Don Draper and his team at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price have won the Heinz baked beans account.  In an ironic parallel storyline, suburban housewife Betty Francis, Don’s ex wife is pinning her hopes on losing weight with a future Heinz owned company – Weight Watchers.

Weight Watchers is barely three years old in 1966, and if Betty’s breakfast is anything to go by, still had some way to go with its eating plan.  Like many on prescribed diets, Betty is required to eat a bizarre combination of foods she wouldn’t normally eat and, we see her joylessly eating burnt white toast, half a grapefruit and carefully weighed cubes of cheese.

Watching the point in history when the diet industry was born is fascinating, particularly as it is 50 years ago now since Weight Watchers was dreamed up by New York housewife Jean Nidetch.  And although the company may well have helped  many people lose weight, it has made far more money out of failure, from yo-yo dieters who have had to go back on the programme after they’ve put it all back on.

Betty personifies the kind of person for whom no amount of weight loss classes or dietary advice is going to help, unless she can address that her overeating is a symptom and not the cause of her unhappiness.  Like many of us, Betty is an emotional eater.  And in the week before her weigh-in, there is one huge diet-wrecking emotional trigger that sends Betty overboard.

When picking up the children from Don and Megan’s, Betty can’t resist letting herself into the apartment while Megan is busy. As she walks around the light filled Manhattan apartment with its trendy décor and fabulous views, she seems to be comparing her former life with Don to the one he has with Megan, and in that moment finds her own wanting.

But it is when she spies Megan getting changed, casually throwing a sweater over her lithe and beautiful body, that so cruelly drives the message home to Betty: Don has replaced her with a younger, much thinner model and as Betty looks down at her frumpy shirtwaister dress, her self-esteem has shrunk to an all-time low.

This emotional trigger of the loss of her own youth and beauty sends Betty straight to the fridge when she gets home: she’s not hungry, she’s after a quick fix to allay her anxiety and grabs the nearest junk food, a can of Cool Whip (fake whipped cream) and squirts it straight into her mouth.  And the advertising agency that won the Cool Whip account? SCDP, of course.  But even Betty in her moment of despair comes to her senses: she spits the mouthful out.

And in another neat history defining moment, Cool Whip (luckily for the rest of the world, never sold anywhere outside North America) is perhaps the first food product manufactured in a lab – consisting of  high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils, the baddies that helped make America and the rest of the Western world fat.

It is little wonder then that at her first Weight Watchers meeting, Betty is unenthusiastic about having to stand up and have her weight recorded in front of the meeting at the group weigh-in.  While the woman who loses the most weight that week is politely applauded, this immediately invites negative comparisons from the other women there who couldn’t find the necessary willpower that week.  By the downcast look on her face, Betty regards her half-pound loss as failure, although the group leader tries to mitigate her disappointment with encouraging words.  Betty feels the need to explain herself and without going into detail tells the group, that she “had a very trying experience the previous week.” We the audience know exactly what Betty is talking about, even if the weight loss group doesn’t.

It’s not just Betty who comfort eats in this episode, either.  She finds husband Henry cooking himself a late-night steak as he confides that he’s worried about his political future.  He tells her that he can’t live on fish five nights a week.  Betty apologises, as she is genuinely fond of Henry and doesn’t want to alienate him. She willingly participates in the midnight feast and we see him feeding her pieces of steak.

Back at the final weigh-in at Weight Watchers before Thanksgiving, Betty and her fellow group members are warned about the food temptations that will be lurking around every corner this holiday weekend.  Betty hasn’t lost any weight, and her group leader tells her that staying the same is better than gaining.  Betty finds the homilies a little difficult to believe but is ready to trot them out again at the Francis family Thanksgiving dinner. When it’s her turn to give thanks, she says, “I’m thankful that I have everything I want. And that no-one else has anything better.” We all know that this is a lie – in that Megan, in her eyes seems to have it all.  As if to underscore Betty’s feelings at this point, she turns to food once again, to try to solve her emotional problems and grabs a bite of (presumably forbidden) Turkey stuffing from her plate. There is an emotional beat as Betty’s face lights up in a moment of sheer pleasure.  Food is the drug here, and she’s just scored. 




And the Mountains Echoed


TV news reduces Afghanistan to a dusty backdrop where wars have been fought, often by outsiders while its people have had to stand by while their country is over-run by ever more brutal regimes, each one seemingly more desperate for power.  It is, perhaps, one of the world’s most misunderstood countries yet with this one work of fiction And the Mountains Echoed Khaled Hosseini shows us that what matters most in life is the same, whether you are a dirt-poor family from Afghanistan, or a rich one who lives in the West. 

It is a beautifully told, sprawling masterpiece of a tale about two siblings, Abdhullah and Pari, who are separated as children because their family cannot afford to keep them both. 

I doubt there are many other writers who could pull off what Hosseini has done in this book: telling his overarching story of Abdullah and Pari in a series of vignettes, with each chapter told by a different character, sometimes two.  Some reviewers have commented that these chapters are so self-contained they could even be short stories while other readers have criticised the writer for this.

I stand somewhere between the two sides, admiring this experimental story-telling technique and the vast cast of characters that move in and out of the narrative – some of whom disappear without a trace. I never once found it to be a distraction as all Hosseini’s characters are so believable that I enjoyed these tangential asides. I think the writer is mirroring real life – where people do move in and out of our lives.

The denouement, for some readers, was unsatisfactory, but for me, in the vast tragic story of a family from Afghanistan, there can be no such thing as a neat, Hollywood ending.

The land of the long white cloud

I am still taking in the news that Eleanor Catton, beat off the competition to win this year’s Man Booker Prize. And as my thoughts are turning to an upcoming trip back to New Zealand in a few weeks time, I’ve been planning what am I going to read on my Kindle when I’m away. The Luminaries – of course!

Here is Eleanor Catton in the Guardian writing about growing up in New Zealand’s South Island, where I lived as a child. I particularly like the paragraph where she says this: ‘To experience sublime natural beauty is to confront the total inadequacy of language to describe what you see.’ I also agree with her when she says that she doesn’t feel the same way when she looks at a city because a city has been ‘formally determined.’

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King: a masterclass in how to write compelling characters

As Stephen King’s much- anticipated follow-up to The Shining has recently been reviewed in the press, one or two broadsheet critics just couldn’t resist taking a swipe at King, accusing him of manipulating the reader as well as writing a sequel that doesn’t quite match the original. I can’t help feeling that there are still critics out there who resent King’s right to be taken seriously as a good writer, just because he specialises in the horror genre.
Steven Poole’s Guardian review of Dr Sleep, I am glad to say, shows King the respect he deserves, making the point that it was thanks to ‘more culturally acceptable novels such as the claustrophobic masterpiece Misery that King has grudgingly been admitted by the lit-crit folk into the ranks of “actually good writers” as opposed to mere megaselling dimestore artists.’
I would put King’s earlier work, Dolores Claiborne in Poole’s category of ‘more culturally acceptable novels,’ if a psychological thriller about domestic violence is considered more culturally acceptable than one with supernatural themes. It is a testament to King’s phenomenal output that other works of his have overshadowed this particular novel. I was drawn to it primarily as it is not only written in the first person but Dolores tells her story entirely in her own dialogue as she’s being interviewed by two police officers. I might just be able to tell a story in one character’s dialogue for the duration of a short story, but to do this over an entire novel where you have to rachet up the tension and suspense, believe me, takes some doing.
Dolores, who is in her sixties, is taken in for questioning over the suspicious death of her employer, Vera Donovan. Although Dolores and Vera had their differences, Dolores is adamant that she didn’t kill Vera. Dolores does have a confession to make but it’s not about Vera, it’s about Joe, her husband, who died back in 1963.
As well as admiring the way this tale is told, I found the voice of Dolores particularly effective. Housekeeper would be too grand a title for what Dolores does for Mrs Donovan – she’s more like a cleaner and general dogsbody and although I know next to nothing about how such a person from an island off Maine might speak, I’m convinced by Dolores’s speech patterns and dialogue. Here is Dolores explaining what it’s like to be poor: ‘With Joe out of the pitcher and no money coming in, I was in a fix, I can tell you – I got an idear there’s no one in the whole world feels as desperate as a woman on her own with kids dependin on her.’
King tells it like it is for the struggling and the down-trodden and in this era of celebrity-obsessed culture, Dolores Claiborne is a masterclass in how to write meaningful and compelling characters.