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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Saturday, 6 May 2017

Latest article in Writing Magazine

My latest 'Beginners' article in May's issue of Writing Magazine is called 'Avoid the Unlikely'.

This title came about because years ago, when I was writing lots of short fiction for women's magazines (during the period known by my wife as the frock years), I used a lovely literary agency, sadly now defunct, run by two agents, Cari and Lesley, who had the most charming way with rejections.

The words they used mostly were 'not very likely', meaning it lacked that certain something, whether depth, colour realism... in fact anything rendering it unlikely to be accepted for publication. And then explained why, which was a lot more helpful than sending a blank rejection slip.

I took this seriously, and carried it into writing my later novels. It made me slightly anal about checking detail, place, geography or anything likely to make a reader throw the book aside in disgust, but that was no bad thing. (A nod of thanks there to Google Earth, Street view, Wikipedia and a host of other sources that help with my research. It takes time to do but it's worth it in the end, even if I do get dragged off-topic endlessly when I spot something totally not to do with what I'm writing. But that's part of the fun). 

In addition, however, the story itself has to make sense in the structure, not simply the detail.

While it's okay when setting your stories against real-world backdrops to bend reality slightly , writing something that is simply not possible or plausible is another matter altogether.

As I learned very quickly, there are some very knowledgeable readers out there, and if I write something that simply doesn't wash, they are likely to write and tell me. Thankfully, that hasn't happened in a long time, if only because I try to avoid the unlikely.

So thank you, Cari and Lesley, for helping turn the unlikely into the likely.

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Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Writing for Beginners (29)

Stop fiddling!

A common topic of conversation came up recently, when a lady asked me about a book she was writing. ‘How do I know when it’s finished?’ she queried.

The cheeky answer would have been ‘When you write END at the bottom of the final page’. However, while there’s an obvious truth in that, I’ve heard the same point mentioned on several occasions, and found that the question usually arises for two very different reasons. Which of the two is causing the problem is where the individual writer has to decide.

The first comes out of the editing process. This encompasses everything from crossing all the ‘t’s’ and dotting the ‘i’s’, through verifying facts to checking timelines and continuity of detail (blue eyes suddenly turned brown, for example). Whether this is done during or after the main task of writing depends on individual preference. Some people like to edit as they go along, tidying up any mistakes or omissions at the end of each day; others prefer to TTBS (tell the bloomin’ story) and get the bulk of the work done, leaving it until later to worry about the grind of editing, when they can don a different hat.

Personally, I find there is something to be said for the TTBS approach, since coming back to a chapter after an absence often gives me a new perspective on the content and layout when judged against the rest of the work. I believe this allows me to see the detail with a more dispassionate eye, and I tend not to spend as much time editing as I do when I take the do-it-as-I-go-along approach and end up fretting myself into a nervous wreck over dots, commas and doubtful phraseology.

Whichever way works for you is best. But where some writers trip up is simply in over-editing their work. This usually occurs where you find yourself drawn back to a specific paragraph or section of a story, altering the wording because you are not quite satisfied with what you have written. If this happens more often than is usual, you should give it to somebody you can trust and ask their opinion, on the basis that a fresh eye might see what you cannot.

Because we sometimes get too close to a story, and can’t see the wood for the trees (apologies for that cliché), we begin to fiddle and pick away at the work until it risks becoming an obsession. The end result – other than never finishing what we started – is that we end up so far away from where we began, it no longer makes sense.

It’s a bit like the DIY bodger who, trying to level a rickety dining table, saws off bits from each leg in turn, eventually ending up with everyone eating Japanese-style.

In general, you wouldn’t have thought there would be too many problems with deciding how a sentence or paragraph should be set down on the paper. Yet occasionally, something about the appearance on the page can look odd, causing you to be dragged back time and time again without knowing why, and reaching for your fiddling pen.

It could be simply a matter of clumsy spacing, which can hide or interrupt the pace of your delivery. If you want to say something that has some impact for example, introducing a piece of information that, in a film would be accompanied by some dramatic dum-dum-dum music, don’t bury it in a busy section of ‘he said’, ‘she said’ dialogue, where it will get lost or watered down. If it’s important, then far better to have it out there by itself, where it gets noticed.

Your answer may simply be in revising the layout of the problem section. You may have, for example, character A confronting character B, with the all-important high point being where A places a truly damning document on the table. (Cue dramatic music). Yet for some reason the passage doesn’t look right or command the weight you were looking for. The question is, have you put the information in the right place, or has it become little more than a vague gesture which your reader may not spot, thus losing the dramatic inference?

Try giving it some room, and alter the layout. Use the line space to set the action apart from the dialogue, and it could make all the difference.

The second reason for fiddling is more a matter of confidence; many writers find it difficult at first to let their work go out into the big, wide world. This is a great shame, because if you want your work to be read - and published - you owe it to yourself to face this ultimate test. In a  nutshell, it comes down to having the brass neck to say ‘Enough’ and to stick your pride and joy in an envelope and entrust it whatever fate awaits it. 
 
Thinking about it, why short change yourself? There are some who might prefer to hover in that writing limbo, where judgement is never passed on their work. Most people would probably agree that the not knowing is more difficult to live with.

TOP TIPS

·        Learn to know when you have done enough. Over-editing can be counter-productive.
·        If it looks wrong, try re-writing a passage. Then move on. You can always come back later.
·        Finish the story first, then read it through to gain a sense of the flow.
·        Don’t get hung up on one point. If you really don’t like it, cut it out or replace it.
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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, 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.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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.  
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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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Sunday, 26 February 2017

Latest article in Writing Magazine

An Eye to the Future

My 'Beginners' page in the March edition of Writing Magazine is to remind writers that there's a future out there, not just the present. (I'm writing from experience, as I know all-too well that in the white-hot heat of creativity - or the daily slog that it can sometimes seem - we tend to forget that we're putting something out there that will last a while, if we're lucky).


Books used to be short-lived; on the shelf one minute, gone the next, and all that was left was for the author to get working on another one to keep the interest alive unless they wanted to fade into obscurity and make starving in a garret a reality.

Publishers needed a turnover to keep going, and that included pushing authors to write more if only to stimulate the market (something some publishers are still surprisingly not very good at).

The advent of ebooks, of course, and self-publishing, has changed all that, and put some of the control into the authors' hands. Content, once written and printed, is no longer static; book covers can be changed at the click of a keyboard; links can be included to stimulate a reader's interest; even prices can be played with as never before.

It's changing fast, and writers need to get their eyes off the keyboard once in a while and see the future. Because it's right here.
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Earlier 'Beginners' articles have now been gathered in a book - 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' courtesy of Writing Magazine. Available as ebook or p/b here.
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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Behind the story

Ask most people about the job they do and it's not unusual to find that they can wax lyrical about it. That's certainly the impression writers get when we approach professionals, whether police, army, emergency services or any others, to find out a bit about the nuts and bolts of their particular professions. They're only too keen to talk about it.

Occasionally the tables are turned and writers get asked to chip in with some background about the project they're working on. We are, of course, shy retiring types (mostly), but there aren't many of us too backward about coming forward when given the opportunity.

When Midnight Ink, my US publishers, kindly asked me to guest blog about the Gonzales & Vaslik series ('The Locker' - Jan 2016 and 'The Bid' - Jan 2017), I was only too happy to comply. To be fair, it is about the books without giving away any spoilers, and not so much my writing life. But if you're interested, you can find the full blog here.

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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Latest articles in Writing Magazine

February's edition of Writing Magazine is now out there, and includes another Beginners piece - 'The Variety Show', along with a New Author profile.

The Variety Show is not, as you might think, about writing comedy or light entertainment performances, but simply about what kind of author one can be. This came about when the term 'hybrid author' popped up in conversation.

I regard myself as something of a hybrid simply because I write in different genres, from spy thrillers to crime, to non-fiction. I always have done, so I got used to jumping from one to the other to suit my needs - mostly financial, being a working writer.

This piece goes into why writers might try genre-hopping, whether out of interest, spontaneity, writing to one's strengths - or weaknesses - or a preference to following rules.

Whether you find yourself following any or more of these, it doesn't matter. In my view, you make the most of all available options; if you want to try something else because there's a chance of a sale and publication, go for it.

Be a hybrid. Or not. The choice is yours.

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The New Author profiled this month is Linda McLaughlan, and her debut novel 'Chasing Charlie', published by Black & White Publishing last April.

Described as a comedy of errors, it follows Sam, who follows her ex-boyfriend around London, trying to win back his heart.

A reflection of many - maybe most - other authors, Linda's writing was accomplished part-time, juggling jobs, children and other demands, all the while with an eye on getting that idea out of the bone and onto the paper. And like many others, she knew she wanted to write from an early age.

'Chasing Charlie' - out in ebook and paperback.

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