Sunday, 30 May 2010

Have I got it right?

Plotting and characterisation merge together in some strange ways. Lately I’ve been thinking about editing, which means I’ve been wondering if my wip has a clear story goal. Does my protagonist’s problem turn into a goal or a quest, and is it interesting? Is it dangerous? Can he achieve it easily, or with great difficulty? Does it matter, in the scheme of things – in the world of the book, will anything change if he succeeds? Or if he fails?
I think I’m OK on story goal. Then there are scene goals.
Scene goals are trickier by far, in my view. It is easy to fill chapters with goals that seem important, but don’t cause the Protagonist (P) much grief. But if I swing the other way, then I’ll have goals that are so unrealistic as to be laughable. The goals need to be somewhere in the middle. Daring, stretching the P, but not beyond possibility.

Scene goals can be clear and bright in the author’s mind, but may never actually reach the page; or they reach it in such a diluted, understated way that the reader misses them completely. This is particularly true of the unimportant goals. Overreaching scene goals tend to send the reader off into gales of laughter. They get noticed, but not in the way you or I want.

Or there may be so many small scene goals in the same chapter, or following so closely one after the other that confusion sets in and the poor reader raises eyes to heaven and quietly puts the book back on the shelf.

Another problem is that the scene goal, or story goal, in this case, may be fine, but doesn’t match up to the P’s character. Rather like asking a chick-it heroine in kitten heels to suddenly start behaving like a female James Bond and save the world. It may be a good plot, but would be much more believable with an ex-SAS type, or similar, as hero/ine.
And always there’s the dreaded risk that scene goal(s) and the situation may be so clichéd that the book is simply flat and uninteresting.
Right. I’ve read through the above three times. Now, if I get it all right, I should have a winner on my hands. Oh, that I should be so lucky!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Action all the way

I’ve been reading blogs instead of writing them today (mainly because Roland Garros is rained off! And on Ginger's blog I found something to make me think.
Ginger says: 'Sometimes you see something on TV that prompts a comparison to writing novels. Authors are always supposed to start off with a hook that reels the reader in, and keep the story interesting, no matter how many twists and turns it takes.'

She goes on to relate the summary of a US medical show which sounds as if it exhausts every emotion in the viewer.
It reminded me of the reason I stopped watching Casualty and Holby City and the like. The story lines seem to me to be as similarly fast-paced as the American show, though I don’t think crocodiles have featured in them yet. My question is this: are these shows a Good Thing if they leave people wanting books that read as fast as the tv shows?

I'm not sure. I gave up watching Casulaty and Holby City when I started predicting the accidents, however unlikely, that were going to end up as the hospital's problem. Someone's cooking? - there'll be a fire. Climbing a ladder - he'll fall, and take three pedestrians with him. Driving - well, it's never a single crash now, but it's always a multiple vehicle pile-up on the motorway and someone always has to have a limb taken off....

Is this entertainment? It seems so.
I imagine, perhaps even hope, that a good many people are turned away by how often reality is sacrificed for a good story on tv. As book writers, rather than tv writers, we are encouraged to make things real for the reader. Agents demand characterisation as well as action, and the books that haunt our best seller lists and take national prizes often fill six hundred pages with episodic and slow-paced happenings that cannot really be called action.

It seems to me that the two mediums are vastly different, but somewhere in the middle there is a blurring. I’m hoping that the blurring stays just that and does not impinge the standards of one medium upon the other.
Any views on this?
The pic is the inside of the central block of Seaton Delaval Hall after the 1822 fire.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Editing among the wildlife

Friday it was ducklings in the pond, Saturday it was a hawk scattering the swifts, on Sunday came a tortoise. The duckling is still happy on our neighbour’s pond, and Kevin soon reclaimed his tortoise. These summer days are certainly bringing wildlife to our garden.
Editing of the wip goes on. One of the things I’m looking at is imagery, and I’m spending quite a lot of time on metaphor because I think a good one works wonders. Similes are easier; we all compare things almost everytime we speak, but metaphors, good ones, are harder. The trick is to totally substitute one image for another. But the imagery has to work, on several levels, and a false metaphor does more harm than good, just as too many metaphors begin to annoy the reader. Well, this reader at least.

A metaphor has to work on several levels. I try hard to avoid the clichéd metaphor. The ones like stopped dead in his tracks, for instance, or Step out of the frying pan into the fire. We all know those. Perhaps the rule should be: if you can’t think up an original metaphor, leave them alone.
They can be simple, as in I’m melting in the heat.
Or they can be complex and go on over one or more sentences: my imagination is a three-hundred-ring circus. Currently I was in ring two hundred and ninety-nine, with elephants dancing and clowns cartwheeling and tigers leaping through rings of fire. The time had come to step back, leave the main tent, go buy some popcorn and a Coke, bliss out, cool down. (Dean Koontz)

Sometimes the problem is that the metaphor is inappropriate. It brings up an image that doesn’t quite go with the subject under discussion, the character or the historical setting.
People also talk of mixed metaphors, and the term usually refers to short metaphors placed too close together. Because of the closeness, the images clash, and at the very least, do not compliment each other. Shakespeare got away with it, possibly because neither half of the sentence is hackneyed, when he wrote Or take arms against a sea of troubles, but I doubt you’d let this one pass by without a snigger: a virgin field pregnant with possibilities. And this one, I think you’ll agree, lacks a certain style: the President has backed him to the hilt every time the chips are down.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Duckling followup

I mentioned the visitors to our small, rustic type pond yesterday. There is a follow-up to the tale. Three ducklings ran when the magpie attacked, but only my dh dashing out into the garden saved the duckling with the magpie’s beak around its neck. It ran, fell over and vanished into the bushes, and we feared the worst.
Three hours later, it was back in the sun on the stone steps. All alone, but seemingly unworried. Twenty minutes after that it was back in the pool, but got caught in the wire netting we had over the pool to save the tadpoles from the crows, cats and magpies. Dh again to the rescue, wire clippers to the fore. I supported its weight while he clipped the wires. When the duckling was free, it sat on the water for half a second and then erupted into action – out of the pond, and over the lawn, screeching as it headed for the bushes.
We never saw it again. Had a worried night. Up at 4.27am, binoculars out, searching the undergrowth from the bedroom window. Nothing. Then mid-morning, in conversation with the next door neighbours – they had seen a duckling, and it went that away. Over the fence again, and the next, nextdoor neighbour confirms: ‘It’s here, in our pool. Looks content.’
So there we are. A happy (I hope) mallard duckling all alone on the pond two gardens up. At least the weather is in its favour. It is upwards of 25 degrees today, and the nights are (relatively) warm, too.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Ducks and petrol

Petrol is 119.9 pence per litre, or £1.20. Diesel is 120.9, super unleaded 124.9. That’s £5.40 per gallon. If the average car does 35 miles to the gallon, that’s £5.40 every 35 miles. The trip to Wooler last week was 65 miles x two = 130, so that means the trip cost £24. A trip to Edinburgh would be £37. Ullapool? £118. A day out or a trip away has suddenly taken on a whole new dimension!
I’m still editing my wip. I find the mind stops editing and starts reading if I do too much at a time, and because I have no deadlines, I can afford to be slow and thorough about it. People recommend reading aloud, don’t they? Anyone tried it? Does it really work? I haven’t and think I might get an attack of the giggles. I’m still checking for missing/awkward/jarring plot points, and deepening characterisation, but that doesn’t mean that I miss the clunky bits, and the places where I’ve used twelve words when six would do. Unintended repetitions are dealt with severely. And I’m looking for prettier ways to say what I want to say, looking for better style, I suppose. If I can see a place to add imagery, I’ll do it if I think it’s good imagery. It has to work on several levels.
And I’m checking my characters word choices.

What do I mean? Well, my protagonist is a commoner. His best friend is minor gentry. They think differently, and they employ different accents and different words. Harry has a more extensive word choice at his disposal, but Matho is blunt and straight to the point. Sometimes when I’ve been writing, I’ve given Matho Harry type dialogue, so now I’m exchanging all his Harry type utterances for what would come naturally to Matho. Harry might say a girl was utterly beautiful, but Matho would grunt and say Aye, she’s pretty.
We had visitors to our small, rustic type garden pond today. The little darlings were eating tadpoles as fast as they could until a big bad magpie attacked them, and they ran into the bushes and vanished. I hope they survived, ‘cos mother duck was no where in sight.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Bluebells and churches

Bluebells and churches seem to go together somehow, don't they? If anyone knows what the triangular piece above the church door in the picture below is called, do let me know. It is part of the old Norman church, still in use today, within the grounds of Seaton Delaval Hall.

(I've just added a piece about it to the new blog Historical Belles and Beaus - do pop over and take a look. here )

I like old churches, but dh dislikes going into them, or into churchyards, so I find myself sneaking into them when he is not around. I find them fascinating, gentle, peaceful places.

Locally we have the Saxon church at Escomb, the Normal Cathedral at Durham - a gorgeous contrast to the little Normal church at Seaton Delaval, and a pair of medieval churches at Bywell. There are many others dotted around Durham and Northumberland, but I can't mention them all!

I suppose I ought to mention the Abbey at Hexham. Its origins are Saxon, founded by St Wilfrid, no less. And there is a Saxon crypt with several Roman stones snitched from the Roman wall or Corstopitum, which isn't so very far away.
But much of the body of the church is not so very old. The Victorians did one of their refurbishment jobs on it. No doubt it needed it, and a fine job they did. But sadly, it no longer seems old to me.

I remember crawling around it with Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett in my hand, because one of the most dramatic scenes takes place within the Abbey. The transept in which Tom Erskine hides, watching a bowman take aim and fire at the hero, Lymond, still exists.

The arrow flies true, and Lymond...
'flung up his head, turned half around with the force of the explosion. The bow fell. For one second - two- he held fast to the broken coping, defying the heralds of agony and an easy darkness... The riven flesh and burst vessels made their protest, the freed blood springing liberal and scarlet through the fragments of Lymond's shirt. Erskine saw the long hands loosen, the sudden, uncontrolled sway; but was not prepared for the drowned, revealing blue gaze meeting his like a blow.
"And died stinkingly martyred," said Lynmond, with painful derision; and losing hold bit by bit, slipped into Erskine's gentle grasp.'

Still gets me, after all this time.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Seaton Delaval

Seaton Delaval Hall ~ the finest work of the English Baroque and one of the most important historic houses in Britain. The Grade I listed building was built between 1718 and 1731 by Sir John Vanbrugh, architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. The recent National Trust campaign allowed them to take over the house, its gardens and 400 acres of surrounding land from Lord Hastings, who died, aged 95, in 2007.

This is the third weekend it has been open to the public, and we enjoyed our visit. The gardens are particularly lovely and we promised ourselves we’d go back again in a week or two when more plants will be in bloom.
The house is a surprise. From the outside it looks wonderful, but inside it is an empty shell. A fire in 1822 burned out all the floors and walls between the ground floor and the roof. All that remains is the brickwork skeleton and stone staircases. Fireplaces are dotted at various heights about the walls. The earthen floored cellars stretch beneath the house, and the hastily placed legend tells that men and women servants ate their meals in two separate rooms down here. Hard to believe. There are few windows, and it isn't as if the hall lacks for space. The east wing is given over to stone stables, still bearing the names of the horses who lived there, and the West wing, we are told, is where the servants were quartered.
The drinking troughs in the stables are lead lined, so perhaps the horses were slowly and unknowingly poisoned. There is a huge ornamental lead flower pot dated 1662 in the garden, and an orangery with dancing cherubs decorating the roof outside.
Lord and Lady Hastings lived in the West wing since 1990, where they made a comfortable family home because the central house had long been let go. There are some lovely paintings in their quarters, and carved oak chairs. The whole place is very much a work in progress, and fascinating because of that. The tiny church among the bluebells dates from 1102 AD - yes, from Norman times. It is far, far older than the house.
There is a tea room in the east wing, but it is tiny and when we wnt it was crammed with people and hot as a Turkish steam bath. We didn't stay. Maybe plan to take sandwiches and eat in the car!
Read more courtesy of the Daily Mail. As the long article says, the place is an unexpected treasure in a very industrial corner of Northumberland. I'd never been before, yet it is barely twenty miles from me. I found an extra dimension to the visit because one of my fellow critiquers writes of the period this house was built and first lived in. I looked at the paintings, the great seals, the documents and imagined her characters seated on the carved oak chairs. I'm already looking forward to going back again.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Turrets and battlements

In less than eight weeks I shall be heading off to France and I must try and work in a visit to this place. It's Merlin's castle here and those of you who are fans of the BBC production will recognise it. Situated somewhere north of Paris. I shall check it out on Google earth. One of the things I adore about France is the vast amount of old castles, churches and things just generally old. Pointy, plasticy new architecture leaves me cold, but show me a turret and battlement and I'm hooked. There's plenty of information about it on the web here and no doubt a lot more if you feel inclined to spend some time checking it all out.

What is it that attracts me? I'm not sure. I wouldn't for a moment want to live in any of them. Great, gaunt stone walled places wth either vast halls or tiny rooms with low ceilings and draughty windows ~ if they had windows at all. Lots of the French castles along the Loire look out over the river, and they are not for those who suffer from vertigo. Sometimes the drop beneath a window can be a couple of hundred feet. Sometimes there are doors opening onto a patch of grass no bigger than a pocket handkerchief and a huge drop on all sides.

And yet...if imagination takes over, and supplies huge log fires with flames leaping high, and rooms full of people in medieval dress...thick wool petticoats, heavy gowns with wide sleeves as good as an extra blanket in some cases... headgear keeping in the heat, neck and throat of the ladies swathed in fine linen...I suppose they'd be warm enough. And in Summer, with the terrific heat outside, they'd be positively cool and comfortable inside.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Style v voice

Someone in the audience on Friday night asked if authors read books. I have heard authors say they won’t read in their own genre because they fear losing their voice, perhaps picking up another’s style. (I used to wonder what the difference was between style and voice. I’ve since discovered that readers and aspiring writers talk of style while agents use the term voice. They are often used to mean the same thing, but a good distinction is this: style is choosing words to fit character, genre and the effect the author requires. Voice is the author’s natural use of language to create the characters and story. Lyon)

I read widely in the historical genre, along with whatever interests me at the time, and I think it does me more good than harm. Perhaps I have become a little more critical of the writing, in that I pause now and then to admire, or wonder why a piece of writing does not give me the pleasure I expect.

It would be wrong of me to list books in either category, but we all know we like some things more than others. I have recently put aside a novel with a blurb that talks of stunning Regency romance by a best selling NY Times bestselling author. I picked it up last night and began to read. Then kept stuttering to a halt, and asking myself why….my feathers were very early ruffled ~ right beneath Chapter One, I was told the setting was London, Winter, 1848. Now to my mind 1848 is not Regency, but nearly thirty years later. Flipped back to re-read the blurb, where I note that it does not actually say this particular book is one of the stunning Regency series. A trap into which this unwary reader fell with an alarming thump.

That Winter tag began to irritate, for it could indicate any of seven months between October and April. The character names sounded, to my ear (perhaps uninformed, and I’d be the first to admit it, but then I’m the reader here) so un-English, particularly un-Victorian English. The dialogue and descriptions are also off-key somehow. I cannot rid myself of the feeling that I am reading of modern day Americans plonked down willy-nilly in a London that says it is 1848 but gives me no feeling for such a place and time. The lack of grounding intruded between me and the story until I sighed and put the book aside. I won’t go back to it.
In case you're wondering, the pic is of me dressed to go to the author panel. I finally shed my sweats for an hour or two! Yay!

Saturday, 8 May 2010


I attended my first author panel yesterday evening, and do you know, it wasn't so bad. Once I got the first sentence out, it seemed good fun. Knowing how nervous I was in spite of having six other authors alongside me, I can’t imagine what it must be like to walk into a hall alone and face 70-80 people as Philippa Gregory did at Alnwick last week.
But I suppose one can get used to anything.

Northumberland Libraries took a room in the Tankerville Arms Hotel, Wooler
since the local library did not have enough space to take everyone. As I said, there were six other authors besides me, and all of them had done this sort of thing before. If you look at the pic (perhaps enlarge it by clicking on it?) Prue Phillipson sits to the left, followed by Janet MacLeod Trotter, Anna Louise Lucia, Margaret Carr, Abigail Bosanko and Michelle Styles' attention has been caught by something on the information board!
Naturally, dh and I arrived ridiculously early, as we usually do. I always used to arrive dead on the minute for anything, but he has slowly got me around to his way of thinking. We covered the sixty-five miles across the sunny Northumberland landscape with no hold-ups. I was first there. Too eager, I know.

Diane Wright, the area Librarian, had everything set up, people arrived, and off we went. First topic – why was I drawn to write in my chosen genre? I gave a brief answer about loving reading, history and being a librarian which probably wasn’t too logical, but seemed to fit the bill. I can’t actually remember what I said, but Prue followed on seamlessly, and then on down the line. A chunk of infor from everyone and then on to the next person.

The next question was about selling the first book, and I’d got my breath back now listening to everyone else, and began to enjoy myself. Told the tale of dh scanning my typewritten pages into a computer for me, and of selling Banners of Alba in America and hearing that the publisher declared herself bankrupt the very day my book came out!

There was a break in the middle for nibbles, a glass of wine and the chance to mingle before back to part two. I shouldn’t have had the wine, for I could feel my cheeks flaring. Probably looked like a Dutch doll with a temperature, but by then it couldn’t be helped. Diane finally stopped us half an hour after the specified time, and when I left people were still buzzing and talking. Twenty nine people in the audience, and a very good evening. Congratulations, Diane on a well run evening. I can’t wait for the next one.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010


I’ve just read a book than any would-be author will enjoy. The Pretender by David Belbin is about a guy who has a talent for literary forgery. Falling foul of nasty dealers in Paris, he escapes back to London and starts working for a literary magazine, and a lot of quirky and interesting information falls into the lap of the reader as the hero slowly falls into illegal forgery. He is ‘a character with the capacity to deceive everyone, including himself.’
I enjoyed it. Including the bit where he reads the short stories that come in to the magazine and deals with the rejects: ‘I would scribble one of Tony’s stock phrases at the bottom, and then seal up the reject in the stamped, self-addressed envelope. The phrases ran from sorry, not for us (complete crap) to nearly, but not quite there yet (shows a bit of promise) to very good, but we’ve taken too much on at the moment (a writer who was perfectly competent, or better, but who Tony didn’t like).’
May is always a good time of year in England. We've shed our overcoats, the blossom is out and lambs are bouncing around the fields. I suppose those who live in warmer climes may think our weather still way too cold, but a sight like this hawthorn hedge - taller than me - makes up for a lot. and if you keep walking, you stay warm! (7,600 steps on the pedometer today.)

Monday, 3 May 2010

Attention spans

Like many authors I decry the rules that demand short, punchy stories without passive verbs, adverbs and adjectives. And yet, it is beginning to dawn on me that my tastes are changing in line with everyone else ~ at least as far as television is concerned. So many films I remember from years ago come up on screen and I sit down with happy expectation. Often within twenty minutes, I’m starting to twitch, and often by half an hour has gone by I’ve switched channels or got up to do something more interesting.
The stories seem slow, and the acting poor. Clint Eastwood still comes off well, but then his style was ever laconic. Is it that television stories today are so much more active and violent that the actor has more acting to do? Or has acting come of age? Possibly a bit of both.

Like many, I loved Life on Mars. But Ashes to Ashes is rapidly losing its charm, if indeed it ever had any beyond the wonderful character Gene Hunt. And the Quattro, of course. It could swashbuckler its way onto any screen. But I grow tired of gazing at Keeley Hawes’ flawless cheekbones, Shaz’s petulant lower lip and I’d love to put out a hand and stop Ray Carling chewing gum.

Tonight, Lewis returned. Scenery wonderful, acting good, storyline – complicated, and a tad confused. Dialogue hard to catch in important moments. I’m still not certain I know who did it. Or why Hathaway was having such a hard time. and while we're at it, I prefer his old haircut. The quiff changes his character, somehow. But I wasn’t bored. I sat through it, all of it, and it maintained my interest. My attention span is longer than I thought.