Sunday, 23 April 2017

Writing for Beginners (28)

So what have you done today…?

This may come as a surprise to some people, but I have to confess to a secret: I don’t write every single day. Well, I have a life to lead, too, and that life sometimes has a habit of getting in the way . Take last week, for instance, when I put my foot through the ceiling while insulating the loft. Or maybe that’s best forgotten…

But, while I might not be actually writing, you don’t know what I’m thinking about, do you? As my wife can testify, repeated calls from Earth to Planet Adrian often fail to penetrate the muggy wool of creative thought, no matter what I’m up to.

It’s said that every journey begins with the first step.

Unfortunately, many journeys - in a writing sense, at least - never take place. Why? Because some writers don't actually get round to doing what they’re dreaming of, which is writing.

‘If only I had time … ’ is one of the most repeated complaints one hears from would-be writers (and readers, sadly, which is scary on another scale), and nobody is doubting the relentless pull of work, family, relationships, DIY, chat-rooms, mobile phone and so on.

But who said you had to write a whole book in one sitting? Do you eat a whole year’s supply of food in one go? Do you paint the entire house in one day? Do you repair that hole in the ceiling- well, actually, that one I grant you was different.

I know setting goals can be boring, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone regiments their life to the extent that they constantly have their eyes on some kind of rigid daily writing routine. That can stifle creativity faster than a dose of migraine, and we all have enough routines to choke an elephant. But looking at a way of getting round that flurry of everyday activity which kills off any attempt at writing, it can be done realistically, if you have the willpower and desire.

A gentleman recently told me with absolute conviction: ‘I never have a minute to write – I only wish I did.’ He then went on to list all the things he had to do every day, which kept him on his feet and unable to pursue his love of writing. My suggestion was to use his time in the bathroom to greater effect.

I’m not sure he was too impressed by this. But if he really was as hectically busy as he claimed, surely he owed it to himself to snatch at least a few minutes with a notepad – no matter where? If a man’s home really is his castle, then his bathroom must be not only the smallest, but the most private keep in the house.

Conversely, a lady in a bookshop had a very different attitude. She told me that whenever she managed to write something, no matter how brief, she felt a huge sense of achievement, even pride. She was also very busy, but managed to find and use little pockets in her day to good effect, even if it meant writing just the first line of a new story or sketching out a fresh scene which had suddenly occurred to her.

She was, quite simply, doing it rather than merely thinking about it.

Ceilings notwithstanding, I do this myself, even when I’m working on other projects. I jot down ideas, take snatches of dialogue which sound appealing, and I constantly think about what I’m currently working on or would like to work on next. In fact, if I were to check my IDEAS folder, I’d find stuff which will probably take me years to get round to… or maybe just a couple of days, because in there might be something that will fit in with a project I’m currently writing.

I liken it to chipping away at a large chunk of wood; eventually, I’ll have something recognisable which I can work on more fully and with more energy and focus, because the desire to do it will push me to get on with it.

And that’s the key: if you want to do something enough, you will manage it somehow. If you have that inner burn to write, that itch that simply won’t go away, especially when you pick up a good book or a short story and think you could do just as well, you will find a way. It may be a sentence here or a short piece of dialogue there; it might even be thinking of a name for a character, or a description. But those small, even tiny achievements are not to be dismissed lightly. Because they will add up, and they will grow, as will your determination to make something of them, no matter how busy. And that’s a greater achievement.

TOP TIPS

·        Snatch those pockets in your life (travelling, queuing, waiting – and yes, in the bathroom) to write something.
·        Thought of a scene? Sketch it out in six words – you can flesh it out later.
·       Take pleasure from having started something – but don’t let it stop there.
·        Say ‘I’m writing’ - and mean it.
·        Go to sleep with a sense of achievement.
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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.  
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Sunday, 9 April 2017

Writing for Beginners (27)

After the event.

There’s an old gag about a driver who stops to ask an old man for directions. After a few moments of careful thought, the old man says: ‘Well, first off, I wouldn’t start from here … ’
 
Joking apart, the same thought can be applied to writing: effectively, are we starting from the appropriate point in our story, or approaching from the right angle? There's always another way of looking at a scene, and the one you first think of might not be the best. This applies whether we’re at the start of the story or beginning a fresh chapter or scene, say, in a novel.
 
As an example, I once had in mind a particular opening scene. It hinged on a murder, where the victim had heavy chains tied to his feet and was lowered into an indoor swimming pool to die. It was a fairly dark scene and I’m still not sure where it sprang from, only that, once in the story-grinder, it had to come out.
 
To gain a feel for the atmosphere, I visited our local swimming pool when it was quiet, to get a sense of a deserted poolside (the murder was committed at night). I also wanted to capture the floor texture, smells, damp air, sounds, echoes and so forth. Okay, I stopped short of actually hurling myself into the pool with a hundredweight of ships’ bling round my ankles, but there are limits to the lengths of my research.
 
It was while writing up my notes that I had a thought: what if, instead of beginning with the scene of the murder, which was by its nature fairly brutal, I went for another angle? After all, describing violence might be attention-grabbing, but where did it leave me afterwards? And did it help the story?
 
The result was, I scrapped my original scene and opened with a scene later that day. This time, with the central character – an amateur sleuth – looking down at the dead man standing on the bottom of the pool, his body moving gently in the water. Nearby floated a curled strip of soggy cardboard.
 
Effectively, this after-the-event opening allowed me to skip the violence (which didn’t really advance the story) and stopped me revealing too much detail about the – pardon the pun – execution. That was, after all, what I wanted my sleuth to find out, since that’s what sleuths are for.
 
It still gave me ample room for atmosphere, tension and the horror of finding someone killed in this way. And rather than describing how the deed was done, I left it to my sleuth to notice how the dead man was clutching the lane marker rope, which he’d tried to use to pull himself out and was keeping his body upright. He also worked out later the horrible significance of the strip of soggy cardboard. (I'll tell you this much: the killers had prolonged the victim’s agony by handing him a cardboard tube from a kitchen foil roll to breathe through).
 
Switching the order of approach like this is quite useful. Instead of going through events as they actually happen, which can sometimes be too revealing, you can bring them on almost in flashback, interspersing them with your central character’s thoughts, suspicions or fears. This is particularly useful for crime stories, where you want the reader to follow up the clues as well, thereby increasing the tension. But it can work just as well in other genres, where a character might be reviewing, say, family events loaded with emotion and meaning, rather like a slide-show, and drawing conclusions from it which may have a life-shattering effect on others.
 
The post-event opening can work in other powerful ways. Describing a car accident can be difficult to pull off without making it sound cartoonish and over-indulgent. However, opening the scene after the accident, describing the driver coming to, the tick-tick of a spinning wheel, the silence, the smell of fuel and the horrifying drip of liquid – can be much more shocking. This is because the reader’s mind is automatically filling in the gaps, creating a vivid picture of their own making - which is, after all, what we want them to do.
 
Changing the point at which we describe a scene can also work if we change the viewpoint – in other words, who sees what. Having a character walk unexpectedly into a meeting, for example, can be full of tension seen from that character’s viewpoint - particularly in, say, the reading of a will. Imagine viewing it from inside the room, describing perhaps a self-satisfied and expectant bunch of graspers, all of whom think they’ve got it settled. Then in comes the unwelcome interloper. This could bring out a whole raft of additional tensions and reactions, so that rather than seeing the reaction through one pair of eyes, we’re seeing it through many.
 
A simple test is to take the last scene you worked on and start from a different angle. It will undoubtedly make you write the scene in a different way, but it might also give you thoughts about future projects.
 
TOP TIPS
·        Describing events as they unfold can sometimes ‘reveal’ more than you want.
·        Coming in on a scene after an event can improve tension and give direction for future narrative.
·        Change the viewpoint, change the drama.
·        The silence after a crash can be more dramatic than the crash itself.
·        Allow the reader to fill in some of the gaps.

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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.
 
 
 

Saturday, 1 April 2017

A really nice review

I don't often put reviews of my own books up here because it's supposed to be a general chat about writing and other people's books which I've reviewed.

So I hope I can be forgiven for placing this one, because it's (a) rather special and (b) has made me smile a lot.

'THE LOCKER' - the 1st in the Gonzales & Vaslik mystery thriller series (Midnight Ink).
Available in p/b and ebook.

Also look out for book 2 - 'THE BID' - available now in p/b and ebook.

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Sunday, 26 March 2017

Writing for Beginners (26)

Don’t run out of puff.

It’s amazing what a difference a couple of decades makes. In a second-hand bookshop recently, I found a couple of novels I hadn’t seen in nearly thirty years. (Neither of them mine, I hasten to add). One of the first things that struck me (apart from the wonderful, musty smell – try getting that out of an electronic reader) was how breathless I became while reading.
 
No, it was nothing to do with decades of dust invading my respiratory tract. What I found was that most of the sentences seemed to run on for line after line, broken only by the occasional comma, until I began looking for the full stop rather than enjoying the story. Mentally, at least, I was rather like a musician, lunging for the end of the piece before running out of puff, or a driver going faster to reach a service area before running out of petrol. (You’ve never done that? Sheesh, you haven’t lived.)
 
This type of extended sentence was clearly something I hadn’t really noticed first time round, most likely because the style of much writing years ago was for longer, all-embracing passages, with a few asides along the way to impart important ancillary information and additional comments thrown in as the writer felt fit, to give colour, depth and background, like this one, dear and no doubt by now, equally breathless reader. (See what I mean?)
 
Since then, thank goodness, there has been something of a change. How this came about, I’m not sure. But most fiction now goes for a shorter, punchier style of sentence, perhaps suiting modern communication means and speech patterns.
 
This discovery coincided with me being on a panel of judges for a short fiction competition. The theme was open, so the entrants were varied. Many had adopted the current style, using shorter sentences sprinkled with current expressions and references, or the odd throwaway comment by the narrator. But a few used a more literary style, with florid language and longer sentences.
 
This seemed to work well when the subject matter or setting was of a historical or ‘serious’ nature. However, I found myself having to re-read a couple with a more contemporary setting, because it seemed to jar a little. It wasn’t simply that the words used seemed out of context, or that the flowery description sometimes got in the way of the basic story; it was that the sentences seemed longer than I was accustomed to, and littered with extraneous bits of information like sheep’s wool on a barbed-wire fence. With some, this spoiled the tension of the storytelling, killing what might have been an interesting or captivating passage. Had it been a book, it would have been less noticeable, given the greater space available for expansion of a theme or descriptive narrative. But in a short story, where getting to the point is paramount, it was all too visible.
 
Equally, I suppose, telling a story with a period setting, but using modern colloquialisms - ‘Why,’ pon my soul, Mr Darcy, innit.’ – would be just as jarring. (Unless it were a deliberate parody, of course. Sadly, there were none of these, which might have been fun, and likely to have carried away a prize for originality).
 
A series of shorter sentences with full stops is quite useful if you wish to convey tension. Where describing a dynamic action scene, for example, you might need to make the style punchier, to reflect the kind of event being portrayed.
 
This is also useful in a more reflective piece where you may have a first-person narrator under some emotional, physical or mental strain, and you wish to convey this as if his or her thoughts and conclusions are being ripped out of them in a series of sharp, painful tugs, rather than as if it were a carefully worded discussion over a pleasant glass of sherry and one elbow on the mantelpiece. (And if anyone out there below a certain age wants to know what the heck a mantelpiece is, you either live in a modern house or you need to read some older books – they’re peppered with them).
 
Dialogue is another example where shorter can be better. Most people speak in short bursts, interspersed with pauses, ‘umms’ and ‘ahs’ rather than long, fluid speech. I’m not suggesting you include all these exclamations in your writing, because that would be intensely irritating and might lead to severe book abuse. But using brevity in an exchange of dialogue is certainly more true-to-life, and allows you to move the action along while giving a sense of the often rapid ebb and flow of characters’ intentions and reactions as they speak.
 
This is particularly evident where an argument is raging. Most writers instinctively allow each character to take their turn, whereas in real life, there are interruptions, pauses and overlapping speech. Again, to include all this in a passage would be detrimental, but the occasional interruption or flare-up would show verisimilitude and allow movement down the page in a series of shorter, sharper sentences with, perhaps, movement and action to break up the speech.

TOP TIPS

·       Match the style of language and delivery to the setting.
·       Reflect tension by the use of punchier sentences.
·       Would two short sentences be more effective than one long one?
·       Be wary of monologues – alternate dialogue is more interesting to read.
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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.

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Monday, 13 March 2017

Drone wars - and things you just can't make up.

It's a fact that whatever gizmos we writers come up with on paper or screen, it's either been done, about to be done or will undoubtedly be done in the future. In short there's nothing much that we write about that stretches the imagination too far. Well, apart from portals into other dimensions, that is. (And yes, I'm just fooling - it will pop up one day, if it hasn't already).

I began playing with the idea of 'The Bid' - the 2nd Gonzales & Vaslik thriller/mystery, back in 2015. The plot is about terrorists using small drones or UAVs to make a strike at the US president.

I researched the subject and got a pretty good idea of the capabilities and limits of the kind of drones available then used as a leisure pursuit, and other, more commercial uses, for land and pipeline surveys, traffic monitoring, big game watching and film footage. It was and is a fascinating subject.

But the thing I was very quickly reminded about was that technology never stands still. And the limits I had written about soon got busted wide open.

You can read a piece I wrote on this issue for Shots Magazine right here: http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/feature_view.aspx?FEATURE_ID=334

'The Bid' - Midnight Ink Books - available in p/b and ebook.

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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Latest Articles in Writing Magazine

April's edition of Writing Magazine includes my latest Beginners feature, 'Choose Your Battles', along with a New Author profile.

As in most fields of activity, writing is one where it's wise not to try doing too many things at once. Whether creating characters, scenes or plots, doing necessary research, editing - or even finding the time and space in which to write, there's a temptation to cram all these activities into one's day.

It's called task-hopping, which takes time, effort and concentration, and doesn't help with the main creative. And I haven't even mentioned social media... oh, so I have.

The thing is, take each one of these at a time, not the whole smorgasbord. Stretch yourself too thin and you'll take the whole fun out of writing.
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My New Author profile this month is Joseph Knox, with his debut novel, 'Sirens' pub'd by Doubleday. The first in a series set in Manchester, it features a young detective, Aidan Waits, in disgrace after stealing drugs from the evidence room, and the nightmare in which he finds himself when he's blackmailed into an undercover operation tracking down an MP's runaway daughter.

One interesting aspect of Knox's journey to publication is that although he's a crime and fiction buyer for a major bookseller chain here in the UK, it took him eight long years to get published. The message there is two-fold; one is, if you really have a book inside you, don't give up and, two, it doesn't matter if you're in the industry, you won't necessarily get there any quicker!

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Saturday, 4 March 2017

Writing for Beginners (25)

Work in progress.

It’s tempting to think that these three words should be on a notice pinned to your door in big, bold letters so that your nearest and dearest can see when you DON’T want to walk the dog, collect the kids from school, paint the Sistine Chapel or run a couple of marathons backwards with a candelabra balanced on your head.

However, work in progress (or WIP as it’s known in the manufacturing industry) is something all writers are involved in, consciously or otherwise, all the time.

Like most scribes, I have an ‘Ideas’ folder, where I place all my back-of-the-envelope scribblings until they’re needed. These can range from thoughts about follow-on books in a series, to vague jottings about characters, names, plots or scenes which I might use in the future. Whatever they are - and this is largely psychological, I admit - I prefer to think of them as works in progress, no matter how vague or unformed they might appear at the time - especially to an outsider. (And looking at one just recently, if the notes had fallen into the hands of a zealous policeman, I’d have probably been introduced to some rubber hose treatment, such was the wording: kill street youth – body of woman – bogus church group – kidnap teenager – blackmail parents.)

Not, as one might think, the ravings of a would-be psychopath planning his next evening out, but a working writer’s ideas being jotted down for later use ( which, incidentally, became my third book).

And this is how most writing begins: as a seemingly random collection of words, on the way to becoming something more concrete. But for it to become that, the ideas have to be continually reviewed to see if anything sparks off into a workable story, otherwise they shrivel and die.

A way of not letting such valuable thoughts moulder is to immediately add a few words, allowing your instincts to kick in, and sketching out how you think the idea might grow and which direction it could take. Thus, in the heat of the moment, use that flash of inspiration, garnered through seeing something, hearing a snatch of conversation, reading a headline or whatever, and take it one stage further by jotting down a few extra words to make it more than just a passing thought. This way, you’re setting up a chain of ideas for the future, even if you change it completely later.

In the case above, I’d been reading about the death of a rough sleeper in London’s west end, and started thinking about what might have caused it other than drugs, disease or malnutrition (it’s always worth trying to find an alternative to the obvious, if only to make you think harder about something fresher and less tried).

At the time, there had also been a story running in the US about a bogus church charity preying on vulnerable runaways, and this gave me the idea of marrying the two events and combining them into a single story. The rest fell into place bit by bit.

Of course, my initial idea might have easily fallen by the wayside or become something else entirely. But by thinking of it as a work in progress, I was committing myself to looking at it seriously and trying to build it into something solid.

The important thing is, never let a good idea go to waste.

My WIP folder contains all manner of oddments like this, and I regularly trawl through them to see if anything gives me that spark which will set me off onto a new project. It may be a short story, it could be an idea for a novel. But whatever it is destined to be, I see that WIP folder as being full of workable nuggets which I will get round to one day. And whenever I dip into it, I usually find myself adding a thought or two to one of the documents, like bricks in a wall, until one begins to take on an energy of its own.

Eventually, that document will ‘go critical’ until I can’t leave it alone any longer and it becomes a tangible piece of work with a deadline or a market in mind.

Occasionally, one of these ideas may be used subconsciously elsewhere, either in total or cannibalised to fit another work. It’s therefore essential to cull them on a regular basis and leave only the fresher ones to work on.

The other aspect of my WIP folder is that anything in it stays there until it’s completed and submitted. Only then do I transfer it into a different folder for finished work which is out in the market place. Why? Because by definition, anything in the WIP folder is still being worked on, polished, buffed up, amended – all those things we writers do until we’re satisfied we’ve done a good job and can submit it with a clear conscience.

TOP TIPS
  • Ideas need fleshing out, without which they remain undeveloped. 
  • Review your WIP folder on a regular basis and weed out any dead wood or add thoughts to others where you can. 
  • A WIP folder means you are never in the position of not having something to work on. 
  • A work in progress is merely that until it’s submitted or sold.
  • Your WIP folder is your breeding ground for the future.
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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.

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