Friday, 31 May 2013

Why write?

There are a lot of blog posts out there which give out lots of info on how to write, how to write successfully, how publish, market and sell your books.  No doubt much of it is received wisdom from those who've had some success and want to pass on the good news. Sometimes my cynical side rises and I ask myself why authors who have had some success would pass on their secrets to others. If the others sell more successfully, surely the sales of the original author will go down?

Maybe not. Perhaps the market expands to embrace all writers who  have a good story. Let's hope so. But I think frantically reading How To blog posts can be a bad thing when it comes to writing a book. So much is down to a bloody good idea - which we don't all have, or the luck to select just the right agent and have your ms on her desk at just the right time on the day when she is aching for a good historical read, in a good mood and it's been some times since she last splurged on a saleable book.

Writing is a strange thing. Playing with words, trying to get ideas on paper in a way that is clear, concise, graceful and entertaining all at the same time. You need a decent plot with enough twists and turns to keep people reading, and has a dash of originality. I have heard that it isn't the basic plot that matters, but how you write it. I think I disagree with this. By the time I was 25 I'd read so many books on Mary Queen of Scots that I really can't face reading another. I either disagree with the author's theories of why she did what she did, or I find I'm reading the same old arguments, and the writing itself isn't going to encourage me to plod through stuff I already know. So why would I read the same basic plot over and over again?

An intriguing, well written book isn't something that can be pulled off in three months flat, though come to think of it I have heard some  authors say they have a contract for four titles (75k words)  a year. That seems like a bit like being the donkey on the treadmill to me. When do you live, with that hanging over your head? Maybe prolific and successful writers can do it, since we all agree that practice makes things easier. But after the 75th title I begin to doubt that the plots are not rehashes and mix n' matches of plots that have gone before.

Still, the love of writing must be there if they continue with the 76th book. (Or they love the fame, the money, the lifestyle! There I go, being cynical again!) Personally I like the idea of the writing room in the garden so there's perfect peace and concentration, with no outside worries to interfere with the process. By then, of course, I'd be as successful as some well known romance authors, and could hire people to cook for me, and clean the house and keep things shipshape while I swan in and out of my writing room and decide how to shape the next chapter. Yep, I like that idea.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

"It is King's business, Harry..."

I've just printed out the first 50 pages of Matho's Story. Quite by chance, it covers the first three chapters, so my worries about length of first chapter were unfounded. The first line is:

"It is King's business, Harry. And dangerous." Sombre in plain dark velvet, Sir Thomas spoke quietly as he surveyed his son over steepled fingers.

The next step is to read the pages through as opposed to reading it on-screen. Some people advocate reading aloud at this stage, but I think I'd feel a fool doing that. Perhaps it is why so many authors have a shed in the garden to which they retreat - at least they're assured of complete privacy. I have to go to the Magic Trust tomorrow anyway, so it will probably be Friday or Saturday before I get to it.

Today was a miserable day weather-wise, so I got a good bit of work done. It's a long time since I walked a dog in the rain. We're making great strides - he goes well off-lead as well as on lead. and thanks to the Allendale Estates, we have this lovely place to walk. He also made a solo journey* in the mini - very important if he's ever going to France with us.

 (*When I say solo, I mean he sat on his own while I drove.)

Monday, 27 May 2013

First chapters

The best advice I ever read about first chapters was “re-write it.”
(The theory behind this advice is that the author is thinking her way through the facts of her characters and story when she first writes Chapter One., so it is usually crap.)

 I did that. Scrapped chapter One, and started with the original chapter 2. (But I wasn't so daft that I didn't keep a copy on my hard drive and a memory stick, just in case!)

Other advice is Start where the conflict begins, and include action. Don’t go into detail about characters that are never mentioned again. Ensure there is a flavour of the genre and a sense of setting and period.

So I removed all the exposition, and gave tantalising clues about future action. But somehow I never really loved that second version of my story.

Months later I decided I wanted the original first chapter back again to give a real feel for what was happening in the book. So I got out the original Chapter One, pared it down to the bone and added some character conflict between Matho and Harry to the main conflict because I know the characters so much better now after two years writing and re-writing. 

Suddenly sentences started flowing together in a way they never had before. Three bald sentences collapsed down into one graceful sentence and I thought I was really getting somewhere. Since it's a story with more than one viewpoint character, I decided to give my second protagonist, Meg, space in chapter one. After all, she's a large part of the conflict.

But now I have a fairly long first chapter. How long is too long? Where should I make the break? But at least the conflict is set up, and there are clues that my two main protagonists are destinied to clash head-on before too long.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Dialogue can be tricky

No doubt about it, Dialogue is tricky. Some people have the happy knack of getting it just right first time. Others struggle.
If you don’t notice dialogue, but zip through the story with great enjoyment, chances are the dialogue is good. If you spend a lot of time grimacing while reading, chances are the dialogue is poor.

My personal hates are when authors use dialogue tags such as “he gritted, he spat, he opined” – don’t ask me why, I just hate them.  OK then, I hate them because they sound forced. Also, you cannot easily speak through gritted teeth. Nor do I want to read of heroes, or heroines, for that matter, who spit at people.  As for opined – well, really, it just sounds so false. If you are going to give an opinion, then get on with it and give it.

The best and simplest dialogue tags are "he said," and "she said." Sometimes they’re not needed at all, especially in a two-part dialogue. At other times, an Action Tag will identify the speaker.  (Putting the chicken on the table, she glared at her husband. ‘Where were you last night?’
There’s no doubt who is speaking. 
OK, so that’s the simple stuff. But there’s a lot more to dialogue and I can’t do better than point you to Freda Lightfoot’s blog in which she discusses this very topic. Find Freda here:

When I started my historical novel (Matho, to those of you who know him!) I had him speak in our local dialect. Now while I'm happy that everyone within a hundred miles of me would be perfectly happy with phrases  such as "Gan off hame. Ah dinna want out to dee wi' ye!" the sentence brought my American critiquers out in hives. They didn't understand. Stubbornly, I pointed out that it was usually only a vowel sound change, and that it was really easy to understand. (What I actually wrote translates as Go home, I want nothing to do with you.) See? Really easy. But they were not convinced. In fact they finally convinced me and my hero now speaks much more er, properly.

While you ponder the delights of dialect, I’m off to ready the house for guests this evening. I have to have a flying start because we have – wait for it – a play date for Tim this afternoon at three o'clock. The neighbours have a Jack Russell staying, and the two dogs got on so well last night that we have decided to take them both out to the Allendale Estates at Stocksfield were they can run and play together. Puppy socialisation is so important!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

e-books and reading

There is a theory that simple, linear narratives are suited to e-readers. Complex literary fiction is inherently unsuited to the e-reader but far more suited to the armchair and a cup of coffee – or glass of whisky. (Select your own beverage.)

How do you use your e-reader? I still read paper books from choice, but if I don’t have one to hand, then I turn to the e-reader. My Kindle comes into its own when I’m on holiday, no matter the length of time, for the simple reason it is small, neat and takes up little space. Day to day journeys by bus are rare for me, but when I do catch the bus, I see people avidly reading as they make their way into the city. If they travel every day, perhaps twice a day going to work, then I can see that a Kindle would be a boon. The journey takes 50 minutes, and that’s a good chunk of reading time, but I don’t think I’d want to tackle something terribly complex.

Instead I’d rather have something clear, fast-paced and attention grabbing so I don’t earwig on other people’s conversations or get distracted by the cyclist wobbling along beside the bus.  The Kindle will be jiggling about a bit, so I want clear script that easy on the eye, simple page turning and a progressive story. I don’t want to have to stop and wonder about the sentence I’ve just read and I’m hardly likely to ponder the beauty of the prose among 30 other coughing, sniffing, laughing, chattering travellers.
I begin to see that many stories are designed with an e-reader in mind. Short sentences, fast narrative, simple language – these stories won’t ever be published in the old fashioned sense, but boy are they selling on the e-book scene.  Let’s hope that the two remain distinct forms of reading. I’d hate for all reading to merge into one simple mass.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Time runs away

Right now there are not enough hours in the day to do all I want to do!

I'm awake at 5.30 or 6 to ensure the pup goes out into the garden - at least he gets through the night now - and then back to bed for another hour or so. He wakes me up for breakfast at seven, which isn't so bad. People who go out to work get up at such hours. Then it's breakfast and a short walk around the field and back to my study for a couple of hours on the computer. So far, the routine is working well. I'm fresh, the mind is alert and I've finally cracked the first chapter of Matho down into the shape I want. Writing improved, honed, and the narrative thrust improved. Chapter 2 and 3 yet to improve likewise.

Then Tim wakes up and starts chewing my slippers. At this point I have learned that nothing will do but a walk, and a decent one at that. An hour and a half down through the woods and up almost to Hagg Bank yesterday. Back home to lunch, and by then I need a siesta. Lucky I'm not still working for a living!

Somehow the afternoon hours dwindle away with household chores, talking to Bill, another walk or playtime on the lawn and I never get back to the computer. So my PR is slowly sliding to a halt, and my e-book sales are dwindling. Somehow, I've got to get a grip and get things back on track. By ten o'clock I'm tucked up in bed and fast asleep by five minutes past the hour. Managed to watch part 2 of The Fall yesterday - frighteningly good s
toryline - and then straight into dreamsville. No sleeping problems now.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Wasting Time

What's your favourite way of wasting time?
This leads me to a list of things, such as walking on crisp autumn leaves in the green spring woods with bluebells on one side and starry white garlic flowers on the other, or lying on the sofa watching the clouds drift by my window. Soft fluffy white clouds, and big dark grey thunder clouds, all billowing into weird shapes or wisping into nothingness as the suns heats the water vapour.

Others will say playing with Facebook and Twitter, watching tv, reading a book. Heavens! When did reading a book become a time-wasting exercise? In fact, none of these things are really time-wasting. Walking outdoors activates the blood, muscles and wakes the aesthetic sense of pleasure at the beauty of nature. Watching clouds relaxes the tired mind, and then begins to wake the creative part of the brain as the clouds morph into white rabbits or sailing ships. Facebook - it's rare I use Facebook and fail to discover at least one item of interest among all the dross. (Personally I wish people wouldn't put up pictures of food because so often they look like something the dog's brought up. Yes, I know, I put two pictures of food up last summer - but the food did not look like the dog's dinner! A French chef cannot possibly - no, scratch that, I have seen French chefs produce something  that reminded me of the proverbial.....)

Twitter is the same as FB. There's always at least one snippet that catches my interest and leads me onto to whole articles I enjoy. What frustrates me about Twitter is the snippets of interesting conversation between people I don't know - so I never discover the beginning, or sometimes the end, of the conversation. I'm left full of curiosity!

As a writer, (OK, an aspiring writer) I don't think time is ever wasted. Standing around watching other people can be rewarding even if you do get seriously cold feet, as I did yesterday watching more confident people harness Sparky and Bumper. To be truthful, my feet were the only warm part of me, thanks to my trusty Scarpa hiking boots and thick socks. The rest of me was freezing, but the interplay of action was interesting and will no doubt be transferred into a book somewhere down the line. That's the thing with authors - everything, absolutely everything, can be used at some point in a novel. so there's no such thing as wasting time.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A successful man

Wylam is a small village ten miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne. The earliest recorded reference tells that the settlement belonged to Tynemouth Priory.  It is believed that Guy de Balliol,  Lord of Bywell, gave Wylam to the Priory in 1085, and the lands were held until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Once an industrial workplace with collieries and an ironworks, it is now a commuter village for Newcastle and Hexham. 
A famous man was born in the cottage (see above) on the north bank of the Tyne. George Stephenson arrived in the world on 9th June 1781.  The tiny cottage housed three other families along with the Stephensons and conditions were cramped. He wasn’t the only rail pioneer in the area. Timothy Hackworth, also born in the village, worked with Stephenson. William Hedley, born in the nearby village of Newburn, designed the engine named Puffing Billy in 1813, two years before Stephenson produced his first locomotive Blucher.

At 14 George worked on a farm, and by 17 became the engineman at Water Row pit in Newburn.  Still illiterate, he paid to study reading, writing and arithmetic at night, and in 1801 became brakesman who controlled the winding gear at Black Callerton Colliery.  He courted Elizabeth Hindmarsh, a farmer’s daughter in the area, but because her father thought him not good enough for her, they met in secret in her orchard. 

In 1802 he courted Anne Henderson, daughter of the  house in which he lodged in Willington Quay, but she rejected his advances, so he transferred his attention to her sister Frances and married her in 1802. They lived in one room of a cottage in Willington Quay, east of Newcastle. He made shoes and mended clocks to supplement his income. Their son Robert was born in 1803 and in 1804 they moved to West Moor, near Killingworth where he worked at the Killingworth Pit. In 1806 Frances died of tuberculosis. George left his son with a local woman and went to work in Scotland at Montrose, but returned to West Moor after a few months when his father was blinded in a mining accident. In 1811 the pumping engine at Killingworth stopped working and George offered to get it working again. His success brought him the post of enginewright for all the colliery engines at Killingworth. 

He went on to become an expert in steam-driven machinery. Now a much more successful man, he married his first love, Elizabeth Hindmarsh on 29th March,1820.

The earliest form of railway used horses to pull carts along rails. Work with steam engines progressed throughout the 18th century. Richard Trevithick had a working steam locomotive on rails in Wales in 1804 and it worked with mixed success. He visited Newcastle and colliery owners and engineers began experimenting with steam locomotives. In 1825 George Stephenson built the Locomotion for the Stockton and Darlington railway company. In 1829 he built the Rocket which won the Rainhill Trials which established Stephenson and his company as the pre-eminent builder of steam locomotives in the world. His rail gauge of 4 feet 81/2 inches is the world’s standard gauge.

Stephenson purchased Tapton House, a Georgian mansion, near Chesterfield and went into business partnerships in coalmines, ironworks and limestone quarries. He also bought a small farm and experimented with stock breeding. His second wife died in 1845, and he married Ellen Gregory, a farmer’s daughter from Bakewell, who had been his housekeeper, in 1848 just before he died, aged 67 from a bout of pleurisy.
A full life, by any standard! 

Monday, 13 May 2013

Don't make fun of Dan Brown

I see Michael Deacon is having some fun at the expense of author Dan Brown in the Telegraph. While I find Brown's writing excessively annoying, I still don't think it is fair or all that funny to attack someone in print in this way. I have to confess the only novel of Brown's I have actually read is The Da Vinci Code, but he managed to hit the target with so many readers that my carping little complaints don't matter at all. Would that every aspiring writer should have such success. Here's the link to the original:

Deacon's piece is a shining example - if a trifle overdone - of overwriting, and for that alone it's worth taking a peek. It's a pity that today's world doesn't abide by the words my mother lived by - 'If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.' Today it seems no one takes heed of that advice. It is hard to avoid malicious gossip in one form or another, whether it is in the newspapers or on tv or radio. Innuendo and speculation have taken over from news.

Mind you, saying nothing at all doesn't win friends. They tend to take silence as condemnation anyway, so you're damned if you do say something and damned if you don't.  In that case, possibly better to be honest and say what you think? At least then if they won't speak to you ever again, you know why.

I think if I got to be as famous as Dan Brown or J K Rowling I'd ignore the critics, wouldn't read their reviews. After all, their invective is nothing more than journalists taking the easy option to fill a column. It has to be easy to mock something than say why a certain book is so good it deserves all the millions of dollars it has earned. That would take a little thought, but I'd much prefer it if they tried to analyse why certain books are so successful.

You might think the flowers in the pic are pretty - and they are; but if you filled your home with them you'd regret it. Garlic grows in abundance in the woods along with the bluebells.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Newcastle Writing Conference

This time last week I was limbering up for the Newcastle Writing Conference. The programme read well and I looked forward to hearing Nicola Morgan speak. Her blog Help! I need a Publisher is choc full of information I've dipped into time and again.

Claire Malcolm chaired the conference for New Writing North and did so very well. The Great Hall in the Sutherland Building of Northumbria University was vast and I was surprised to see it completely full by ten when everything began to click into action.

Questions were not allowed until the plenary session, which did not suit everyone. Most, like me, probably forgot their question or had to rush off home at 4pm when the Plenary session was just about to kick off.
The first session included Nicola, Juliet Mushens (Literary Agent)  and Lisa Highton (Two Roads Books Publisher) I wished Nicola had been allowed more time. Juliet is a new agent and therefore deals mainly with debut authors. Lisa selects books that reflect her taste, and is looking for talent and an individual voice.

(Aside to self - If all agents select to their personal taste, isn't it time we knew what their personal taste might be? and - if thousands of fiction books are published every year in this country, how does she realistically expect to discover an "individual" voice? There simply cannot be thousands of individual voices. Or is that just me being picky? And - what exactly does she mean by individual voice?)

The second session was about Market Focus, subtitled What's Hot and What's Not, but do you know, no one actually told us what was Hot. Or Not. Barry Cunningham  (Chicken House), Mark Stanton (Jenny Brown), and Julia Churchill (A M Heath) were entertaining (even though BC kept his trilby on the entire time he was on the dais and the conference in general). On the stairs afterwards I asked him to describe J K Rowling's voice, since he was the man who "discovered" her. Straightforward, he said, not too grammatical, over use of adverbs, focussed on character. The one thing that drew him to the book was the friendship of the children.

On the whole I enjoyed the day, though the paper bag lunch could have been more imaginative, and I learnt a good deal about the process my book will go through once it has been accepted. The next conference should be on the writing process and have agents who can say what it is in writing that makes them say no - or I like it but I don't love it.

The pic? Sophie Rochester of the Literary Platform, Toby White, Lisa Gee and Chris Rickaby.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Cynical world

 I should be writing.
Yet here I am looking at my blog and wishing I could jazz it up a bit. Some people have such wonderfully illustrated blogs. I think perhaps what I am doing right now is one of those things that comes under the heading of procrastination or, in other words, I'm WASTING TIME!

Wishing will not make ANYTHING happen. As someone once said, 'If you really want to do something, you'll make time and do it, won't you?' So do I really want to do it, or do I just think I should? Or am I really looking at decorating my blog as an excuse not to write? It isn't as if everyone in the world is hanging on my every word. There's no need for me to do either if I don't want to. I mean, who would notice?

 I have a good life. I haven't been kept prisoner in a house with one man and two other women for ten years, as our news people keep telling us has happened in America. It sounds like a terrible experience, but there's a tiny part of me that wonders how in over three thousand days the man didn't make a mistake before now - forgot to lock a door or a window, left a phone lying around and one of the women seized the chance to escape. There are plenty of weapons in the average home, if your mind turns to crime, and not just knives and heavy vases. Sweeping dust from under the bed in the mill a few years ago, I hit something solid, knelt down, peered under the bed and found a heavy, workmanlike axe. Chopping down trees for firewood had been the task that season, and the axe got shoved under the bed and forgotten. Then on a different occasion, in a different country, I overheard a discussion between two young householders about keeping a sharp pruning knife in the house or in the garage. The wife wanted it out of the house as a dangerous weapon. The husband wanted it inside the house so a burglar wouldn't find it in the garage and use it to break in and injure them.

The tv news won't let go of these people claiming they were abused by celebrities forty years ago. If an assault took place, one wonders why it was kept quiet until now? Again, once the initial wave of sympathy is past, one wonders what were they doing, presumably alone, in a place where they could be abused? It is hard to envisage abuse taking place while a friend or parent stands by and watches. It is equally hard to assume the young people were forcibly dragged into offices and hotel rooms. Indeed, some were not teenagers, but twenty-somethings. What was wrong with running out of the room (or wherever) screaming? Saying No? It would obviously have been safer not going to meet celebrities in the first place. Why would someone famous be interested in an unknown from the crowd? Are there hints of the casting couch syndrome here? Each thought they were getting something out of the experience?

Call me cynical but I'm wondering when the accused will be stars from the pop world, who were notorious for enjoying the groupies who (so they say) flung themselves at lead singers, drummers and even the roadies? Once that starts, the courts will have no time for anything else. And of course, my cynical self thinks the legal people will be busy for years to come.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Plots v Genre

Sad to say, but a lot of books I read today are less than memorable. They are mostly well written but the storylines are not original. Now this isn't a criticism of the authors - at least, it is not intended as one - but more a comment on the impossibility, after four hundred odd years of printed fiction, of coming up with an original plot.
Someone once said there are only 7 original plots in the world.

  • Monster: The Grendel-Beowulf type of the hero defeating the monster and that plot has been around for centuries.
  • Then there's the rags to riches story, where the poor person makes good. Lots of books on that theme.
  • Then there's the Quest where the hero sets out to find something he desperately wants and overcomes many difficulties but finally achieves it.
  • The Voyage, easily confused with the Quest. This time the hero sets out in a magical land and returns wiser than when set out. 
  • Comedy - strangely, lots of romance stories fall into this category
  • Tragedy - best known example here is MacBeth. 
  • Re-birth - akin to tragedy but the hero realises error before it is too late
Click and see a much more detailed explanation.

At first glance it is quite hard to separate plots from genres - but here is a link to Genre.
(When did Blogger start highlighting only one letter of a link? So easy to miss.) so I shall read both and see if I can appreciate the difference.

Picture: Tim monitoring the bees among the heather...

Friday, 3 May 2013

First day out and editing

Today was the pup's first day out  on a lead. It is 9.15 and already he has had two twenty-minute walks around the field. On the first he was very hesitant, tail down, bouncing around trying to see in all directions at once in case something came up and bit him. Trees were going to pounce on him, and the wind was zipping over the hill. Tim doesn't like wind, even in our garden. The second trip was much more adventurous. Tail  out level, head up, going forward on the lead and already he knows where home is.

I think possibly writing is much like these first trips. The first draft is always hesitant and jerky, good in parts but poorly put together. The second draft is where the jerky patches get smoothed out and the holes filled in. Then the third and fourth draft improve the basic story and the writing should become smoother and more "in voice."

I have observed that American writers (and likely their readers)  prefer short, punchy sentences and fast moving stories. I think agents and publishers in this country prefer a something smoother, more literary in style - perhaps that's what they mean when they make comments like the writing is good  but it didn't make my heart sing, it didn't blow me could be that the story itself just isn't strong enough, too. There are so many imponderables to consider in writing. I may learn more at the Writing Conference in Newcastle tomorrow. People like Nicola Morgan will be there to tell us how it should be done! I for one will be all ears.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Technology, wip and wildlife

Technology was beating me today. I somehow lost the Chrome Home page and tried for thirty minutes to get it back - then hubby walks in, asks what the problem is. Listens, says Click on That and when I did, up jumps the original home page. Things like that make a person feel so foolish!

I got some actual work on writing done yesterday, and should get more done today. I'd got myself to a tricky position and had to wait until I'd figured out how I was going to deal with it. Within a couple of days I had the problem resolved. I left Oli all tied up after his bid to free Gisla, and I mean tied up in a way that will be painful. Thorkel is a nasty piece of work, but we all knew that right from the start. This afternoon I shall release Oli from his bonds and see if his spirit has been broken. Somehow, I doubt it.

Tim the pooch is growing so fast it's almost visible. Such long legs! He seems to be teething as well, and chewing everything in sight. But on Friday his purdah days are over. By then the immunisation should have taken, and he can go out in the world. The next trick will be to get him to walk nicely on a lead. But we are adjusting to each other's routines quite well. One spin-off I hadn't expected from having Tim is that Bill and I talk to each other more than we did. Partly it comes from talking about Tim, and partly it's because we are up and about in the morning by six, usually. Today we had a lie-in; he didn't ask to go out for a pee in the middle of the night, and we all slept through till seven. Getting up so early means we have more hours in the day and includes breakfast with conversation instead of languishing in bed watching the TV news as we consume our cornflakes.
One night I went out with the pup and found a hedgehog in the garden. Tim didn't even approach it, but shied away. We've also got a baby rabbit that keeps popping through the fence from other gardens. Fortunately Tim hasn't seen it yet. It's a wild rabbit, and has no doubt been shoved out of the home warren in the nearby field to find his own territory. He seems happy enough, but one day he'll be too big to get through the fence.