Wednesday, 31 July 2013

How Could I have Written That?

Nearing the end of  the redraft, sixth edit, polish - call it what you will, I am nearly at the end of it. What amazes me is the number of things I found to alter in what I  thought was a finished piece of work. I think it happens to all authors, because at my last local writers' group meeting, a mainstream published author said whenever she did a reading, she never read what was actually on the page, but made corrections while thinking How could I have Written That? You see it in most books these days - the odd glitch in grammar, spelling or even a missing word - or a word the computer thought you wanted but proves totally out of context!

I suppose I should go through and look for redundant words, and check for passive constructions where I could make them active. I find passive constructions easy to slip into, easy on the eye and easy to execute, but these days they are frowned upon. I blame tv and film. They've accustomed people to fast moving action with few words of dialogue. When you watch something, the setting and the action are there to see as you listen to the dialogue. But of course in a book, you need those descriptive passages in order to visualise the scene in your mind. I wonder if there is a generation growing up (or already grown?) that finds it difficult to read and visualise the scene the words describe?

I caught up with the end of The Returned last night, and wondered what on earth I'd been watching these past eight weeks. In the very last scene, I thought the town had been totally submerged, yet not one character out of the many looking out over the hillside looked surprised, or frightened or puzzled. So many questions unanswered. Was the baby still in Adele's tummy, or had it been somehow removed? Is Victor a shapeshifter?  Did he change into Serge and shoot his brother? He seems to adopt many guises.
Is he the cause of it all? I suppose I'll have to wait for the second series to find out.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Solidity of Specification

I'm digging into the How To books again, so beware. These titles are from the reading list for a Creative Writing course, and the first, David Lodge's  The Art of Fiction, was a pleasant read but didn't teach me anything startlingly new. But then, it has been around for quite a while now. The book I'm looking at now is called The Road to Somewhere*...and I flicked to a chapter on Characters.

Here are a few nuggets: Characters are not just defined by what they do or say. The setting in which we find them may say a great deal about them. Hovel or palace? Yacht or rubber dinghy? Be careful about how you dress your character, as such things speak volumes, as do the cars they drive, the records they collect, where they shop. There's a phrase for this kind of thing - Solidity of specification. Ever heard of it? I hadn't either, but I already believe in what it's telling me. John drove his car to the shop tells us little about the character John. Tristram drove his Porsche 911Carrera 4 to Thomas Pink's in Jermyn Street tells us quite a lot about Tristram.(Well, it helps if you know Pink's is a designer-shirtmaker who's been around since seventeenth century and they make hand stitched expensive shirts. Something like that, anyway. I'm sure you get the drift...)

What a viewpoint character notices about another character can tell volumes, too. What they notice gives a reflection of their feelings as well the character. Sam may never notice Hilary's innate snobbishness, because she's snobbish herself. Harry will notice and hate it because he doesn't believe in boasting or putting down people who've made a genuine effort. Characters can undergo change, and their perceptions of  other characters may change.

There is a hint in this book that internal monologue is a turn off for the reader. When it is badly done it is boring, claustrophobic and unattractive. Nobody acts and nobody speaks. No reader wants to experience every little nuanced emotion and thought of the hero or heroine. They'd much prefer they got on with whatever is happening on the page. The other great turn off is simply describing a character unless it is done dramatically, in a way that will stop the reader in his/her tracks.

*Eds: Graham, Leach and Newall, 2005

Friday, 26 July 2013

Hot days & Technology

The warm weather continues and it is pretty wearing. I sympathise with people who have to work through the hot days and remember how awful it was to be trapped indoors in offices and libraries - and yet now I close the curtains against the sun, open windows on the shady side of the house and only go out on to the patio after five o'clock when the heat is deliciously warm without being overpowering. Now I know exactly why France closes down in the middle of the day and comes alive at night. We've had temperatures over 30 degrees Centigrade here in the north, and I think the big cities like London are reaching 34. Only Scotland comes up shady on every weather forecast.

Today is the day I joined the ranks of those who have a smart Apple iphone in a smart red leather jacket. It isn't that I use a mobile phone very much at all, but Tim got hold of the bum bag I use when I take him for walks, and in it was the old Nokia phone. I carry it in case we get too tired and need dh to come and pick us up - thought that is less and less likely as Tim leaves puppyhood behind. But still, it's handy to have in case anything goes wrong. The old Nokia still worked in spite of the teethmarks and the missing bits, but it didn't look too good. Now I will have to learn how to use this lovely new gadget. I never really became at all conversant with the Nokia, but dh assures me this are far easier to use. We'll see. Maybe I'll join the ranks of those people who walk down the street oblivious of all but what's on their iphones...

I've just begun reading Leopard Unleashed by Elizabeth Chadwick and enjoying it, partly because there are fictional characters taking the main parts, and partly because she infiltrates her research so well. My reading has been fairly eclectic lately, veering between The Art of Fiction by David Lodge, Rafa, My Story by John Carlin, and To Distraction by Stephanie Laurens. Tim got hold of the last named and chewed several pages, so I had to pay up at the library and now I own the book. The blurb says it is "sinfully sexy," by golly that was a true statement. . I've read Laurens before, and I'm surprised this title isn't listed on erotica sites along with 49 shades, or whatever it was called.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Post Battle Sex

I set out to watch The White Queen when the series began and lost interest after two episodes. Zips fastening gowns are so uncool in a medieval series. Zips have to be easy for the costume department, I understand that, but if they must use them instead of the authentic and quite erotic criss-cross lacing, then why don't they make sure the cameras don't catch the wretched things? Think of the love scenes involving laces they could do....

This last episode featured Richard of Gloucester, and I was curious. Always a Richard supporter, I think the casting director must have taken note of the facial reconstruction on Richard's skeleton done recently, because the actor portraying the character has a distinct resemblance to that model head. It's just a pity he lacks charisma. He gives very little to the camera, hasn't a distinctive voice, and his role is to stand by a lot of the time. He comes across as shy, earnest and a tad boring.

But then, Gregory's novels always give dramatic precedence to the women and of course, it is Elizabeth Woodville's story. I do wonder at the seeming preference for filming women-on-top sex. In the three episodes I've watched, I think every sex scene showed the men lying passive beneath an active woman. Perhaps the men were just too tired when they got home after all those battles.

For me, the best acting award goes to Janet McTeer, who died slowly in this weeks's episode. I also thought she had a distinct resemblance to Ms Gregory, though if they stood  side by side the disparity in their height would ensure absolute recognition! I heard Gregory speak at Alnwick Castle a few years ago, and she is tiny, hardly more than five foot two I should imagine. Inside that small frame there lurks a forceful personality and a strong work ethic.  I've often wondered if some of the characteristics of her characters rub off on Ms Gregory!

The pic is of Tim, who knows how to relax!

Monday, 22 July 2013

Plot development

Stephanie Cowell ( remarks that she cannot follow the plot development of her story when she reads it on computer, but has to print it out and read it that way in order to see the plot pointers properly. I think I'm maybe the same way inclined. There is a miserly side to me that hates to print out a whole novel because of the printing costs - yet I know I'm niggling over nothing. It doesn't matter what it costs - it needs doing, and I'd spend the same amount or more on a bottle of wine or a new blouse without a second thought. Odd how some things cause a hitch in the gallop!

But yes, to get back to the point - I've just had a couple of critiques returned that point out where I had duplicated lines and phrases, even who sentences. This is careless of me, and it has happened because I merged several versions of a chapter into one. I think I mentioned a day or two ago that I had got muddled among my versions - well, that was one result of the merger.

A second  result was that I actually saved the chapter twice into the main ms of my story. For a few minutes I thought I was imagining things, but no, that's what I'd done. This sort of clerical error makes it imperative to print out and read in paper form. But I can still honestly say that I'm enjoying polishing my story. it is so much easier than actually writing, and if you have any inclination to wield the red pen of correction, then go for it!

In direct contrast to the pic above, I took Tim for his first walk in town today. Head constantly swivelling, nose working overtime, all those people to see, cars and buses to watch, pushchairs to avoid. A whole new world for him. He's now fast asleep beneath my desk. Worn out, poor boy.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Debut authors

I don't know about you but I was intrigued to hear the J K Rowling had written a thriller and published it under a false name. How did the book fare, I wondered? Well, here are the closing comments of an article in the Guardian newspaper by Mark Lawson -

"For the moment, we are left with an enjoyable, highly professional crime novel that has escaped from the aim its author had for it but taken on a massive new significance for readers. Many pseudonymous novels are intended to make a point: Doris Lessing, in 1984, submitted a manuscript under the name Jane Somers, its rejection by her regular publishers proving to her that the literary business defers to famous names.

While Rowling does not seem to have tested her publishers by sending in a book under cover - now there would be a tense and interesting experiment - her experience with The Cuckoo's Calling does seem to show that unknown first time novelists are likely to get nice reviews but zero publicity and low sales: the novel was pottering along selling mere hundreds of copies until it started Pottering along.

Already one of the most fascinating figures in the history of popular fiction, J K Rowling has become even more intriguing with this brief by neat vanishing trick. Lucky, though, are those few who read it in the purity of obscurity rather than the distracting glare of hindsight."

For the full article, see:

The picture was taken yesterday in the walled garden at Wallington in Northumberland.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Polishing to a shine

Do you ever get yourself in a knot with all the drafts of your wip? I do. Early on in this game, I used to get myself in a panic, thinking I'd deleted the wrong version, but never actually did that.
Now I take a more measured view.  Instead of spending time comparing one version with another, which I suspect is, 9 times out of 10, a waste of time, I look at the dates, check the word count and then force myself to delete the oldest, assuming that the newest draft is the best one. So far, I have not had cause to regret this.

My oldest version of Capture a Queen dates from September 2010, when it had the title Treason until someone pointed out what Matho was doing wasn't exactly treason. It was a complete version. I finished Treason and then went straight on to volume 2, completed it and started volume 3. Alas, I did not finish that volume. I hit a difficult plot spot and decided I'd take a break from volume 3 and go back to volume 1 and read it over again. That was March this year. Since then, I've been working on what at various points was Treason, then King's Business and finally Capture a Queen, and it is amazing the changes I've made.

I see now where my writing was not as graceful as it could have been. Two sentences, sometimes three, have been pared down to one and that one more graceful than the originals. I've removed the dreaded Superfluous Words and inserted better, more descriptive verbs. Some dodgy plot points have been smoothed or changed or even moved to a different part of the story.
I am calling this stage polishing, for that is what it feels like. Buffing the story to a real shine, ready to send out.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Emotional Journeys

The Emotional Journey should have a beginning, middle and end, too. Remember the Action storyline is about what happens, and the Emotional Journey is how those actions affect your main characters. Well, we all knew that, didn't we? There isn't a lot to say about that without going into examples. But  I should remind myself that emotional journeys have rises and falls, highs and lows, in just the same way as the  Action Journey, and should be true to its own logic all the way from A-Z

We could think about emotional words instead. Adverbs come in for a lot of stick these days. They are the words that often modify the action a verb takes. They describe a character's feelings, or how a dialogue tag is delivered, and my critique partners put a red line through them almost every time I use one. 'You don't mean that,' he said sarcastically. 
I have a certain fondness for adverbs and often confuse them with adjectives. Adverbs are quick and easy and, well used, can add to a piece of writing. Used lazily, no one likes them. Too many of them, like the passive voice, keep readers on the surface of your story. Use the correct verb, keep the dialogue strong and forget the authorial summing-ups like happily, sad, sarcastically. Unless, of course, you are writing your story via
a narrator who happily sums up what is happening after every scene.

Words like beautiful, delicious are meaningless because they are so subjective. My beautiful is hardly likely to match your beautiful. Pick the right word, the exact word, every time.

For my interest rather than yours, I checked on the definition of an adjective and here's what the dictionary says: "a word or phrase naming an attribute, added to or grammatically related to a noun to modify or describe it." No wonder I misremember the two words - one works with verbs and the other with nouns. Simple - when you know! Perhaps now I have this to refer to, I shall never worry again.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Conflict in fiction

Act Two makes up the bulk of the story. This is the Action Story. It is here that the hero tries to solve the problem, save the maiden, complete his journey, whatever. The problem itself may shift or change as the story progresses. Little stays static in real life, and we can use that in fiction. Problems metamorphose into larger problems, or twist and become different problems.

This is where the tension must rise as the problem is faced and overcome in a series of mini climax up to the ultimate climax which resolves everything. It is in Act Two that the story events, even if they're changing, need to be linked to each other. Think cause and effect - there always has to be a link, even if we know random acts take place in real life. Good Fiction rarely depends on luck. There has to be internal logic and structure. Each plot-point must rise out of the previous point. After each climax there will be a small lull and then the tension begins to rise again.

Remember that if you have several story threads running through your novel - and I have! - then each thread needs its own internal logic, and the tension must rise there also, in the same way. Importantly all the threads need to link into a logical ending. Now this is where I think I have some of my threads rising jerkily. I wanted to show the two steps forward, one step back, sequence that so often happens in Real Life, but sometimes things got out of sequence as a consequence. This is something I must check.

Rising side by side with the Action Story is the Emotional Journey, and I'll write about that next time.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Plot and Structure

Spent a most uncomfortable night with Tim after his surgery, (he was so comfortable he left little of the bed for me!) so did a fair bit of reading about plot and scene structure. This book said straight out that it is not enough to have great characters and a compelling problem. I also need a strong inner logic to my story - a step-by-step ordering of events that makes sense and feels satisfying to a reader.

I'm finding as I go through this last edit that my story is not always logical - at least, not as logical as I thought it was. It's hard for crit partners to detect this fault, for they read chapters at a time and rarely get to see the whole thing. But agents and editors spot it immediately, and there's many a near miss because of lack of structure.

So, there has to be a compelling story, well written and with engaging characters. Plot and structure have had the least attention with me - so far. perhaps now is the time to concentrate on that side of things. A basic plot structure begins with Act 1 - the beginning or set up. Here you introduce your main characters, your setting and what life is like for your characters. Readers need to connect right away with the characters. These things can be covered quite quickly, often in a few pages, certainly in the first chapter. Show who your main character is and what motivates him/her and hint at the troubles and problems to come.

At the end of the set-up comes the inciting  incident, or first plot point, whatever you want to call the event that jerks the main character out of his/her normal life into some of of journey or problem to be solved.

Then comes conflict......but at the moment I'm having conflict with Tim who has woken up,
is bored and wants to go OUT.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Eating Green Strawberries

We are having a running battle with our six month old puppy who, crafty and cunning as he is, persists in eating green strawberries. Apart from the fact that they will probably give him an upset tum, we want the strawberries to ripen so we can eat them with our breakfast cereal every day. As fast as we tell him No! he gobbles another one.

The funny thing is I don't remember anything like this with the Dalmatian bitch I owned many years ago. Perhaps males are just more trouble? He is due at the vet's for the big C op tomorrow, which may calm him down but I'm not banking on it. I'll feel guilty as hell afterwards when he looks at me as if to say What did I do that was so wrong?

I have reading stacking up on me at the moment. I completed Goddard's excellent Out of the Sun late last night, and have Write a Blockbuster and Book Proposals awaiting my attention. I don't suppose they'll say anything startling and new, but I live in hope, and refreshing the memory on all the salient points can never be a bad thing. I have the sneaky feeling that Facebook and Twitter are losing out to something else now, but I don't know what/where that something else is. I don't find the snippets as interesting as I used to, and the links to interesting articles seem to have dwindled to nothing. Indie Book Promoter has single-handedly taken over Twitter - maybe I'll have to look for some new people to follow.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Red eyes and sneezing

I know I've been waxing lyrical about the abundance of wild flowers this year, but now I'm beginning to think it's all too much.  Took a delightful walk in good company yesterday by the river bank in Corbridge and began sneezing on the way back. Sneezed all the way home in the car, and got a fright when I looked in the mirror and saw the whites of my eyes had swelled up around the iris and turned a sort of bloodshot yellow.

Last night was not comfortable at all, even with the introduction of a glass of red wine. This morning most of the swelling has gone but my right eye is still red and itchy. I took Tim for his early morning gallop on the field behind the house clutching a big white hanky to my nose, much to the amusement of kids going by to get to school.

So, today will be an indoor day, with much work on the re-editing. DH has gone up the street to buy me some face masks from the hardware store! I suggested that a trip to the chemist to ask if there is a preparation I can take that won't interfere with the pills I take everyday. The biggest pity is that the weather looks wonderful - cloudy blue sky and a brisk breeze waving the trees in the sunshine. At least I'll be able to watch Wimbledon though I have faint hopes for Murray.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

High concept indeed - Les Revenants

High concept seems to be the name of the game these days, but it is so difficult to think of something that has not been done before. I've finally caught up with a couple of episodes of The Returned, or Les Revenants, a series running on Channel Four at the moment. Talk about odd? This is odd. For a start it is all in French with subtitles in English, but I quite like that because then I can read and follow the story. So many modern productions have "real" soundtracks that make following conversations difficult. So the story concerns a young girl, Camille, who was killed in a coach crash. The story opens with her neatly climbing over the dam wall four years later and walking down the road. She's going home.

She's very noisy for a ghost. Her footfalls and heavy breathing echo on the lonely mountain road, and when she gets home, she walks straight into the kitchen and raids the fridge. Her mother, torn between horror and wonder, can barely speak. How about that for a story opening? I have only watched two episodes but may have to watch right to the end just to see the explanation - if there is one.

Writers of fantasy and science fiction are at liberty to delve into this sort of thing. I'm not so sure I can get away with it in historical fiction. But the theme of Les Revenants kept coming back to me - how would I feel if someone re-appeared when I knew they had died? The mere though makes my back hair tingle, and I don't have an answer. I suspect I would be like Lena, Camille's twin sister but now four years older than Camille  - freaked out. These things should not happen. If all the laws of life and death are tossed aside, where would that leave us? It's a terrible thought, but definitely high concept.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Creative Writing courses

A friend of mine has recently signed up for a creative writing course, and shared her book list, which I plan to work through if I can get hold of the books. Half of me thinks these courses are A Good Thing, and the other half sniffs and asks How Can Good Writing Be Taught? (It might be because the course are darned expensive, which gives me an excuse not to partake.)
However, I see on Twitter this morning that a debut author has been snapped up with lots of zero numbers trailing the important one. The author is a lecturer on  - you've guessed it - a Creative Writing course.

"The Fire Sermon is set in a world without technology. 400 years in the future after a nuclear apocalypse. All humans now have a twin, with one, the Alpha, being physically perfect and the other, the Omega, having a mutation. A state of division exists between the two, with rebellious Omegas forced to live on blighted land, but although they live apart, when one dies, the other dies, too. The book follows Cass, an Omega with an invisible defect, the ability to see the future, and sees what happens when her power is discovered and her twin Zach casts her out.
Coode said: "I was completely hooked by the concept and her narrative skill was evident from the first few pages. The Fire Sermon is a wonderful adventure layered with high drama and provocative world building, with strong, appealing heroine at its heart."

Author Haig is a senior lecturer at the University of Chester, where she is programme leader in creative writing. Voyager plans to publish the book in hardback in spring 2015. (Joshua Farrington in the Bookseller today.)"

So there we are. That tells me what I should be doing, doesn't it? I should be skipping off to offer my money to the nearest creative writing course. It is interesting to note what appealed -
high concept, narrative skill in the first few pages, drama and a strong, appealing heroine. All those things agents keep banging on about. I've wondered lately if I'm bucking the trend by writing of a male protagonist in the first few pages of my story. If I  swapped Meg for Matho, would it make a difference? A few weeks ago I felt it did and I've brought her story forward to share the first chapter with Matho. I think I'm pleased with the result.

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...