26 May 2017

First Words




It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

(Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep)

Whatever I've been writing, I find that the opening needs to be written last. That might sound a bit contrary but believe me it works much better this way.
I have a tendency, in common with many writers, to start a story with some stuff that is best described as 'backstory'. Information that's necessary for the writer but not needed by the reader. Things like what the protagonist looks like, what he had for breakfast and the number of the bus he gets to work.

These days, I try to write the whole story from beginning to end and then decide what's needed and what isn't. Then I have a go at the opening few sentences to see if they're the right ones for the story.

Openings are of crucial importance. They set the style and tone for the whole piece. They also, crucially, invite the reader to read on. The best openings include enough information on character, setting and plot to engage readers without giving them indigestion.

My favourite opening paragraph is reproduced above. I love everything Chandler wrote but the beginning of The Big Sleep is quintessential Chandler. Here we meet Marlowe, perhaps for the first time. We learn a huge amount about this man from the way he describes himself. Neat, clean, shaved and sober might seem unremarkable but the fact that he takes the trouble to mention it indicates that these are not part of his default state. The details of what he's wearing down to the pattern on his socks shows he's been very methodical in deciding exactly what to wear. And that the meeting is very important. And that Sternwood is very, very rich. And so on. All shown to us in an effortless way that lets us form our own opinion of the protagonist. Awesome. I love it.

Oh, and the second paragraph is just as good. And the third...

If you haven't read The Big Sleep then I suggest you do. If you have read it, read it again and this time remember to marvel at Chandler's technique as well as enjoying the story.


10 April 2017

Don't Give Up



William Shakespeare was not impressed when we met.

Me? I'm trying to put on a brave face in front of the diminutive literary giant and failing badly.

It's easy for a writer like me to fall into the trap of becoming overwhelmed by a feeling of inadequacy when confronted by someone I can't ever hope to emulate. I've often felt like giving up writing after reading Iain Banks or Haruki Murakami. I can't write like they do so why should I bother trying?

A couple of people in my writers' circle have recently informed me that they are giving up writing. They both cited disappointment with their lack of success with books they had published. This has got me thinking about my own situation. The odds are stacked against me becoming a literary giant.

So why bother writing at all? It's hard work, demands a lot of time and produces scant monetary reward. Putting in the same hours at work would make much more economic sense.

These are some of the thoughts I've had:

Writing is like golf.

I don't play golf regularly. I've never been tempted to take it up but I have played a few rounds in my time. If I did play golf I would do it without the expectation of winning the British Open. So why expect to win the Booker Prize with my writing?

What would I do someone saw me playing golf and said that I could earn as much money as Tiger Woods and if I gave them a few thousand pounds they would show me how? Laugh in their face, of course. But what about those predatory publisher that make similar promises? What is it that makes us writers so vulnerable?

If I did play golf I wouldn't expect friends and family to spend hour after hour trudging around after me watching me hack my way from hole to hole. So why do I expect them to drop everything and read whatever I write as soon as I send it to them?

Then there's the issue of practice. If I want my golf to improve I need to take lessons, which I have to pay for. OK, I might get some help from a playing partner who couild make a few observations about my technique, or lack of it. Another golfer may be able to spot some obvious flaws but if I'm to remedy them I'll need professional help. Writing is very much the same. If I keep on writing the same way for year after year there's not going to be much improvement. Other writers might point out that I'm telling rather than showing, or that my characters are stereotyped but I'm going to need to attend some courses or get some coaching if I'm going to change things. Practice is essential, but it needs to be informed. The right kind of feedback is essential for progression.

Very few get to be professional golfers. It's the same with writers. Yet golfers keep on golfing, they don't give up just because the hurdle to fame and fortune is set unreasonably high. They play because now and again they hit an almost perfect shot and that gives them immense satisfaction. Nobody else needs to see their hole in one, though it's even more fun if they do. Sometimes I write something that makes me sigh with pleasure or laugh out loud. That's why I write. If it makes someone else feel the same way, then even better.

My advice is this. Write. That's what writers do. Commercial success is an unrealistic expectation forced on us by a society that demands instant gratification.



5 March 2017

Characters




There's a big difference between central characters and minor characters. Here's what I mean:

1. Getting punched in the face

Minor character collapses unconscious in a heap, never bothers anyone ever again.

Major character rides the savage blow, comes back for more. And more. No matter how often he's hit, he keeps on going even though he's obviously going to be battered to death. Then, just when you think he's finished, he swings a hay maker of his own and his assailant collapses unconscious in a heap and never bothers anyone ever again.

2. Getting shot

Minor character dies without fuss from a single wound.

Major character staggers slightly, looks down at the blood seeping from his shirt then carries on regardless. May take several more bullets with similar minor effect. By the next scene all traces of injury have gone and he's restored to full fitness.

3. Dialogue

Minor characters rarely speak and if they do it's usually monosyllabic.

Major characters can't stop spouting on. They have an opinion about everything and a back story that they can't resist constant references to. Their speech defines them, makes them real and tells us what we should feel about them.

4. Names

Minor characters, like farm animals, don't usually have names. The reader/viewer has enough information to take in without having to memorise names that may never be heard of again.

Major characters have memorable, carefully chosen, names. Like Bilbo Baggins and Lyra Belacqua. Or Milo Minderbender. Or even Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool.

I suppose you're getting the drift, now. But, apart from the potential amusement, why am I pointing this out? I as usual with me, it's a observation that might help my writing. It's important for me to remember to make a clear differentiation between major and minor characters so that readers get a helpful steer on who to engage with and who to ignore. Otherwise, I risk overloading them with information and maybe get myself confused as well.

But how many major characters are allowed? As many as I can keep up with, I suppose. It's a bit like spinning plates, if you're old enough to get the reference. For the younger readers I should explain that it was once considered top class entertainment to watch a man keeping plates balanced on thin poles by keeping them spinning. The audience would gasp with excitement at such a wonderful spectacle, I'm surprised that nobody has been on Britain's Got Talent with such an act. Problem with spinning plates is the ones that fall off and spoil the trick. If a character or plate is going to smash on the ground I'd advise making it happen rather than watching helplessly.

Did you recognise the names I used as examples? In case you didn't they came from The Hobbit, His Dark Materials, Catch 22 and Neuromancer. If there's any of these you've not read I suggest you stop what you're doing and get reading.





photo credit: plynoi Why so serious? via photopin (license)

17 January 2017

a Bit of a Rant about Publishing



If you're reading this then you're almost certainly a reader and you might even classify yourself as a writer. I've written lots in this blog about the process of writing and my own personal experience. It's been a while since I had a proper rant about self-publishing so I'm going to indulge myself. It's Christmas, after all. Or it was not so many weeks ago.

There are lots of books out there. Millions and millions of them. Not many of them are worth reading, even so there's not enough time to read all the good ones. What I'd like to see is a better way of getting through all the dross to find books that are worth my valuable time to read.

We all know that everyone can self-publish at the click of a mouse. This doesn't mean that everyone should. Quite the reverse. This wonderful opportunity should surely be used with discretion. Self-restraint should be the order of the day but I've seen very little of that recently.

I estimate that there are about three million self-published titles. I doubt that one per cent of these are readable. That leaves three hundred thousand that have been reasonably well written and professionally edited. My bet is that one per cent of these, three thousand, are books that I would find enjoyable. Problem is, how do I find them?

About half a million titles per year get traditionally published in the UK and US combined. One of the features of traditional publishing is that they sell books like vegetables. Once they've had a couple of months in the shop window, they get replaced by new fresh produce. This is in sharp contrast to the self-published market where it's very rare indeed for an author to unpublish their beloved opus.

Traditionally published titles have a greater chance of being good books, properly produced and generally readable. Let's assume that a whopping ten per cent would interest me. That's fifty thousand books a year, about a thousand times the number I read.

So, for me, the statistics, even though I'm making them up as I go along, are compelling. I don't have the time to search amongst all the dross for that rare self-published gem. My chances of a good read are greatly enhanced by sticking to the traditional offerings. For this reason, I have never bought a self-published book. Occasionally, I might have a 'look inside' but this generally only serves to confirm their appalling lack of quality.

What's the answer? How can self-publishing be improved to overcome the reluctant buyer like me?

For a start, writers can stop publishing crap. That would even the odds a little. Completing a first novel is a wonderful thing and something to be proud of. Self-publishing it is almost always a big mistake. Very few of us are able to produce work of merchantable quality first time round. Conventional wisdom suggests that a writer needs about a million words of practice. That's the equivalent of ten full length novels. Ten. No matter how special a talent you might be, you're going to need lots of practice and tuition.

Writers can get valuable encouragement and learn their trade by joining a writers' circle and attending writing courses.

Once a writer has produced a good chunk of work, there are useful books on craft that may be helpful. You may even be lucky enough to find someone to read your work who doesn't care about your feelings.

It's a good sign when a writer stops being precious and protective about their work. I'm afraid that most writers never progress to this important stage which is necessary in order to work constructively with an editor. Every writer needs a professional and talented editor.

There you go, rant over for the time being.





photo credit: _Hadock_ Study Time via photopin (license)

14 January 2017

Review of 2017


Dark days ahead?


I really commend the blog written by Tara Sparling, a talented lady that I met at the Harrogate Crime Festival.

https://tarasparlingwrites.com

I mention Tara's blog because I'm about to do something that writers get into big trouble for and that's plagiarism. She's already done a very witty and perceptive review of 2017 and I have been inspired to copy her. Sorry, Tara, but you missed some very important events.

Including:

January

President Donald Trump is sworn in as the most charismatic, intelligent and honest president in history, according to his inauguration speech. President Putin hails him as a visionary and good friend to Russia.

February

A leaked intelligence report revels that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were having an affair during the presidential campaign. Trump makes a categorical denial and accuses the media of inventing false news. Hillary Clinton says she didn't know that Trump was Republican and that everyone is entitled to be forgiven for an honest mistake. Bill Clinton refuses to comment.

March

President Trump announces that a wall will be built on the border with Canada to prevent Americans escaping northwards.
Paula Hawkins releases her follow-up novel to The Girl on the Train entitled Another Girl on Another Train.
The UK trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty confirming withdrawal from the EU.

April

The Canadian Government offers to pay for the wall.
Another Girl reaches number one in the bestsellers. At number two is A Girl on a Train.
Ireland, Denmark, Poland, Holland and Belgium invoke Article 50.

May

President Trump agrees to Canada's offer. Canada point out that the offer was made on 1st April and was meant as a joke. Trump asks the CIA to provide a detailed briefing on the subject of jokes.
The remaining EU members except France and Germany invoke Article 50.
Leicester City, Sunderland and Hull City are relegated from the Premier League. Manchester United and Manchester City share the title. Dagenham and Redbridge both win the FA Cup.

June

Work on the Mexican wall is delayed because of a labour shortage.
France and Germany invoke Article 50, meaning that the UK has nothing left to leave. Teresa May holds a snap referendum which votes to stay in the EU now that Britain is the only remaining member.

July

Trump meets Putin in Moscow. Both men hail a new era of cooperation. Putin promises not to invade anywhere west of Germany.

August

The European Parliament is relocated to Milton Keynes now that Britain is the only member. UKIP change their name to EUPIP and Nigel Farage is elected President of Europe.

September

Britain agree to re-admit all the previous members to the EU, apart from France.

October

Putin visits Trump in Washington. The two men decide to swap jobs for a year in the interests of better understanding.

November

Civil unrest in Russia results in Putin returning to Russia.

December

Civil unrest in the US greets Trump's return from Russia where a week long celebration is held.
Nigel Farage renames the European Union as the British Empire. India, Canada, South Africa, Australia and the West Indies are admitted.
Christmas is moved to July in order to relieve the backlog of undelivered parcels caused by Amazon's drone pilots going on strike.

You thought 2016 was bad?

Happy New Year

7 January 2017

Submissions

img_0820
This is the result of the previous submission I made to the BBC. Note the date. January 1972. It's taken me this long to recover from the feeling of disappointment. OK, I suppose I'm not quite there yet.
In 1972, submitting a script was much more difficult than it is today. There were no computers, printers, photocopiers, email, internet or automatic spell checks. I had to type out my manuscript on a typewriter, a process akin to carving out letters on to tablets of stone. Mistakes were impossible to correct. They hadn't even invented Tippex in those days.
The kindest thing I can say about my 1972 submission was that it was typed reasonably neatly.
I'm now used to working with an editor, as you will have gathered from previous posts. I love the freedom this gives my novel writing. I am relieved from having to guess what works and what doesn't. An editor tells me in no uncertain terms. I'm more happy to accept criticism these days now that I recognise it as an essential part of my writing process. You note I use the term more happy and not just happy.
I've (bravely) put the BBC disappointment behind me and have sent them another script, 55 years on from the first (and only) one. This temerity has to be laid at the doorstep of that distinguished Irish writer and friend, Daragh O' Reilly. He's developed a bee in his bonnet about radio plays and, just so that I can spend some time with him, I joined him on a course about them. I've always been a big fan of Radio 4  and the prospect of getting something out on the airwaves is a delicious one however remote the possibility might be. Writing for radio is very different to writing a novel. My story arcs tend to be vast, requiring several hundred thousand words to complete. I write novels in batches of three or four. A 45 minute radio play needs only about 7,500 words. This is all a bit sudden for my liking so I've submitted the first episode of a six-part series.
I need to get back to the third Tyrant book now, but, before I do, I'll finish a new radio play that I've started . Then Daragh and I have a joint one to complete. Maybe I'm catching some of what he's got.

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