Friday, 23 June 2017

Writing for Beginners (32)

Don’t write yourself short

A dilemma common to many writers is one of size – and I don’t mean of screen, hard drive or their latest advance. I’m talking about the newly completed novel. It’s a belter, with fantastic characters, plenty of action and love interest, and the ending is a corker. Frankly, Spielberg would hyperventilate if only he knew it was out there.

The only problem is, it’s not long enough. Instead of being 90,000 words long, which the market might demand, it comes out at a rather wussy 60,000.

It’s like being made to wear shorts as a kid – they might have pockets and a zip, even creases down the front, but they’re still not real trousers.
So, how do you go about making a short book into a longer one without simply padding it to blazes?

To begin with, if you are convinced about the strength of your work, that it has ‘legs’ – in other words, it’s more than just a short story – you have to take a serious look at what makes it so good in the first place. Is it the theme? The power of the characters? The pace and tone of the storyline? The timing or relevance for the market? Could it compete with other books out there (assuming it catches and holds an agent’s or publisher’s attention)? And do you have such a genuine conviction about it that you can’t bear to chuck it in a drawer and forget it?

If so, then you have to look at ways in which you can use what you’ve got, and build on it.

It might end up bigger, as the actress said to the bishop, but will it be better?

First you have to step back from what you’ve written and look at how and where it could be expanded upon in a way that capitalises on its existing strengths. Don’t forget, you’re working with an already established storyline, and you don’t want to change it out of all recognition or water it down. Any scenes added must enhance the story and give it more depth. Similarly, whatever characters you bring in must add to the existing cast in a relevant way, rather than simply cluttering up the place like discount night at the local bath-house. 

Could the storyline stand a second strand or a sub-plot, strongly related to the main events but coming from another start-point? This would allow you to bring in other points of view, with characters coming together later in the story. In each case, you have to stitch the new elements into the back-story so that they are not seen as a bolt-on simply to fill out the pages.

Be warned, though: once you start adding depth, character or new strands, the word count will grow – often alarmingly. It takes discipline and careful editing to control it, but as long as your new characters or scenes don’t assume a greater significance than your original, or skew the story out of shape, it can be done.

Like how? I hear you ask. Taking an example right off the wall, let’s say you have completed a book based on the Titanic. Unlike the ship, however, your book isn’t big enough. It’s actually more of a dinghy. It needs more size, more content, more oomph. You can’t add more description, because there’s plenty already and anyway, describing heaving open seas (or bosoms) can be boring. More dances and events are simply colour, you’ve covered all the on-board relationships adequately, so more of same would be gilding the lily. This is a dramatic tale, not an advert.

If the story is about a huge ship’s invulnerability, you might have already covered the enormous iceberg or some other unexpected disaster which is going to befall this leviathan (now there’s a word I never expected to use in print). Big ship full of bright souls versus even bigger, unstoppable object equals drama. But what about bringing in another human aspect?

For example, the engineer who built the ship. Was he working to required specifications, or had he been forced to skip some details here and there on grounds of cost? Was the original steel supplied of the right quality – and is there someone, somewhere who knows otherwise? Is there somebody with a long-term plan who wants to damage the ship mid-voyage for various reasons, but goes too far - with disastrous results? Any or all of these could be fed into the mix – along with their back-stories, of course.

In effect, what this is doing is introducing other characters who are as closely connected to the ship as those on board (perhaps they are even on board, too, and therefore suddenly pitched into a nightmare of their own making).

This new cast of characters allows a greater exploration of the build-up to the event, introducing more depth and more points of view to what in real life was a very human drama.

TOP TIPS

  •         Bigger is not automatically better. Additional material has to fit in with and improve the overall work.
  •     Analyse which parts of your existing work could benefit from extra emphasis, characters or scenes.
  •     Weaving in another strand can add depth and contrast, as well as giving an alternative point of view.
  •         Avoid padding, such as unnecessary adjectives, adverbs or birds in the trees.

 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Latest article in Writing Magazine

Daydream Believer

The July edition of Writing Magazine is now out and about, and includes my monthly Beginners page - this one called 'Daydream Believer'.

No, nothing to do with The Monkees (although it does happen to be the title of one of my favourite songs), but rather about how the writing life is full of distractions. Doesn't matter what you do, noise, events, people - life in general, in fact - combine to intrude relentlessly.

There are ways of avoiding some of these intrusions - locking yourself away on a deserted island is one, albeit a little extreme. But is that really the best solution?

In my experience distractions can be useful. If permitted to intrude with a certain measure of control, they can even be beneficial. The odd break away from your PC or pen can allow you to see things a more disciplined mind might ignore. And with too much focus the brain can become stale, which is surely not what creative writing is all about. Ideas breed ideas, and so on and so forth.

The short answer is, don't cut yourself off completely. Allow some outside stimulus, even if it is a simple walk round the block (or island).

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Thursday, 8 June 2017

Writing for Beginners (31)

Thinking of the awful events in London and Manchester recently, and the sadness heaped on residents and visitors alike in both those cities, I couldn't help but be reminded of an experience I once had which serves to remind me of the beauty rather than the horror to be found in our cities at night. (I hope nobody feels I'm ignoring what happened - I'm not. Simply finding an alternative image).


It's not often I find myself in London, and even rarer after dark, but a few years ago I was a member of a cycle marshal team in a night-time charity walk around the city, along a route of 26 miles and with approximately 15,000 (mostly lady) walkers. My job was to encourage, help and watch over them, my writing hat parked on its hook for the night in favour of a crash-hat and a supply of water and emergency chocolates (well… nobody said we all had to suffer…).

I was therefore thinking of things other than storylines, plot points, deadlines, editing and how to get biscuit crumbs out of the keyboard – a sort of alternative writer’s retreat, if you will.

Part of my job was to keep a roving eye on traffic conditions, single walkers, limping walkers, walkers going off-piste, leery drunks, clubbers falling out of doorways and finding themselves face to face with a phalanx of ladies in decorated bras - more scary than you might think, even sober - and generally not doing a prat-fall off my bike in front of everyone.

In this fairly relaxed state of mind, I couldn’t help but notice some unusual, albeit unforgettable sights. There was the stern lady walking resolute but alone, whose face lit up when an elderly gentleman stepped out of a doorway as she approached and smilingly doffed his baseball cap; a pair of young tourists, luggage in hand, who stared in wonder as the walkers trooped along the Embankment and past the London Eye at two in the morning; two mallards in St James’ Park, standing quietly side-by-side as the human tide went by, totally fixated and therefore somehow part of the event; a policeman in Horse Guards Parade, gun held across his chest, alert yet nodding occasionally in approval; a young WPC on traffic duty, looking on wistfully as the column crossed the road under her direction; and a young man (very drunk) at three am, who asked me what the *@!* was going on. When I explained, he became suddenly sombre, before waving his friends away and staying to add cheerful encouragement to the walkers. (We didn’t understand all his words, but we certainly knew the tune).

I watched an urban fox near Vauxhall Bridge taking advantage of sandwiches left in bins, and some cheeky pigeons, ignoring the official mayoral line about not feeding the birds, picking up their share, too. The edifice of the MI6 building, sprouting cameras and spiked fences, loomed sinister and forbidding in the dark, yet improbably, within touching distance of every walker who passed by.

Buses filled with night travellers were the target of walkers, the passengers encouraged to wave back and show their support, and even emergency vehicle crews speeding by seemed aware of events while forcibly concentrating on other things.

There were many more such sights which came and went during the night, some poignant and human, others inanimate and fixed, all there to be looked at and stored in the mind or forgotten at will.

And suddenly I was in writer’s mode again, spotting scenes where others might not, noticing faces looming out of the dark, some smiling, others creased with effort, each no doubt with their own tale to tell, their own experience. hopes and fears.

Amid all these images and sounds was a welter of material, ideal colour for any genre, from human relationship dramas through to crime thrillers. All the elements were there for me as a writer to use, colourful and sharp; all I had to do was pick them up and let my imagination do the rest.

Oddly enough, what I recall most vividly alongside the above are flashes, mere glimpses of things seen and heard which have stayed with me ever since:

The dark, chilly recesses along the Thames; how my skin felt stretched and cold; the taste of tiredness in the mouth; the wind rustling discarded paper; ambulance lights bouncing shadows across shop fronts; the throb of an unseen helicopter high in the sky; a shop alarm in the distance; a figure in the bushes of Battersea Park; a pale face in the gloom by a darkened building; a siren from a riverboat, hauntingly atmospheric; and a mournful howl from an inmate of Battersea Dogs’ Home, no doubt sensing that while he was locked up inside, we lucky humans were outside having all the fun.

More than anything, however, especially right now, it's my reminder that there is true beauty in our cities, mostly unseen because we're in too much of a hurry, too anxious, too focused on where we're going, to take real notice. Hopefully, in time that beauty, whether in London, Manchester or any other place visited by the darker side of life, will rise up and help people recover.

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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Latest articles in Writing Magazine

June's issue of Writing Magazine comes with my latest new 'Beginners' piece called 'SELF-service'.

The capitals are deliberate, as this deals with the fact that to a certain extent (no doubt even a considerable one in some cases), writing requires a degree of what might be seen as selfish behaviour.

In fact George Orwell was said to have uttered about writers:
“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
 
I'm not advocating deliberate selfishness, but as with any important following or interest, there has to be a level of focus to the inevitable exclusion of other things. Like any day job, really, only the hours are different.
 
I know from experience how 'focussed' I can be when the writing takes hold - usually once a day if I'm lucky,and often at about 4pm, just when the rest of the household is winding down. (I've tried to adjust my timing on this aspect, but so far without luck. I must be a late afternoon scribbler).
 
Whatever your own particular situation, success demands sacrifice, and that can often be seen as selfishness by those around you.
 
The secret is to be aware of it and not let others suffer by allowing your writing to become a burden on them or what should be their shared time with you.
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This month's New Author profile candidate is Xan Brooks, a freelance journalist whose debut novel 'The Clocks in this House All Tell Different Times' was published by Salt Publishing in April.
 
Described as a social-realist fairytale of 1920s England, it follows an orphan, Lucy, who meets up with four 'funny men' or broken souls every Sunday, who have been named after the characters from the Wizard of Oz.
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Thursday, 25 May 2017

Writing for beginners (30)

Reviewing Your Writing Tools

Like anyone else in the creative business, writers need certain tools to do their job. Whether using pen and paper or computer, without them we would find it difficult to do what we do - which is putting down words on paper for others to read. It is no different to a bricklayer needing a trowel, spirit level and mortar; they are fundamental requirements.
 
But just as a bricklayer needs the basics, he also needs plans, materials and somewhere to build. And writers should also consider the intangibles which are vital to the creative process.
 
Ask any writer what they value most, and you’re likely to get a variety of answers ranging from peace and quiet through to simply having plenty of fresh ideas on tap. (Add to that the latest piece of electronic hardware or software, since we are, like it or not, bedded into the age where some think a good computer will make us better writers. It won’t, but it will help the process).
 
Let us examine atmosphere as a tool. A friend of mine works at her kitchen table. She does so because she feels it is her ‘place’ and she can sit down whenever the mood takes her. She also worried that friends will think she’s putting on airs if she bags a specific room to do her writing. Unfortunately, what is her place to write is also a major trade route for the rest of creation; family, pets, children from down the street, neighbours and visiting family members, all wanting a slice of her time. No wonder she complains of not getting enough peace to write.
 
Another friend tucks himself away in the spare room where nobody can get at him. Up there, he plays classical music and gets in the mood, Well, almost. Unfortunately, he often finds he can’t get in the ‘right’ mood for the words to flow, and ends up wandering the house like a refugee, trying to find where he left it.
 
Atmosphere is important, and varies according to the individual. Friend A needs to allocate herself a specific place where she can work in comfort with the minimum of interruption. Friend B needs to think about how, in the kind of place A can only dream of, he needs to create the right ambiance.
In both cases, they are victims of their own circumstances. Having a quiet place to write is not a crime, not is it pretentious, silly or even suspect. We wouldn’t, after all, expect a keen gardener to be satisfied using a tub in the middle of the living room carpet.
 
Friend A, if her writing is that important to her, needs to grasp the nettle and inform the family that she needs somewhere for herself. She isn’t locking herself away like a hermit crab, merely distancing herself for a while from the hurly-burly.
 
Friend B needs to think about what he is writing, and how the music he plays fits into that. Classical music may be something he enjoys, but it might be wrong for his frame of mind while writing. He could try varying the output to alter his mood.  A gentle violin piece may be too bland for creating a suspense story, and a piece of Wagner rattling the rafters certainly won’t do much for a story of soft candlelight and whispered sweet nothings.
 
Or how about some actual peace and quiet? Now there’s a novel thought (pun intended).
 
Another tool we tend to forget is a good source of reference. How often do we know the kind of word we need, yet can't quite bring it to mind? How accurate is our geography in a story – details of which might be subsequently picked apart by an editor at the expense of all our hard work? How often do we forget that what we knew even five years ago has changed dramatically because of shifting circumstances? (I must confess to this mistake once, when I quoted a 40-minute journey time from one part of London to another – a trip I used to take regularly. An editor queried whether I had done so recently, since that time has now doubled as a result of increased traffic, cameras, the congestion zone and reduced speed limits, which impacted quite seriously on the flow and time-plan of my story).
 
Thinking time is another tool we tend to overlook. Taking time out to think seriously about where our story is going can pay real dividends, rather than just giving it the odd thought over dinner along with interest rates, the children’s schooling and that bald tyre on the car.
 
Thinking, allied with jotting down ideas, alternative plots, ‘what ifs’ and some wild mind-mapping on scrap paper, can often serve to unblock the creative processes far more effectively than labouring painfully over a hot keyboard. So can walking, window-shopping or performing some other automatic task.
 
Our tools are important for us to do the job, whether it is part- or full-time. Having the right ones at hand - and reviewing them from time to time - could make all the difference between a job done well or simply snatched at and wasted.
 
TOP TIPS
·        Think about atmosphere and place. Are yours suitable for writing?
·        Take your writing time seriously and others will do so, too.
·        Having sources of reference at hand will save time and effort.
·        Give yourself time to think about what you are doing and where you are going.

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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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Saturday, 13 May 2017

Rocco re-branded

I mentioned a couple of days ago that a new Inspector Lucas Rocco book called 'Rocco and the Nightingale' is out in paperback via The Dome Press in October. This will bring the series to five full-length books plus a novella.

Fortunately, they have also taken the novella ('Rocco and the Snow Angel') under their wing and are re-branding it with a completely fresh cover.

This brings the appearance in line with the new design, which I'm delighted to see.

Available only on Kindle at the moment, this short edition finds Rocco on the trail of a killer after a former village priest is shot dead execution-style in a snow-covered field in Picardie, northern France.

For the locals it re-opens memories of a wartime scandal around the villages of Poissons-les-Marais and Fouillmont, when young infatuation led to a spate of coldly efficient assassinations. But who is responsible for this particular death? And if there's a wartime connection, why so long after the event?

For Rocco it means pushing aside the veil surrounding old Resistance activities and fighting dangerous political connections to track down a deadly long-range killer with the ability to hide in open countryside.

'Rocco and the Snow Angel' - on Kindle.

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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Rocco's back!

I'm delighted to announce that my series featuring Inspector Lucas Rocco is back with a bang.

The Dome Press are releasing 'Rocco and the Nightingale' in paperback on October 19. This is the fifth book in the series, set in Picardie, France during the 1960s. Other books (previously published by Allison & Busby) are:


'Death on the Marais'
'Death on the Rive Nord
'Death on the Pont Noir'
Death at the Clos du Lac'
 
There's also a Kindle novella out there called 'Rocco and the Snow Angel' - but more about that later.

I've been wanting to write more about Rocco's investigations and his tenuous professional relationship with the suits in France's Interior Ministry and his boss and former army commanding officer Commissaire Francois Massin for some time, but other projects and series somehow got in the way. (Blame it on my short attention span and a grasshopper mind).

However, now The Dome Press  have picked up the baton and I've been given the opportunity and impetus to bring Rocco out of semi-retirement and back into his Citroen Traction Avant (a car I wanted my father to buy when we lived in France many years ago, but he decided on a sleeker, more cost-effective Simca Aronde instead. Well, I was only 10 at the time and knew zip about gas-guzzling cars).


As with all my Rocco books, I tend to use or refer to as a backdrop a piece of France's history (Algerian Independence, assassination attempts on President de Gaulle, illegal immigrants, celebrity kidnapping, international trade deals, etc).

In 'Nightingale' the link is with the country's former African colony Gabon, and a government minister on the run from enemies. But that's only a small part of the overall picture, because this time Rocco has a professional assassin on his tail.

For future reference - 'Rocco and the Nightingale' - (The Dome Press) - paperback edition - 19th October. goo.gl/C9YGQq

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