Friday, 30 December 2011

Farewell then, 2011...

Thirty year old government papers published this week reveal that Thatcher's Tory Government were considering drastic measures to cope with civil unrest in 1981.  Just goes to show nothing changes.

And this being the end of a year,  it's only natural to take stock and look forward.  Given that nothing much changes, here are Mystic Sandra's predictions for 2012:

There may be some very cold weather, either in the early months of the year, or towards December.

Books, films and tv programmes about the Mayans will be very popular.

We're all going to get sick to death of hearing about the Mayans.  

We're all going to get sick to death of hearing about the Olympics.

Given it's a leap year, there will be an extra day, probably in February.

More publishers will go under, despite claims from industry insiders that the Kindle is just a fad.

There will be hot weather during the Summer months.

Apple will announce the development of a new computer which is so small it cannot be seen.

 The BBC will commission another fifty series of Doctor Who, including one in which B list celebrities ballroom dance.

Prince Harry will announce his engagement to Lady Gaga.

It will rain a lot in April.

Professor Richard Dawkins will publish another book about how God doesn't exist.

God will retaliate by making a ten part documentary about how Professor Richard Dawkins doesn't exist.

Amazon will invade China and replace all bicycles with Kindles. 

There will be a prevalence of hangovers on the first day of the year.

Whatever 2012 brings, a Very Happy New Year to you all!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

About tomorrow...

I heard a tiny rumourette that tomorrow is some sort of religious festival, not that you'd have much cause to think of spirituality from the rampant spending spree going on.  As I speak it's standing room only on my local High Street, so it looks like no busking carols for me this year.

Instead here's something to give you a warm Christmas cheer:

I wish you all a smashing Christmas!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

It's Tweak Sunday

They say you should have a web presence, and for most people that means a website.  It's great having a website, but it does mean I have to tweak it from time to time.  Gradually you get used to the formatting and the process of tweaking gets less scary.  

Anyway I've given it a tweak or two and added some of my own photographs, so please go take a look if you haven't already. All feedback welcome.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Bad Reviews

Everyone gets them.  If you don't believe me, check out some Amazon customer reviews.  Can you believe that these pairs of reviews are for the same book?

I hated the story and mostly I really hated the characters. I wanted every one of them to die and wished they had done so sooner. And, honestly, I don't think it's very good writing. 
This is an absolute masterpiece, and I feel confident in saying that it is the best book I have ever read. I'm stunned that the average rateing is not five stars. This book is an amazing work. 

I struggled with this book. I had expectations of the greatest novel ever written. What I got was a laboriously worded love story with shallow characters that tested my patience to the limit. 
Anyone who believes in the power of Art, especially Literature, must buy and read this book. I promise it can change your life. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

 I am about a third of the way into it, and literally hundreds of characters have been introduced. NOT ONE of them has done anything interesting, so I am finding it nearly impossible to keep them straight. I am the type that will be more or less satisfied reading the back of a cereal box, but this is BAD. I mean bad. The mystery is dull. The who done it is more like a who cares. 
This is a superb novel and impossible to put down. Utterly stunning. Probably the year's best book.

So what do we learn from this?  That people are different?  That books affect people in different ways?  That reviews are flawed?

Well yes.  But mainly we learn that relying on the praise of others is ultimately futile.  As writers we write for ourselves first and foremost.  Chasing popularity never works and as these reviews show it's an elusive prize.  If we write something we like and feel proud of, anyone else liking it is really just a bonus. 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Bit of a Rag Bag

Sorry, not very focussed this post.  Christmas preoccupations and all that.  But I have a couple of things to mention.

First is to give a plug to this particularly beautiful piece of music: Richard Harvey's Concerto Antico for guitar and small orchestra, soloist John Williams.  Here is part III Cantilena courtesy of Youtube, but it's worth listening to the whole recording if you can.  It's not terribly often a piece of music brings tears to the eyes so this is something special.

Next, if you are looking for an image manipulation programme for your family photos or cover art you could do worse than download GIMP.  I've been playing around with this for the last few weeks and it's great, not least because it's FREE.  Here's a picture I made earlier.  It seems to go quite well with the music.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Last Day of Nano

Today is the last day of November, and therefore the last day of Nanowrimo.  For those of you who have easily sailed past the 50k word count, Hearty Congratulations.  For those of you still scribbling frantically to reach the finish line before midnight, Keep Going, You Can Do It!  And for those of you who, for whatever reason, didn't make it and gave up along the way, Don't Feel Like A Failure.  I mean it.  Nano is not about winning or losing, passing or failing.  It's about empowerment.  And the fact that you tried at all makes you a winner.  Whatever word count you achieved is so many more words better than none.

Of course Nano isn't the B-all and End-all.  Even if you make the word count you still have all the revision ahead of you, and I suspect that's what has put a lot of people off doing it.  A crappy first draft isn't much help to you if your normal style of writing is measured and deliberate.  

If you can easily achieve high word counts I would suggest Nano is probably not for you.  Speaking for myself, Nano was a useful stepping stone in my writer's development, helping me to overcome the initial anxiety of writing something longer than a short story.  I had been dreaming stories for a long time, to the point where my focus was lost.  I needed something to make me sit down and do it.  My stumbling block was fear - fear of writing crap.  What I needed to learn was first drafts are generally crap anyway and that's OK.  

But I confess Nano doesn't have the same appeal to me any more.  Once you get a bit of confidence in your ability you probably don't need all that cheerleading and camaraderie.  In fact, it can become yet another distraction.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Story Obsession

This week there has been a lot of attention on the press itself as the Leveson Inquiry garners evidence from various people, including JK Rowling, Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller and some other less well known victims of press intrusion, like the parents of a murder victim whose son committed suicide in response to tabloid stories about his dead sister.

Every day this week the evidence has been televised, giving a unique insight into how the press, or certain sections of it, conduct themselves in pursuit of story material.  The spectrum ranges from exaggeration to outright lies.  In fact the most outrageous the lie the better the story, in the minds of some.  What is most appalling is the lack of responsibility for the consequences of these lies.  It may sell a few more papers, or get more attention for  a website, but what about the aftermath?  

And why do these stories sell papers?  

As human beings we are obsessed with making up stories.  If we weren't we wouldn't be writing novels, telling jokes, penning screenplays.  Gossip is most people's favourite pastime because there's nothing more satisfying than painting the people we know into scenes.  But we can get carried away with it, as this Inquiry is showing.  Malicious gossip, filled with half truths and distortions, can have devastating effects.

So where is the line between public interest and intrusion to the point of stalking?  What is acceptable in pursuit of a story?  How do you protect an individual's privacy while allowing a free press?

It will be interesting to find out.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Nice Surprise

In the weeks since finishing latest draft of WIP I've been in a kind of doldrums.  It's a familiar pattern, but gets no easier to deal with.  By the time I limp over the finish line I am so drained and weary it's a relief to put it to bed, but with it comes the loss of confidence.  I'm not sure why this happens, or even if it happens to others as well as me.  It feels like everything I write is stilted and crap, every idea is contrived or cliche.  I feel like a complete fraud and wonder why I'm even trying.

But then a little time passes and for some reason I take a look at something I wrote and forgot about.  Last night I opened a piece I began during the summer, a couple of thousand words of an opening chapter.  I read it expecting nothing, so it was nice to find it wasn't half bad.  It drew me in.  It stirred me to want to imagine more.  It made me think, not with arrogance but astonishment,  'I really can do this'.

And this has happened time after time.  Just when I've written myself off as useless I get a nice surprise that keeps me going.  

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

What I've Learned from Eastenders

I've discovered another little gizmo to play with.  It's a handy application called Aeon Timeline which enables you to keep track of events and arcs over the course of your story.  At least that's what it says in the blurb.  I'm still trying to figure it out for myself.  Anyway, it's a free app in beta so there's nothing lost in giving it a try.

It occurred to me this morning as I was trudging the muddy forest floor with Theo that there are two elements in story telling; the context and the scene.  All the planning and research set up the context.  That's the donkey work that writers spend much of their time over, because without a proper context the scenes won't have any point of reference and the characters won't have the history and motivation to drive the story.  Once the context is decided the scenes should be plain sailing.  After all, that's where all the drama happens.  It's the easy part; people interacting. And people are basically the same in any time and place.

That's what I think I've lost sight of lately.  In my obsession with context I've let it overwrite the scenes, which should be simple and light and easily identifiable.  Scenes are the soap opera element, the bit that makes the reader stop flicking through channels and watch what's going on.  The context is there, like the Queen Vic in the background, but it's the emotion and drama viewers are grabbed by.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Living in the Material World

I don't usually do reviews, but then I don't usually find things on TV that are worth watching.  Not saying that to be cruel, it's just when you get to my age you've seen it all, or most of it, so the latest soap story line or new character in Doctor Who doesn't hold the same fascination.

But it's nice to find a programme that's so well made and says something genuinely new that you can slide into it without effort.  That's how I felt about Martin Scorsese's Living in the Material World, a two part documentary about the late George Harrison, part one of which was broadcast last night.  Part two airs later this evening so no prizes for guessing what I'll be doing then.

The appeal, for me at least, is partly nostalgia.  That's another thing about getting to my age - your distant past becomes endlessly fascinating.  I was a little girl when the Beatles burst on the scene, lighting up stuffy British culture like a Catherine Wheel.   Somehow they appealed to everyone; old ladies and little kids like me were equally smitten, not just the hordes of young women who screamed hysterically at their concerts.  These four fresh faced lads brightened post-rationing Britain and made everything seem possible as they conquered the world.

I was smitten by Paul in those days.  He seemed the least threatening of them in my estimation.  John was my older sister's crush, but not many fell for the quiet one, George.  Yet as the years went by it was George of all of them who seemed least affected by the fame they accrued.  Every interview shows the same thoughtful young man who was never afraid to speak his mind, whether it was telling George Martin he didn't like his tie, or, in a studio debate on spirituality, declaring that the only 'mysticism' in meditation was down to ignorance.  He was always content to go his own way, never looking for acclaim or the limelight, pursuing his own quest for spiritual growth in spite of popular skepticism.  And he became a hero of mine when he put up the money to fund Monty Python's Life of Brian after the film's original backers pulled out at the last minute.

Living in the Material World contains fascinating clips and interviews with those closest to Harrison, all new and giving a unique insight into this most interesting man.  And of course there's lots of music too.  Just to prove he was no slouch in that department, I've posted one of his songs below.

I'm looking forward to watching the conclusion of this film and recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in its subject matter.

Monday, 7 November 2011

New Project Planning

Well, it finally happened.  I'm starting to get an idea forming for a new project.  It's that nebulous feeling of ideas floating around in a vague soup that is at once enticing and frustrating.  But I'm determined to leave the writing as late as possible this time.  I want to get the plot worked out, the characters developed, the scenes sorted.  In the past I've rushed in with just a vague idea and a mouthy cast of characters with their own ideas and no respect for their author's opinions.  The result has been chaos and a lot of waste.  I'm hoping to avoid that this time (!).


Tuesday, 1 November 2011

November, November

November, November.  Something odd happens to the light at this time of year; the low rising sun in Scotland makes dawn and dusk particularly eerie times.  It changes perceptions.  Colours deepen; the sun, so bright on the horizon, blinds the eyes and casts darker shadows.

November is an important month for me.  My first born came into the world on 11th day, twenty-five years ago.  I remember sitting on my hospital bed, watching the brilliant sunshine illuminate stark window pane shaped rectangles on the ward wall.  Intense as search lights, with no hiding place.  

This is a time of reflection, a time of taking stock.  Yesterday, walking out early with Theo in the first light, I encountered what I assume was a crow when it collided with the back of my head as I climbed up the cliff slope of the golf course.  Stunned by this event, I was more surprised that the bird made no sound at all, before or after.  It simply flew on.

Then this morning, on the narrow metalled road that slopes up to a small car park on a vantage point beside the beach, I encountered a hare.  At first, the dazzling sunshine lighting up its cream and gold fur, I thought it was a dog.  But then I saw a black labrador in pursuit.  The hare turned and sideways on I realised what I was seeing.  It saw me and hesitated, turned away and climbed the steep grassy cliff face at the side of the road.  The lab pursued.  Both darted here and there among the gorse and rocky outcrops until the hare got the better of the terrain and reached the summit.  Within an instant the hare was gone, the dog still bouncing bewildered among the foliage.

This afternoon a magpie tapped on my living room window.  Wildlife seems to be getting in my face at the moment, don't you think?

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Nano, Nanot

I've enjoyed this week.  Pottering about relaxing me writing muscle has helped me de-stress.  It's a funny thing how you don't notice you're stressed until the pressure is off.  There's a certain joy in doing nothing, thinking random thoughts and mucking about with things you don't usually have time for.  Even the dusting has been more fun than usual.

I had thought this week might give me a chance to come up with a brilliant idea for a new project, but it hasn't.  And to be honest the thought of churning out a frenetic load of new material so soon after finishing the last one doesn't fill me with unbridled enthusiasm.  So sadly I'm stepping down from this year's Nanowrimo.  

But those of you who are giving it a go, especially the Nano virgins trying it for the first time, I will be cheering you on and may drop into the website from time to time to see how you're doing.  Feel free to buddy me as flyingtart.  And remember the most important thing is taking part - everything else is a bonus.   

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Thank God

Now I'm on hiatus I at last have a chance to catch up with the serious business of social networking.  Don't you just hate the way your writing interrupts all those interesting forum discussions and Liking someone on Facebook?  And now of course there's Google+, not to mention Twitter.  It's a mad whirl of socialising.  If only that pesky writing didn't get in the way.

I struggle with forums, I really do.  For all my intentions to stay off the bloody things I find myself inexorably drawn back.  However much they wind me up with pointless arguments, over developed egos and plainly bad advice every attempt at staying away only results in me joining a few more. And there are lots of them these days.  

So when I do get back to the writing I may disconnect the internet, that great Thief of Time.  But for the moment I'm enjoying my little holiday and wasting time to my heart's content.  It's so interesting to know where minor celebrities buy their underwear.  Don't know how I managed for years without knowing little titbits like that.

Sunday, 23 October 2011


I should be celebrating.  Yesterday I finally stamped 'finished' on draft 3 of WIP and just to prove the point printed the whole thing off.  (At this stage I'm done with major plot tweaks so I reckon it's worth having a hard copy for future read throughs).  Yes, I know, I should be jumping up and down, kissing the cat (if I had one) and lining the living room with bunting.  But I'm not.

Maybe it's just me, but when I limp across the finish line I'm so sick of the thing it's more of a relief than a joyful starburst.  Now I just feel flat and at a bit of a loss.

With nine days till the start of Nanowrimo I am still dithering about whether to start something new.  But I'm torn.  I really feel exhausted and the thought of having to churn out 1700 words every day for a month doesn't fill me with unbridled enthusiasm.  But who knows, this time next week my juices might be flowing again.  You never know.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

My Stationery Fetish

I wrote recently about my word fetish - how's yours going, by the way?  Are you filling the OED with lots of spurious words like I told you to?

Well, words aren't my only fetish.  I also have a fetish for stationery.  

Of course it matters very much what is written on paper, but how much of buying books is to do with the feel of it?  When I was a teacher we were conscious of the importance of books as sensory objects.  The feel and smell of paper is just as important as the words in getting kids reading.  And what is true for kids is undoubtedly true for the grown up variety.

There is nothing more seductive to me than fresh smooth pages in a book.  This is why library books - and I'm not knocking libraries for a moment, I'm too scared of librarians - are never as satisfying as buying a new paperback.  Old books can't seduce us like new ones.  

And in my case it's not just printed books.  From my youngest years I've loved notebooks too.  Those little glossy red Sylvine memo books were my idea of heaven.  I've recently discovered Moleskines - not made from moles after all, but never mind - and they have that satin sheen my fetish lusts after.  What is it about clean new paper? I wish I understood.  

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Last Scene

So I have made it to the last scene.  But it's not as simple as that.  Of course not.  

I now have two more scenes to add earlier on.  And there will be more revision later.  BUT I think I finally have a story that hangs together well enough to justify the effort.

Sometimes getting the words out is like wringing a wet towel.  My muse is resisting this job, as she does when I've been at it for a while.  She gets bored and longs for something new and shiny to play with.  But I have to be the Editor from Hell and force her to go on.  I don't particularly enjoy it, but that's the way it goes.

So happy feelings that the end is nearing, and spurred on by the prospect of thinking about something else.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Great Writers: Cormac McCarthy

I can't remember whether I already mentioned it, but I'm having a Cormac McCarthy binge.  So far I've read The Road*, No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, Child of God, Suttree and currently on Outer Dark.  His books are like nothing I've read before, and proof that the rule book of writing is there to be ground into the dust.  On the face of it he does everything you're advised not to do.  When I first started reading The Road I was painfully conscious of his lack of punctuation, lack of speech tags, repetition and odd grammatical - even poetic - structure.   But the odd thing is once I got past the first few pages I stopped noticing all that and became immersed in the story.  

He writes in a cinematic style that drives the narrative forward like a freight train.  There are no coy niceties here.  He deals with the horrific underbelly of human nature - characters lovingly drawn warts and all in extremis, facing or causing death, indulging the worst depravity, living on the edge of human endurance.  His images of poverty stricken America belie the American Dream and he doesn't shy away from reality or try to glamorise it.  At once it is absorbing and fascinating, repellent and disgusting.   

I love it!

*Just watched the film version of this and it's terrific.  Every inch as bleak as the book but terrific and true to the story.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Nano, Anyone?

Nights are fair drawing in, eh?  October already.  How did that happen?  And now autumn is definitely with us the prospect of Nanowrimo looms on the horizon.  Are you taking the plunge this year?

Last year I finished the second draft of WIP during Nano, so it was useful for me although I seem to remember being beset by illness and snowstorms. I'm currently nearing (hopefully) the end of third redraft of same.  If I manage to get it done and have time to outline something new I may give Nano a go.  But part of me feels the need for a break so I may just stand on the sidelines and cheer everyone else on instead.  We'll see.

How about you?  Will this year's Nano give birth to your breakthrough novel?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

A History of Film

I'm very much enjoying A History of Film, An Odyssey by Mark Cousins, currently being aired on More4 on Saturday evenings.  It's an eye opener for me to see the whole story laid out from the earliest beginnings of flickering images on a screen, the first footage of a moving train causing its audience to panic that they were about to be crushed when it entered the auditorium.  Hard to imagine now.  These days moving images are everywhere.

The interesting aspect of this series for me as a writer is the way film developed as a story telling form, probably the main story telling form of the past century.  The techniques of filmmaking can be used in novels too; the close-up, the scene cutting.  Because of the influence of movies novels have become more cinematic, more visual.  But the advantage novels have is fiction needs practically no budget and can be even more powerful because it engages the reader's imagination as the setting for its scenes.  That's why everyone's idea of how a film adaptation of their favourite book is different, and of course why it can be disappointing.  

If you haven't seen any of it, I've linked to the latest episode on the Channel 4 website.  It's worth a look.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Planning and Pantsing

This is a hot topic among writers. Should a book be planned or is it best to just let the muse dictate all the twists and turns of your story's outrageous fortune?

I've seen folk come to virtual blows over it.

First off, I have to say I don't think there is a right way in any art form.  Dogma kills spontaneity quicker than a dose of rat poison.  And what works for one man will be anathema to someone else.  

I used to be more of a confirmed pantser, ie flying by the seat of my pants.  It's very much in the spirit of Nanowrimo which I've raved about in the past.  The trouble is it's inefficient.  You'll end up with a lot of dross and surplus material, scenes you don't need etc.  But it is a thrilling way to write and I recommend it for anyone feeling blocked or jaded.

With each project I attempt I try to plan more.  That's because each time you travel this road you see the pitfalls, the places where you wrote yourself into a blind alley.  If only you had a more reliable road map to see you through the maze of ideas you could simply concentrate on the writing.  So I plan.  Or at least I try to.  My creative mind is infuriatingly resistant to any limitations and tries to take the story off road at every opportunity.  So I've learned not to plan too fastidiously and not to get upset if the story takes off in another direction I hadn't expected.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

A moan

Well, so much for a week off.  Other Half has been laid up with a stinking cold all week, I've had to sit in waiting for gas men fitting radiators and washing machine men fixing me Hotpoint - which, I might add, broke down again a day later.  So what with all that I've ended up doing pretty much what I usually do and missed out on the planned days out and trips to the shops.  On top of that The Great Spider Invasion has started - I counted four of the brutes one windy evening which did nothing to alleviate my stress level.  And an order of my much loved Traquair Ale seems to have gone astray despite being despatched a couple of days ago.

Oh well.  On the plus side I have made some headway with the WIP.  I'm thrashing out the last act now, always the trickiest part for me.  And I've treated myself to a new Moleskine notebook.  Never owned one before so I thought I'd give it a go.  Surprisingly they are not made from moles after all...

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

A Week Off

Other half and younger son are on a week's holiday so it's a break in routine.  I've been catching up with the bits of painting left over by the professionals and getting a different perspective on things.  Not much time for writing although I'm doing odd bits when I can.

Last week I took my razor sharp editor's knife and cut 4 whole chapters which made my eyes water I don't mind telling you.  The story had taken a wrong turn and it had to go.  My priority at the moment is getting the shape of the story right, and it's proving elusive.  But I now feel I have the bones of something better.  Of course I'll need to write a lot of new material but once I get the form right that won't be difficult.

So I'm taking this week to mull things over before getting back to it.  I feel like a mole emerging from the gloom of his tunnel.  So that's what the world is like...

Sunday, 18 September 2011

My Word Fetish

Alright, time to 'fess up (whatever that means).  I have a guilty secret.  I'm a word addict and not only that, I'm a word fetishist too.  What's the difference?  Well, an addict loves words and can't get enough of them, but a fetishist goes one step further and makes her own.

The great thing about the English language is it's such a mongrel of other languages.  There are umpteen words for the same thing, each with its own unique and colourful derivation. In amongst all that melee of vocabulary it's dead easy to slip in a few made up ones without anyone noticing.  (Of course you do get the occasional dictionary wielding pedant who calls you on it, but don't let that spoil your fun.  They need to get out more.)

Now, if you're thinking of trying this I should warn you that making stuff up can get you into trouble.  But unless you're a finalist in the World Scrabble Championships don't sweat it.  It's harmless fun and very creative.  

A good place to start is insults.  In the heat of the moment folk seldom take much notice of the words you are hurling at them.  Next time you're having a screaming row with your neighbour toss in the odd invention: Don't look at me like that, you scumsucking fenchmallow!  At best it'll take the wind out of their sails, at worst it won't register.

Slipping inventions into your prose might be trickier although not impossible.  The key is to keep it low-key and unobtrusive and don't get carried away.  For example, The wind rustled through the venic leaves, lifting them to flutter in an exotic dance is better than The bartledick rustled through minaries of venic leaves, fletting them to flutter in a partsimious dance which even the sloppiest editor will spot a mile away.

So, start small and remember to enjoy yourself.  Who knows, with any luck you might end up with a few of your inventions turning up in next year's OED. Good fetishing!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Book Covers

Do you judge a book by its cover?  I must confess I've bought books in the past based on the cover art alone.  An interesting and intriguing image can affect sales as it's the book's billboard after all.  The initial point of contact between reader and writer.

So it's surprising to find that the writer often has very little say in the cover art as shown by the story of Polly Courtney who has parted company from her publisher over the style of her book covers and now intends to self-publish.

The issue has spawned much debate among writers.  Do covers matter?  Well, apparently so.  When you have one chance to make an impression on a potential buyer you want to get it right.

But so many covers these days are generic and unoriginal.  You know the ones I mean - you can scarcely browse the Net without a few of them popping up around the margins.  Slick waxed torso of scantily clad young man with an equally scantily clad female draped provocatively over him, a hand lingering on his trouser belt as if to suggest they're coming off sometime soon.  Then there are the sci-fi/fantasy covers with metallic babes wrestling phallic space creatures.

The trouble with this kind of cover is it lumps all these books together in popular perception. If you write an original story shouldn't the cover reflect that originality?  Wouldn't something a bit different get more attention?

And not all books slide easily into the chosen genre.  Women's fiction isn't always about boyfriends and shopping.  Should the covers of chick-lit always feature ditzy thin women in high heels?

There is nothing more annoying than purchasing a book on the basis of the cover and finding it isn't at all what you thought it was going to be.  So Ms Courtney has a point.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

In Praise of Limericks

A small diversion today.  One of the poetic forms I find irresistible is the Limerick.
There's something so satisfying about the rhythm of a carefully crafted Limerick, and when coupled with funny or clever word use it hits the funny bone like no other form.  Finding the perfect rhyme for an awkward word is a challenge - trying to find a unique and witty response can be maddening but most gratifying when you come up with something apt.  It's not unlike doing a crossword puzzle in that only the right word will do and you know it when you find it.

How about finishing this one:

An ambitious scribbler from Kent
Thinks her dodgy verse is heav'n sent
But sadly it seems
Her poetry teems...

And if you like Limericks why not try a few here.

Sunday, 11 September 2011


Where do you find inspiration for stories?  

Stories are all around and it's difficult to avoid them.  The news is full of human tragedies, large and small, which can be the starting point or conclusion of your novel.  Many authors were inspired to write about 9/11, an event ten years ago this very day.  Personally I am more intrigued by the smaller but equally devastating tragedies which wreck people's lives.

Being a lover of history I get some ideas from events in the past.  There are hazards in poaching the past for ideas though.  People lived very different lives and unless you have thoroughly researched the period there are many pitfalls to watch out for. 

And music is a constant source of inspiration for me.  It stimulates a drama to unfold in my head like nothing else

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Writers Online

The internet has revolutionised communications.  So what does that mean for the aspiring writer?

In the Bad Old Days you'd sit in your draughty garret scratching stories onto parchment with only your own dark thoughts for company.  Nowadays you don't need to be so isolated.  One click gets you onto Facebook, Twitter and the myriad of writers' forums out there.  In the early days it's nice to meet like minded people and get some answers to your newbie questions.  But you can get so involved with this online community you forget why you ended up there. 

These days display sites have eclipsed the standard critique sites.  Display sites, like Authonomy and Book Country (to name but two - there are plenty more) are more about platform and discoverability.  Mutual backslapping is the order of the day, and anything resembling honest, ie. critical, critique is likely to be met with hostility because it is deemed "unsupportive". 

So, is the internet a good place for writers or just another procrastination technique?

I think there are hazards as well as benefits.  The internet is great for instant research and you can pick up lots of advice.  There's bad advice too, of course.  But as long as you're selective and trust your own instincts you shouldn't go far wrong.  The support group and mutual praise is nice in the early days when you're feeling shy and insecure but beware it doesn't become a crutch.  Your work is for the public at large, not just your little clique of mates who never dislike anything you write.

So really, nothing much has changed.  The internet might have made people more accessible, but writing is still a solitary activity and too much company might just blow you off course.

Monday, 5 September 2011


Something funny is happening with Blogger.  All my old posts seem to have gone into italics.  It wasn't me what done it, honest.

But it started me thinking about italics.  Do you use them much?  I confess I do.  I like to lapse in and out of flashbacks and inner thoughts and italics are just perfect for inserting the odd line of dialogue without interrupting the flow.  But I try not to overdo it because once italics take over pages of text, they become the norm and lose their impact.

It's another case of "less is more".  Someone should tell Blogger that.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Last Word About Reviews

Just spotted this great post by Joe Konrath on The Newbie's Guide to Publishing which I want to pass on.

Wise words.  And he's right.  I'd even go so far as to say you can't have anything meaningful to say until you're willing to shrug off the opinions of others.  

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Guest Blogger: Marvel Gumshoe

Just for a change, here's a little break from my incessant yapping. Fellow aspiring author and online buddy Marvel Gumshoe gives his unique view of this writing life.

  The Glass Ceiling 

 “Decide that you want it more than you are afraid of it.” Bill Cosby 

 “You've got to believe you can be a stand-up before you can be a stand-up. You have to believe you can act before you can act. You have to believe you can be an astronaut before you can be an astronaut. You've got to believe." Eddie Izzard 

 “Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” Douglas Adams 

 I’m terrified. 
 On the very cusp of jacking in work, becoming a stay-at-home Dad and writing full-time, I’ve realised that my magnum opus has a plot hole big enough to destabilise the space-time continuum. 
 I may be the greatest chump in existence. 
 How can I still believe that it is possible to make a living as an author? Statistically, I am more likely to be struck by lightning on the day I win the lottery. 
 I must be mad. Certifiable. 
 But it’s irresistible. 
 The hint, the scintilla-wisp of possibility, the world espied through a chink, the scent of fresh-cut grass teasing through the curtains – how could I not do this? 
 Here’s what I’ll resolve to do – run out screaming and, if I fail, run back in screaming, take a breath and run back out again. Like swimming in the cold Atlantic, at some point you either get used to it or die of hypothermia. 

I am mad. Certifiable. 

 “But I tried, didn't I? Goddamnit, at least I did that.” R.P. McMurphy

 Marvel Gumshoe is originally from Kildare in Ireland but moved to Limerick (also in Ireland ) just before the end of the millennium, to get a better view. 

Marvel’s poetry has been published in several low-key journals and accidentally broadcast on local radio. 

 To earn his crust, Marvel works for a small children’s charity. The charity is small, not the children. Although, some of them are but that isn’t the point. 

 Marvel is currently working on several novel projects: 
The Unbearable Shiteness of Being 
The Flesh-eating Diplomat from Outer Space 
St. Unsub and the Dragon 

 He can be found on the interweb, at twitter@Marvel_Gumshoe and loitering around the halls of Litopia.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Editorial Advice

Writing a book is hard, and it's not really something you can do in complete isolation. At some point someone is going to have to read it and if you're wise you'll look for objective and experienced advice to point you in the right direction.

But where to find it? Your first port of call for free advice is a peer review site. There are many and they are as good or bad as their members so you have to suck it and see which one is best for you. Any site that allows anyone to join will have the widest range of ability, and therefore the strike rate for good crits is going to be lower. Having said that, you can usually glean something helpful from any crit. Even a non-writer will have a gut reaction to your story that's useful to know. With a little time and effort you can build up a picture of how your book is being received.

And the great thing about peer review is you learn an awful lot about what works by reviewing other people's work. The problem with your own manuscript is you're too heavily involved with it and therefore can't see the faults. That isn't a problem with somebody else's baby. The flaws are much easier to spot, and reading critically teaches you to read your own with a dispassionate eye.

But peer review has limitations, and sooner or later you may want to find professional advice to help you reach the next stage. I've never paid for editorial advice, and I would guard against throwing your money at just anyone. With the cuts in publishing there are more freelance editorial advisors around than ever, and some are better qualified than others. Personally I wouldn't take advice from anyone who hadn't reached a significantly higher level in the publishing business than myself. Another wannabe, however perceptive and well intentioned, and cheap, is probably not good enough. So if you are tempted down this road, make sure you go for someone with a proven track record either as an author or an editor of published books.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Social Networking

I recently got an invitation to register on the latest social network Google+. Don't expect a full appraisal of it, but from what I can gather it's much like Facebook except it enables you to group your contacts so you don't have to share everything with everyone.

I joined Facebook when my son was away at university as a way of keeping in touch on an informal basis. Since then it's enabled me to make contact with relatives all over the world - one or two cousins in different continents I'd never met. I've also connected with other writers, but as far as networking goes it hasn't been much use to me.

I think Twitter is better for networking because you can follow just about anyone so it's useful for knowing what people are doing and thinking.

Do you use them, and what do you think?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Good Reviews

Just to balance out my last post, I've been thinking a lot about good reviews.

Of course we all want good reviews. To be read and appreciated, even to have our work loved and praised, is every writer's secret desire. But are good reviews any use to us?

I've been on writers' forums where mutual praise and backslapping reached the level of a circle jerk. I even once saw a newly published writer ask her online buddies to go and leave good reviews on Amazon to counter something nasty a beastly genuine reviewer had written. I don't think it's unusual, and glowing customer reviews need to be viewed with a degree of scepticism for that reason.

But even genuine good reviews harbour dangers for the writer. Any praise inflates our old enemy, the Ego. Give him enough of it and he's changed from your pugilistic ally into an overweening monster. Without criticism you can't grow and develop and improve. Your talent withers and calcifies. You lose inspiration and the drive to make a better job of it.

So praise, genuine or otherwise, can be toxic even if it is addictive. Accept it with care.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Bad Reviews

Why is peer review so popular? It's because we write to be read, of course. That's what we all crave, isn't it? Even a critical eye is better than no eye at all - although of course we'd all prefer the uncritical one.

But whenever we get a stinking review we can always comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the great and good have faced such humiliation before us. I like to read the one-star Amazon reviews of bestsellers to remind myself that no one, no matter how successful, is immune from criticism.

Here's a sample:

"Page after page of gibberish that makes no sense at all..." Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy.

".. a weak, pathetic imitation of literature that doesnt even deserve to be called a book." Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling.

"..upperclass British drivel" Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

What a hoot!

So take heart, gentle writer. Next time someone trashes your magnum opus, remember everybody gets it in the neck sometimes.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Painting The Forth Bridge

Sometimes it feels like painting the Forth Bridge. Revision I mean. No, not because of the copious amounts of red paint, or even the need for a harness, but because it seems to loop endlessly. Every day I rewrite something only to go back the next day and find it needs more work. And by the end I'll be going back to the beginning again. So it goes.

Someone once said, books are never finished, just abandoned. And I believe that's true. Because a book is a fluid thing, an imperfect creation full of endless possibility. Even when it's published it still isn't finished, because in the mind of a reader it can become something the author never dreamed of. That is the beauty of fiction - it is a letter to the world that doesn't even exist until it's read.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Oo-er, I've won an award!

Gushing thanks to Margo at Urban Psychopomp for nominating me for this award.

Here's the rules:
1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you.
2. Reveal your top 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.
4. Have faith that your followers will spread the love to other bloggers.
5. And most of all - have bloggity-blog fun!

So here's me nominations:

Cagnolino, a new but perfectly formed blog.

Rising speculative fiction star, Colin F Barnes.

Writing thoughts from St Force.

Stylish thoughts from Joe Young.

And last but not least, my own offspring Scott has ventured into the blogging world. Please give his blog a try here.

How Thick Is Your Plot?

Here is another fascinating Book Deal blog about ways to thicken your plot.

I said in an earlier post that in revision what I find is generally too much plot. Anyone who's done Nanowrimo will recognise the casually tossed in and incongruous plot twist used to liven things up when your energy level is flagging. I make no apology for this. Writing a first draft is like running a marathon and at times you will try anything to get some momentum going when your ideas have run dry and the characters are standing around looking for inspiration.

But that's the great thing about revision. These things are so easy to spot and easy to deal with, assuming you are ruthless enough. All the daft stuff has to go. I find I can usually remember what I was thinking when I made Dorothy, the one legged trapeze artist lover of Quentin, the Main Character, pull that sabre from her knickers and chop off the heads of all seven of their party guests. I was tired and bored and itching to write something exciting for a change. But let's face it, it won't really play in a Romcom now will it? So the sabre, the party, even Dorothy have to go. Yes, I know it was a week's work, but it's contrived, it deviates from the plot and frankly, it's dumb.

If it means losing a lot of material then so be it. The point is to carve out the excess to reveal the story and bring salient plot points to the fore. New scenes will present themselves - I have a constant struggle to stop myself rewriting nearly every scene. The revision is hard work. It isn't just a bit of nip and tuck.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Ultimate Marketing Ploy

Forget social networking, blogging, book tours etc. I've hit upon the ultimate book selling ploy of all. Get banned.

Think about it. Doesn't a ban make you automatically want to read something? In the Sixties and Seventies, when Radio One had the monopoly of airtime for pop music, a ban meant a single wouldn't be played anywhere and yet every song the BBC banned - and there were quite a few - made number one in the charts overnight EVEN WHEN NO ONE HAD HEARD THEM.

And who among you remember Peter Wright's 1987 memoir Spycatcher, famously banned by Margaret Thatcher for compromising national security? In spite of being illegal in the UK - or was it because of - it became an international bestseller despite being deadly dull. I bought a copy myself just to annoy the Tory government.

People hate censorship. (At least most people do - there are no absolutes in life, and there will always be some saps who think the authorities know best.) So banning something makes it much cooler, much more interesting, even daring, than the run of the mill pulp fodder we usually snack on. If They don't want me to read it, I'm damn well going to read it.

Which is why I have just ordered a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's WW2 memoir Slaughterhouse Five, banned by a high school in Missouri.

And I'm now trying to figure a way of making my next book bannable? (Is that a word? It is now)

Suggestions, folks?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Some things that amaze me

When revising, it always amazes me...

... how much I can cut. When writing the story, I invariably include far more extraneous detail than is needed to keep things moving. Some people go overboard on description, and I am certainly guilty of that, but my worse crime is the running commentary. He did this, then he walked to the door and looked out, then he lit a cigarette, then get the drift. It's so satisfying to prune out all that stuff and home in on the pivotal moments.

... how easily I got bogged down and blown off course. Part of it is covering all the bases, of course. But one thing that becomes clear at this stage is where I have wandered off the plot and into some expository Neverland of irrelevant backstory and subplot blind alleys. I blame the characters. If only they'd stick to the script... little plot you actually need. You do need some plot of course, but only enough to give the scene meaning and purpose. After that you don't need to think about it, just concentrate on the characters. depressingly bad my writing can be. But hey, cheer up! I'm going to fix it, right?

But at least I haven't done this ...yet.

Sunday, 31 July 2011


I may have already mentioned I have the painters in at the moment. Well, out rather than in, since they're giving the exterior a facelift.

It's a week since they started and so far all they've painted is the chimney stacks. For the rest of that time they've been scraping off old paint, spraying down the walls with fungicide, rendering broken plaster. In a way it's frustrating to see so little progress although I know it's all necessary and for the best. Without proper preparation the job won't look finished and won't last.

And when I look at my WIP - the one I'm currently editing - I cringe at some of the crass mistakes I made when I penned the last draft. Overwriting, adverb abuse, info dumping - it's all in there. But even though it disappoints me to find such a cornucopia of cock-ups I know I can fix the mistakes and make the book better. In a way the early drafts are the preparation - the discovery of the story - ready to be refined and polished and fit for human consumption.

Or at least, that's what I tell myself.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Draft 3

I started this week feeling depressed. Not only did I have a pair of decorators crawling all over my house with ladders and jet sprays and scrapers, but I realised that my rolodex of excuses for not starting my third redraft of WIP had run out. So amid all the banging and spraying and scraping outside I had to open up my WIP and face the type face armed only with a dried up pool of enthusiasm.

But, an odd thing happened. I recently did a few crits - yes, I know I complained about crit sites in a recent post, but that just proves what a hypocrite I am - and found the experience oddly rewarding. Starting to work on Chapter 1 of WIP I began to relive that rush of excitement I remember of old. That feeling of power and control. Now, two chapters in, I'm getting drunk on it.

It's so long since I did any serious editing I'd really forgotten how much I enjoy it. At this stage anything can be changed. The drudgery of churning out X many words a day is past - now it's about the bigger picture. Does this work? Should this go here, or there? Chopping, changing, deleting, rewriting. Crafting. I LOVE it.

Mind you, I'm only two chapters in. Watch this space.

Monday, 25 July 2011

The 27 Club

Someone pointed out, eerily, that recently deceased chanteuse Amy Winehouse is not alone among her peers in shuffling off this mortal coil at the tender age of 27. So many other rock stars have nose dived into self destruction at this age it is flippantly referred to as The 27 Club. The roll call is remarkable: Kurt Cobain, Robert Johnston, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones.

So why do so many of these high fliers crash and burn at such a tender age, leaving the rest of us to wonder what might have been? Is it the excesses of wealth and premature stardom? It's interesting to note that most child stars suffer in their adult years and the death toll is high, which would support this theory. Witness River Pheonix and Judy Garland. Or is that confusing cause and effect? Are they drawn to the risky life of entertainment by the same self-destructive streak that eventually kills them?

Whatever the answer, there is always something seductive about the young star dying in their prime. And in Whitehouse's case, the downward spiral could not have been more public. Only last month she was forced to pull out of a European tour after being booed off stage in her opening concert, clearly out of it and unable to even remember the words of her much loved songs.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Writing Software

I've finally forked out some cash for a real - ie. paid for - word processor. Couldn't quite stomach the $150 demanded by Microsoft Word so I've gone for Apple's Pages instead. At £13.99 it seemed like a no-brainer.

I used to be a serial software junkie. Since I got the Mac my wanderlust has abated. I use Scrivener for just about everything but there are times when you need a reliable programme to open downloaded files. I've used the freebies, Open Office and Neo office but always ran into some sorts of problems with them, usually compatibility issues. Hopefully I won't have to contend with those any more.

People often ask about writing software on writers' forums. It amazes me how much negativity they engender, usually among people who have never tried them. And if anyone thinks they will write a book for them they are deluded. But there are some really useful programmes available.

For novels, Ywriter is free and about all you need to organise your chapters and scenes, research and files. I've used it in the past although these days I prefer the flexibility of Scrivener. For plotting there are a number of programmes available, the most expensive of which is Dramatica Pro. I looked at it some time ago but found it too complicated and jargon filled to help me. Others swear by it. A cheaper alternative I've dabbled with is Contour.

But the thing to remember about them all is they are only tools and may not suit everyone. But if you find Writing Software that helps you, then have at it!