Category Archives: Fourth Wish

Fourth Wish

meu mundo 448Apologies to those of you who were following my work-in-progress blog posts on The Fourth Wish. Firstly, sorry for failing to post anything for ages. Secondly, I’m sorry to announce that I’ve decided to abandon these updates. It seemed a good idea at the time, and I enjoyed writing the early ones, but I’m just too busy to keep up regular, or even occasional, posts. I need to focus on writing the novel rather than the blog-of-the-novel. My other, newsy blogging will continue as normal.

Fourth Wish : p.s. Day 27

meu mundo 448I know, I know, it’s Day 40 of my novel-in-progress and I’m still harking back to Day 27. But I want to give a special mention to two of the 81 students at Scissett Middle School who acted as “research assistants” by completing my three-wishes questionnaire. In asking for the school’s help, I offered to name one of the characters in The Fourth Wish after the student who produced the best – or most useful – wish. As it happens, about ten of them came up with a similar wish which I’ve decided to use in the novel. But two, in particular, had an interesting an original take on the idea which lent it an added dimension. (I’m being coy about exactly what that wish was because I don’t want to give away a key element of the plot.) Anyway, since my earlier blog post, I’ve received permission from the school and the parents to use their names and so I am now able to publicly thank the two students – Jade Ellis and Tierney Rhodes, who are both in Year 8 at Scissett. In their honour, I have called my heroine Gloria Jade Ellis and her best friend Tierney.

Fourth Wish : Day 34

meu mundo 448
I’d intended to write about something else today but after receiving two starkly contrasting messages on Friday I’ve decided to write about confidence instead.
Having passed the 50-page mark in the first draft of The Fourth Wish, I let a couple of trusted readers cast their critical eye over what I’d written so far. I felt it was going well but I wanted some unbiased feedback to reassure me that I was on the right track with this novel (or to flag up any early problems which I’d failed to spot). Back came the responses – a text and an email – within an hour of one another.

The first praised the opening chapters to the hilt and said this book was shaping up to be my best yet.
The second cited the (very fundamental) things the reader didn’t like about it and suggested I ought to give up on the idea and write something else instead.

I could spend several hundred words describing my response to their responses, but “flummoxed” sums it up pretty well. Not least because, in the past, both readers have not only proven to be insightful and valued critics of my work-in-progress and both have invariably been in tune with it. By that I mean that they’ve always liked the aspects I felt good about and raised concerns about the aspects I myself was unsure about. Unaware of each other’s feedback, they’ve almost always been singing from the same hymn-sheet.
Which has left me in a dilemma. Any writing student will know the problem: how to square the circle of two diametrically opposing critiques? And any writer (any writer of a certain disposition, that is) will also appreciate that, faced with good news and bad news, it’s the bad news that wins out. In an overwhelmingly positive review which contains one quibbling or critical sentence, it’s that one sentence which nags away at you, puts you in a grump, wakes you up in the middle of the night.
Which dents your confidence.

Right now, with only 24 hours to digest yesterday’s messages, my confidence – in this novel, in myself as a writer – is around my ankles and heading floorwards. This time yesterday I was feeling upbeat about The Fourth Wish, I had a metaphorical spring in my step. After spending most of last year grinding through rewrites of Never Ending, I was writing with an enjoyment, a freedom – and, yes, a confidence – I hadn’t experienced since first draft of Flip. I loved this book. I loved writing it.

Now, I glance at the typescript in its folder as if it was a plague-riddled rat squatting on my desk.

My gut instinct tells me I should keep the faith with this novel. My self-doubt tells me it’s a pile of shite. Of course, I’ve been here, or somewhere similar, before. But despite having written seven previous novels and encountered crises of confidence of all shapes and sizes, each new crisis reduces me to the status of a novice fumbling blindly for a way out of it.

from The Book of Ruminations, by Qi Tinh (AD 151 – 203)
A Maya Shaman StatueQi Tinh has just one thing to say about the relationship between confidence and creativity. It comes in an epigraph, right at the beginning of the book. Here it is: “The artist who has no confidence in himself should stop here, at the threshold of this book. It has nothing to offer him. The artist who is replete with confidence should keep him company.”

Fourth Wish : Day 27

meu mundo 448I mentioned a couple of blogs ago that I came up with the title of my novel-in-progress, The Fourth Wish, before it was actually in progress . . . and before I had any idea what my heroine might wish for. To be honest, I’m not at all sure what I would wish for, if I was granted three wishes (let alone a fourth wish). So, as a 53-year-old man, how could I begin to imagine what wishes a 14-year-old girl might make?
Of course, I used to be fourteen years old myself at one time. For about a year, as I recall. But that was way back in 1973. And I was a boy. Even if I could tap into that version of myself and conjure up some credible wishes, would they necessarily ring true as the wishes of a teenage girl in 2013?

Time, then, for some market research. In the two years since Flip was published, I’ve visited schools all over the country to give talks and readings and to run creative writing workshops – including three very enjoyable visits to Scissett Middle School, near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. The students who have attended my sessions at Scissett have been bright and engaged, a pleasure to meet and work with, and the librarians and teaching staff have always made me very welcome.

Me, at Scissett Middle School

Me, at Scissett Middle School

So I emailed one of the English teachers, Maura Ryan, to ask if she would mind getting a group of her students to respond to the question: “If you could have three wishes, what would you wish for?” I added the condition that each wish should be specific to them personally – so no wishing for world peace, or an end to famine, or for Huddersfield Town to win the Champions League.

I was both immensely grateful and, frankly, staggered that 81 students from Years 7 and 8 filled in their responses – making 243 wishes in all. Having sifted through them, I will be using two of these wishes for my central character, Gloria, and several of the others as wishes which she considers but eventually rejects. I won’t reveal which wishes I’m using because I don’t want to give away the plot (and the plot might change, in any case, as the novel progresses . . . my plots usually do).

But I thought it would be interesting to share some of the responses, to give a glimpse of what a cross-section of today’s youngsters would wish for. I’ve divided them by gender, to highlight the similarities and differences between what the boys and the girls wished for.

Most common boys’ wishes
1. travel back in time
2. infinite wishes
3. super powers
4. live forever
5. rule the world
6. be invisible
7. ability to fly
8. know (or choose) the time and place of my death
9. inifinte wealth
10. travel into space

Most common girls’ wishes
1. travel back in time/travel into the future
2. know what are other people are thinking
3. put right the wrongs I’ve done
4. eternal happiness
5. become famous/be a famous singer
6. live forever
7. infinite wealth
8. ability to fly
9. perfect face/body
10. ability to talk to animals

Among the wishes unique to individual students, as opposed to those which cropped up several times, my favourites inlcuded:

– for book characters to be real so I could be friends with Katniss Everdeen
– A TV remote that pauses real people you don’t like
– no more school, ever
– to know if there’s a Heaven and a God

and best, if most disturbing, of all:
– to be a vampire, to know what it’s like to suck the life out of someone you care about.

(The Fourth Wish is not a vampire novel, by the way.)

from The Book of Ruminations, by Qi Tinh (151 – 203 AD)

Who's the daddy?

Who’s the daddy?

As a celibate monk, Qi Tinh, of course, had no children. Some critics have argued that, while he never experienced fatherhood, his paternal instinct manifested itself in his teachings – in the passing of wisdom to the young novices at the monastic order to which he belonged. Qi Tinh, however, regarded himself not as a teacher but as a ruminator. Nor would he have had any truck with the notion that he dispensed fatherly advice.

He makes this clear in the coda to The Book of Ruminations, with perhaps the best-known and most widely quoted of his epigrams:
“I wish that I might travel back in time to meet my adolescent self and show him the true path. But why should that youth heed the counsel of an old man who has taken so many wrong turns?”

Fourth Wish : Day 21

meu mundo 448Going away on a family holiday, eleven days into the first draft of a new novel, scores poorly on the good-idea/bad-idea spectrum. Writing during a family holiday scores even worse in the Dad/Husband of the Year Awards. These, then, were the horns of the dilemma on which I impaled myself when we set off for a break in the Scilly Isles. But I return bearing news of domestic contentment . . . and a few thousand words to add to the typescript of The Fourth Wish.

“How?!” I hear no-one cry.

Simple. I always wake up around 7.00 or 7.30am and my wife and daughters rarely surface from their beds before 10.00am. So, each morning, I’d sneak down the creaky stairs of our rented cottage on the island of Bryher (pop. 86) and – barring any skull-related mishaps with a low beam – I’d settle myself at the breakfast table with coffee, notepad and pen and the background cries of gulls and oystercatchers.

A lot of words can emerge in two or three hours, especially when you’re conscious of the fact that it will be the only writing time you’ll get all day. On one or two mornings last week, I filled more pages than I’d have done at home, with the whole day in which to work.

Just as importantly, for me, is the need for continuity. I like to write something every day, if I can, when I’m working on a first draft. Even if it’s only a couple of hundred words.

The risk, otherwise, is a loss of momentum, and a host of other losses (register, tone, focus, concentration etc.) I don’t tend to lose the thread of the storyline, because I have that pretty well sketched out at the planning stage – at least in outline – but I can lose my immersion in the central character(s) and his/her/their perspective(s), especially if I have to break off from writing for more than a day or two.

With The Fourth Wish, I’d made a good start ahead of the holiday, in terms of striking a voice for Gloria’s (my heroine’s) 1st-person narrative, and was beginning to get into role – to “inhabit” her, as I think of it. I was afraid of jeopardising that, and possibly denting my confidence in the novel at a crucial early stage, if I went away for ten days and wrote nothing.

So, each morning, I spent a couple of hours alone with Gloria at the breakfast table. Then, hearing sounds of movement upstairs, I’d file her away and spend the rest of the day with my wife and the girls. I feel I know her a lot better than I did before the holiday. Gloria, that is. She doesn’t use up all the hot water in the shower, either.

from The Book of Ruminations, by Qi Tinh (151 – 203 AD)
Each Spring, when the snows melted and the mountain paths became passable, the Great Sage would set off from the Chinese monastery,

Qi Tinh in holiday mood

Qi Tinh in holiday mood

where he spent the Winter, and journey on foot through the sunlit lowlands for several months.
“Do the travels not distract you from your ruminations?” a disciple once asked.
“It is true that distraction can be found in the soles of the feet,” the Great Sage replied, “but it is also true that distraction dwells as readily in the buttocks’ cheeks.”

Fourth Wish : Day 10

meu mundo 448Having established that Day 1 was, in fact, Day 7, that makes this Day 10 of my novel-in-progress, by my reckoning. It seems apt, then, to turn our attention to Day -96 (or thereabouts). That was when I decided on the title, The Fourth Wish.

I like to have a title in place as early as possible in the planning stage of a novel, and certainly before starting a first draft. Even with a clear idea or premise, a sense of the characters, a rough plot outline and a notebook crammed with jottings, I don’t feel right about a new book until I’ve named it. Sometimes, of course, the title of the published novel isn’t the one it started out with. That’s happened in three of my seven books, with each change made at the insistence of my publishers.

The Houdini Girl was called The Zigzag Girl until, just a few months before publication, two other books appeared with “zigzag” in the title and Penguin asked me to come up with something else. And quickly.

Swinging the Bob

Swinging the Bob

As it happens, I like the eventual title better than the original. My fourth novel, Swinging the Bob (a pendulum-dowsing term), became Black Cat because my editor said no-one would know what “swinging the bob” meant. “No-one knows what a tesseract is but you didn’t ask Alex Garland to retitle The Tesseract,” I argued. My editor’s response was subtly worded but it amounted to this: “When you sell as many books as Alex Garland you can call them what the hell you like.”

My second novel for teenagers, Never Ending – scheduled for publication in January 2014 – started life as The Fallen One but I had to ditch that because it was too similar to The Fallen series of fantasy novels, the first of which was The Fallen : 1. I came up with six alternative titles, each of which was knocked back by either my American or UK editor, or both. Never Ending was their suggestion and I was happy to go with it because: (a) I genuinely liked it, and (b) I’d lost the will to live.

Where was I? Yes, The Fourth Wish.

Having a title in place three months before I’d be ready to start writing the novel wasn’t without its problems. I had no characters, no plot – just the premise of a teenager being granted three wishes. There was no fourth wish. I didn’t even know what any of the three wishes would be at that stage – or why there might be a fourth. But I like taking something familiar and giving it a tweak. Jasper Fforde’s The Fourth Bear was in my mind. We know Goldilocks encountered three bears but mention a fourth in the title and who wouldn’t read the book to find out its identity? Similarly, we know clocks can strike 12 but Orwell hooks us in the first sentence of 1984 when a clock strikes 13.

So, The Fourth Wish it was. And is. Unless my publishers eventually tell me otherwise. At least I know what the three wishes are now. And the fourth. I’ll say a bit more about that in my next blog.

from The Book of Ruminations, by Qi Tinh (151 – 203 AD)

Qi Tinh, ruminant

Qi Tinh, ruminant

Qi Tinh has nothing to say on the topic of titles. But, given his penchant for self-deprecation, he might have been amused to learn of the title under which his seminal work on the philosophy of creativity was first published in English. Living in a region now bisected by the border between modern-day Cambodia and China, and born to a Khmer mother and Chinese father, Qi Tinh was fluent in both languages. However, The Book of Ruminations was written in Chinese. Its original title doesn’t translate directly or easily into English and, in fact, the first English-language edition (published in London in 1805) was itself translated from a French translation of the German translation of the original Chinese version of the manuscript. Some of the meaning must have been blurred along the way because the title of this first English edition was: The Outpourings of a Ruminant.

Fourth Wish : Day 1

(The start of a regular series of posts – a writer’s diary – recording the progress of my third novel for teenagers.)

meu mundo 448The first thing to say about Day 1 is that Day 1 isn’t Day 1.

By the time I typed the first sentence of the first draft of The Fourth Wish the idea for the novel had been in my head for several months and forming scribbles in a (new, shiny) notebook for several weeks. The notebook has a picture of an old-fashioned racing car on the cover. I can think of no sport I like less than motor racing.
I mention this for no reason.

This story, like all my other novels, began with a “what if?”
In this case:
1. What if a teenager was granted three wishes?

The notion of three wishes is obviously rooted deeper than that – in my childhood, probably, with Christmas trips to the panto – but I’m not about to start digging there for the true Day 1.

Anyway, the first question gave rise to others:
2. How, or by whom, are the three wishes granted?
3. What does the teenager wish for?
4. And why?
5. What happens then?
. . . and most importantly of all:
6. Who is the teenager?

Because, until I know him or her (her, it turns out) how can I answer questions 3 and 4 – or hope to write the novel at all, for that matter?

Me, having an idea.

Me, having ideas.

The second thing to say about Day 1 is that, truly speaking, this is Day 1 of my blog-of-the-novel. Day 1 of the novel was last Monday, March 25th.

So, in fact, this is Day 7.

Don’t ask how many words I’ve produced so far. I don’t believe in keeping a *word count while I’m writing a first draft. It can be distracting, demoralising.
Or falsely encouraging.

Here is a sneak preview of the opening lines of The Fourth Wish:

You won’t believe a word of this.
I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t believe it either, if it hadn’t happened to me.

The first thing to say about the opening lines of a first draft is that they may not end up being the opening lines of the finished novel.

My main concern at this stage, though, is that I will spend too much time writing the blog-of-the-novel and not enough time writing the novel. If that happens, you’ll be the first to know.

from The Book of Ruminations, by Qi Tinh (151 – 203 AD)
Finally, for now, I’d like to share some ancient words of wisdom from a curious, dog-eared tome I discovered in the Spirituality section of the

Qi Tinh, ruminating

Qi Tinh, ruminating

bookshelves of a charity shop and which, according to the blurb, “unravels a philosophical ball of string to guide us through the labyrinth of our creativity”.

Traveller: Where does my journey begin, oh Great Sage?
Great Sage: It begins with you.
Traveller: Where, then, does my journey end?
Great Sage: It ends where it began.