Friday, 30 August 2013

Bad Yahoo

Yahoo has just complicated my life by changing the entire format of at least one critique group - I haven't checked the other as yet but no doubt it will be screwed up  in the same way. Now I have to take aeons to find the things I want, and I am filled with horror that everything else may be about to change as well. I don't need this! Plus which the new layout isn't anything like as clear as the old one. Bad move, Yahoo.

Got a good start today, apart from Yahoo, of course. Up and out for 1,200 steps with pooch  before eight and there's a lovely clear blue sky with warm sunshine sparkling on the dew-kissed meadow. (Yesterday we managed 8,939 steps, so we're getting better.) Have already checked e-mails (not many) , Twitter, Facebook (slight changes there, too) and hung out the washing to dry. Clothes dry in no time this summer and the fresh air costs nothing. Some people never hang any washing out, so I presume they dry it all indoors, which can be a costly process. I'm told dryers eat money.

While I wait for the last few critiques on To Capture a Queen, I'm going back to Blood Feud, which means a completely different time period and thought processes. For a long while I couldn't think how to move the story on after chapter 6, but last night the ideas starting flowing in and I will have to sort through them this morning and see which is the most feasible, which will seem the most logical and lead on to bigger and better happenings. It is an enticing prospect, and I'm really quite keen to get started before pooch wakes up and decides it is time for the Big Walk of the Day.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Staying Cool

Finally we have a dull, grey day, but it is still warm enough to wander around without a coat. I used to think May was a good month to visit Britain, but  anyone holidaying here this summer has been lucky beyond words.
Some days we've stayed indoors until the evening when things cooled down. The back of our house  - and the garden - face south, and so we get the sun all day long. That's great in the winter, when it helps warm the house, but this summer I've been following the French habit of closing the curtains and keeping the sun out on that side of the house. There's little air-cooling equipment around because we usually don't need it. John Lewis is always a nice department store to step into whatever the time of year, as they keep the air cool and fresh, but some of the older buildings can be unpleasant.

In May everything is new green and growing like mad and the weather is often sunny and gentle - or perhaps it just seems that way after the horrors of winter. Here in late August the cornfields are ready, some have already been cut, and the hedgerows are full of berries. It looks spectacular.

There is nothing quite so dispiriting as the sight of a cornfield laid flat by wind and rain, but this year the farmers must be laughing as every singe stalk stands tall and proud. In Somerset, government marksmen on behalf of farmers, are busy culling badgers because they claim they transmit TB to cattle. Given that other creatures - rabbits, deer, foxes, rats, mice and the like - all share the fields with cows, I don't know how they can be so sure badgers are the villains. Farmers in this locality shoot crows, which is sad because they're intelligent birds. We have a family of four who visit our garden, and we've watched the parents raise their brood each year. They're always together, the four of them, once the infants can fly. They seem such a happy group, much more so than the blackbirds, where the chicks harass the parents endlessly. The parent birds look quite hen-pecked by the time the fledglings can fend for themselves.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Tim and 10,000 steps

All the health pundits say we should walk 10,000 steps every day. Today we're only halfway through the day and Tim and I have walked  6,337.  By the end of the day we might have cracked it. Yesterday was 7,000 or so and the day before I forgot to wear the pedometer. One day I inadvertently set it to record kilometres rather than footsteps, and we did something like 6 k. It takes time to walk so many steps, but I have the time. Whether I have the stamina in this long hot summer of ours is another matter. I find I'm now thinking rather fondly of the autumn to come. Already the blackberries are ripening, and what a bumper crop we have in our hedgerows this year. Think of all those blackberry and apple crumbles we can have in the winter!

This morning we set off early, and walked across the river and up the hill towards the Roman Wall. After an hour, I phoned home and got dh to come and pick us up so we didn't have to face the long drag back uphill on the other side of the river when Tim and I were tired. Cheating, perhaps, but it makes it so pleasurable. The only other people we passed were two cyclists and for most of the route Tim ran off-lead, which he loves. We have lots of walks around here, and pretty countryside to do it is. (Cocks a snook at Lord Howells and his desolate north-east!) At puppy school I was told Tim should walk five minutes for every month of age, so right now he can do forty minutes. Given that the breed is noted for stamina, I've added in another third to that, otherwise after a couple of hours he'll be up and raring t go again.

In our early days together I walked him too far, remembering the long walks I used to do with my other Dalmatian so long ago. Tim began refusing to go out. He would sit on his backside on the lawn and just not go.  I was puzzled. Who knew of a dog that didn't want to go walkies? So I mentioned it at puppy school, which was where I learned that he'd walked too far and made his joints ache - associated the walks with pain. I felt so guilty! So now I'm more careful with him.

As a sideline of all this walking, I'm much fitter, but I wouldn't claim I've lost any weight. Possibly if I gave up the red wine, that would do more good! On the other hand, I can get into all my clothes - or nearly all of them. One pair of grey jeans to go and I'm home dry.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Plagiarism - Sins of Literature

Plagiarism is a crime against creativity, a mortal sin that has destroyed lives and careers. The contributors agreed to a difference between  brazen theft and inadvertently using a few words written by someone else as your own. The discussion ranged over many topics attached to or affecting plagiarism, and I captured a few of the main points.

Some authors think that if they write and publish a sentence, it belongs to them. Others think sentences belong to the world once they're published.
Will Self believes one can't avoid a bit of the old klepto when dealing with words. Malcolm Gladwell thinks there is a difference between the theft of a physical item such as a watch, and the theft of ideas and words.

Every young writers has authors in his head as models when he begins writing, They have studied literature for twenty years and their favourite authors are deeply embedded in their brains. They make a deep impression, and initially the budding writer writes in the style of ...... but the budding writer has to move away from them, must gradually discard them until the voice they use is theirs alone. That's when they've grown up as an Artist. One's own voice is only to be found by writing, writing and writing.

The impact of new technologies is changing our brains and making us smarter. Time moved slowly in the 15th century, but now it moves at a much faster pace, and novels need to be streamlined, too. The average reader wants Narrative, Characters and Entertainment when they read, and the long rambling novels of the sixties and seventies would not have more a a couple of hundred readers today. Copyright has only been in existence for two hundred years at best, and the rest of the time prose writing has been up for grabs, you might say. Electronic publishing will have a great impact on copyright and plagiarism, but the world hasn't really got to grips with the possibilities or the problems yet.

As a final word on plagiarism, Malcolm Gladwell thinks that if someone copies your words and uses them in a different way to you, that's OK; it is a compliment. If they use them in the same way, that's outrageous.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

This celeb thing

Good pal Anita Davison has a blog up today entitled Jane Austen Didn't Have a Critique Group, and the thought made me smile. But for all we know, she may well have the equivalent around her in family and friends. I know she supposedly wrote in secret, but given the time writing a novel longhand takes, her sister at the very least must have been curious. How many letters can one person write? Especially when they don't go out to the post!

The main thrust of Anita's piece is that everyone seems to be writing a book these days. Anita and I live at opposite ends of the country, and I can safely say that but for the twenty or so people in my writers' group, no one else I know is a) writing a book or b) interested in writing one. Unless they're doing a Jane Austen and keeping quiet about it.

But like Anita, I deplore the number of celebrity novels out on sale. Some of them are not celebrities in my mind. I used to read Hello and OK magazines occasionally - mainly because I liked their range of photographs, but these days I recognise very few of the so called "celebs." A case in point - until yesterday I had never heard of the latest, greatest ever boyband One Direction. Now I've seen them, they look like very young teenagers, all with carefully coiffed hair. I know the Beatles looked young when they first hit the world, but heavens! this lot talk about it being difficult to leave their mums to go on tour! One wonders if they're old enough to go into a pub and order a drink.

I bought Rafa's biography because I'm interested in his tennis career. He was 25 when it came out, but in tennis terms, he'd had a life as a pro player from fifteen or sixteen. I suppose people buy celeb biogs because they're interested in acting or being a celeb themselves. Maybe they want to know how those people made it through the crowds of other young hopefuls. It's almost the same thing as everyone wanting to write a novel - everyone wants to be famous these days.

Here's a link to Anita's blog:

Monday, 19 August 2013

The White Queen and my thoughts

A lot of people will have enjoyed the White Queen on tv. I wished I had enjoyed it more. But I'm one of those people who go on about zippers in medieval clothes, and heroines who barely age between 24 and 46 in spite of living in perilous times and bearing 12 children. At the end of the series, Elizabeth's jawline was firm, sculptured and would be the envy of any sixteen year old. True, they made her look pale and sometimes she had a hint of bags under her eyes, but that's all.

Richard was never well cast in my view. There was something strange about Richard as portrayed here, and perhaps the fault lies in the dialogue he was given, but he always seemed wooden, as if that lovely padded jacket he wore was in reality a steel corset that kept him rigid. And the lines themselves - "I am the King! You will breathe for me!" he says to his dead son. No actor could make those lines work. Maybe the actor wanted to give Richard a brooding sense of wickedness held in check, but if he did he ought to have realised it did not blend well with the character's actions and dialogue.

The series never made clear who dealt the Princes in the Tower the final blow. (or if it did I missed it!) Was it Anne Neville? Or Margaret Beaufort? The curse on the boys' killer, made by Elizabeth and her daughter Elizabeth, seems to point to Anne (she died and her son died) but not to Margaret, whose son lived to father sons of his own, but then one son died.  One survived, but all Henry VIII's sons died, of course. Well, make of it what you will, the curse was a stroke of genius on Phillippa Gregory's part. I'm assuming the idea originated with her, and wasn't some folk tale she'd tapped into.

I thought the it was also a stroke of genius on the part of the film-makers to have the actor's breath cloud the air even when they stood in front of a roaring fire, hinting at the coldness of their surroundings. So many of the scenes were set in stone castles or churches, and they would have been cold indeed. But then they went too far. The Battle of Bosworth Field was fought on 22nd August and they filmed it in snowy, winter conditions with leafless trees!

My other gripe was that two actors looked so much like each other that I never got them straightened out. I think one bearded  gent was on Tudor's side and the other was on Richard's side. But have two big burly men with curly brown hair and beards made it so easy to confuse them. I think the acting award for the series goes to the actor who played Stanley. The one who played Margaret Beaufort was good, but by the end I had had enough of her mouth rolling grimaces, and to go to a man and ask him to sacrifice his son for hers was a step too far...the woman was obsessed and borderline mad. But there I go, confusing character and actor, so she must have been good.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Agents and autumn

AGENT HUNTER is a new website which claims to help writers find agents. A database of all UK literary agents, it will be regularly updated, and offers facilities for sorting the information to your own personal taste. It is the creation of The Writers’ Workshop, which as many of you will know, is an editorial consultancy for new writers. They also run the Festival of Writing in York. The website offers a free trial, and there is a registration fee of £12. Here's the link:

Today I need a dentist, so my creative levels may well be low. Unhappily my dentist is at home today because she cannot get child support on a Thursday. (School holidays play havoc with normal life!) She runs a one-person surgery, so that means waiting until tomorrow. I may well lose a pound or two, since eating is painful. A cap has flipped off, leaving the crumbling wreck of a tooth with jagged edges that slice into my tongue whenever I move it. Have you ever tried eating without moving your tongue? It cannot be done.

 I shall walk the dog by the riverside, pick some more blackberries - and what a good year for blackberries this seems to be - have soup through a straw for lunch, and settled down to an afternoon of reading over my first three chapters in print out format. When I'm out with Tim, I notice the tree are laden with berries, and hints of autumn are everywhere. Thistles are blooming, fruits are forming and show at all stages from brilliant green to deepest orange and purple. The long grass down by the river was cut last week, taken for hay, I suspect, and now the tunnels towering over Tim have vanished. He doesn't know what to make of it!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Sins of Literature

Drama is life with the dull parts left out, says The Road to Somewhere. Ha! Have I left the dull parts in? Is there always something at stake? These are important questions, and I ought to be able to judge my own work by now and say a straight yes or no. If I cannot, I'm not learning. But all I pick up from the despised How To Manuals goes out of the window when I read published books and wonder why an agent, an editor, a publisher thought they were worthy of publication, for most of them break the so called rules of writing. Perhaps it is because there are no rules of writing. Perhaps the sudden spate of How To Manuals is born of the current need so many have to write and see a book published, and mid-list writers have turned their hand to earning a few pounds by providing them. Martin Amis thinks writing, like having children, can be seen as a bid for immortality. Now there's food for thought.

Will Self confesses to a love/hate relationship to the demands of his vocation and every morning  visualises a RSM ordering him to "get in that room and write." Is he disciplined? How can he not be, he asks. He needs solitude especially during drafts 1-3 when he needs to keep the whole novel in his head. He wonders if young writers have what it takes to be alone and cut off so they can write. Picasso is reputed to have said "they write better in prison," and many books, including Pilgrim's Progress, have been written in prison.

On the other hand, some authors write in cafes, or in the living room with the family hopping about. Sarah Waters goes out for a walk at the end of a writing day and re-acquaints herself with the world. Susan Hill, it is said, stops writing when she is happy. Writers Block may be nothing more than depression. Some writers like music while they write, others do not. One says the rhythm of the music interferes with the rhythms of her sentences as they are generated. Alexander McCall Smith listens to Mozart to get into the calm frame of mind needed to write.

The need for solitude and silence in which to write - Virginia Woolf's Room of One's Own - is in direct opposition with today's need for authors to be out in the world promoting. Readers want to know who they are and what they think, which many writers find disturbing. Howard Jacobsen, on the other hand,  loves book festivals and audiences though he knows he should resist them and write.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Promotion and Reading

I think I will have to start promoting my books again, because America seems to have forgotten me. The meagre sales so far this month will not translate into cheques as they have been doing in the past. As far as I can tell, my Viking story coincided with a Viking TV series last year, which gave it a boost I knew nothing about. In concentrating on polishing Matho's story, I've neglected the more romantic historicals and have not published anything new for a while now. Three titles went on Kindle in 2012, but nothing so far for this year. As if to hold true with the saying that England is always two steps behind America, my UK sales have picked up and now outnumber the others. (Though it wouldn't be hard right now...snicker)

Right now I'm reading Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and finding it an odd mixture. First of all the Point of View frustrates me - not as much as it did in Wolf Hall - but enough to make me stop and re-read sentences and paragraphs to be certain which character I'm reading. It seems as if there is an invisible someone hovering alongside Cromwell who reports what is happening to  the reader. We know his thoughts as well as his action, but we never know who is doing the reporting.

There are passages of lyrical writing, and short, snappy one liners; odd paragraphs such as "He reads, He writes. Something tugs at his attention. He gets up and glances from the window at the walks below." My critique partners would be scratching out most of those pronouns and scrawling Repetition!! in the margins, but we've become accustomed to the idea that once an author has a following, all the rules can be broken.

I wasn't aware Thomas Wolsey had a daughter, as Mantel claims, but I don't doubt she's correct. My image of Wolsey is forever Anthony Quayle, who played the part in Anne of a Thousand Days. Come to think of it, Genevieve Bujold is also my definitive Anne Boleyn. I can still hear her ringing tones as she rants at Henry "Get a child on that sweet, pale girl - if you can!" Richard Burton was never my definitive Henry. I don't actually have one, but Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons comes closest. "That's a dancer's leg, Margaret!" Ah, where would we be without film to give words a new life of their own?

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Thou Shalt Not Bore

A whole industry seems to have sprung up about creative writing in the last year or two. Words of wisdom abound on the internet, books pour out of the presses, universities are advertising horrendously expensive Creative Fiction courses and lastly there are often programmes on tv and radio devoted to the subject. The latest of these is The Sins of Literature on BBC Radio 4. Part 1 was broadcast on 5th August and is available on iplayer for those in the UK.

I listened last night, and discovered nothing new, but it was interesting to hear the authors using phrases most of us need a dictionary and a couple of minutes to translate into everyday sense. Setting the tone is important for the work in progress, they say, for both author and reader. One author described the incentive to write the story as a buzz, music in the head. Another described it as a frisson, another an image that would not leave her. All agreed that the first sentence can launch the book, sets the tone and the author simply carries on working out the rest of the book. Sometimes it is easier to work through the whole story and then write the first chapter, because then the author knows the important aspects of the work.

What happens next? Well, then comes plot, landscape and characters and the most important of these is character. One author spends days "being that character." Will Self is more interested in relationships, in how characters re-act to each other, than character itself.
Some authors begin with a bang and lose their way in the middle - this fault is common in hundreds of books.
The authors excelled, all of them, at quoting famous authors. Mickey Spillane: "Nobody reads a book to get to the middle." Or Philip Larkin's comment on a book: "A beginning, a muddle and an end."
Stephen King has good advice i.f things get difficult: walk away from the problem: you should simply "Let the boys in the basement sort out the problems overnight." By which he means let the sub conscious fix things while you sleep.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Technical redrafting and dermal Flaws

At last we have rain. One result is a dead, decapitated frog on the path to the field. I reckon a cat or a fox must have got it, which seems a shame since they didn't eat it once they'd killed it. Apart from walking the dog in the rain - he's just met his first red, open umbrella advancing across the field with a black Labrador's owner - and running to the beck and call of dh's requests while he re-tiles the utility room floor, I plan to continue checking the ms to remove redundant uses of "that" and "was."

There are lots of other things I have to do to it. Technical redrafting, for one. I got this lovely phrase from The Road to Somewhere, and the following is a quote from Thomas McCormack: the dermal flaw. By that he means blemishes on the face of the novel, and lists a good many to look out for: failures of diction, grace, freshness, materiality, credibility, pace, vividness, understandability, interest...cliches, repetitions, stale modifiers, abstract generalities where concrete specificities are needed; phrases, images and metaphors that simply misfire.

There's enough there to keep me working for the next month or so.

The dermal flaws are not considered part of technical redrafting, by the way. Layout, punctuation and grammar are, and need an eagle eye to spot them all. Then there's creative redrafting. McCormack lists symptoms that suggest the story requires treatment:  a disappointed sense of its not meeting us at the station, of its having missed some unnameable opportunity. ...lacking a life-supporting temperature, of inertness, of inconsequence, of meaninglessness to events, of something, somewhere in the book gone profoundly wrong. 

Internal flaws such as these are difficult to detect and equally difficult to make good. How right he is. There are so many sub-headings under this topic that I fear I shall be still redrafting this time next year.

Friday, 2 August 2013


Here's some advice on making a scene - in the UK that means that someone is misbehaving in some way - but in the context of writing a novel, the scene begins when the blue touch-paper has already been lit - not on the trip to the firework shop. (I'm quoting here from The road to Somewhere. I told you it was an entertaining read.)

Ha ha, I groan. The scene may well have a hook to ensnare the reader. It will often have a reversal for the protagonist. If it starts well, then the scene must end badly for him, and vice versa.
Narrative tension should rose steadily in the scene. It should not be static, but neither will it leap from low level to nuclear alert and counting.
As a scene develops, it often starts to read faster - shorter sentences, dialogue and paragraphs.
The scene needs some kind of climax -  revelation, a cliffhanger, or a hook that demands the reader shall read on.
As soon as possible after the climactic moment, the scene will end. In other words, don't hang about saying Goodbye - head for the door and depart!

Pacing is a skill that some instinctively have and others must learn. A sense of place is important in novels, but chunks of description don't always achieve it. How many times have you let your eye skim over a whole paragraph or even a page of description to get to the action? I know I have. This is where pacing comes into its own. Try inserting small pieces of description into the action and dialogue where it is sure to be read and doesn't slow the action more than a tad.