The art and craft of writing

Sue Elliott on Writing
Cartoon by my good friend John Byrne, cartoonist and Agony Uncle for ‘The Stage’.

Here you’ll find snippets on different aspects of the art and craft of writing.

This relates to my own experience writing non-fiction, but much of it also applies to fiction too. I’m fascinated by the whole process of getting a book from idea to product, so there will be stuff about that.

The practicalities are easy to pin down. The fluffy stuff is more difficult: inspiration, refining an idea, finding a voice, shaping a narrative, overcoming doubt. Nothing would happen without them. So – over time – they’ll be here too.

They won’t appear in any sensible order but as the fancy takes me. And they aren’t meant to build up into a definitive guide, more a ‘how it works (and sometimes doesn’t) for me’.

It’s also a space for you to share your own thoughts, ideas and experience.

A rather longer intermission than I’d hoped…

Long time, no blog.  With two projects completed in pretty quick succession, I’d sort of got in the habit of concentrated writing. No bad thing – but 18 months without a book on the stocks has left me twiddling my thumbs and succumbing to a lot of Emergency Holidays.

Rather than being completely dilatory I am writing the life story of an elderly friend in his 90s. His WW2 service was in India and Indonesia – a theatre I knew next to little about, so it was a good opportunity to learn something. Learning interesting new things is one of the principal joys of non-fiction writing and perhaps what I miss most about not having a project on the go.

A British patrol against insurgents in Java

So I am learning a bit about the British Indian Army, Jemadars and Subedar Majors, the insurgents who wanted to kick the Dutch out of what was then the Dutch East Indies, and the horrors that surrounded the partition of India at the end of the British Raj.

Though nothing like the scale of the task untaken for Britain’s Greatest Generation, and likely to be read by a handful of people rather than thousands, it’s just as worthwhile and reminds me that life-stories are intrinsically valuable – exceptional or ordinary, thrilling or mundane – especially to those close to the loved-ones who won’t always be with us.

I write this days away from the centenary of the 1918 Armistice with much in the news about those who fell and the impact on those who survived. So perhaps I’m more conscious than usual of the march of time and the need to record the everyday experiences of those who lived through very different and much tougher times. We owe them a debt of gratitude: recording their efforts, however apparently modest, is a worthy act of remembrance.

2019 will, I hope bring new projects. A major series for the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is being pitched to the big international streaming services. There may be an associated book.  The idea for a novel, based on an intriguing and enigmatic character from 20th century history and a house where extraordinary things went on, refuses to go away despite my best efforts to kill it through inactivity.

Something may happen, especially if I have the courage to make it!

‘Not Guilty’ launched at London’s iconic gay bookshop – TV to follow!

Gay’s the Word, the UK’s first serious gay bookshop (as featured in the brilliant 2014 film Pride), hosted the launch this week of our book Not Guilty: Queer Stories from a Century of Discrimination. 

The shop, which has been on lively Marchmont Street, WC1 since 1979, is a tiny treasure-house of fascinating stuff across the spectrum of LGBT+ subjects and writers. The staff are lovely and there’s masses of interest here for everyone, gay or straight.

IMG_9229The manager Jim could not have been more welcoming and gave the book a wonderful introductory endorsement: “of the half dozen books out for the 50th anniversary, this the one I like the best because it represents the experience of the older men who come into the shop”.

Quite a crowd braved a wet evening for Waitrose refreshments and to hear the testimony of Terry, Stephen and Ed. They all feature in the book with different but equally moving and instructive stories about the discrimination they faced in the ’70s and ’80s and how they fought back.

Terry and Stephen also appear in Steve Humphries’ documentary, now called Convicted for Love, to be shown in the UK on More 4 on Monday 10th July at 9pm.

I was specially pleased that so many of the men we interviewed were able to come to the launch, many of them with their husbands/partners. It was great to be able to welcome them and show them the book for the first time.

IMG_9223We were both on signing duty and the shop did a brisk trade. Here Steve signs the book for Stephen…

…and below I’m talking to lovely Jim from the bookshop and doing my impersonation of someone dragged through a hedge backwards. But at least I’m smiling! Behind me is old friend and well-known journalist David Hepworth, whose current book on the demise of the rock star, Uncommon People is storming up the charts.  Jealous, moi?



Not Guilty is published by Biteback (thank you Olivia for producing a quality product in double-quick time and Isabelle for publicity) at £12.99. You can get it at Gay’s the Word or – if you’re not handy for Marchmont Street – here.

That’s the second book written in the past 12 months. There will now be a short intermission while I summon the creative energy to decide what to do next. Until then…

Not Guilty

This is the title (at the moment) of my latest book and the reason for the long blogging silence. It’s an oral history based on the lives of 20 or so gay men over the past 100 years and again it’s a collaboration with Steve Humphries, who is making a Channel 4 documentary to accompany it (as I like to think of it, though it’s really the other way round).

Like the Aberfan book, it had to be written in a matter of weeks. What made this possible was the power and lucidity of the stories the book and doc are built around. Stories like Alex Purdie’s…  Alex was an out gay man in the 1930s when ‘out’ and ‘gay’ had different meanings. He got a taste for frocks and lipstick from the age of 5 and spent much of the war in both as part of an army concert party entertaining the troops in the Far East.

3.5 Entertaining the troops. No wet feathers here

His story, and the many others of ‘ordinary’ gay men in the book remind us that gay rights have been hard-won since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised sex acts between men (women who love women have never been criminalised) 50 years ago. We’ve come far, especially since the late 1990s, but with bumps along the way like AIDS and Section 28 which set the cause back years.

Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far-right in Europe are bad news for all minority groups – which make handy targets for hatred in troubled times. We take nothing for granted: hard-won rights, whether they benefit us directly or not, have to be defended.

Not Guilty: Queer Stories from a Century of Discrimination published by Biteback. Book and Channel 4 documentary out June 2017 (probably).


‘Aberfan: the People’s Story’ presented to the Prince of Wales

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Aberfan disaster (see previous post) and my book about the tragedy with TV partner Steve Humphries and life partner Bevan Jones was published by Grosvenor House a few weeks ago. Steve’s wonderfully moving documentary, Surviving Aberfan was shown on BBC4 the previous evening and can be viewed on iPlayer here.

Former Mayor of Merthyr and Aberfan survivor Jeff Edwards, the last child to be pulled out of the slurry and rubble alive, was kind enough to write our Foreword. But he amazed us this week by telling us that he would be presenting a copy to Prince Charles on his formal Royal visit to Aberfan yesterday to mark the anniversary. Jeff – who has met both the Prince and the Queen on several occasions – had already sent a copy to the Queen, who has always shown a special interest in the people of Aberfan.

So we can now claim two firsts for our humble self-published book: the BBC logo on the front and knowing copies are now gracing royal bookshelves at Clarence House and Buckingham Palace. Let’s hope they don’t notice the egregious typsetting error on Page 1 of the Acknowledgements.

In fact that was one of few hiccoughs with Grosvenor House. In general they pulled out all the stops for us to get the books in shops and on Amazon in good time for the anniversary and all the media attention we knew it would have. Their admin people Tamsin, Ruth and Jackie worked hard for us and so we can recommend GHP with confidence. Not cheap, but so long as your instructions are clear they deliver.

If only Amazon had been so co-operative… they took ages to correct an over-charging ‘error’ and are still not advertising as In Stock, although we know it is. Perhaps all self-published books are penalised in this way?  An interesting object lesson for independently-published authors…

Aberfan revisited – after 50 years

I’m shocked and appalled to discover that it’s been five months since the last post – but I have the best of excuses. I’ve been writing. This one crept up on me and then it took over… but it has been a unique privilege and one I wouldn’t have missed.

50 years ago a coal waste tip fell on a school in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, killing 116 children.
50 years ago a coal waste tip fell on a school in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, killing 116 children.

This is Aberfan. In October 1966 thousands of tonnes of coal waste and rubble fell down a mountainside onto a primary school in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan. 144 people were killed – 116 of them children. Most of them died in the school. It was one of the worst peacetime disasters in Britain in living memory. As a 15 year-old I remember seeing those terrible black and white TV pictures live from the scene and those images have stayed with me.

But what about those directly involved? The stories of the handful of children pulled from the rubble, the rescue teams and the parents who lost children are harrowing and heart-breaking enough, but how they survived the years that followed is instructive and often inspirational.

When a book to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster was first mooted – again in collaboration with a Testimony Films BBC commission – I was enthusiastic but it seemed a long-shot. Potential interviewees for the documentary were initially reluctant to come forward, and for entirely understandable reasons. Retrieving painful memories of a tragic time – and for the cameras – is a big ask. The project stalled and at one point seemed doomed. Only painstaking work by the production team and vital mediation by an influential community leader broke the deadlock. Suddenly the TV documentary – and the book – were back on.

Just one logistical challenge: to meet the anniversary date 27 long audio interviews had to be transcribed and turned into a 50+k book in a matter of two months.  Needless to say, it is done. The story of how it happened and how it will eventually get published will appear in due course elsewhere on this site, but suffice to say as I write that the manuscript is delivered, photos have been captioned and the cover designed.

Sweat and logistics aside, I’ve been privileged to live in a world of Welsh voices telling their stories – both sad and uplifting – for the past 6 weeks. I have never met these people yet I feel I know them. If I’m lucky, I might yet get to meet some of them. In the meantime I hope – with my co-authors Steve and Bevan – to have done them and their experiences justice. I know Steve’s documentary has. Now the book needs to do the same.

Surviving Aberfan: the People’s Story  published by Grosvenor House. Surviving Aberfan BBC One in Wales, BBC Four in the rest of the UK. Tx tba.

Now in Paperback!

Breaking news: Britain’s Greatest Generation is about to appear in paperback (May 19th) – but hang on, what was that I was saying about titles…?

Random House, in their wisdom, have decided on a title change, so the paperback will appear as Voices of World War Two: Memories of the Last Survivors. 

You can sBGGPBee the logic. War titles sell. And perhaps BGG  wasn’t sufficiently Ronseal to speak to potential buyers. The fact that it’s a lot more than ‘the war’ (though it is the centrepiece of the book and our subjects’ lives) is neither here nor there when it comes to marketing.  And the reworking is cheekily aligned with the successful ‘Voices of...’ 20th century history franchise (thank the gods of publishing there’s no copyright on titles). So it’s probably a canny move.

A ghost of the original title remains in the lovely quote from Family Tree magazine: “Wonderful… this is a rich, heart-warming record of a generation to whom we owe so much.”  

Bookseller reports strong advance orders, so we shall see whether a change of title can engineer a change of fortune on the sales front.  Meanwhile, I Heard My Country Calling is unlikely to see the light of day in paperback. Hardback sales haven’t been sufficient to justify it apparently, which is mightily disappointing but unsurprising given the lack of marketing effort.

But onwards we go…

What’s in a name? Choosing your title

Tricky business, titles. You’re looking for something intriguing that will draw buyers in, but not so obscure as to give no clue as to what’s between the covers. The publisher of my book about adoption, Love Child, thought it might get confused with the Diana Ross song so I came up with 39 crappy alternatives. Possibly the worst was Before I Was Me – which, oh horror, they really liked.  Luckily, common sense prevailed and the vaguely intriguing but otherwise meaningless failed to supplant the perfectly descriptive original.

Ronseal titles (‘It does what it says on the tin’) are still very much in vogue for both fiction and non-fiction but sometimes this can get you into trouble. One reader took The Children Who Fought Hitler so literally he used his (one-star)  Amazon review to complain that there were no 9-year olds grappling hand-to-hand with Der Führer. As writers and publishers know, you have to take some liberties with titles to stand out among so many competing titles. Most – but obviously not all – readers understand this.

I’ve had three of my titles already chosen for me, as they were TV tie-ins. Luckily, I was pretty happy with all of them. But for the most recent I had to think up my own. This was extraordinarily difficult. I wanted something that encapsulated the bravery of my subject, secret agent Elaine Madden, and gave a flavour of the patriotic times she lived in. I just couldn’t get it until Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s first woman Prime Minister loved and hated in equal measure – came unexpectedly to the rescue…

I was watching her funeral on TV where they played the popular patriotic hymn, I Vow To Thee, My Country.  Inspired, I Googled the lyrics and found a little-known middle verse. Its first line was just what I’d been looking for: I Heard My Country Calling.  Bingo!

So, in the absence of a Ronseal solution, I’d say that other people’s words (Shakespeare is the No. 1 choice) are a handy resource for us lesser talents.  So, now the hunt is on for a working title for the next project now in its very earliest gestation…

My Left Foot

20160107_184513_resized… is currently encased in an attractive flesh-coloured plastic moonboot, secured by big strips of Velcro which stick annoyingly to the carpet and everything else.

A fractured metatarsal. It happened on a cobbled drive outside our hotel on Day 3 of the holiday, so I ended up sampling more books than planned. I kicked off with the Mollie Panter-Downes short stories, which didn’t disappoint. The Susan Hill crime thriller was pretty pedestrian but All the Light We Cannot See lived up to the hype: a sort-of love story set in WW2 St Malo. It’s long and the ‘fractured narrative’ demands concentration, but I found it involving. In fact I was crying by the final pages.

20151217_160755_resizedAnother brick-sized tome I really enjoyed was Priscilla: the Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France,  an intriguing antidote to Elaine’s heroic story. Very different women with polar opposite responses to war.  But with eerie similarities too…

After all this reading I still had 2 days of enforced sitting by the pool in prospect so I was reduced to picking up The Lake District Murder  from the hotel library – the best of a ropey old bunch, much of it in Swedish.  This was a tedious 1935 crime procedural without any character development or local colour but full of technical detail about the inside of petrol tankers. I waded to its bleedin’ obvious conclusion while waiting in my wheelchair for airside assistance at the airport.

So, quite a literary holiday on the whole.

Holiday reading

As I’m not writing at the moment, there’s a chance to catch up on reading, and the upcoming holiday means a break from the usual routine – shopwashcooktellysleep – and some lazy days ahead in which to do nothing but enjoy other people’s writing.

I love the Persephone Books list – they republish forgotten 20th century gems, many by women writers. The writing is generally so precise, so literate – and so redolent of times past, some of which I just about remember from my childhood in the 1950s.  At the moment I’m reading Noel Streatfield’s The Saplings.  She’s famous for children’s books, notably Ballet Shoes, but she writes wonderfully for adults too.

Next up for the holiday, another Persephone: a short story collection by Mollie Panter-Downes. Better known for her regular column, Letters From London, for the New York Times during WW2, she evokes the atmosphere of the Blitz-torn capital in much of her other writing so I’m really looking forward to her short stories, Good Evening, Mrs Craven.

Fiona at Pitshanger Bookshop recommended All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner  Looks interesting, and there’s even a WW2 dimension – my obsession and inspiration.  Judging by the swoony reviews (which can’t always be trusted) it promises to be a page-turner.  And, for light relief, a Susan Hill crime yarn, The Various Haunts of Men, the first in her Simon Serrailler series. It’s set in a fictional small cathedral city, so I shall imagine that it’s Chichester, a small cathedral city on England’s south coast which I know very well.

Happy Christmas!  Or to my American readers, Happy Holidays!  Keep writing – and reading – and see you next year.

‘How to write best-selling non-fiction…’

I know I can do the writing bit. It’s the ‘best-selling’ bit I’d like to do better. So I joined a Guardian Masterclass last Sunday afternoon to find out how…

I’d been on a weekend GM course before, so I knew the form. Kings Place is a mightily impressive building but it manages not to be intimidating. On the edge of the wonderful Kings Cross redevelopment, it is both cooly contemporary but also welcoming, so unlike the Step-No-Further newspaper offices of the past.

The course was led by Simon Garfield, who’s written or edited 17 non-fiction titles and whose latest, the edited diaries of an unknown Englishwoman spanning 60 years, is getting admiring reviews. Oh, to be half as creative and successful…

He was a sympathetic and helpful tutor and his unusual speech impediment made me listen to what he was saying more intently, trying to work out what combination of letters tended to trip him up. He did us (about 60 or 70 of us) the very great compliment of treating us all as professional-writers-in-waiting, though probably less than 1 in 10 had actually published anything. No matter. We were there, so we must be serious about our craft.

I’d be putting Guardian Masterclasses out of business if I repeated all his valuable tips – some of which were already painfully familiar to anyone who’d actually been through the professional publishing mill – but two small things did hit home:

  • don’t talk about your book idea or work-in-progress, because every time you do, it tends to die a little for you. How true this is, so I intend to stop immediately. Which is a bit of a bummer for the future of the ‘New Projects’ section of this website…
  • turn off the net when you’re writing. No-one will die if you don’t reply to emails for 24-hours (or even a week).  I can be disciplined once the study door is shut, but this doesn’t stop me reading every interesting-looking email as it pings in. Perhaps I could have finished those books weeks earlier without the pings? So I shall stop that, too.

So, in answer to the question about Masterclasses posed about a dozen posts ago, I’d say that yes, they are worthwhile. Everything you can pick up from published writers, agents and publishing professionals will help you reflect on and improve your craft.  And in the process you’re bound to get chatting to interesting people who share your passion for writing – and, who knows, other things too. What’s not to like?