Short Story, Novella or Novel?

That was the week that was. Last Tuesday the editor’s report on my spooky stories came in, threw me a complete curve and left me in a tizzy – my poor synapses working overtime.

It started well –
“Like your style and what you’ve done with the stories”
“Very good writer, stories have real merit.”

Oh goodness I was having a warm fuzzy glow moment (actually a bit tearful) of pride.

I read on. She took each story in turn, made some very helpful suggestions and complimentary comments and the fuzzy glow began to turn into a flush to rival any of those crappy menopausal ones.

I arrived at the last few paragraphs. Here’s where the kicker came in. She suggested in effect that I turn the collection into a novella or even a novel.

“What” I shrieked at the computer screen. I’m writing short stories. I can’t do novels not even short ones. I have the evidence to prove it – three half written very dead ones mouldering away in a drawer somewhere.

But the damage was done. Stealthily at first, my brain woke up; then gathering speed it zigged and zagged through a zillion different scenarios. Ideas came; ideas went. What if? What if? Oh yes I could do this or that or even this and that. After a week of serious brooding I felt like one of those stupid chickens trying to hatch a pot egg. I used up a ream of paper drawing out scenes, new chapters, the mechanisms I could use, the new characters I could develop.

Hatching a pot egg

In the end I took last weekend off and painted a lambris clad (tongue and groove) ceiling a fetching chalky white. There was method in my madness because to paint lambris well you need to pay attention – all those little grooves that a roller misses have to be painted in by hand. It’s a boring job but takes my mind off more meaningful things and I’m working on the principle that my brain will be free to rove around on its own, unfettered by my attempts to coax and corral it.

For two days, whilst I played Michaelangelo and lay on my back painting the ceiling (sadly with no Sistine Chapel effects) I left Richard, my possible protagonist festering in the Nonesuch Club – a very unusual and select establishment. Will he emerge shoe-horned into a short story? Shall I give him more air time and expand him into a novella or shall I go for the big time novel?

I haven’t the faintest idea – the pot egg hasn’t hatched yet. I think I’ll go find another ceiling to paint.

Confessions of an Indie Author

With the, no doubt temporary, spirit of New Year zeal slugging its way through my hardening arteries I thought I’d review my writing progress over the past year. One book published and another on its way – not bad perhaps except for the niggling thought that if I managed my time better I could do more. Now, in an earlier incarnation, I wrote a book called Time for Your Life – all about how to make time to do the things you want to do as well as the things you have to do. It contains pearls of wisdom about how to deal with procrastination and displacement activities (P&D/A)- Time Thieves I called them. Here I’ll let you into a secret it’s a book on the lines ‘do as I say not as I do’. When it comes to the process of writing all my pearls about P&D/A scatter before the swine.

However, one things I am good it is making lists so I thought I’d share with you my top P&D/A activities.

1. Wandering down to the kitchen to make coffee and fossick for a snack. I drink so much coffee that I need to pee regularly hence creating two D/As at once. Smart eh?
2. Read the social media and snarl at all those peppy people who always have something to say for themselves
3. Play on-line solitaire in the belief it will at least keep one part of my brain working whilst the rest is AWOL
4. Check sales figures for my book Close to the Edge hoping that any change will motivate me. When these haven’t changed I resort to 1 above.
5. Do some housework which also helps to work off the few calories added by indulging in 1 above.
6. Look up rude words in my French dictionary so I can swear fluently at the be-pimpled adolescent who cut me up on the bend the other day.
7. Sit in the garden and pretend to think – my favourite when the weather is good.
8. Re-read (it’s called editing I think) for the zillioneth time the hundred words I have written and agonise over commas, full-stops, semi-colons.
9. Light up an illicit cigarette with my head hanging out of the window hoping the shutter won’t fall down and guillotine my outstretched neck.
10. The very last resort – do some unnecessary ironing – like the hems on towels that curl up after I’ve washed and dried them.

So there you have it – confessions of an indie author – all perfectly rational of course. How many of them do you share with me? Even better have you any to add that I could adopt?

Happy New Year everyone.

Where to go in search of a New Idea?

Where do ideas for stories come from? Probably a stupid question for a writer to ask but I plead insanity. I suppose the answer is everywhere-imagination, experience, observation, music, books, films and the eternal question”what if?”

As I put the finishing touches to a collection of spooky short stories (to be launched on the world ere long) I began to notice how many of these factors had crept in sometimes almost uninvited.

There are two local legends that form the basis of “The Siren” and “The Shoemaker”. Snippets from newspapers added to the former and gave me the plot for “No Ordinary Cat”.

Places where I have lived or visited in the UK and in France have provided the settings, and imagination allowed me to demolish a house here and there and move a church up a hill.

My own life experiences and people I have met snuck into “Toussaint” and “Sukie”. A recent experience of being blocked as a writer – not able to string two…er…two…um…thingys, you know, words, like, together – gave me the theme for “The Nonesuch Club” as did the words of the song ‘Hotel California’.

I’ve played Frankenstein and used a few traits or characteristics of people I know or have met to populate the stories with my very own monsters. No! Really, I didn’t mean that everyone I know/have met is a monster…well not all of them perhaps.

Of all the stories in the collection the hardest to write was “Boy with Harmonica”. That was the one that blocked me. Whilst the story is set in a village almost on my doorstep which I’ve come to know well (the village not the doorstep…well that too I suppose) I could not create the characters – a small band of Maquis (French resistance fighters during WWII) and a troop of Germans.The story was there but the characters were hiding in the shadows. So I read first-hand accounts of the German Occupation of this part of France; I walked the woods around the village where I wanted the story to unfold and criss-crossed the village streets and alleyways until I was sure I’d get arrested for loitering with intent. But they came, those characters, they slipped out of the shadows and onto the page. It was the hardest story of the collection to write yet, in spite of that (or perhaps because of it) it is one of my favourites.

Add to all these factors a large dollop of my weird and just occasionally wonderful imagination and a bunch of stories are born.

Simple eh?

The Desperate DoZen

Only twelve desperate days to go before the BIG MOVE. I wish I could say I was in a state of grace and serenity as I glide from my English life to my new French one.  Did I say glide – I mean stagger, lurch and stumble.  The awesome bureaucratic machine that is French administration with its insatiable appetite for papers (preferably bearing the expensive insignia of a notaire or English solicitor) and requests for documents that are currently unobtainable, has already given me a couple of hors d’oeuvres to swallow. I need to open a bank account? I need a utility bill to do this. I can’t have a utility bill until I’m sent one. When will that be? Oh a couple of months and then I must pay by cheque. But I haven’t a bank account. Open one. Need a utility bill. Soooooper.

Still it’ll give me the opportunity to practise for my Zen mastership.

Actually so much is happening at once that I do need that inner calm. My local history book “Close to the Edge” is completed, edited and just awaiting a few permissions for some of the older photos. One of the publishers I approached is making all the right noises but is still havering so I’m looking again at self-publishing, Print on Demand and all that jazz. If anyone who reads this has any experience of using Lightning Source I’d be really pleased to hear from them. The idea of marketing a book from 1000 miles away seems a little daunting but since I’ve got to come back to the UK for day job work every now and again, I’m sure it’s possible.

In the meantime I’m moving on to my next keep-me-in-Blanquette (fizzy wine, local to my new home to those that don’t know) book. I enjoy writing these short quirky history books. My original idea was to develop them alongside fiction that I want to write to help pay the bills. It’s a bit of a cop out in some ways because the non-fiction is easier to write and sell, although not in huge quantities. But I do think that maybe I’m avoiding something here. My track record in fiction writing is limited to a few short stories and a radio play.  Lurking in a drawer I have four half-finished novels where I’ve run out of steam or gotten a bit bored with them. Basically I think I’m a coward and won’t face up to the possibility that I’m a crap fiction writer. My head teems with ideas and I’m pretty good at visualising scenes and situations; dialogue runs well for me too. I often walk on the beach, in character as it were, creating pretty good dialogue (to the amusement of many a dog walker) but the minute I try to write it all down, pouf! The gremlins that live in the dust balls under the bed steal it all away whilst I’m asleep.

So do I take the easy road and conjure up a few more eclectic histories or do I bite the bullet and finish off one of the four unfinished opusses (yes, pedants, I know it’s not the plural of opus)? Perhaps the change of scene will do the trick. There again, perhaps the warm spring airs, the lure of the mountains and the scent of the garrigue will do for me entirely.

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A little peep at the new des.res.

Stranger in a Strange Land

It’s getting nearer to the first day of my French adventure. Every room in the house is littered with cartons, tape and squidgy bubble wrap that I spend hours squashing, row by row with obsessive neatness. Here I sit like Dido in the ruins of Carthage amidst this devastation and wonder what the hell I’m doing, where I’m going and where I’ll end up. Well actually I know the answer to that – a tasty lump of worm food…but hopefully not for a good while yet.

These last preparations are all about decisions, what ifs, why not try…and any variation thereof.

There’s a period of limbo to deal with whilst I’m between houses and waiting for the money to transfer. Where do I go? Hotel? Friend’s sofa? Back seat of the car?

Do I take my car with me? Sell it here? buy a LH drive here or in France -where used cars are expensive?

How can I open a French bank account as soon as I get there when I won’t have any utility bills to brandish?

What if I…It goes on…and on.

There are so many decisions, choices, options and what-have-you that when I try to draw little coloured decision trees I end up with a London Underground map gone haywire.

Add to all that the realisation that what is known and familiar as a holiday destination suddenly becomes rather weird and foreign with bureaucratic dictats in a language so unlike the friendly “Salut, bonjour Toto, ça va?” of camping holidays. For a while at least I’ll be a “Stranger in a Strange Land” (thank you Mr Heinlein).

It’s only pre-emigration nerves I know that. As someone once   said “it’ll be alright on the night” although whether it was stage   or wedding-night fright I have no idea. Does anyone suffer from wedding-night fright these days I wonder? How  deliciously old-fashioned.

But all this palaver reminds me of the writing process (as I know it). All these ideas jostling for space in your head; characters half-forming and then disappearing without as much as a by-your-leave; plots that could go this-a-way or that-a way and, in my case, no-a-way and the minute you try to write anything down the ability to put pen to paper or digits to keyboard becomes unaccountably difficult, nay impossible until at the very least you’ve cleaned the car, re-decorated the house, ironed everything that could be pinned down and scorched and circumnavigated the globe twice. Displacement activity? What displacement activity?

However, to be serious a mo – you’re not getting rid of me. I’ll still be blogging here and will dazzle you with tales of the conquest of France – Sheila’s revenge for 1066 and a certain Duc de Normandie.

Now please excuse me. I have an article to write but I dropped a whole bag of birdseed on the drive this morning and I have to go and pick it all up, grain by grain…with chopsticks.

Heavy Editing

Finally I have the house on the market and looking all neat and tidy for the photos. What will come of it I don’t know but it has made me put my skates on and complete the editing of “Close to the Edge” my book about the life and times of Holderness coastal communities. The idea of to-ing and fro-ing from France to complete it ain’t too appealing.

After the first round of editing I found I had committed every cardinal writing sin and probably invented some as well. One that keeps creeping in is that of slipping into the passive tense which dulls the writing and robs it of a sense of movement. On my old version of Word there used to be a gizmo that not only counted words, paras and sentences but also told how many times I used the passive tense and, even more helpfully, gave the reading age score (Flesch readability) which I found a useful guide. Now on the new version – the one with the scrolling toolbar – I can’t find it anymore which is a pity.

So now the second editing round is over what have I discovered?  Above all that it takes plain foolhardiness to savage one’s opus. It is scary to see your words flutter to the cutting room floor, as it were. After round 1 of editing, I forced myself to scrap about one third of the book entirely because it was repetitive, stuffy and made the book structurally incoherent. After that I introduced completely new material and then shuffled around great wodges of text like they were chess pieces. Shall I put it there…or maybe…no…there..no? I hate to say it but often it went right back where it started from…but it needed to be done.  Overall, I have improved the structure of the book and by grasping the thistle and abandoning a strict timeline approach (which was even  harder to do than scrapping parts of it) I think I have achieved something nearer my original idea.

The book is an eclectic mix – people, places, events and stories relating to this changing coast – chosen for no other reason than they tickled my imagination.  I have struggled with the tone from time to time – whilst aiming for quirky and occasionally irreverent, I wonder if I am a bit too flippant. Time will tell when the feedback comes in. Above all though, I hope it transmits some of the affection I have developed for a part of England where no major event of national importance ever occurred; where the one constant is a hungry sea gnawing at the cliffs; where, over the centuries people learned to adapt, build their settlements anew or go under and where a big sky suddenly shifts from grey, melancholy and brooding to  glorious sunlight casting sparklers on the sea.

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The book is on its way to some strict beta-testers and depending on their feedback I think it will need an editing Round 3 –in the hands of a professional editor. In the meantime, I’ll tidy my desk, sharpen my pencils, and start to play around with an idea that’s been buzzing around like an angry hornet for a few weeks now.

The Editing Bell Tolls

As of midnight yesterday the first round of editing is complete. I’ve de-blooped the bloopers; ruthlessly rooted out repetition and purged purple passages. Those sentences and phrases that, at the time, sounded good came across as pretty naff when I considered what purpose they served or in what way they moved the narrative on. It was painful at times with my fanciful self at war with the ever practical and objective one.

What am I left with? At best probably half a book. That’s not a problem since I garnered enough research material to decorate two tomes at least, although things on the domestic front being what they are, it may be a few weeks before I can actually sort and integrate it.

Although this is the second book I’m preparing for publishing, for the first time I can really see the value a professional editor brings to the process. First time around it was all a rush of excitement and enthusiasm and a belief in my own editing skills. The result was OK but it’s definitely time for a second updated issue. This time, partly because I have a whiff of interest from a publisher, I’m nervous. I’ve come to realise how easy it is to miss the most obvious gaffes. You just don’t see them. You know what you’re saying and what you mean so that’s what you see and read be it ever so obscure to anyone else. Methinks a professional edit will be money well spent.

From the outset, I intended to have a modicum of humour in the way I presented the history of this shifting coastline – indeed the title strap line is “an incomplete and often irreverent history of the Holderness coast.”  Those of you who follow my blog (and by follow I mean actually read) will have met snippets from the book and will, I hope, understand  when I say that as you read the tales of the Naughty Nuns or Fat Willy you are definitely hearing my voice and my interpretation of history. I’ve never felt that history should be dull or boring but have I over-egged it? Other books the publishers have produced are quite po-faced, serious and on occasions rather scholarly…not words that apply to my offering.

I’ve struggled too to find a consistency of style. Once, way back, I wrote a newspaper column based on my antics as a self-sufficiency disciple.  In time, I pulled these articles together into a book and did the rounds of publishers with no success. However, one publisher gave me some feedback to the effect that he “suspected the book was based on a series of articles and felt stitched together as a result”.  In his opinion turning articles into books never quite worked. After I finished this editing round I do think it reads inconsistently…a little “stitched together”…almost, dare I say it, like a series of blogs rather than an integrated piece of work.

One bright light is that I’ve resolved the issue I had with structure that I mentioned in an earlier blog. I’ve ditched the chronological approach and moved into a more topic based one. Despite what I’ve written above, that does appear to help the flow and fluency of the book.

So back to the drawing board or rather the writing table and yet there’s one thing I am pleased about – I didn’t think the book so dreadful that I consigned it to the rubbish bin. Maybe that’s where it’ll end up but in the meantime, I’m on that so-called steep learning curve and there’s work to be done.

Do You Really Want To Know What I Think?

About a month ago a friend of a friend asked me if I would read and give feedback on his first book – a work of fantasy – not a genre that I go out of my way to peruse. A bit reluctantly I agreed and I read the book twice and conscientiously made notes.

More than anything the dialogue in the book turned me right off. I clearly had a hidden expectation that characters in a fantasy novel would speak in a certain way. Not, I hasten to add, all “thees, thous and thines” but equally not “punks and assholes” and crying “wanna play hardball d’ya” whilst riding a dragon. I found the modern idioms just brought my subconscious expectations of fantasy novel dialogue crashing about my ears and from there, I became aware that I was developing a slightly jaundiced view about the whole book. But then, since I’m not a fan perhaps am I just a gnarly old bag totally out of step with fantasy fans ‘expectations?- (Rhetorical question, no reply necessary thank you.)

That wasn’t really the problem though. In my day job over the years, I must have run hundreds of workshops on giving and receiving feedback. When I reread my notes I realised something. Except for a few editor- type points, I didn’t give this guy real feedback – information that is:
• Specific
• Objective
• Not “right or wrong” but based on facts, evidence or observation.

Instead, I gave him criticism (and praise) that is:
• based on opinions and feelings
• couched in generalities and
• as happened in this case, leads to defensive arguments about who is right and wrong.

I have to say, to my eternal credit, despite being one who loves a good battle now and then, I resisted the temptation to engage.

There’s nothing inherently wrong in giving praise and criticism, except, as I’ve said to groups over the years: “What are you going to do with it?

As more and more of us self-publish and by-pass the conventional feedback routes from agents and editors, beta testing our magnificent opera on unsuspecting friends, relatives, friends of friends has become part of the writing process. Its got me thinking – of what value is what they tell us and, more to the point, what should we do with it?

Should my friend’s friend take note of my carefully and sensitively constructed objection to his dialogue and do a massive re-write? Does it depend on whether he’s looking to satisfy existing fantasy fans or pull in newcomers? Is he breaking new ground with his style and language? Does he go with a majority vote from his testing panel? Will he feel the strength of his own convictions and hold fast to what he’s created?

I’m still trying to put myself in his shoes but it’s Friday, the sun is out as is the tide, so I think a stroll on the shoreline is called for where I can keep mulling it over.

Finding Rabbits Where Rabbits Didn’t Oughta Be

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I’ve been lost in a time warp this week trying to complete the research for part of my historical saga. The period in question is post-Napoleonic Brittany. I love doing my research – as a form of escapism it’s second to none-but of course the danger is that it’s easy to get lost in it; to disappear into a time-space continuum never to be heard of again.

So far I’ve read a Balzac novel relevant to the period, with the aid of a monumental Larousse dictionary; I’ve Googled ‘til my eyes popped and I’ve pored over maps until I could find my way around blindfold – which is just as well in view of the eye-popping hindrance.

My dilemma with research, as with life, is knowing when to stop. I have a feeling that only a small proportion of my Brittany research will feature (since it’s not the main locus of action)and yet it is essential to the storylines. Furthermore as and when (being positive this morning)the saga reaches its adoring public I worry about those readers whose faces become empurpled as they choke over their 3.5 minute boiled egg, who miss the 6.35 to Paddington and sacrifice a whole tree to produce, at one and the same time, a treatise on French currency and a refutation of my use of Louis d’or when everyone who isn’t a gibbering imbecile knows that Francs were the dosh of the day.

Fantasy and Sci-fi authors need to create a great story in a believable world for their readers. The historical novelist has to create a great story in a world that is believable and open to scrutiny by hawk-eyed readers ready to pounce on historical inaccuracy.

Historical novelist Bernard Cornwell wrote that whilst he knew there were no rabbits in Arthurian Britain, he wasn’t aware that snowdrops didn’t feature either until a kind reader pointed out his blooper. I’m not sure I am made of the stuff that can tolerate that level of nit-pickedness.

And yet, to be fair to my future history-savvy readers, I too have felt angst when reading of rabbits where there should be none; of reading words and phrases that were a few centuries premature – so who am I to moan?

So, back to my original conundrum – when is enough enough?

Seductive Synopses

Something from the motivational conference I attended earlier this week must have snuck into one of the spare rooms in my brain because I have shifted some work this week. For the first time ever I chose to put writing above the day job so I got a real feel for what life might be like if I ever give up the day job.

In line with my policy of trying to get a couple of articles accepted every month I have a queue of pieces all waiting in their allotted folders to be fully developed. The basic idea is there together with notes and research material. To get them all placed I sent out a half-dozen pitches and whilst I was at the conference two came back as acceptances…well one had a laconic “let me have a look” but ever the optimist I take that as a yes. Writing those two articles kept me full at it until the witching hour on Tuesday.

But the big thing this week was a nibble from a publisher and very pleasant it was too. In a rush of enthusiasm, on spec I had submitted a 150 word general summary of the book The Uncertain Coast via the publishers’ website. Just in case you’ve forgotten the Uncertain Coast is an illustrated light-touch history of the towns and villages lost to the sea on the unstable Holderness coast and of some of the people who lived in them. On Wednesday the publishers came back and asked for a full synopsis.

Yikes – this presents something of a problem. They want details of word count, how many photos/piccys, chapters and chapter summaries, markets and market sizes, hat and shoe sizes – no I made those up just to check you’re still awake. The problem is I simply don’t know. I’m about a third of the way through the research and have just the first chapter written plus two others.

I’m not great at planning out a structure, chapters and content before I’ve completed the research. When I judge I’ve got all the material I can access together, then I start to fit the pieces and the book evolves. So collecting up some emergency rations – fruit, energy bars and sport water – what? Who wrote that? My emergency rations come in the form of choccy, cashew nuts and a fruity red wine. I went into conclave with my co-author i/c photography and we knocked something into shape. I was elected to turn that something into a persuasive, seductive come-and-buy-me to the publishers.

I’m currently on version 5, weary, wordless (well almost) and most telling of all, I’ve realised that seduction is not my forte.

Y’all have a good weekend now.