Wednesday, 31 March 2010

First Review for Till the Day Go Down

"This is a rip-roaring romantic adventure that grabs the reader from the first page and never lets go. Jen Black conjures beautifully the wild, dangerous world of the English Scottish border in the Tudor era and the reckless, warring men – and women – that inhabit it. Her descriptions are so vivid that they transport the reader right into the heart of the story.

Harry is an engaging hero, dashing, courageous and with just enough hard-headed realism about the need to choose a rich bride to make him entirely believable and make the reader sympathetic to his conflicting desires. Alina is his match, a heroine whose behaviour is true to the conventions of her time but who nevertheless displays plenty of spirit. Their attraction is instant and their love story irresistible. They are supported by a rich and well drawn cast of characters who are a joy to meet. The plot gallops along at a cracking pace with plenty of intrigue thrown in to keep you turning the pages to the end. I loved it!"

Nicola Cornick

Monday, 29 March 2010

First words

First words, first pages, openings, call them what
you will, they're often difficult.
I thought that once I'd fnished the first complete draft of my wip, I'd go back to the beginning and go through again and make a much more thorough job of it. The thing is, I keep tinkering with the first lines.
Should it be dialogue? Action? Description? Or something completely different - if there is anything that would not fit into one of those three boxes. Well, all right; it could be internal dialogue ~Last night I dreamed I went back to Manderley. Personally I'd slip that into the dialogue box for my purposes here, but you may feel differently about it.

Thinking over the possibilities, I grabbed the book I'd last read and admired and knew to be sucessful, and opened it at the first page. Then I got out 3 mini magic markers in diferent colours (I hasten to add that this book belongs to me)

and marked out in orange all the bits that described the lead character. With yellow I marked any hooks that hinted at forthcoming problems - the things that keep the reader turning the page - and marked the second sentence of the book, and another just before I turned over the first page. With pink inhand I looked for backstory, and found one sentence. The rest of the first page, plain as the printer left it, could be called Action.

Action occurred at regular intervals and broke up the coloured passages. Orange (character description) covered almost as many words as Action. That was interesting in itself, because it wasn't obviously description; no blue eyes or shining locks mentioned at all. No, this was character description - he owned a house, kept an old horse, took pleasure in the weather, had an ambition, mentioned his profession, felt shame at a fellow worker's behaviour. All of that told me more about the character of the man than all the high cheekbones and snub noses in the world. By the time I got to the end of the book, I still didn't know what colour eyes the hero possessed, but it didn't matter; I knew him.

The hooks (yellow), slid briefly across two sentences and took up little space.

The backstory (pink) was one sentence and took up as much space as the two hooks.

Even more interesting.

But I sat and looked at the page, and thought how cleverly diverse and interesting information had been delivered to the reader. I wondered if I could emulate it.

The pic is the Falkirk Wheel. The website will tell you more! And I'm so happy that panda looked pleased at last.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Fantasy land

Two silver horses drew me to the edge of the water while dh examined the Falkirk Wheel (more of which later). As I edged around looking for the best shot without said wheel dominating the horse sculptures, I noticed the panda in the background. Yes, a panda. A panda looking as if s/he is pleading with a higher authority about something. I include a blow up taken from the original to prove it. What the story was there I haven't a clue, but somebody, somewhere, ought to incorporate it into a novel. Along with the horses, of course.
I had a really good moment today on visiting Blackwells bookshop in Newcastle. My book was there on the shelf for all the world to see. In the A-Z section, along with author C J Sansom, whose wonderful Tudor-set stories I've recently read. Really good historical novels, though I've seen them shelved in the crime section. The hero, lawyer Matthew Shardlake, solves a crime, sometimes two crimes in one story, but the world he inhabits and moves through is chillingly Tudor.
I recognised some of the "set scenes" he uses from my own research, and sighed, wondering if that meant I couldn't or shouldn't use the same pieces. Or if I could, as long as I presented it a little differently. After all, a piece taken from original documents of the 1540's is almost an event, and can be used over and over, just as Anne Boleyn's execution "happens" in more than a few stories of the time.
The BBC promises a new history website in 2011 and I'll certainly be on the look-out for that. THIS is the link if you're interested.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Mars Wark

The facade is almost all that's left of a residence built in 1570 by the Earl of Mar. The fact that it still stands at all is due to the good folk of Stirling claiming that it stopped the wind blowing down Broad Street. By today's standards the stonework looks dour and grim, but when new, with all the shields and armourial bearings carved into the lintels painted in bright colours, it would look quite different. Probably looks different when the sun hits the sandstone, too.

I have finally reached the end of my first draft, so my first visit to Stirling in years has paid off. Now I'm ready to incorporate the detail, newly fixed in my mind, into the pages. The visit to the castle wasn't too expensive, perhaps because the Royal Palace is not part of the tour at the moment. The rooms are being refurbished to look as they did in the days of Mary of Guise and James V - almost exactly the time of my story. They should be ready by next April. Pity it wasn't this April, but never mind. The guided tours are free, and there's still lots to see. We spent a good four hours there, both with the guide and on our own, so goodness knows how long we'd have been there if the Royal Palce had been completed.
A frequent phrase in guidebooks and informative plaques around the place now seem to share doubt - statements claim that it was possible may have is likely that....probably with.... and I cannot help feeling that I want positives. I want to know for certain that something was painted red, or that a building stood there in 1472, or that Mary Stewart actually lived there for some time.

My picture of Broad Street looking up the hill to wards Mars Wark shows how effective it would be in blocking the wind!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The value of critiques

Some wonderful comments attached to the last post, and all worth reading. I shall certainly read them over again from time to time to keep myself grounded. I sympathise with the writer who said she got too close to her own work - yes, recognise that trait! When a critiquer asks a simple question and I realise I've missed out a whole chunk of information because it had all happened in my head, but never got to the page.... oh, yes, been there!
And the critiquers who are too nice - that's a difficult one. We all like praise, don't we? One of the good things about critiquing is that it allows us to see other writers work before it reaches the final, polished stage. There are two ways to go with this. Personally I don't see much point in showing a first draft - unless you write comprehensive first drafts! - my word count alone grows by at least a third in a second and third draft. I like to get the outline down and then go back and layer in description and emotion, but that's just me. So asking people to read one of my first drafts wouldn't be fair to them.
On the other hand, it is intriguing to see how works grow from first draft to finished product. Doing that gives us some sort of yardstick with which to judge our own work. Are we really as good as those nice critiquers say we are? Or are they simply being kind to encourage us on to better things?
I've spent the last three days in Stirling, and have come back with 99 photographs, lots of booklets, maps, handouts and notes jotted down while listening to may take me a while to get organised, but I welcome it, becuase at least I can sit down to do it. I have walked so many miles, and so many of them uphill that sitting is good right now.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Critique or not to critique?

Thomas Cromwell by Robert Hutchinson is a good source of information on Tudor England. I'd already read his book The Last Days of Henry VIII and find his style readable, even entertaining and I recommend them both. He really brought home to me what it would mean to be living through the Dissolution of the Monasteries 1536-1539, and of course it's all good for my latest wip.
I'm writing the last chapter, and because I'm keen to get started on the second draft, I'm doing some of that too while I wait for critique partners to do their worst - or best, depending on your point of view. Not that I always agree with them, but lots of the time they're right on the button. I learned very early that six critiques could seriously screw your self-confidence in writing. If they all say the same, that's wonderful; if they say the same and tell you it's marvellous, that's even better. But if six people tell you its wrong, for six different reasons, and then give you six ways to improve it, then the beginning writer can feel seriously disorientated.
I think there is a case for progressing alone until you have some sense of your style and what you want in your story. If you then feel able to take criticism from colleagues without feeling depressed or hurt, and feel able to filter out what you can use and recognise what is best left alone, that's the time to think of joining a critique group.
We all have our own style, and we critique, subconsciously perhaps, with that style directing our comments. But of course, my style does not necessarily suit the writer whose work I critique, and vice versa. It's one reason why I try and critique work that is a similar genre, setting and period to my own, so the baseline is the same - or if not the same, then very similar. It would be very hard work for me to critique something written in the 1920's and set in New York or China, even though it would still be historical genre. The difference would be just too great, and my anchors would be all adrift! There may be people who can critique anything without turning a hair, maybe do historical, modern and then a thriller, but I'm not one of them, sad to say.
I'm sitting in the amphitheatre at Dougga for the picture and I'm blinking because I've just shoved my sunglasses up into my hair. The sunlight was so bright!

Monday, 8 March 2010

Tearing up the wip

Yesterday I copied my first three chapters of my wip and then attacked them with a machete.
Keeping an original safe gives me the freedom to try whatever I like and still be safe in the knowledge I have a fall back position.
So what did I do?
I took out the first three pages and allowed dialogue to be the first line. Then I took out the second and third scenes that made up Chapter One and consigned them to the "maybe" folder. At this stage, the words in the maybe folder may be re-used, or they may remain forever dumped. Who knows?

Next I copied the first scene of Chapter Two and added it to the end of first scene Chapter One. Now I have a first chapter that consists of two cracking scenes. (Crosses fingers here!)

Then I repeated the process today with Chapter Two, with slight variations but following the general theme of cut and add-in. Now I'm sneaking a look at Chapter Four and considering moving it up to the end Chapter Three.

This is not all. Now that I've almost got to the end of the storyline, I can spot plot footage where I need to shift and change, add in, take out and generally enhance my plot and characterisation. I find it heady stuff. It's almost as if the original writing isn't mine and I can usually see right away where something needs to be done.

That rejection certainly freed up something. If I'm honest, I regretted sending it off as early as I did, but I'm always impatient to get feedback. Yes, I know agents are not there to provide feedback unless perhaps you are their client, but in a way it is a kind of feedback. If they don't like it, then you go back to the drawing board. Or the keyboard.

I had an inkling of what I wanted to do already in mind while I was on holiday in Tunisia. It certainly made me impatient to get back to writing.
But talking of Tunisia, one of the amazing things about the country is vast amount of Roman Architecture that disappeared under the shifting sands of Africa. The four columns are part of a big site at Thuburbo Majus, discovered under the sand in 1875, and the temple is part of an even bigger site at Dougga, discovered 1894.

Amazing to think that Dougga sits at 600 metres above sea level, and the sand covered the whole of the building. It lies about seventy miles south west of Tunis, the modern city built around Carthage, and today four fifths of the site remains under grass, sustaining the best quality olive trees in Tunisia.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Rejection rears its ugly head

Saturday morning is usually the day when rejections fall on the mat beneath the letterbox. Agents and publishers alike must clear out submissions Friday morning, send the pile tottering off to the post office Friday afternoon so they have a clean desk for Monday morning. It makes sense. I could come to dread Saturday mornings.
This one acknowledged my work as competent, which is good, if not something to set me dancing around the room. Better than telling me to give up and find another hobby, though! Evidently I did not set the agents's pulses singing, competent though I might be. Still, that comes down to personal taste, I think. Another agent may find that it does something for them, so I am not too disheartened. And I didn't wait ages to hear; I sent the sub off before I went on holiday, so it has only been 3 weeks.
I still await a reply from a publisher who cited 6-8 weeks for a response and they're still within their time-frame. Last September an e-publisher got in touch with me, asked for a clean copy of the whole ms and now does not answer my follow-up e-mails. I think I have to regard that one as fallen over the edge of a cliff and gone for good.
My skin has thickened since I began this writing thing. Once a rejection would have dejected me for at least a fortnight, but today woke up the very next day thinking where are the first 3 chapters of that ms...let me see what I can do with it before it goes out again.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Tunisian life

Some parts of Sousse are not pretty. Others are cute. I took both of these pics outside the carpet-seller's factory. The children's nursery was directly opposite and the street was just that - the street outside with everyday life going on. If you click to enlarge the pic, you'll see the way some of the older ladies dress, in what looks like a striped woollen blanket.

In the summer I could see that this way of dressing might be an advantage. The heat of the sun coupled with the sand blown on the wind must turn the skin to leather, and after our experience of a mild sandstorm, I couldn't help but think it was a sensible option.

One afternoon we experienced a sudden crack of thunder and lightning lit up the sky. Just one of each. Then the rain came down. Big, fat drops that bounced off the tiles. People ran into the hotel drenched to the skin after only a minute. It lasted perhaps ten minutes in all, but the front of the hotel was awash and the maid was kept busy mopping the water out as fast as it rolled in.

Transport is interesting. On the same street you can see the modern tour buses, Mercedes cars, old bycycles and the humble donkey - pulling a cart or being ridden by (usually) old men in long robes.

Women work on the central reservation of the main roads, planting bushes in soil they have first dug with a very old tool about the size of a large trowel but with a hooked blade - imagine a claw- headed hammer and you'll be close.

They also work in the fields, planting, weeding, harvesting. Men tend to look after the sheep and goats, and it is not unusual to see a small flock of six or seven herded along the motorway verge by an old man. Everywhere there's a patch of sparse weedy grass, even in the outskirts of Sousse, there will be a shepherd and a few animals.
But don't let me give you the impression that Tunisians are all poverty stricken. There are some very nice houses even on the carpet-seller's street, tucked away behind high white walls and ornate iron gates. There is money there. The flash new cars dash along the streets, and the young people dress as young people do everywhere. One of the things I loved was the housewifely thing of tossing your carpet and your bed fleece over the balcony to air in the sun. Everyone does it. Pity we don't have the weather for it here.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Sand storm

The Royal Kenz hotel, our home for 14 days.
Yes, I'd recommend it. The view from the other
side is prettier, with the two pools and the
gardens, but it is certainly a contrast to the
view not half a mile away to the north, where we were told many of the local people live. So many unfinished houses do nothing for the ambience of the neighbourhood as you'll see in the second picture.

The weather is still gently warm at this point and we continued to walk up and down the beach, lounge on it and generally catch up on our reading. I had Dissolution by C J Sanson on my e-
reader and though I did not dare take it onto the beach in case sand found its way into the workings, it proved a good idea elsewhere. Light, easy to read even in the brightest sunshine, and very clear text. Wonderful story, too. Must find more of the author's work.

By day four we had discovered that the weather changed around noon. The clear blue skies we woke up to each morning gradually clouded over and the wind increased from noon onwards. This particular day, the wind increased until it drove us into the sheltering arms of the hotel gardens. It was a warm wind, but coming straight off the Sahara and bringing loads of sand with it. The air turned a pale, sandy gold colour and grit got between my teeth and made me wince once or twice when it got between my contacts and me.
As a reflection on working practices, I have to admit that I've been three hours at my computer today and have yet to do any work on my wip. Shocking, isn't it? I began by reading e-mails, then doing three crits for my colleagues at Histfic and then by checking and adding this to my blog. In between I've made cups of tea for dh and self, set the washer going and emptied it twice over and oh yes, did the washing up from breakfast and fed the birds. Before that there were other housekeeping duties too boring to mention - but I swear I am going to do nothing this afternoon but work on my novel. I swear it!

Monday, 1 March 2010

Magic carpets

The shot of the airplane wing should be fair
warning - I've been on holiday and took lots of pics. We left the freezing conditions of England and flew to Tunisia to see if we could catch some sunshine.
The first couple of days were so much warmer than we were used to, and we lapped it up. Locals, of course, scurried around in overcoats, hats and scarves. The beach was cool and misty but provided a lovely walk from the hotel to Port El Kantaoui - about five kilometres there and back again. Lots of chances to indulge a taste for retail therapy around the port - and when I say port, think of rubbing shoulders with the yachting crowd rather than ocean liners. Lots of leather goods, pottery and carpets spewing out of the shops and across the paving stones, plus lots of places to eat if you were in the mood.

Silver sand, gentle waves and the kind of sunshine that keeps you warm but you can't see the sun. Click on the pics for a larger view.

The second day was warmer, and we walked north instead of south, through the local village and were amazed at the number of half completed houses. Buildings started and not finished. We found out later that Muslims are not supposed to practice usury, so they must save their money and build until the money runs out and then save to build the next section. All over Tunisia, raw breeze blocks and concrete hurt the eye - but the people will not be in debt, and every stark structure sports a satellite dish.
The third day we took a bus ride into Sousse, visited first a carpet and then a leather factory. Again, don't think factory in UK terms. The leather factory operated in three rooms no larger than my living room, and the carpet factory was perhaps three times that size but still not huge. Had we been inclined or had bare floors back home, we could have bought a carpet for perhaps a third of what it would cost here in England. Worth flying out for a holiday just to pick and purchase a handsome Berber or Kashmiri rug...

We were given a demonstration of different
qualitites of carpet. First of all, there is the
standard wool carpet, perhaps ten feet by six, double knotted by hand, three ladies working for six months on a design that lives only in their minds.
Then comes the same carpet, but made in lambs wool - three ladies, nine months and this carpet will not burn, my friend. At this point the carpet dealer gets out his lighter and holds the naked flame to the lambs wool carpet, and, amazingly, it does not burn. He gestures to the standard wool carpet - "It would leave hole in rug. Do not try it at home."
Then comes the Kasmiri carpet - same design, six ladies, nine months, guaranteed by Tunisia government for 100 years. Dh and I look at each other and struggle with the idea of returning to Tunisia, carpet under arm, trying to complain that it has worn out after fifty years.... At this point, with perhaps thirty or forty carpets strewn on the shop floor beneath our dazed eyes, not one of his audience can speak.

Taking a Risk

  Poised on the cliff edge about to take the leap! No thoughts of suicide - oh no! Or perhaps only in terms of covers for my e-books. I am a...