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

 

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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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The Nocturnal Writer: When too much imagination is a bad thing…

I’m naturally a nocturnal writer…

That’s not to say I sit at my computer writing every night – that would be too disruptive for my family – no, what I mean is this: I do my best work after midnight, and I often write whole paragraphs in my head at half past three in the morning. Believe me, it’s not the most convenient way to work.

I know I’m not alone in this affliction. When Frances Hardinge, the Costa Prize-winning YA adult author, came to speak to us at Writers at Work as part of Hay Festival this year, she told us she’d be totally nocturnal if only that lifestyle would fit in with society.

A few of us nodded our agreement. Some of us had already had this discussion – how if we didn’t need to be mindful of our families and others keeping office hours, our days and nights could be reversed, and how much more productive we would be, how much more our natural creative selves.

After the talk, Frances signed my copy of her latest novel, ‘A Skinfull of Shadows’ – to real-life me, Wendy.

She asked me about being a natural nocturnal like her – she’d obviously noticed my nodding. I briefly mentioned how, as a child, I had swapped night for day for almost a whole year, and how blissful it had been.

I didn’t have time to tell her the complete story: that I was absent from junior school for months with an infection after an operation to remove my tonsils, and that when I was sent off to bed at night I’d write and read until dawn and then sleep until lunchtime. It suited me brilliantly.

I’d had trouble sleeping from a very young age, so I was delighted with my new routine. I was getting far more sleep than I normally did and, despite the infection, I was starting to feel better than I ever had before. But, of course, my parents were terribly worried by my new and weird sleeping habit. When my mum mentioned it to the doctor, he told her not to worry – my health was clearly improving and he predicted my sleeping pattern would too, once I was back at school.

It didn’t

The light would go out at 9 o’clock and I’d lie awake for hours, writing stories in my head. I say ‘writing’ rather than ‘making up stories’ because that’s what I did – I wrote passages in my mind, word for word, with actual punctuation and paragraph breaks. And after a night of busily ‘writing’, I still, of course, had to get up for school in the morning.

After a few months, my parents were worried by how tired I looked and I was taken back to the doctor. When I admitted what I did when I couldn’t sleep, the doctor diagnosed ‘too much imagination’. He didn’t have a cure for that.

And I’m still not cured

All my life I’ve written huge amounts in my head when I should be sleeping. I wrote paragraph after paragraph of ‘Not Thomas’ that way. I used to worry I’d forget it all, and sometimes I’d get up to scribble down passages in the half-light of dawn. But recently I’ve become more relaxed about the process. If it’s good enough to type up the next day, it’ll stay in my head. If not, I’ll have forgotten it by morning. It was encouraging to hear Roddy Doyle, another speaker at Hay Writers at Work, tell us he took the same approach.

We nocturnal writers may be a peculiar lot, but I’m certain of one thing – nocturnal or not, as a writer you can never have too much imagination.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x

P.S. Do you write best at night? And do you wish, like me, you could live your life nocturnally? Let me know what you think.

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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.

Eleanor Oliphant and Not Thomas on Shortlist for Waverton Good Read Award 2018

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The winner of the Waverton Good Read Award for debut novels published in 2017 will be announced later this month, and I’m delighted that my own novel, ‘Not Thomas’, is on the shortlist.

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I’m even more delighted (if that’s possible) that also on the shortlist is one of my favourite novels of the year, ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman. It won the Costa First Novel Award, and Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, so it’s no surprise that the film rights were snapped up – and by Reese Witherspoon, no less.

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Also on the shortlist is ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’ by Guardian journalist Keith Stuart, which is about a couple going through a difficult time in their relationship. They have a child with autism who loves playing Minecraft. It’s a very moving read and was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club.

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The other two debut titles on the list are ‘Montpelier Parade’ by Irish writer Karl Geary, a short novel set in Dublin and written in the second person, and ‘The Pinocchio Brief’ by Abi Silver, which is a riveting courtroom drama with a difference. I hadn’t read either book before they appeared on the shortlist but I have now and I really enjoyed them both.

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Only one novel can win, of course, and the winner will be chosen by the residents of Waverton in Cheshire on Tuesday, 26th June. But having ‘Not Thomas’ rub shoulders with such illustrious company on the shortlist is winning enough for me, no matter which title takes home the award.

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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My Experience of Hay Writers @ Work 2018

 It’s been a week now since I returned home from Hay Writers at Work, a professional development scheme for writers from Wales funded by the Arts Council of Wales and the brainchild of Hay Festival’s own Peter Florence.

I came across the call-out for applicants for the scheme in the Literature Wales’ newsletter back in March and decided to apply (under my real name, Wendy White). I was absolutely delighted when I found out a few weeks later that my application had been successful.

I spent 11 days at the festival, along with 19 other writers from Wales, being nurtured, nourished and inspired by the amazing programme of workshops and masterclasses wonderful Hay Fellow, Tiffany Murray, organised for us.

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A brief moment in the sunshine away from our Writers at Work tent

In future blogs I’ll be sharing some of the advice I gleaned from the authors, poets, publishers and agents who spoke to us, but today I’m sharing a link to Hay Festival’s blog page, and my own contribution to that. There are also posts on the website by some of the other writers who took part in the scheme, sharing their own viewpoints on our time at Hay.

It was an amazing and extremely beneficial 11 days. I came home exhausted after the packed programme, but truly inspired to take my writing to the next level and very grateful for the whole fantastic literary experience.

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The Hay Writers at Work class of 2018 with program organiser, Tiffany Murray (in sunglasses) Dr Phil George, Chair of the Arts Council Wales (right of photo) and our group organiser, Carys (back left)

But best of all, I’ve expanded my network of writing friends and I know they’ll be a real support to me. I’m looking forward to supporting their new work and cheering them on in the future too.

The Hay Writers at Work scheme can only go ahead with the generous help of the Arts Council of Wales but hopefully, if funding continues, places will be available for more writers from Wales to attend next year’s festival.

I’d advise any writer who’s eligible (that is, who’s from Wales or lives in Wales) to keep a look out for the notice in Literature Wales’ newsletter early in 2019 and just go ahead and apply – it’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss.

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A Hay Festival rose, presented to Eluned Gramich after her book launch at the festival

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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Waverton Good Read Award

A huge thank you to the residents of Waverton in Cheshire who have included ‘Not Thomas’ on the longlist of their debut novel award for 2018.

The Waverton Good Read Award is a really brilliant idea for a prize, where a whole village of book lovers become involved in reading and voting for their favourites. The award has been running for 15 years and was first given to Mark Haddon for his novel ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’.

This year there are some well-known titles among the 24 on the longlist, including Gail Honeyman’s ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’, Keith Stuart’s ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’ and Graham Norton’s ‘Holding’. Rebecca F John’s wonderful novel ‘The Haunting of Henry Twist’ is included too, which means there are two of us originally from Llanelli on the list.

The shortlisting happens later this month and, of course, with such strong contenders I’d be delighted if ‘Not Thomas’ got through to the second round. But being longlisted by real readers who have no agenda other than enjoying what they read is prize enough for me.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous if there were more prizes like the Waverton Good Read Award?

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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.

People They Ain’t No Good

I came across this heartfelt cover of Nick Cave’s ‘People Ain’t No Good’ on the end credits of ‘Damned’ – Jo Brand’s very dark comedy about social workers. I had to add it to the tracklist for my WIP, ‘Emmet and Me’, about children’s homes in Ireland in the 1960s. It’s ideal for creating the right atmosphere to write by.

And ten-year-old Emmet and his friend Claire would definitely agree with the sentiment of the song’s title.

Camille O’Sullivan & ‘People Ain’t No Good’ Live Version  

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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A Galentine’s song – only a day late!

OK, so I know Galentine’s Day is officially Feb 13th but if, like me, you’re already fed up of hearing the word ‘Valentine’ mentioned on the radio and TV every two seconds (and it’s only 11 a.m.) may I offer you this song & video.

I can’t ever resist belting out the chorus at the top of my lungs – off-key of course – and the 11-year-old dancer in the video is just amazing. 

I hope you enjoy this song as much as I do. 

 

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.

 

Surprise, Surprise…

Surprises are not my thing – my husband will vouch for that.

He normally sticks to selecting Christmas and birthday presents from a string of handy suggestions I give him, usually a long list of book titles. That way we avoid surprises and I get a stack of new books to read. Perfect.

As I say, that’s what he normally does but this year he bravely decided to go off-list.

He bought me something a little different. The present nestling under the tree from him to me was almost book-shaped, but not quite. It turned out to be –

a kindle. And yes, I was surprised.

I’ve occasionally attempted to read novels I’ve downloaded to my phone and not enjoyed them very much at all. I’ll concede, though, that reading on my phone has been fine for train journeys, when I’d rather not weigh down my bag with a novel. There’s also the added bonus of leaving space in my handbag for the new novel I inevitably buy while I’m out.

But reading electronically is nothing like that cosy, multi-sensory experience you get from actually holding a book in your hands and turning the pages. And I know I’m not the only person who adores the smell of a new book.

I think I might have mentioned these points just once or twice (if not a hundred times) to the aforementioned husband. And still, here it was, a kindle.

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It took me a while to even get it out of the box – after all, I’d been given real, actual books by my children for Christmas who’d sensibly stuck to the tried and tested formula. They both gasped when I unwrapped the interloper, unsure whether Dad had pulled off something extremely daring or had just got it oh so very wrong.

Well, it took us all a little while to find out.

After I’d devoured those brand new gorgeous novels, I turned to the kindle and got quite a surprise – of the pleasant kind. It was simple to use and extremely light, the text was large and I could read it while filing my nails or eating my breakfast (two activities that have always caused, in my opinion, wasted reading time).

I began by downloading a few titles I’d heard good things about on book blogs but hadn’t got around to buying. Some were even on 99p offer, which made me feel rather guilty – all the work that’s gone into a book is worth so, so much more than a mere 99p. But I soon remembered that my own book is sometimes on that special offer too, and I get quite excited if it creates a spike in sales.

So conscience eased slightly, I downloaded away and began sampling authors I’d never tried before. It was addictive. I found I was even reading as I stirred the pasta sauce for dinner. I was whizzing through titles. As a bonus, I could now also use my kindle to read the novels I’d had unread on my phone for so long, and at last I was enjoying those too.

I’ll admit I’m a convert.

What could have been a nasty surprise turned out to be anything but and I’ve probably read twice as many books as I would normally have since Christmas. I still love real pick-me-up-and-read-me books best of all and I can’t see that changing any time soon, but I certainly won’t be returning my kindle.

And extra brownie points to Simon for successfully going off-list!

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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 on kindle, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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Recommended Reads of 2017 – Thank You Anne Williams!

A huge thank you & diolch yn fawr to book blogger Anne Williams of Being Anne for including ‘Not Thomas’ in her list of recommended reads for damppebbles #R3COMM3ND3D2017. Here’s the link for the blog post.

And in a happy coincidence, ‘Not Thomas’ is on special offer on Kindle at the moment – just 99p.

Thank you to Emma of damppebbles for featuring Anne’s choices. Emma and Anne each have a wonderful book blog – definitely worth following if you don’t already:

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Being Anne   

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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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