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BEAUTY IN THORNS: Edward Burne-Jones's Sleeping Beauty paintings

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Beauty in Thorns is an historical novel for adults which tells the astonishing true story behind the famous 'Sleeping Beauty' painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Told in the voices of four very different women, Beauty in Thorns is a story of love, desire, art, and awakenings of all kinds. 

Burne-Jones painted the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale many times over the forty-odd years of his career: 

In May 1856, Burne-Jones drew a pencil sketch of his betrothed, Georgie Macdonald, as the Sleeping Beauty to amuse her little sister Louie on her birthday. He was 23 years old and Georgie was sixteen. I believe this is the sketch, though it has not been officially confirmed. 

In 1862, Burne-Jones designed a series of 'Sleeping Beauty' tiles for a client of the Morris & Co decorating firm, of which he was a partner. The princess looks very much like Lizzie Siddal, who had died a few months earlier of a laudanum overdose, and the prince kneeling to kiss her awake looks very much like her grieving widower Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The peacock (featured on the wall of the boudoir) is a symbol of immortality and rebirth.  This tile is one of nine in a sequence that begins with the baby in her cradle and ends with the marriage of the prince and princess. The tiles can be seen at the V&A Museum in Kensington.

In the 1870s, Burne-Jones had a tempestuous affair with one of his models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco, and he painted a very sensual version of Sleeping Beauty with his mistress modelling as the princess. The affair ended badly, with Maria attempting to drown herself in Regent's Canal.  At one point, Ned planned to run away with Maria but he ended returning to his wife and family so they would not be besmirched by the scandal. 

This painting - now in Puerto Rico - was the final in a sequence of three paintings that showed the prince in the briar wood, the king and his councillors asleep in the council chamber, and the princess asleep with her maids.

This beautiful drawing is a chalk study of his daughter Margaret that Burne-Jones made in 1881, when he was planning another sequence of painting inspired by the fairytale. Margaret was then fifteen, the age of the princess in the story.

And this exquisite painting of his daughter Margaret as Sleeping Beauty was created by Burne-Jones in 1884-1887,  as the final in a sequence of four enormous painting which now hang in Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire. Margaret was aged in her late teens and early twenties, and had fallen in love with a young poet and scholar named John William Mackail, much to her father's distress. 

The four paintings - called 'The Legend of Briar Rose' - caused an absolute sensation when they were first exhibited in 1890, with queues of carriages along Bond Street and crowds of people returning again and again to view them. Burne-Jones sold the quartet of painting for fifteen thousand guineas, the most money a British artist had ever been paid, and he was subsequently knighted by the Queen. 

His final painting is a small circle, entitled 'Wake Dearest' which he painted for his ever-loving and faithful wife Georgie in the final year of his life (1898). I believe she was the model for the princess. This tiny masterpiece - along with 37 other tiny glowing circles - were left to Georgie in his will, and later published as 'The Flower Book'. 

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the story behind the creation of these exquisite drawings and paintings - a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, death, and awakening of all kinds.  

It will be released in Australia in July 2017. 

SPOTLIGHT: My notebooks for my novel BITTER GREENS

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My novel BITTER GREENS (a retelling of Rapunzel interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first told the tale) is being studied this semester at the University of Queensland. The class tutor (and one of my all-time favourite writers) Kim Wilkins asked me if it was possible to show the students some of the pages from my notebooks. 

I realised I had never posted about my working techniques for BITTER GREENS, and so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. 


I buy a new notebook whenever I begin a new book. Normally, I try and buy something really beautiful and special, but for BITTER GREENS I had been given a pile of plain black notebooks and I thought I had better use those first. 

To make them pretty and special, I stuck images on the front:


These are the covers for the notebook devoted to the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, set in 17th century Paris and Versailles and the abbey of Gercy-en-Brie in the French countryside. The paintings are not of Charlotte-Rose herself, but of anonymous 17th century French ladies that spoke to me somehow. This is the only image I was able to find of Charlotte-Rose de la Force:

This is the cover of my notebook for the scenes set in Renaissance Venice, which tell the story of Margherita (my maiden) and Selena Leonelli (my witch). The image is one of Titian's most famous paintings of the mysterious women who was his muse. It is called 'Woman with a Mirror' and you can see the original in the Louvre (I did!) 


The opening pages of my notebook - the pink stick-it note was from a dinner party where I met some Germans who told me the perfect place to set my Rapunzel scenes in the tower - Sirmione in Lake Garda.  I ended up setting this scenes a few miles away at Rocca del Manerba:


Some early pages from my notebook.

It is always very important to me that I plan my key turning points as early as possible in the writing process. I try and find the underlying pattern in the story, which is a process I find very exciting and liberating - it helps me know my key emotional beats, and the scenes which I wish to foreshadow early in the story. BITTER GREENS was a complicated story, so I created a graph like this for each of my major characters - seeing where their stories intersected and how many words each section should be. I often change my graph as the story develops and I learn more about my story - in which case, I draw this diagram again and again, as I try to understand the key underpinnings of the story's architecture.  

These are the opening lines of BITTER GREENS, written longhand in my notebook. I often write key scenes longhand first, to slow myself down and think through what I want to say. Typing is an amazing technological breakthrough for writers, but it can lead to quick and facile writing. I like to write slow and deep and thoughtful at times - usually for my most important scenes or when a line or paragraph is causing me trouble and always, always, always, when I am writing poetry.


I have a very visual imagination, so I like to be able to "see" things before I describe them. Consequently I am always sticking in maps, diagrams, and photos into my notebooks, or drawing little maps for myself (this sketch is of Margherita's tower)

An early chapter outline


Lists of characters


Random pages I thought you might find interesting


My notebooks are not particularly pretty - my handwriting is awful and my drawings even worse. They are, however, a record of the creative process from the earliest ideas through to the finished product. I date my pages, keep a record of my word counts, and say where I am when I am working on that page (Paris, Venice, Florence and the south of France all feature in these pages.) 

Writing BITTER GREENS was an extraordinary experience for me. No book I have written has ever dug so deeply into who I truly am. 

 I have written a lot on my blog about Bitter Greens - I hope you will go and explore further! Or take a look at my Pinterest pages on Titian's paintings of his muse, Rapunzel  or my inspirational pinboard for BITTER GREENS

But - most of all - I hope you love the book!

BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

Saturday, April 15, 2017


The Magician's Book is the story of one reader's long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Enchanted by its fantastic world as a child, prominent critic Laura Miller returns to the series as an adult to uncover the source of these small books' mysterious power by looking at their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a more interesting and ambiguous truth: Lewis's tragic and troubled childhood, his unconventional love life, and his intense but ultimately doomed friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien.

Finally reclaiming Narnia "for the rest of us," Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination.


I love books about books, particularly when they weave together a personal story with new insights into a beloved work of literature. The genre is called ‘bibliomemoir’, which is such a great word it makes me want to write one. But which book would I want to write about? 

Like hundreds of thousands of people, when I am asked to name my favourite childhood book, I answer ‘The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe’ by C. S. Lewis. But, much as I’d love to write a bibliomemoir about its profound influence on me and others, I can’t anymore. That’s because this book - The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller – does it so beautifully I could never hope to compare. 

Laura Miller was enchanted by the world of Narnia as a child – as was I and every kindred spirit I know - yet as an adult became aware of the many criticisms levelled against C. S. Lewis. Classism. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Anachronism. 

So as an adult, she revisits the books and examines them in light of her own life, the life of C.S. Lewis and his friends, and the vast influence – both positive and negative – that Narnia has had on the work of other writers as diverse as Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen and Philip Pullman. 

The result is utterly engrossing and utterly enchanting. It made me want to go and read all the Narnia books again!

THE STORY DOCTOR: Narrative Distance

Monday, January 09, 2017


So many people email me asking me for writing advice I have decided to begin a new section on my blog where I share my answers to these questions. 
Over time, I hope to build a wonderful resource for aspiring writers to help them diagnose what may be ailing their story ... 

Dear Kate

I heard you speak one time about the importance of controlling narrative distance in your writing, and what a useful tool it can be in writing from a 3rd person perspective. Can you please explain a little further?

I can!

Deciding what Point-of-View (POV) to use when writing a novel is one of the earliest decisions an author makes. As you would know from grammar lessons at school, there are three types of POV:

1st person – I
2nd person – you
3rd person – he/she

Sometimes it’s an easy choice. The voice of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the protagonist of my novel Bitter Greens, came to me very clearly in 1st person: I was always a great talker and teller of tales …’ 

There are actually three narrative strands in Bitter Greens, two of them told in 1st person and one in 3rd person, which is an unusual authorial choice. I had a good reason for that choice (though to explain why would be a spoiler!)

I knew from an early stage of the novel that The Wild Girl would be told in close 3rd person: ‘Wild by name and wild by nature,’ Dortchen’s father used to say of her. He did not mean it as a compliment. He thought her headstrong and so he set himself to tame her. 

(Close 3rd person simply means that there is only one point-of-view all the way through the novel).

I initially wrote The Beast’s Garden in close 1st person, but then – after a great deal of agonised heart-searching – decided the book was not working as well as I wanted, and so I rewrote the entire book in multiple 3rd person (which means more than one POV). 

I fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world

was changed to: 

Ava fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world. 

It was a slow, difficult, back-breaking process. I could not blithely use the global change facility in my word processor – I had to go through every page line-by-line, checking it again and again, rewriting every sentences, every scene.

So why did I choose to go through the agony of changing POV?

There were several key reasons, but most important to me was that multiple POV allowed me to tell my story from many different angles, across times and geographies; and because 3rd person POV has one huge advantage over 1st person.

The use of the objective narrator.

When writing in 1st person, the author must always stay deep within that character’s consciousness, privy only to their thoughts and feelings and only ever speaking in their voice. Their POV is therefore necessarily limited.

However, when writing in 3rd person, the writer can move fluidly between the voice of the objective narrator and the deep, close point-of-view of the character. 

Not sure what I’m talking about? 

Now might be a good time to talk about narrative distance.
Narrative distance is the feeling of closeness between the reader and the point-of-view of the characters. It is, of course, controlled by the author and is part of what creates a distinctive “voice.”

John Gardner explores the idea in his book The Art of Fiction – though he calls it ‘psychic distance’. He defines it as ‘the distance the reader feels between themselves and the events in the story.’

Basically, it's how deep the reader is taken inside the character's head. Gardner has defined five different levels of engagement: 

1 It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2 Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3 Henry hated snowstorms.
4 God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5      Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing your miserable soul.

The first example creates the greatest distance between reader & character, but is the most effective for delivering information. Each new example takes us deeper into the character’s individual point of view, and – in the final two examples – into the character’s own voice. The deeper the author goes, the more is revealed about character and the less about anything else. 

The deeper you go, the more important is the character’s individual “voice”. 

When writing in 3rd person POV, the writer draws upon all five states of narrative distance, for different purposes and for different reasons. The first example is often called ‘the objective narrator’. It’s a really useful method for quickly giving the reader necessary information. Most writers will use it to give a wide-screen shot of the scene, before zooming in to the character’s thoughts and feelings, and then zooming out again. 

Others will write the entire story in ‘deep point-of-view’, only ever revealing the character’s thoughts, feelings and impressions in a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ manner. 

Of course, this method means a lot more investment from the reader – they need to figure out what’s going on with little help from the narrator.

The objective narrator is such a great tool for writers, but beware of over-using the device as it can create a coldness or a distance between reader and character. Slip into the deeper POV as often as you can without confusing the reader. One way to do this is to signal the change from the objective narrator to the deep point-of-view by moving from indirect discourse to free indirect discourse i.e. I wonder when she’ll be here, he thought. Damn, but I’ve missed that girl. 

What is crucial, however, is that narrative distance must always be controlled. The author must choose how deep to go. 

I hope this helps you!

all my best


Kate Forsyth has been writing stories since she could first hold a pen, and has since sold more than a million copies worldwide.  She has a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, a Master of Arts in Writing, and a Doctorate of Creative Arts in Fairy Tale Studies, and is an accredited master storyteller. She teaches creative writing at all levels at many different venues. Check out her Appearances Page to find out where she is next speaking.  

If you found this post of interest you may enjoy

THE STORY DOCTOR: How do you know when your manuscript is finally finished?

Monday, November 21, 2016


So many people email me asking me for writing advice I have decided to begin a new section on my blog where I share my answers to these questions. 
Over time, I hope to build a wonderful resource for aspiring writers to help them diagnose what may be ailing their story ... 

Hi Kate, I recently attended your Story Doctor course at the NSW Writer's Centre and loved it! Now I have a question. I've taken the medicine you prescribed, but how do I know when my 'patient' is ready for discharge? How do I know if my manuscript is ready for submission? Any tips would be massively appreciated. Thanks for the course too, it was amazing.

I'm so glad you enjoyed the course! Thank you so much.

It's always difficult to tell - even for established and experienced authors. At some point you've got to let the story go, and try and find a home for it.

My best advice is to use your intuition. Finish the final draft, and put it aside for a few weeks. Do something else. Let your subconscious mind work on it. Whenever a new idea or problem occurs to you, make a note of it, but don't work on the manuscript again. When a month has gone by, read it again with fresh eyes. Make notes of anything that jars you, or that seems like it may be a problem. Add them to your list. When you've read the whole manuscript through again, think about it for a while longer and note down anything that yu think needs a bit more work. Then work through your list slowly and methodically. Type it all up, check it's as clean as can be (i.e. no spelling mistakes or silly grammatical errors), and then think what you'd like to do next.

There are so many different ways to publish a book these days, you need to decide what you'd like personally.

Some authors like the control that comes with self-publishing, others would prefer not to have to worry about designing book covers and self-promotion, and so on. You may need to attend a few publishing seminars to decide what is the best step for you to take now.

Good luck with it!


Kate Forsyth has been writing stories since she could first hold a pen, and has since sold more than a million copies worldwide.  She has a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, a Master of Arts in Writing, and a Doctorate of Creative Arts in Fairy Tale Studies, and is an accredited master storyteller. She teaches creative writing at all levels at many different venues. Check out her Appearances Page to find out where she is next speaking.  

THE STORY DOCTOR: How important is research in the writing process?

Friday, November 11, 2016


So many people email me asking me for writing advice I have decided to begin a new section on my blog where I share my answers to these questions. 
Over time, I hope to build a wonderful resource for aspiring writers to help them diagnose what may be ailing their story ... 


I am writing to you to ask, if you have a spare moment maybe you could answer a few questions for me for the essay I am writing on you in my Writer's at Work Class at Sydney Uni. I am a bit behind with my work - I just got a new full time job so trying to complete all my final uni assignments has really piled up! However, I understand you would have a lot going on to, so if you don't have time honestly don't worry about these, I completely understand.

I have decided that I'm going to look into research and its importance in writing. After every time I read a novel of yours, one of the main things I think about is how amazing the sheer amount of research you do for your novels is! 

1. What is the research process you go through for your novels? 

Because all of my books are set in different places and times, I need to go through an extensive stage of learning everything I can about the world of my story before I even start thinking about my characters and plot. I usually start with determining the exact setting and time-frame for the story, and then set out to read everything I can about it. I order a lot of books over the net. I like to own all my research books as I shall mark them with highlighters, scribble notes on them, and return to them again and again. I love Abe Books because I can buy a lot of my books second-hand that way, and I also love Google Books because I can preview the book and see if it is what I need. I do a lot of research online as well, following a trail of breadcrumbs as far as it will lead me before it peters out. 

As I read my research books or search the internet, I make meticulous notes in a notebook, recording the title, the author, the page number etc. This makes it easier for me to find the reference again when I am fact-checking. I also scribble down ideas as they come to me. The research often throws up the events in my story for me. I also note down other books I might need.    

I begin to compile a list of characters, noting down key facts about them - their birth and death dates, their backgrounds, etc. This can sometimes take a long time, because most of my historical novels are inspired by the lives of real women, and so there is often only a few scraps of information about them. For example, when I was writing THE WILD GIRL - the story of Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told the Grimm brothers many of their most famous fairy tales - the only known facts about her life were where she grew up (in Kassel, next door to the Grimm family), her father's occupation (an apothecary), and the dates of her marriage to Wilhelm Grimm and her death. It took some time for me to track down her birth-date, with the help of the local history department at Kassel library, and then I had to imagine many other details of her life by studying the lives of other young German women of the era. I create detailed outlines for each major character, including what I call an idiom dictionary (which is simply a list of favourite words, expressions, curses etc; different for each character.)

I also begin to compile timelines. This will be an ongoing project because each new research book I read will give me another tiny piece of the puzzle. I generally have a general timeline, with only brief notes for each event, and then a much longer timeline that may have as much as a page of notes for each event. I may also create a separate timeline for each major character, for ease of reference when I am working on their stories. 

As I read and research, I draw up lists of questions I need the answer to, and then I will slowly and methodically search out the answer to each question. 

I will also be slowly building a plot-line for my story, thinking about the inner architecture of the story, thematic structures, scenes I wish to include. The more research I do, the more story I have.

I will also search out experts in their field who may be able to help me, and I may employ a translator or research assistant . For example, when I was writing Bitter Greens - a retelling of Rapunzel interwoven with the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the French noblewoman woman who first wrote the tale - I paid to have all of her fairy tales translated into English, many for the first time.  The stories were written in 1697, and so the French was archaic and the printing very old-fashioned and hard to read. My translator Sylvie really earned her money! 

I also read a lot of social history books as well - I like to know how my characters would have lived. I want to know if they wore underwear, what they ate, what they read, what they did with their urine, if they slept sitting up or lying down ... 

I try to do as much research as I can before I start writing, but the story will always throw up new questions and new problems, and often I will need to stop writing and find out what I need to know before I can go on.


2. Have you always done extensive research for each of your novels? Or does the process change for different stories you write? 

Naturally, it depends on what kind of novel I am writing. Research for a 30,000 word children's fantasy novel is obviously much less intense than research for a 160,000 historical novel for adults that has three different time periods in it!

3. One of the problems I have is knowing when you have enough research to start writing, how do you figure this out for yourself? 

I don't really think you can do too much research. The more you know, the more vivid the world will be. 

The trick is to learn as much as you can, internalise it, and then write the story. Too much exposition, too much detail, will weigh your story down. You need to include just enough to make the world feel real for the reader, and no more.

Sometimes authors will use the research process as an excuse to procrastinate. This usually means they are feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task they had set themselves. In this case, it can be a good idea to begin writing. Writing begets writing, and so it may help them overcome the psychological barrier that is holding them back.

Normally I know I'm ready to start writing when my head is full of scenes and snippets of dialogue and images that are keeping me awake, and I feel that seething excitement in the pit of my stomach as the story comes alive in my imagination    

4. Do you have a passion for research? Is it something you enjoy? 

I love research. I always say that research is simply reading with a purpose. I love to read, and I love to learn, and research allows me to do both at once. I also love the way that research throws up ideas for the story itself. It helps me plan my novel, which I think is absolutely crucial.

5. Some of your characters in your novels are real life historical figures; after having researched these figures, do you ever have trouble trying to fit actual elements of their lives into your storyline? Or do you feel in this case authors have a sense of creative license with them as characters in their story? 

I always take the known facts of their lives, and set those as my immoveable pegs. Then I try and understand the forces that shaped their psyche, and drove them to do what they did, and then weave my imagined story around those known facts.

The best example I can give you is the story of Dortchen Wild's life, which I told in THE WILD GIRL. 

I knew from primary sources such as letters and diaries that Dortchen grew up next door to the Grimm family, and that she first met Wilhelm when she was twelve and he was seventeen. I knew that she had a childish crush on him , thanks to a letter she wrote to her best friend, Lotte Grimm, when she was thirteen. I knew that her sister Gretchen told the very first fairy tale that the Grimm brothers collected when Dortchen was seventeen. I knew that Dortchen herself began to tell Wilhelm stories when she was eighteen, and that she was the source of almost a quarter of the tales in the first collection of fairy tales. I knew that they fell in love, but Dortchen's father forbade her from seeing Wilhelm. I knew that she defied her father, because she continued to tell fairy tales to Wilhelm. In many cases I knew where and when they were when she told him her tales, because Wilhelm wrote the name of the teller and, often in the case of Dortchen, the date and place the story was told in the margins of his first edition copy of the first fairytale collection.

What I did not know was why Dortchen defied her father - a grave misdeamonour for a young German Lutheran woman in the early 1800s - or why she told the stories she did. Some were very dark, very violent, very sexual.

I also knew that Dortchen ended up marrying Wilhelm ... but not till she was thirty, twelve years after the beginning of their romance. 

I would much have preferred her to marry him years earlier! Yet wondering why it took so long helped me to craft a much more interesting and powerful story (or so I believe).            

6. Was the research process for your PhD thesis any different from what you do with your novels?

Not in essence. It's the same slow, laborious reading and sifting of facts and recording of sources and following trails of clues and red herrings to find what is unknown or forgotten. The primary difference is the material I am reading. When researching for a novel, I read very widely and seek to immerse myself fully in the period. When researching for my exegesis, I was reading a lot of academic papers and seeking to understand what others have thought and written about a subject, and then responding to it. The method was the same, the outcome different. 

You may also find a blog post I wrote on '15 Research Tips from Kate Forsyth'  for Writers Bloc on research of interest to you.

BOOK REVIEW: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Thursday, October 27, 2016

I asked the twittersphere to tell me the most inspiring book of the year and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert won hands down. After that, I felt I simply had to read it. I haven’t read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert before, though I had watched and loved her TED talk about creativity. So I was not really sure what to expect. I whizzed through the book in a night – and found myself nodding my head to many of the things that she says about creativity, living bravely, trusting in the story, and trusting in yourself. Gilbert has a warm and engaging style, and she talks about her own failures and successes openly and frankly, which I liked. Not only did I really enjoy Big Magic, but I’m now curious to read more of her work – and I’m very sorry I missed hearing her speak in Australia recently.

BEAUTY IN THORNS: Writing the first draft

Thursday, October 20, 2016


This week I delivered the manuscript of my novel Beauty in Thorns to my agent and publisher, and now I am gnawing my fingernails to the knuckle waiting for their response. It's always hard, delivering a book. I've laboured away on it so long, dreaming about it, planning and writing and re-writing, polishing each sentence still it shines, cutting, putting back in, cutting again ... 

The book is not finished yet. In a few weeks time, I'll be getting back my editorial report and then I'll be working away on the book again, listening to the advice of people I trust and trying my best to make the book as good as I can get it. I love the editorial process (many writers hate it!) - but it is long, hard, finicky work and sometimes it is difficult (but necessary) to cut or change things you loved writing.

So these next few weeks are a space of calm for me, a chance to rest and recover after the last few exhausting months, and a chance to reflect on far I have come. 

My books often have a very long gestation phase. This is partly because ideas come to me when I'm deep in the writing of another story and so I need to wait till I am free to concentrate on them. And this is partly because I like to wait until the book is as fully realised in my imagination as possible, so that I can write as swiftly and freely and powerfully as possible. 

I first got the idea of doing something with the Pre-Raphaelites in June 2013, when I was researching the chapter on William Morris for my study of 'Rapunzel' for my Doctorate of Creative Arts, which was later published as The Rebirth of Rapunzel: A Mythic History of the Maiden in the Tower. William Morris wrote the first creative response to the 'Rapunzel' fairy tale when only a young man. I'd always loved the Pre-Raphaelites, and my research for my doctorate reminded me that they had always been fascinated by fairy tales and mythology, just like me. 

Around eighteen months later, on 1st August 2014, I was looking back over my diaries, wondering what novel I should write next, when I came across the scribbled note in my diary. It said: 'Ideas for Novels - Pre-Raphaeltite fairytales ...' Then after a few other ideas, I listed some of my favourite old stories. One of them was Sleeping Beauty.

'The Rose Bower' by Edward Burne-Jones

I began to play with the idea in November 2014, which was when I first read about Edward Burne-Jones and his lifelong obsession with the' Sleeping Beauty' fairy tales. I knew at once I had found my story. I bought a new silver filigree notebook, and began my research. Boxes of books about the Pre-Raphaelites began to land on my doorstep, and I began to build my timeline and cast of characters (always the first thing I do). 

I pitched the idea to my publisher in March 2015, and work got underway in earnest. I was reading, wondering, daydreaming, playing and beginning to plan.

On 8 April 2015, I got the first inkling of my first line (I cannot write a word until I have my first line and, hopefully, my last line).

In June 2015, I did my first research trip to the UK. I went to art galleries, libraries, museums and visited places like Red House, Kelmscott Manor and Buscot Park, where the penultimate quartet of Sleeping Beauty paintings are hung. 

I wrote the first chapter on 5th January 2016 - almost a year after first beginning to work on the novel. I always wait to start writing until I have a very strong sense of my characters and their voices and inner lives, and until I have the story arc planned. 

This is not to say that my story does not change and develop as I go on. My plan is ever-evolving.

For example, I had initially planned to have thirteen points-of-view, to reflect the thirteen fairies in the Grimm brothers' tale 'Briar Rose.' However, within a few weeks I knew that was far too many and so I chose eight points-of-view, which is the number in the Perrault version of the tale, 'The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood'. 

By the end of March, I had written 73,000 words - and knew that I had to re-think my strategy else the book would end up being far too long.   So I spent a few days re-assessing my plan and, with much regret, reducing the number of viewpoints in the book. This is the wonderful thing about having a plan - it helps you know when you need to stop and group and rethink your ideas, before you write 100,000 words you will need to cut later (I still had to cut a great many words!)   

I wrote steadfastly, and my story slowly grew. I continued to read and research and adapt my plan as needed, and in June 2016 I travelled to the UK again for my final research trip. Among other things, I visited Lizzie Siddal's grave in Highgate Cemetery and in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I read Dante Gabriel Rossetti's love poems to Janey Morris, handwritten in a small leather-bound notebook for her.    

I finished the first draft on Saturday, 1st October - the day of my deadline - with a massive manuscript of 186,814 words. 

I then spent the next few days reading it through, editing it and cutting it back. I ended up making the difficult decision to lose one more character (the funny and earthy Fanny Cornforth), to deliver a much more reasonable manuscript of 165,000 words. 

And now I'm letting my imagination lie fallow for a few weeks, while I wait for my editorial report!

I've made a little video about my creative  process that I hope you'll enjoy - two years of hard slog reduced to four swift minutes;


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WRITING: To Plot or Not?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

To plot, or not to plot – that is the question ...

One question that I get asked a lot: Are you a plotter or a panster (meaning 'do you "fly-by-the-seat-of your pants")?

I really hate this question because it implies a binary opposition between the two. The truth is, all writers have different creative processes ... and indeed, as I have discovered, each novel is itself a new journey of discovery and the methods that have worked in the past for me may not work at all on this new story.  

That said, I am an ardent believer in the importance of plotting ... if only because it makes the writing process so much easier and enjoyable. 

Don't we all want that?

To me, good writing seems so effortless, it is as if the reader was making it up as they go along, as if every word and every happening in the story is inevitable. 

However, I know from personal experience that the more effortless the writing seems, the more work has actually gone into it. 

I never want to be seen striving for effect – I want the architectural girders of the story to be invisible. 

However, to write that well is hard. It is all too easy to lose your way, which is why having a plan of what you are writing can help you be a more focused and effective writer. 

I have made my living from my writing since I finished my undergraduate degree. I have written almost 40 books, ranging from picture books to long, complex, multi-layered novels. I have a killer of a publishing schedule. Planning properly helps me manage my time, keeps me on track, and let's me know when my story is veering out of control. 

I thought I would share with you today some of the planning tools I use. 

My first rule is ... I never start a novel with a blank page. I spend a long time thinking about my characters, my story, the architecture of the story, the setting ... the more work I do before I start writing, the easier the writing is. I use a notebook to write down all my ideas and inspirations, so I have a record of my creative process. As I go, I develop my early notes into fully fledged character outlines, timelines, plot points, idiom dictionaries (i.e. each character is given their own way of speaking), and so on. Here is a page of my notebook for THE BEAST'S GARDEN, showing early ideas for the story.  

My chapter outlines are usually very brief, and I develop them further just before I write them. However, sometimes I need to plan a whole section of a novel quite carefully before I write it. I generally find that, the more complex the novel, the more I need to plan. 

It does, of course, help if you understand exactly what a plot is. 

So what is a plot?

At its simplest, a plot is the series of events in a story. 

Usually, this series of events is driven by the protagonist’s attempt to RESOLVE a source of CONFLICT. The plot is therefore a chain of interconnected events caused by the protagonist’s actions and reactions to a problem presented in the opening scenes of the novel.

This means a plot works in two ways – what is happening (i. the sequence of events) and why it is happening (cause and effect of what is happening). 
Character and plot are therefore inextricably entwined, because the personality of your characters will determine how they react to any given situation. 

To plot is to therefore quite simply to conceive and arrange the action and incidents of a story. 

Most people have no trouble thinking up the sequence of events in their story (though it may take some time), but its arranging them in the best possible sequence that may make all the difference to the story. Here are a few tools to help.
First, identify your protagonist. This is not always easy! Then ask yourself, what is their objective? What do they want? And what stands in their way? Most stories can be reduced down to a very simple formula: 

Protagonist + Objective + Obstacles = Story

This is sometimes expressed as:

Character + Desire + Conflict = Story
i.e. someone wanting something that is hard to get  

Usually, identifying your protagonist also means you need to identify your antagonist.  The earlier you do this, the easier your planning will be and the more focused your writing. 

Then you need to ask yourself, what is your protagonist's goal? What problem do they seek to solve? Your story is your protagonist's journey to reach that goal (or to try and fail, depending on what type of book you are writing). The longer the book, the more obstacles that lie in their way.

When I'm teaching story structure, I often draw this diagram to give my students a sense of what Rising Action is. It basically means each major scene is more dramatic, more intense, more suspenseful than the scene that came before it, compelling the reader to read on to find out what happens. If you are writing a comic novel, then each scene should be funnier and faster-paced than what came before. If you are writing a tragedy, the opposite is true - you must have a sense of the protagonist descending ever deeper into darkness and failure.

Next you need to think about what is the best structure for your story. There are two basic structures.

The first is called the episodic structure, used most often in narrative non-fiction, memoir, autobiography, biographical fiction, and in novels like Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, Cold Mountain or Shantaram

Basically, each chapter is like a short story, complete within itself. Each chapter has its own internal structure, with a sense of rising tension towards a point of climax but ending on a note of resolution.  

Most novels, however, have a narrative arc. This is usually expressed as:

Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement

I draw mine like this:


Here is the narrative arc expressed in greater detail:

1. set-up scene – a scene of normal life or “the ordinary world”. Often called EXPOSITION. If I have such a scene at all, I try and keep it as short as possible.

2. Inciting Incident – the true beginning – sets story in motion. Called the “call to adventure” in Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey

3. period of turmoil/confusion. Campbell called it “refusing the call” 

4. The First Turning Point (must happen within the first 25% of action). Campbell suggested a story at this point often involves a “meeting of the mentor” and then “acceptance of the call, which leads to the protagonist crossing "the First Threshold". Usually it is a moment of decision, or realisation, which leads to a momentous step being taken. I like to think of it as a gateway into a new state of being, a moment of psychological change. 

5. Rising Action – a series of incidents, each increasing in tension and suspense. Joseph Campbell called this 'The Road of Trials' which I like, as it gives the sense of ever increasing difficulties. I normally like to plan the Road of Trials quite carefully, making sure that each scene or incident has a narrative function - each event is a revelation to be understood, an obstacle that must be overcome, an ordeal to endure, a lesson to be learned.   I like the outer journey to reflect the inner journey of the protagonist's process of change and transformation.

6. The Midpoint Reversal (or Second Turning Point) - this is often often the darkest point in story, a moment in which the protagonist fails and feels they cannot go on. I like to put a big dramatic scene here, to avoid what I call 'the mid-book slump'. There can be a reversal of intention here , or a moment of new insight and self-realisation
 – a new approach or direction or location – or even a complete change in narrative position. In my novel Bitter Greens, I put the section told from the witch's point of view here. I thought of it as the dark heart of the novel

7. Rising Action continues

8. The Climax - sometimes called the Third Turning Point. This is a moment of extreme danger or darkness in which the character’s inner and outer journey both reach a key turning point – it is the point of highest tension in the novel when the protagonist either achieves their goal, or fails. It often involves a ‘symbolic’ death – the death of a friend or companion, or the maiming of protagonist (think of Frodo's finger, Luke Skywalker's hand). This is the moment of Crisis & Resolution and usually results in the final transformation of the character. 

9. Falling Action – the chase. May be as exciting and dangerous as Rising Action, but is usually must shorter.

10. The Denouement (sometimes called the Coda). This should be fairly brief, and be in contrast to the high tension beforehand. It is usually a small scene that shows that all has been returned to normal, order has been restored, the problem is solved, the goal is achieved and now the protagonist is reaping the rewards. It often mirrors the opening scene of "Ordinary Life".

I usually reduce this narrative arc down to its five most significant points.

1. Inciting Incident 
(happens at or near 0% of the action)

2. First Turning Point 
(happens at or before 25% of the action)

3. Midpoint Reversal
(happens at or near 50% of the action)

4. Crisis & Resolution
(happens at or after 75% of the action)

5. Coda
(happens at or near 100% of the action)

An early narrative arc plan for The Wild Girl

This really helps me plan out the novel, and know how much to write. 

For example, if I was planning a novel of 120,000 words, the key turning points would happen at 30,000 words, 60,000 words and 90,000 words.

My chapters are usually around 3,000 words long, so I know I need around 10 chapters between each turning point (unless I am writing a children's book, in which case my chapters are half the length).
If I write a chapter a week, I can take ten weeks to write each section. That's 40 weeks in total. 

If I write two chapters a week, it will take me only twenty weeks.

(Though I will always set aside more time than this, because I know that there will be weeks when I am sick, or touring, or the writing does not come easily, and so I always leave a few extra weeks for anything unexpected.)

I therefore have a good idea of how long it will take me to write a first draft. I can set myself weekly word targets, and if I fail one week, I can try and catch up the next week. If I find that one section is running on far too long, I can stop myself, and either reassess my plan or reassess my writing. I can judge whether I am spending too much time on sub-plots, or minor characters, and I can avoid that horrible realisation that you have written far too much and need to cut 60,000 words. (Been there, never want to do it again.)  

Of course, there is much more to successfully planning a novel than just this one technique. I use lots more. Let me know what you want to know & I will try and answer it for you in another blog.


SPOTLIGHT: ETA Hoffman & the Genius of Simplicity

Monday, January 25, 2016

A self-portrait by ETA Hoffman

Today is ETA Hoffman's birthday (he was born 24 January 1776) and so I thought I'd share just a little of my own interest in this fascinating writer.

He is best known as the author of the 'The Nutcracker & the Mouse King', which inspired the famous Nutcracker ballet with its wonderful score by Tchaikovsky. It is one of my all-time favourite ballets, and helped inspire my lifelong love of ballet. 

He also wrote a number of strange and wonderful stories, of which the best known would be 'The Sandman'.  

However, the way in which he has most influenced me is in this wonderful quotation about artistic creation:

"Is it not in absolute simplicity that real genius plies its pinions most wonderfully?"

I remind myself of this often!

Here is another of my favourite Hoffman quotes:

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