Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Countdown begins...

Sssh...can you hear it? That eerie silence is really the revving of millions of word processors, the sharpening of millions of pencils, the whispering rustle of paper. In a few short hours, Nanowrimo will begin...

When tomorrow dawns I'll be more than a little preoccupied getting my novel finished, which means you might not see much of me on here for the next few weeks and if you do my posts might leave a bit to be desired. Apologies in advance, but a writer's gotta do what a writer's gotta do. I'll try and keep you posted about progress but I've installed a handy little widget at the side>>>>>>> which will tell you my word count so far in case you're wondering. If it suddenly stops rising without explanation it means I've probably expired due to caffeine poisoning.

Wish me luck, dear followers, and I'll see you on the Other Side....

Friday, 29 October 2010

Some pep talks

Gearing up for the marathon of writing ahead, I took a look at what Youtube had to offer in the way of inspirational pep talks.

Here's a couple to help fire you up:

Nanowrimo veteran blythe025 shares tips and tricks to help you keep going. By the way, I'm going to start a list of plot bunny ninjas so if you have any ideas please post them below.

Best wear a crash helmet for this one.

Thursday, 28 October 2010


Feeling a bit sheepish today because I've gone and done a foolishly reckless thing and signed up for this year's National Novel Writing Month. It's a few years since I last gave it a go so I'm filled with a curious mixture of eager anticipation and dread at the prospect of trying to write 50k words in 30 days. You're supposed to start a new book from scratch but since I'm already in full swing with the WIP I'm going to attempt to get the first draft finished which should be possible within the 50k. I did consider doing something new but it's too short notice to get an outline done and besides I really want to finish this bloody book before it drives me mad.

If you haven't seen NaNoWriMo it's worth a go. Exciting, terrifying, thrilling, frustrating...a real roller coaster ride of thrills and spills, and you never know what's going to come out on the page however much you've planned it. Go on, give it a whirl.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

What is a Writer?

Someone once said (I'm too old and brain addled to remember who) you can serve truth or you can serve money, but you can't serve both. He must have been a regular viewer of Question Time.

But it's a poser. What is a writer for? To tell the truth as he/she sees it, or to chase the money and write what people want?

Why not both? The trouble with the truth is it's more often than not unpalatable. And what is truth anyway? Isn't it just your personal view of things? What is truth, exactly?

Is art the expression of truth? I believe real art comes out of us unconsciously, in our unguarded moments when we aren't intending to give ourselves away. But it's hard to pin down, like pictures our minds create in the leaves on a tree or the clouds in the sky.

Maybe I should leave the last word on the subject to Bukowski.

Sunday, 24 October 2010


The Chatterley trial raises the question of whether censorship is ever justified. It is interesting that although Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned in Britain between 1928 when it was written and 1960, it was obtainable abroad during those years by anyone with the means. So, the conclusion would be it was less a fear of the corruption of morals than the fear of the implications of an elicit liaison between the classes that kept it on the censored list. Britain in these years was seeing the slow but steady dismantling of its class structure. Change always brings fear; the social unrest that manifested during the 20s and 30s might have been inflamed by such a book. The working class might get ideas above their station. I've no doubt the Establishment were running scared of revolution.

Were they right? Can the morals of the characters in a novel be a risk to society?

Interestingly it tends to be sexually salacious material that is targeted rather than violence. I've read many books whose characters carry out the most loathsome acts and hold the most loathsome opinions. American Psycho, springs to mind. The inner thoughts of a psychopath who tortures and kills for entertainment is about as loathsome as it's possible to get. If we're concerned about morality shouldn't books like that be banned? But they aren't and no one suggests they should be.

So why is sexually explicit material more damaging to us than violence? That's not a rhetorical question, I'd really like to know.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Lady Chatterley Trial

What? Two posts in one day???

Yes, I know it's extravagant but I saw this article on a forum and just had to share it.

It's a terrific story (the trial, I mean, although the book isn't bad either), and an interesting legal perspective from Geoffrey Robertson QC. I particularly like his observation that
The key factor in the decision to prosecute was that Penguin proposed to sell the book for 3/6; in other words, to put it within easy reach of women and the working classes. This, the DPP's files reveal, was what the upper-middle-class male lawyers and politicians of the time refused to tolerate.

I'll be posting about censorship next time.

Finding stories

For me a good source of story ideas is news headlines. You know those little snippets of news you can't avoid when you go into your email? I'm not talking about the headlining stories about world shattering events, but the little human stories that come and go without much attention.

It's perhaps ghoulish to capitalise on the human tragedy these stories contain, but this is the stuff of drama. When a spurned lover sabotages his rival's parachute or a bankrupt farmer goes amok with a shotgun everyone wants to know the whole story. We're drawn to it like moths to a flame. Because we're all muddling through our usually mundane lives and the calamitous events of someone else's give us a vicarious thrill. That's why we have to look when we pass a motorway smash. It could have been us.

Some tragic stories linger in the imagination, and its one such event (or actually two, now I think about it) that are at the heart of my current WIP. Of course, many of the details have been changed to make this my story instead of someone else's. But as a writer I'm less interested in the who or why than in what the effects of the events were. How did it feel, for the people involved? That's something only the victim can know for certain, but it gives plenty of scope for an author's imagination.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

When (and when not) to seek feedback

Saw an interesting post on a writers' forum lately. Author had posted first 76k of her novel for review on a peer review site and after getting some feedback was now completely blocked and unable to continue with the project. She was asking for advice on how to get her mojo back, now that well-meaning critters had told her the plot sucks, the characters are weak etc etc.

I read it with horror because I can't think of anything worse than showing a first draft to anyone. What can it achieve? It isn't your best work so the chances are it isn't going to impress anyone. And what's worse getting an adverse reaction will put the kibosh on your creative muse as effectively a bucket of cold water on a pair of rutting mutts.

I subscribe to the opinion that we have two sides to our character when it comes to creation. The elemental force that comes up with the initial ideas is unconscious, from our dreamy undisciplined mind. When you're banging out the first draft it's that side you're tapping into. It doesn't care about logic or form, it's just raw material. And at that stage you must let it flow, not interfering with the process. Cast a critical eye over its output and you'll send it running for cover never to return. At this point in the process you must believe totally in the world you are creating, in the characters as they appear in your imagination. Start fussing about the details and the river will dry up.

The editing or left-brain side of our nature doesn't come into play until after the first draft is done and put aside for a good few weeks to let the dust settle. This is the heartless bitch (see Edie Tor if you don't believe me) who ruthlessly savages our work. But by this point we have the whole story down so it's just a case of tweaking and reworking. Our creativity won't be stilted because it's done its job. Only after we've exercised our own stringent editor is the book ready to go out into the world to be brutalised by someone else.

So you can see how much damage is done by getting crits too soon. I hope the author learns from her error, assuming she ever gets back to where she was before.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Why Writers are Drama Queens

I'm reading a fascinating book at the moment: Three Uses of the Knife - On the Nature and Purpose of Drama by playwright David Mamet. It's not an easy read - when it's finished I'm going to read it again because I really want to understand what he's saying - but it's worth the effort because he has some profound ideas about the nature of drama and why we need it.

Novels are dramas on the page instead of the stage. The novel form may be relatively new but dramas are as old as humanity and meet some psychological need we all share. Don't we dramatise everything in our lives? Don't we love to hear gossip? And doesn't it explain the success of soap operas?

I think writers are particularly prone to this, which accounts for the compulsion to write stories. Our minds are like super-computers, piecing together the intricate jigsaws of the world around us, embellishing the mundane with flights of fancy. And spending so much time alone in our imaginary dramatic worlds makes us different. We live in our heads. It can render us prickly and neurotic when we come up against the real world. Writers are sensitive souls, prone to exaggeration and flouncing out if our feelings are hurt or our sensibilities affronted. I see this behaviour on writers' boards all the time.

We need delicate handling. It's sad that the world doesn't usually afford us that gentleness. The submissions process is particularly painful to the sensitive artist, and all around us are obstacles and injustices designed to break our spirit. But it doesn't have to be so bad. We should be aware of our own vulnerability and act accordingly, learn strategies to shield our fragile egos. We can treat our fellow writers with generosity and kindness. We can be the change we want to see in this harsh Writing World.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Director's Cut

Do you like Director's Cuts?

They used to be so rare as to be non-existent. Only after a movie had become part of the culture was the Director allowed to reissue it in his preferred (always longer) form, invariably including all those clever arty shots and scenes he was sure would win him an Oscar. Luckily for all of us there was an editor around to rein him in and insist those bits came out to get the movie down to a manageable and slick shape for release. A lot of art is sacrifice - you must murder those darlings without a shadow of remorse or you'll never produce anything of any note. So why this fashion for putting it all back in the Director's Cut?

Well, I guess it's a clever rebadging exercise to generate more income from a product that's had its moment of glory and now sits at the back of everyone's DVD collection gathering dust. It's also a chance for the Director to prove he hasn't sold out by showing he kept all those arty bits for just such an occasion. It's also an chance to restore something that might have been hacked to pieces by the studio on its original release, eg The Wicker Man. (Definitely worth a view, although the restored footage is very rough and not all of it could be found).

I can understand that. What I can't understand is releasing a Director's Cut DVD immediately following the cinema release, as has happened recently with Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. Putting in more footage so soon smacks of a lack of confidence in the product.

But it got me thinking. What if there were Writer's Cuts versions of novels? Would we at last see the bit in Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff cross-dresses and Cathy chases him up the moor in her best dress? Or the bit in Harry Potter where the vampires lure Harry into their secret lair with strawberry jam sandwiches? It's a thought...

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A few Crumbly observations

You know what they say about nostalgia - it ain't what it used to be.

I've never been one for nostalgia much. It seems like a curious way of looking at the world, with your back to the engine staring at where you've just been rather than where you're going. But recently it's been creeping into my viewing habits. It started with the box set of Blakes Seven, followed by Sapphire and Steel and even the Avengers. You know, all the good stuff they never seem to show on UK Gold.

Must be my age I suppose. It's tempting to think things were better back then, but I have no illusions about that - they weren't. It may seem that way at times because what we have in youth is boundless energy, good health and a heart full of optimism about the future. Somehow the shine comes off over the years and is replaced by a weary cynicism. When you've been round the block so many times it gets to resemble a shooting gallery (with you as the duck dodging pot shots) rather than a Great Big Adventure.

But there are compensations to getting older. I don't miss the crippling self-consciousness, and it's comforting to know that however much of a prat you make of yourself someone somewhere has done it a lot worse.

And you get to ramble a bit, like this post. Stop me when I get to "when I were a lass..."

Sunday, 10 October 2010

My Name Is Sandra and I'm an Addict...

Okay time to 'fess up, as our American cousins say. I'm addicted. No, not fags or booze or even Nightnurse (although it is great when you're choked with the cold). My particular weakness is writers' forums. Yes. Pathetic, eh?

Like any addict I am in total denial about my addiction. I can handle it, I tell myself. Just a few minutes a day, it's harmless. I can walk away any time...

Ah, if only that were true.

The odd thing is they wind me up something rotten. I've lost count of the times I came perilously close to hurling my computer at the wall out of sheer frustration at some of the pompous, ignorant downright stupid comments made on these boards. And it's pointless to argue - it's like feeding the flames - you then get ten pompous ignorant nitwits jumping on your head instead of one! So I try being mature and ignoring it, only of course you can't really ignore it, can you? It's like a car crash on the motorway, you have to gawp at all the bits of wreckage and bloody remains even if it gives you nightmares for months. And all the time I'm bottling up my indignation until fit to burst, swearing I'll never ever go on there again - until the next time.

Every time I have one of these episodes I end up signing up on yet another board and the whole ghastly cycle starts again.

So what's the cure? Cold turkey? Take up another hobby? Disconnect my computer from the internet? Any and all suggestions welcome.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Where do stories come from?

Interesting one, this. Do we generate stories ourselves or do they come from somewhere else?

I'm sure you've had the experience of being on a roll and feeling the words you are writing are coming fully formed from some other plane - as if you were only a cypher for someone else's thoughts. I've had that feeling a few times, most notably during my major revision last year when I had to beef up a minor character into a major one and found him there, fully formed with a complete life history and world view, and a voice that was distinct and unique. I'd like to think he was my own invention, from some deep level of my unconscious mind, but could I be channelling the thoughts of someone real?

Jung, the famous psychologist, believed at a deep level we were all joined the way that islands are joined on the sea bed. This is the basis for archetypes which we are hardwired to recognise and turn up again and again in fiction. Perhaps past life regression and psychic experiences are evidence of this link too. Is deja vu simply tapping into the thoughts of someone who was in that place before you? Are our thoughts and experiences gathered in some great cosmic database that we can tap into if we know how?

It's a seductive idea. For one thing it gives you complete immunity from responsibility for what you are writing. But then, maybe that's not such a good thing.

I know there are people who claim to channel famous dead figures from history, but can we (or they) be sure they are not just deluding themselves? After all, it's very flattering to think Queen Cleopatra is telling you, and only you, the salacious details of her life story. It's the ultimate scoop. And no one can disprove it, can they? But therein lies the danger.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Rejections they might have had

Sent another couple of submissions today, so I've had the whole business of rejection on my mind. Wouldn't it be funny if some of the most famously successful books had been rejected? How would the rejection have read?

Dear Author

Thank you very much for sending us "The Bible" but I don't think we are the right agency to represent it.

Although I found it an engrossing read, I have to say at 770k words it would be a very hard sell in today's market. The narrative was over complex, with too many plot threads and repetition. Cut all the stuff about who begat who, nobody cares believe me. You could easily simplify this and strip it down to a more linear narrative. Modern readers will not stick with long complicated stories and sales would suffer. And the title is too dry. May I suggest as an alternative "God v. Satan: The Final Showdown". You could stick in a few vampires for good measure, they always sell well.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

On Puppies and Publishing

October. Time for taking stock, looking back over the past year as winter looms on the horizon.

At this time two years ago I had just acquired a new puppy and had sent out my first batch of submissions into the Big Bad Publishing World. I remember it well. Shivering in the garden waiting for Theo to do his business and thinking about whether the post would bring any news. I had a fair share of highs and lows over the following few months.

Yesterday and today I sent off another pair of submissions. They're for the same book, albeit radically revised so it's probably dishonest to call it the same but the core story isn't altered, just the method of telling. The point is how different it feels two years on. The giddy sense of nervous anticipation has been replaced by a resigned pragmatism. I suppose that's progress. It doesn't do to be too emotionally attached to one's work; therein lies misery and heartbreak. The world doesn't love your book the way you do, and never will - if you're seeking validation you will be disappointed.

But I do miss that dewy-eyed innocence I lost somewhere along the way.

The puppy is now two years old and not the wide eyed, exuberant little bundle of licks and scratches he once was. He doesn't play as much as he did then, and he's more settled and sensible. He's grown up. And so have I.