Category Archives: Novel writing

On location with Split Symmetry

My second novel, Split Symmetry, was set in a mountain range in Abruzzo, central Italy after I discovered it one year whilst on holiday with friends in the region. A ski resort in the winter, the mountain range is home to one of the highest peaks in Italy, certainly the tallest outside of the Alps. At nearly 3,000 metres, the Corno Grande peak within the range is so tall I nearly suffered altitude sickness the first time I went up it.

Gran Sasso also houses the southernmost glacier in Europe next to the summit of the Corno Grande, sadly expected to have disappeared by 2020 due to climate change.

On my first visit, I drove there on the back of my husband’s motorbike which he keeps at his family home in Rome for occasions such as these! En route we passed through a 10 km tunnel which cuts through the mountain itself. It was cold and we were running out of petrol (a typical scenario) so I started to look around me, in case we ended up having to stop.

I was surprised to notice reinforced metal doors cut into the sides of the tunnels. They looked like something out of James Bond and indeed afterwards I discovered that behind them lay something of great importance: Italy’s National Laboratories. It was in these labs that scientists received the ‘faster-than-light’ neutrinos which had been fired across from CERN in Switzerland in 2011.

The second time I visited the mountain I had to follow four bikers up to Campo Imperatore, a plain about half way up. Stopping every so often to provide them with roadside drinks and snacks, I had plenty of time to observe how the weather changed from hot and sunny to ominous and brooding to darkly torrential in the space of a couple of hours.

I waited at Campo Imperatore for an hour or so at the end of the bike ride, enough time for its strange atmosphere to soak into my skin: this was the last place Mussolini hid before the Germans picked him up during the second world war. And it feels like a small piece of those events still resides somewhere in the ether there. There’s something about the oddness of the tumble down hotel, little changed in several decades, and the gleaming towers of the Rome Observatory, which sits on the edge of the Campo, to lend the surroundings an other-worldly feel. The area seems to transcend time – quite apt for my novel.

On my third visit I climbed up the wrong side of the Corno Grande slope with ropes…with a guide, I hasten to add. It got me thinking about how perilous it could be to do this kind of climb in the middle of the night, and how resourceful you’d need to be to do it safely.

Each time I went, I passed earthquake-torn Aquila on the way, still looking tumble down and broken. I thought, what if an earthquake hit whilst you were up the mountain. Then I thought about all the times I’d been involved in near miss hiking disasters – a few times, as it happens, because hiking is a risky business, far more so than many people realise.

And that led to my ‘what if’ question which led to the novel.

There’s more to it, of course, including a backstory worthy of LOST and an incredible catastrophe, in which my protagonist, Elena, and her friends, are forced to question the nature of reality itself…Will they survive it?

 

Set in the near future, Split Symmetry is the story of what happens when a hike in the notorious Gran Sasso mountain range in central Italy descends into chaos on the same night that scientists decide to work on a clandestine experiment in a lab beneath the mountain. Dr Elena Lewis must work around the clock to find members of her group who have become lost on the mountain, but just as she is close to finding them, the region is rocked by one of the worst earthquakes central Italy has ever known.

Get your copy on Amazon, today.

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Writing Split Symmetry

Mountain split symmetryThe writing of Split Symmetry was an odd experience. It was a rollercoaster, on both an emotional and spiritual level. It was a process which changed my approach to novel writing, and which changed me. It was my ‘via crucis’, the road which would decide if this novel-writing business was for me.

In many ways, it is my true debut. Borderliners was a tale which exercised my mind and troubled my heart, but an easier story in many ways to categorise and get hold of. A learning curve, it was also a novel which was rewritten many times before it was done (and still, I wonder, is it really done?). It was my John the Baptist, the one who was to pave the way, my lost leader (all too important in the indie publishing trenches), my trial run. Although I may need to revisit at some point, maybe to tweak a bit for a second edition, for now my protagonist needed to move on.

So, there was a fork in the road, a Faber Academy course in the middle and many many game changing experiences along the way. I am not the writer I was when I stood at the start of Split Symmetry, thinking it would be easy, thinking I’d got my technique down. Not so.

Turns out I chose a difficult task to execute.

Blood sweat and tears didn’t cover it. I wrote every day and read as much as I could about the writing process.  I bared all to my fellow writers on the Faber course I followed. They were merciless – actually we were all merciless with each other (don’t worry, we’re all still friends), and to the benefit of everyone. I ended up living my characters like a method actor, in order to understand their motivations, their weaknesses and their character arcs. It wasn’t easy. Considering one of them has a condition which some might consider to be borderline psychosis (although I don’t, not really), this could have been a dangerous exercise.

But I lived to tell the tale, and finish the novel.

What I ended up with was a complex beast, and truly a story with many layers – probably more than this debut writer was really ready to tackle. It has had so many different reactions from readers, many polarised. Some people relate to the story as a pure action adventure, like the Poseiden Adventure. Others are drawn by the relationships between the main characters: two sets of siblings, all of them damaged, all of them with everything and nothing to play for. Others still, turned the pages to find out the conclusion to the story within the story, the dark secret one set of siblings has, which repeats on them forever more. For me, it was the spiritual, philosophical and metaphysical undertones to the story which exercised my mind most of all.

I enjoyed following Dr Elena Lewis into the next chapter of her life. It took me to places I wouldn’t have predicted as both she and her co-protagonist, James Dennison, took on lives of their own during the writing of the book. In some ways this was unnerving, but in others it was heartening: I had found my artistic distance in this book, the point where what I produced became something different, something unexpected.

Now, the tale is ready to be released.

Split Symmetry, available from 27 June 2014 on Amazon

More about Split Symmetry

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The allure of the strong female protagonist

I’ll let you into a secret. 

The protagonist of the Borderliners Trilogy, Dr Elena Lewis, is not a strong woman. At least, she doesn’t start out that way. She has her moments, but she is challenged, over-faced by the extent to which life pushes back at her, insecure, torn apart by the burden of knowing too much, seeing more than she needs to in the souls of others.

And here’s another one.

It’s been no easy ride writing a character like this. I’m writing another character now, one who is lined up to take the baton from Elena when she is ready to retire from centre stage.  This character is stronger, sassier, has less time for men and idiots than her more sensitive predecessor. This is a woman I like. The woman I would have liked to have been.

But it’s far too easy. I know that writing this kind of woman will resonate with readers. They will want to sit back and enjoy the ride, watching what this woman gets up to, peeking from between finger tips as she strides about, riding roughshod over fools.

Back to Elena. Why has she been so problematic for me? Because she represents challenges and insecurities, she shows me how it feels to try and fail, to opt for a quiet life and instead, to be found by trouble. This is the woman I don’t want to be, but fear I could become. Her character arc is important because it serves as a warning, a reminder of choices made and paths trodden which could have been otherwise, which could have been worse, a reminder of what can happen when the going gets tough.

So is it the responsible thing? To create a character people will more easily warm to, whom people will allow themselves to be entertained by. To pander to the need of people to be pulled along in their reading experience, by characters they can aspire to, rather than those they have to suffer alongside?

Time will tell.

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The writing process blog tour

I’ve been nominated by fellow ALLi author, EJ Lamprey, for the Writing Process Blog Tour.

Elizabeth Lamprey is working on her fifth whodunit after releasing Seven Eight Play It Straight in April – all the whodunits are set in Scotland, near Edinburgh, and are light-hearted fiendishly-plotted challenges to armchair detectives everywhere. She has a secret passion for SF and one day will invent a charismatic mystery-solving alien. One day.
Here is her post about her writing process.
As for my answers to the questions about what, why and how I write, here they are…

1. What am I working on now?
I’m working on my third novel, WorldCult, and a collection of poems. I’m also following a genre fiction course run by PWA, which I’m using to hone my awareness of genre. It’s all very exciting, but terrifying at the same time.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

It differs a lot because it is all cross-genre!

Each of the books in the Borderliners Trilogy has a speculative undercurrent, but they are slightly different from one another in genre.

Book 1, Borderliners, is part occult, psychological thriller and part ghost story, whereas Split Symmetry (book 2, out July 2014) is an international adventure thriller as well as a metaphysical love story which some might categorise as ‘romance suspense’.

WorldCult (book 3, out December 2014) is more of a big-concept international conspiracy thriller.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I write in order to explore some of the questions I have in life. For example, what is reality? What about free will and personal responsibility, or the existence of moral systems? Why do powerful people sometimes decide this for others, often with disastrous consequences? What is love, and why does it bind us? This post by io9 pretty much sums up the main questions I’m interested in.

I like to explore these questions within my books. I also see the writing-reading relationship as a form of 3D communication. As Milan Kundera said in ‘The Art of the Novel’, the writer begins the vision but the reader completes it in their own way. Readers often see entirely unexpected elements in my work, and I welcome this.

4. How does my writing process work?
snowflakeI have two modes of operation, a writing mode and an editing one. When I’m working on a new project, I write every day. I do this, no matter how the prose comes out, in order to get into character and setting, getting down around 1,500 words a day. It’s a little bit like method acting. I also write poetry around central events in the book, or concepts, to get me in the mood and to shoot right through to the heart of the matter. Poetry helps. A lot.

The other thing I just have to do, is get the scaffolding up quickly. Without the bare bones of the entire story mapped out, I lose track of where I’m going. So I must admit, I’m a fan of the snowflake method.

It works like this: first, I put a basic story together, then I work on the detail of the characterisation and character arc of my protagonist and other main characters, then I work in the thematic undertones and lastly I polish!

Here’s where I first discovered the snowflake method. 

Finally, I operate Stephen King’s shut door idea (from ‘On Writing’). Figuratively speaking, you keep the door to your work in progress shut until you reach the end of the first draft, then you open it, release the novel to beta readers, collate comments and rewrite. This works very well for me.

The editing-redrafting-editing-redrafting cycle then usually takes at least the same time again, usually double the time. So, if it takes six months to write a first draft, it will take twelve to edit it to the point where I’m happy with the manuscript.

I am tagging two fellow Faber Academy alumni and talented writers:
AK Boheim
DM Sharp author of the Olivia Carter series

My books

Borderliners
Split Symmetry

Currently reading ‘1222’ by Anne Holt.

 

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