Publication day!

Today my first children’s novel was published.

The Thieves of Pudding Lane

The Thieves of Pudding Lane is the story of Samuel and Catherine, two children orphaned by the Plague in 1666. When the Great Fire of London breaks out they become involved in a plot to rob the abandoned houses of the rich, but when the gang of thieves discovers a lost little boy hiding in one of the houses, it is split over what to do with him. The book is a fast-paced historical adventure aimed at readers 9 to 12.

I first had the idea for The Thieves of Pudding Lane in 2004, so it really has taken a decade to make it to the bookshelves! The concept came to me whilst watching a documentary about the Great Fire. When one of the historians mentioned that the richest people in London left a lot of their most expensive belongings behind, I wondered whether anyone had taken advantage of the opportunity to help themselves. The title came to me instantly.

I didn’t spend 10 years writing it, of course. I made my first attempt back then, but it ran aground pretty quickly. After a few chapters I realised it wasn’t working. Maybe the idea wasn’t that good after all, I thought. I had this thought several times over the next few years, and gave up on several drafts. Each time I went off for another year or so and worked on many other ideas, and even published three non-fiction books in the meantime.

But the idea just wouldn’t go away. In 2011 I thought I would give it one last shot, finally get it out of my system once and for all. And now it’s been published.

Really, though, the seeds for The Thieves of Pudding Lane were sown when I was the age of my intended readers. When I was that age I loved disaster movies (secretly I still do). My favourites were The Poseidon Adventure (about a cruise ship that is turned upside down by a massive wave) and The Towering Inferno (about a massive fire that breaks out in a skyscraper). They’re entirely made up, of course, whereas my book is based on a real-life disaster of epic proportions.

You can buy The Thieves of Pudding Lane (RRP £5.99, ISBN 978-1-4729-0318-1) through all good bookshops or online retailers, including Amazon.

The end of the beginning

This blog entry will teach you how to write a book that sells thirty thousand copies.

That got your attention, didn’t it? Because that’s the conventional writing wisdom, isn’t it? It’s number one on the list of commandments issued by every creative writing class you will ever take, every book about writing you will ever read. Thou shalt write a killer first line.

This blog entry isn’t really about how to write a book that sells thirty thousand copies. It’s about how we writers sometimes take the first commandment too literally, become fixated on that first couple of dozen words, and then fall into the trap of thinking a killer first line buys us some leeway with readers.

This is, of course, completely wrong. The first line is only the most important line until you get to the second line, and the second line is only the most important line until you get to the third, and so on. You don’t have much leeway with readers at all. There is really only one commandment – keep the reader reading. And that’s just as important in the eight hundredth sentence of your story as the first. Perhaps more so. Novels rarely lose me in the first sentence (one of my favourites, Les Miserables, has a pretty terrible first line), but fifty pages in, if I’m not yet committed to finishing the thing, there’s every chance I probably won’t.

I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot lately because I’ve been working on two of them simultaneously. My children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane, has been going through final edits, and I am currently revising the beginning of my latest work-in-progress after receiving some fantastic advice from the literary agent I recently signed with.

I tell people that The Thieves of Pudding Lane only went through two drafts, though if I want to make a joke of it, I say it went through two and a half. And, beginning to end, that’s true. Beginning to just-after-the-beginning, however, it went through a dozen drafts, a dozen literal false starts where I realised it wasn’t working and started again from scratch.

In the very first draft, I detailed the main character Samuel’s journey across London to the Old Bailey courthouse. It was full of lovely descriptions of the city and included prose I would still be proud of today. But I knew something was wrong. At one point I even fell into the trap of getting fixated on the first sentence, so threw in some desperate and inconsequential threat by having Samuel sit in a boat that’s rocking a bit too roughly as it crosses the River Thames…

That scene, that subplot, indeed the entire character relationship underpinning that beginning, no longer features in the story in any form. But I wasn’t to know that would be the case at the time, a point I’ll come back to later.

Many drafts later I was sure I had nailed it. I had written a dramatic opening chapter in which Samuel’s father throws him out of the house in the middle of the night because Samuel’s mother has become sick with Plague. An editor liked the beginning enough to request the rest of the book, and then make me an offer for it.

And then she cut out that chapter in its entirety.

And the story works better because of it. Because a scene, a character or a twist might be what starts us writing a story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best place for a reader to start reading it. Everything that happened in that prologue is covered elsewhere in the story. My novel is not about how Samuel became an orphan on the streets of London in 1666, it’s about what he does and what happens to him afterwards. The prologue was just set-up, and set-up always, always has an addiction to killing the pace of your story. My beginning is now shorter, faster paced and, ultimately, better.

I always like to view editors as teachers rather than critics, so I told myself I had learnt my lesson and would not make the same mistake with the beginning of my next project. And I didn’t. I made a completely different one.

My current work-in-progress originally started with the main character, a teenage girl, learning her mum has died (it’s a bit of a common theme, I know). Before she has time to process that, however, she quickly learns several terrible truths about other people she knows.

The beginning is fast paced, was the verdict from everyone who read it at the literary agency who took it on, but at the expense of really, truly connecting emotionally with all the characters before they descend into their terrible ordeal. In my first draft we never met the girl’s mum before she died – she was just this abstract concept of ‘mother’. So from having the beginning cut from one story I went to being asked to write a new, longer opening for this one! And, as with The Thieves of Pudding Lane, once it was done, I saw it was the right thing to do, and couldn’t imagine it being any other way.

At the risk of sounding like some hippie writing guru for a moment, you should take a holistic approach to beginning your story. Don’t view it as some separate part of your story that needs to be given special attention, above and beyond what you give the rest of the story. Everything that happens at the beginning must have a direct impact on everything that happens in the rest of the story, not just in terms of character and plot but pace, setting, tone and other elements too.

For this reason, if you’re worrying about your beginning, my advice would be: don’t. Don’t get caught up on writing a perfect beginning at the expense of not writing the perfect middle and perfect ending. Indeed, get to the end, look back at your story from there, and you might well find your perfect beginning waiting for you, wondering how on earth you missed it at the start.

UPDATE: the excised prologue was later reinstated in the final version. Make of that – and what it means for everything I’ve said in this blog – what you will!

The Great Fire of London

Today, 347 years ago, was the day a terrible blaze on several London streets turned into a major disaster that would consume the entire city. The fire had broken out the previous night in a bakery on Pudding Lane. The long hot summer of 1666 had left this wooden metropolis bone-dry, its wells almost empty, but whilst these were factors why the fire proved unstoppable, the reason it spread so far was the easterly gale that started blowing on the evening of the 1st and didn’t stop blowing until the 5th – the day, uncoincidentally, that the fire finally burnt itself out.

For much of Sunday 2nd, the fire was an exciting spectacle watched from the apparent safety of balconies several streets away, an amusing piece of gossip – heads would surely roll once the incompetence of those failing to extinguish the fire after several hours was revealed publicly! By the evening of the 2nd, the fire was no longer an entertainment. Those on the ground found throwing water at the flames ineffective. The wind blew so hard that it carried burning embers across streets so that new fires would break out behind the volunteer firefighters, forcing them to retreat.

From Wikipedia

The fire burned so hot that dry wooden surfaces facing the heat began to spontaneously combust, even without help from the wind. As all these separate fires grew, they were absorbed into a single burgeoning inferno, a wall of fire that spread west into the heart of London. Nothing could be done to stop it. They even tried blowing up buildings in its path and removing the rubble so that the flames couldn’t spread, but those flames were now so large – several times taller than a man – that the fire was even able to cross the River Fleet without much difficulty.

Night on the 2nd threw the true extent of the fire into terrible relief. By sunrise on the 3rd, civil order had broken down, the amateur firefighters had abandoned their attempts to get the conflagration under control, and tens of thousands of people were attempting to flee the city. By the evening of the 5th, over 80 per cent of them would be homeless.

The action of my forthcoming children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane (Bloomsbury, October 2014), takes place almost entirely on the 2nd, but I have used a little creative licence and accelerated the spread of the fire slightly. Much of the final act of the story would probably have been more likely to take place on the 3rd, but I couldn’t exactly have my characters hanging around an extra day.

Though some 13,000 houses were destroyed by the Great Fire of London, the area the inferno consumed is actually only a handful of stops on the modern Circle Line. It took quite a long time to spread as far as it did, and almost everyone had plenty of time to get out of the way. As it was, only 6 deaths were officially attributed to the disaster, though I suspect it was much higher. Then as now, London was a world city, home to countless transients and indigents. They died in one of the worst fires in history – of course it didn’t leave many bodies to count.

The Thieves of Pudding Lane

Today I signed the contract for my first children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane. Now starts the exciting part of the process, when words that were only fountain pen scribbles in four silver and orange WHSmith exercise books last summer are either cast in iron or thrown down the well, and the story takes its final form. The book is currently scheduled for publication in February 2015, ahead of the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London a year later.

The Thieves of Pudding Lane is the story of twelve-year-old Samuel. Orphaned by the Great Plague, Samuel has to learn how to steal to survive, but unfortunately for him he’s not very good at it. When the Great Fire breaks out and begins to engulf the city, Samuel and his fellow pickpockets see it as a great opportunity to rob the abandoned houses of the rich, but when they discover a lost little boy hiding in one of the houses, the thieves are split over what to do with him. Meanwhile the wall of flame is quickly closing in.

Aimed at 9 to 12 year olds, it’s a fast-paced adventure set during one of British history’s most exciting events, but it is also a story about friendship, moral complexities, greed and self-respect.

Naturally, I will be writing a lot more about the book in the months to come. Indeed, it will be over ten years by the time it is published since I first had the idea, and the story of writing the story is another blog post in itself. But for now I will simply link to one of the paintings that inspired it all.

The Great Fire of London