How to Write a Ghost Story – Tips by Bestselling Author, Michelle Paver

I’ve recently completed my second and final year on the Hay Festival’s Writers at Work scheme

It’s a professional development course for writers living in Wales or born here, that runs for the whole eleven days of the literary festival and is fully funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

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Meeting Michelle Paver in the Writers at Work tent

This innovative scheme created by Peter Florence of Hay and led by Dr Tiffany Murray, really is as wonderful as it sounds. On Facebook – as real me Wendy White – I’ve posted about the experience and how to apply to Literature Wales for a place. I’ve also promised to share some of the highlights of the programme here on my blog.

It’s extremely hard to pick out the best bits from the programme

So many wonderful authors, poets, songwriters, columnists and people involved in the business of publishing came to speak to us. But I’ve decided to start with tips for writing a ghost story, as generously shared with us by ghost-story-writerextraordinaire, Michelle Paver.

Her books ‘Dark Materials’, ‘Thin Air’ and ‘Wakenhyrst’ are brilliant examples of classic ghost stories.

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Michelle Paver’s latest ghost story, the novel ‘Wakenhyrst’

I can vouch for how creepy Michelle Paver’s writing is (see below) so she was the perfect person to ask about ghost stories, as far as I was concerned, and she didn’t disappoint. Here’s the advice she gave me and the other 19 members of Writers at Work 2019.

She told us that ghost stories are difficult to write and to get right, but there are ways to make writing them easier

First study the form – read as many ghost stories as possible, the good especially, but the bad will help too. (Michelle P hunts second-hand bookshops for old ones, which she loves the most). 

Analyse what you read in general terms –  why does this story work and that one doesn’t?

Then go deep – take apart the stories that work really well. Where does the first mention of something otherworldly / spookiness / an actual ghost occur? At first it might be just a tiny hint.

Where is the next mention? How does the writer build tension? How subtle, or otherwise, are the references to a ghost?

When you’re ready to start writing, Michelle Paver said, the challenge is to create a story that reads really easily.

A ghost story needs a shape and it has to build. It has a ‘progressive nature’ – she feels that more than just a hint of a ghost at the start can be too much.

The ghost needs to slowly get nearer and nearer as the story gets more and more emotionally intense

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‘Thin Air’ – the perfect title for a ghost story set at high altitude

When the first draft is finished, revise it and check the shape

MP said at this stage she’ll sometimes find passages which she thought were creepy at the time of writing but just don’t work with a second reading. (Good to know the master can get it wrong sometimes too!)

Once the first draft is complete, Michelle Paver goes on a research trip –  until this stage, she said, it’s hard to know what and where to research.

This often throws up more ideas that can be slotted in. For example, for ‘Thin Air’ she went mountaineering and discovered the creepy noises a tent makes in the night, and how confusing outside sounds become when you’re under canvas. She fed all this into the story – to great effect, as I can testify having read it.

And here’s a short list of books / stories recommended by Michelle P to help in studying the ghost story form:

Ghost Stories by MR James especially ‘Oh,Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ (MP’s all-time favourite)

Ghost Stories by Edith Wharton

‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents Ghost Stories for Young People’ on CD, YouTube and Spotify. MP especially recommends ‘Unearthed’

‘Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story’ Julia Briggs

And for writing generally: ‘The Craft of Novel-writing’ Dianne Doubtfire

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Late evening at Hay Festival when the crowds have gone home

And, as I was saying previously, I can vouch for the effectiveness of Michelle Paver’s writing

One night during Writers at Work, I couldn’t get off to sleep so, rather unwisely, I decided to read a few chapters of ‘Thin Air’.

At half past three in the morning, I realised I needed the loo. I merrily set off towards the bathroom down a long, dark corridor in the 16th century farmhouse I’d been billeted to. Half way down the corridor, I had the strongest sensation someone was following me, just as Stephen in the chapter I’d just read had been followed by a mysterious figure on the mountainside in ‘Thin Air’.

I hadn’t been so spooked since I was a child reading ghost stories under the covers with a torch – and believe me, I’ve been spooked plenty of times as an adult. It was a really creepy, shivers-up-your-spine kind of moment.

I won’t be reading Michelle Paver at night in a 16th century farmhouse again

I hope this helps anyone embarking, like me, on writing a ghost story.

Thanks for reading,

Sara x

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

Hay Festival Portrait- Wendy White
Hay Festival Portrait- Wendy White by Paul Musso

 

Building a Novel – Scene by Scene

I have a weird way of writing

I know – oh, how I know – it would be most sensible to start at the beginning of a story and work my way through until I reach the end, but have I ever managed that? I haven’t – although, believe me, I’ve often tried.

My problem is I’m a sucker for scenes, and I always want to write the big ones first. That means my first draft is essentially the whole plot, but told through the main episodes – no linking bits, no descriptions, none of the expected ‘niceties’. Of course, those elements are added in – eventually – but I tend to think of them as extras. And I’m not a ‘descriptive’ kind of writer, which is why I tend to leave descriptions until the story proper is done. It’s one of the challenges of writing that I don’t find enjoyable.

But there are other challenges I really love

One of my favourites is retrospectively adding in hints about where the plot is going. As I’m happily writing the main scenes, I also make a list of ideas to add in further down the line, and later I’ll take great pleasure inserting these passages and watching them gradually tie the scenes together. As I tick them one by one off my long list, I always have a wonderful sense of satisfaction.

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Page one of my ‘To Add In’ list

Julia Green, author and Professor of Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, came to speak to Hay Writers at Work this year, and I was so pleased when she suggested that it was a good idea to think of fiction in terms of scenes –  events that are happening, rather than have happened – and that each scene should move the story along.

It made me feel that maybe my weird way of working wasn’t quite so weird after all

Whether you take the straight forward route when you write, or if you write randomly like I do, I hope your writing is exactly where you want it to be. Fingers crossed, we’ll all get to the end of the story we want to tell one way or another!

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Sara x

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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Getting Started on a New Writing Project #WritingTips

Getting started on a new writing project

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Well, I can procrastinate no longer – the time has come for me to sit down and begin writing what will hopefully become my second novel.

I think I can hear my editor muttering “about time too” 70 miles away in Aberystwyth, and I don’t blame her. I’m a very slow writer. I need to have the story straight in my head before I’ll consider typing even one word, and percolating a story isn’t a quick process, well, not for me anyway. 

My first novel, Not Thomas, lived in my head for ten years or more, and it was fully formed before I began typing it up. My next story has been growing for around two years – so not very long, relatively speaking. It feels a little soon to begin typing, if I’m honest. 

And it’s a long, long time since I began writing a new novel – 16 years, to be precise.

I started Not Thomas in 2001 and wrote it incredibly slowly (my About Sara page explains why it took me so excruciatingly long) so I’m just a little bit out of practise. To help remind myself of all the things that are good to think about right at the start of the creative process, I thought I’d make this the theme of my blog for the next month or two.

So, to ease me gently into writing novel #2, here’s my first tip to myself for starting a new project:

Get a new notebook or two.

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I write very little long-hand, preferring to type straight onto my laptop, but I couldn’t be without a large A4 notebook. For me, it’s the very first thing needed for a new writing project – after getting the story all sorted in my head and ready to go, that is. And honestly, it’s not just an excuse to buy beautiful stationery – although buying beautiful stationery is one of my favourite pastimes. It’s a starting point, somewhere to commit ideas to paper, and get them out of my head.

I write my synopsis in one notebook, chosen especially for the project, usually spring-bound, so it’ll stay open all by itself on my kitchen table. I also use this notebook to jot down sentences that come to me in random fashion, character sketches and anything else that occurs to me when I’m cooking, washing up or writing something else. As I don’t tend to type up in order, I can just flick through the notebook to find inspiration and a section of the story to write about. 

And the little notebook stays in my handbag, so when I’m out and about I always have somewhere to jot down my thoughts.  

So that’s my starting point. I’d be really interested to hear what preparations you have for starting to write a new novel. What are your must-haves? Are you a procrastinator like me, or do you just dive right in? Drop me a line and let me know.

Diolch yn fawr and thanks for reading,

Sara x

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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