Precious Words

People ask me how many words they have to write before they have a novel. It’s an interesting question. Writers like me can be a bit obsessive when it comes to word count. I use it as a measure of progress. I like to write at least a thousand words every day. My problem is letting some of them go into the trash but I’ll come to that later.

I’m reminded of the story about the budding author who approaches a publisher at a party. ‘What’s the least number of pages you’d publish as a novel?’ she asked. ‘Three hundred,’ he answered. The writer threw up her hands in joy and went running excitedly around the room shouting ‘It’s finished!’

The conventional answer to the question is seventy to ninety thousand words though some genres like fantasy can be much longer. I would add a few words of caution, though. The important thing is to tell the story in a compelling way. That may take more words or, preferably, fewer. Vonnegut urged us to ‘start as close to the end as possible’.

Which brings me back to the unpalatable truth that not every word I write is either necessary or appropriate for the story I’m telling. Accepting this isn’t easy. Those words were painstakingly and often painfully extracted. Losing them into the oblivion of the trash bin can hurt.

There are times when I read through the previous day’s output and am tempted to trash the lot. This is normal but ill-advised. I have learned to leave everything exactly as it was written until I’ve finished the story. Then, after a period of reflection, revision can take place.

Working with an editor has taught me that I am not a good judge of my own work.

The initial casualties of the editing tend to be the first few chapters. Often these can be completely removed with great benefit to the whole piece. Why is that? The way I’ve come to think about this is to consider the opening exchanges of a difficult conversation. Imagine having to persuade someone to do something you know they won’t like. How would you start the conversation? I’d certainly not go straight to the point. I’d ask them how they were and try to get an idea of how they were feeling. See if there was some angle I could use to soften the impact of the harsh words to follow. So it is with my characters. They are inevitably in for a hard time. I’m about to throw all kinds of trials and tribulations their way. Before I do, though, I spend a bit of time getting to know them a bit better.

The reader doesn’t have to see this process.

My first Jenny Parker novel originally began with a long detailed scene with Jenny sitting on a toilet. I resisted its deletion with all my might but eventually conceded that this piece of information might have been essential for me but it was something my readers should be spared.

Incidentally, six years after its first publication, a new edition of Due Diligence has been released. The toilet scene is still missing.

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New Year

Happy New Year!

Here are a few tips that might help make 2019 a good writing year.

1. Write

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? However, by waiting for the right time and perfect conditions I wasted many years of opportunity. Write a little bit every day. This is hard, I know, but it can be done.

2. Don’t Edit

Write the piece in its entirety without going back over it and making changes. Finish it. This is even harder than number 1.

3. Write something else

This is the advice I give to anyone who sends me their work. A finished piece is best put away for a while before trying to assess it.

4. Don’t Self-Publish the first thing you write

I know that intense feeling of temptation to upload my novel as soon as I’ve finished it. After all, if people can’t buy it how do I become the next J K Rowling?

I was fortunate to avoid this catastrophic error and my writing career was saved. Anyone trying to read the first novels I wrote would have avoided me like the plague for the rest of time. And been quite right in doing so.

5. Just because it’s been written doesn’t mean anyone should read it

Believe it or not, this is a liberating thing. I avoid ‘writing for publication’ and write for myself. Always. Or at least I try not to second guess what the public might like because I have absolutely no idea. I do, however, know what I like. Write the book you want to read.

6. If you do publish, do it properly

There will come a time, I hope, when you’ve produced something you think might be of interest to a wider public. When that time comes, it is important to present it in readable form. In other words, it will need a professional edit. This will cost money. A lot of money in writing terms. Almost certainly more money than you will ever recoup in sales.

7. Writing is not a competitive sport

Any success I’ve had has been dependant on help from other writers. The writing community is a wonderful resource. Join it in whichever guise suits you. Your local writers’ group is a wonderful place to begin.

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Unruly Characters

As you might already be aware, I try to write a bit every day. I wake up in the morning and find myself enveloped in the story. I look around and see the characters who then begin to do things. Sometimes unexpected things. Unintentioned things. Exciting things. That’s what makes writing so interesting for me. It’s the not knowing.

When I get almost to the end of a story and realise what’s going to happen, it becomes more of a struggle to write. It’s as if my mind has finished with the project and is no longer interested.

I have been a little bit poorly of late and unable to write. Now I’m recovered and back at it, I find that my characters haven’t had the patience and good grace to hang around and wait for me. Instead, they seem to have carried on regardless and what was a nice linear plot line involving four of them in a voyage of discovery has fallen to bits. I left them all on a perfectly good ship complete with crew, provisions and a clear plan. On my return, I find the ship is gone. I have no idea where it is. One of my characters is sitting on the shore feeling sorry for himself. Two more are wandering around in a jungle when they should be on the ship. These are the least of my problems. My fourth character has disappeared completely.

You might think it would be easy to find her. I’m the writer, after all. The fantasy world I’ve created is a bit short of detail, though. I only know about the places my characters have actually been. She may have gone somewhere new. Or even hopped out of this particular version of reality into a completely different one. She can do things like that. She’s a witch.

OK, I’m currently writing fantasy but my process is the same for my crime thrillers. I’m with the reader all the way. I know what they know. I can speculate, just as they can, and I do this in the same way whether I’m writing or reading someone else’s story.

Another thing I should mention is that my characters appear fully formed. What I mean is they have lived their lives outside the confines of my story and their motivation derives from experiences I have no knowledge of. Usually, I get to understand them better as the story unfolds. That’s what makes them interesting.

Like my witch. After 250,000 words of the story, I’m at last beginning to understand the reasons behind her behaviour right at the beginning. What she did then is only now beginning to make sense.

Are writers supposed to carefully design characters down the the colour of their eyes and the toys they received for their first Christmas? Should they always know what’s going to happen at the end of their story?

Am I the only one who writes without knowing anything?

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Science Fiction

Science Fiction is my favourite genre. I’d love to write a really good SF novel. Better still, I am going to write a brilliant SF novel, you just wait and see.

As a child, I would be taken to Tyldesley library every Saturday morning where I would gather my stock of books to last me a whole week. I can’t remember how many I was allowed to borrow at a time but however many it was, it was never enough. Which meant that I had to read everything I borrowed. This was a very good discipline because it prevented me from falling into the habit of abandoning books without giving them a chance. Just like my Friday evening visits to the cinema, I made the best of what was on offer.

My go to books were the bright yellow sleeved Gollancz ones. I worked my way through them from Aldiss to Zelazny. Two particular favourites that I remember were Samuel R Delany and Theodore Sturgeon. Happy days.

I also like Fantasy. Traditionally, Fantasy involves swords, elves, dragons and similar things whereas SF has spaceships, robots and technology. Many of these are interchangeable but the defining element is often said to be magic.

The problem with magic is that it has to be carefully defined for it to be a useful plot element. It’s too tempting for a writer to suddenly conjure up a new piece of magic to help his protagonist out of a tight spot. That kind of behaviour plays havoc with dramatic tension and has the reader relaxed and waiting for a new miracle at every crisis point.

The SF equivalent is, of course, technology. Star Trek provides plenty of wonderful example of how not to use technology in a story. Suddenly deciding that reversing the dilithium crystal polarity to  save the Enterprise from doom can be a bit weak unless you’ve tried it at least once before and shown the reader or viewer some potential negative consequences.

It’s easy to be lazy when you’re inventing your own technology or dreaming up magic spells. That’s why I think that the very best of both genres ranks with the very best writing ever. I also recognise that the opposite is undoubtedly true.

The most recent SF book I read was Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s superb. Highly recommended, as is his Nebula Award winning Children of Time. One of my all time favourite SF reads is the Algebraist by Iain M Banks, though every book he wrote contains much to savour.

As for Fantasy, it’s hard to look beyond the Hobbit. Some might say this is the book that shaped the genre for all time. However, I can’t not mention Joe Abercrombie and the First Law series. Joe is in a different class entirely to every other Fantasy author.

So, one day I’ll have my own masterpiece to add to the pantheon of SF. All I have to do now is to write it and convince Gollancz to publish it.

Watch this space.

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Taking Stock

On the day that my second Jenny Parker crime thriller is published by Endeavour Media, I am taking stock of where my writing is up to.

The third Jenny Parker, Limited Liability, is scheduled for publication in October. The fourth, Exit Strategy, is done and dusted. Written, revised (many times), edited, rewritten, edited, finalised and copy-edited. Polished to a burnished hue. Ready to go.

I’m currently writing a fantasy series. Three books. The first two are drafted. I’ve already completely re-written the first after feedback from an agent and it’s much better. The third Tyrant book is well under way.

The rest of my recent output is looking for an agent that can get the best out of it.

A stand alone novel about a father-daughter dysfunctional relationship.

A novel based on the early years of my waste management consultancy.

Two Palmer and Jones books (humorous crime novels).

A childrens book, Unipig.

A toddlers book (Not for Bedtime).

A book about the ancients gods of Sumeria (in process).

Then there’s my SF trilogy, Technical Difficulties. I wrote these around ten years ago. All I can say about them is that they were good practice for the discipline of writing. They will never see the light of day. At least not in their present form. I’ve started a rewrite, of course I have, but it’s got bogged down in 1977 Las Vegas. Not the best place to leave your characters.

Now I need someone to look at all this stuff and help me decide where to concentrate my efforts. Meanwhile, I write what comes up and there’s plenty that is.

Ten Minute Rule

Give it ten minutes.

It’s a symptom of the modern age that we have less and less attention span. The situation hasn’t been helped by the advent of streaming. We can get movies and books instantly. If we don’t like the one we’re watching or reading, we can change at the prod of a finger.

Once upon a time, I used to have to go down to the local Blockbuster video store and physically borrow a copy of a film. An even longer time ago, I would go to the library every Saturday morning for my weekly ration of reading matter.

Either way, movies or books, I was stuck with the selection I’d made. If the film was rubbish, I’d watch it anyway because I’d taken ages to choose it, queued up to rent it, paid for it and driven there and back. And there wasn’t anything else for us to watch. If the book I’d borrowed was a bit dry, I’d read it anyway.

Now I have Netflix and Amazon and iPlayer and Kindle and iBooks. If what I’m reading or watching isn’t doing it for me, it’s liable to get replaced by something else. Instantly.

That’s what I call the ten minute rule. Sometimes ten minutes is being over-generous with my time. A good film has me forgetting that I’d decided to give it ten minutes because I get absorbed.

As a writer, I feel compelled to give books a bit more room to impress me. A slow start doesn’t necessarily mean a bad book. However, I’m conscious that many readers these days aren’t so patient. Books are chosen on the basis of the cover and then the first few sentences. Quite honestly, I’d be happy if readers would give my books a whole ten minutes.

Which makes it incredibly satisfying when people do read my books from cover to cover. My publishers recently promoted my first Jenny Parker thriller in Australia and we sold lots of copies. What was most exciting, though, was the number of people that bought and read the other two in the series. Unless I’m deluding myself, these wonderfully astute readers must have enjoyed their first taste of Jenny Parker to be willing to pay for more. Nothing could be more satisfying for an author like me.

Having said that, I’m constantly aware of the need to make my books as instantly compelling as possible. There’s no room for shilly-shallying about in the modern novel.

The ten minute rule sees to that.

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Violence

I love a good thriller and thrillers usually involve violence. What I don’t like is the portrayal of violence as the universal answer to any problem. If I read a book or watch a film that uses violence to sort the job out, I feel cheated. I think of it as lazy and unimaginative writing.

Violence creates problems, it doesn’t solve them.

Take a comment I once saw posted on the Glock website. (For those of you who don’t have an interest in handguns, I will explain. Glock make pistols that are the weapon of choice for many law enforcement agencies. British police use them, for example.) A customer asked why the Glock 19 only held fifteen bullets in its magazine. The answer was a good one. If fifteen rounds from a Glock hasn’t solved your problem then maybe you chose the wrong solution.

My complaint is that books and films choose the Glock solution too often when it is inappropriate and unsatisfactory.

Most of us don’t have the option to visit violent retribution on evildoers. As any sane American will testify, nor does having a gun protect you. (Unless someone shoots you and the bullet hits your gun and bounces off, I suppose)

My protagonist in Due Diligence, Jenny Parker, is an ordinary person. She’s just like you and I. Vulnerable. No institution to back her up. She doesn’t have the option to fight fire with fire. That would not only get her arrested. It would be also be pointless and ineffective. She has to find other ways to survive. She has to use her wits.

I find that so much more satisfying to write and to read.

As for the magazine capacity of a Glock 19, I find it hard to stuff more than ten rounds into the magazine before the spring gets too stiff for my thumb.

(I hasten to add that my experience of handguns has been limited to a legal range in the US while conducting research. Sometimes it’s necessary to obtain first hand experience even if you disapprove of what you’re trying out.)

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You’re a Writer, So Admit It!

Patrick

 

I know that this blog is supposed to be about writing but the film ‘Patrick’ does have some relevance, so bear with me.

While on the subject of Patrick, I urge you to watch it. Take the whole family. Believe me you’ll enjoy it, perhaps in spite of many misgivings. It’s a brilliantly gentle British comedy in the best tradition of all that’s good in that genre. The sort of film that amuses, entertains and leaves you feeling uplifted.

As I said though, this isn’t a film review column, it’s about writing. So where’s the relevance?

Here it is.

I have found that I possess an inherent reluctance to admit that I’m a writer. I don’t think that I’m alone in this feeling. Perhaps it’s a fear of being harshly judged. The response to an admission is usually something along the lines of ‘Oh, really? Have I heard of you?’ or ‘Are you as good as Stephen King and have you sold as many books as J K Rowling?’ At least that’s what I hear, even if the actual words are less specific.

While on holiday in cloudy Dorset, escaping the rigours of the harsh Lancashire sunshine, I met a lady who said she was a writer. I plucked up the courage to admit that I was also a writer. She told me she wrote films. I said I wrote crime thrillers. I told her my name and she went away and bought Due Diligence, the first Jenny Parker book. Next time I saw her, she told me she was reading it and enjoying it. Then she invited my wife and I to a special showing of her latest film, Patrick, where she introduced the leading lady to an audience of her friends. It was a very good evening and talking to her has given me a valuable insight into the film world.

I’m not implying that Jenny Parker is going to be gracing the silver screen any time soon but I’m very glad I admitted I was a writer because otherwise I wouldn’t have made this exciting connection.

It takes courage to admit you’re a writer, I know it does. It takes even more courage to engage with other writers but I strongly advise you to do it. I’m a member of my local writers’ group and this has been an enormous support to me from my first tentative attempts at writing to becoming published.

Meanwhile, enjoy the movie.

An Elephant with two Trunks

Let’s have a referendum.

I think that all elephants should have two trunks. How about you? Wouldn’t that be a really cool thing. Good for the elephant, I bet. And good for the zoo visitor who will be able to see something different. Imagine the benefits of two trunks. Breathing while drinking. The ability to pick up two things at a time. It seems a shame that they have been denied the extra trunk for so long.

I’m convinced that having two trunks would be a major benefit for both elephants and humans. Don’t you agree?

So, let’s vote on it. We can have a referendum. Sort this out once and for all.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? The idea that just because people vote for something then it has to be like that. You and I know perfectly well that no matter how overwhelming the vote might be, elephants only have one trunk and that’s that. The vote changes nothing. All it does is make us look stupid and ill-informed for bothering.

The Brexit referendum is pretty much the same. People (narrowly) voted for two trunks. They were promised two trunks by politicians who didn’t have any prospect of delivering.

Now, the reality of EU membership is starting to become clear. It’s a club we can’t leave. We are in Europe and, no matter how many people vote to be somewhere else, that’s where we stay. Our major trading partners are European. Our food supplies come from Europe. Our defence strategy is European. And so on.

The big shout from the Leave campaigners is that the people have spoken The will of the people must be done. We have to leave the EU. Elephants must have two trunks.

The Government has recently realised that elephants only have one trunk and that there’s nothing they can do to change it.  Two isn’t possible but none certainly is. If they can chop off the trunk of every elephant then at least they will have done something in response to the referendum.The elephants will all die but that’s merely the consequence of holding a referendum that demands a change in the number of trunks an elephant should have.

It’s the will of the people that elephants must have two trunks. They voted for something that isn’t possible. Even another vote that promises three extra trunks per animal wouldn’t change the facts.

It’s the same with the EU. Voting for things to be different doesn’t change the fact that we rely on our EU membership for our livelihoods.

But, the people have spoken and cutting off our only trunk might be the only alternative to leaving things as they are.

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Writing Tips

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Someone has asked me to write down my writing tips. So I have.

My first tip is: Write

This is so bloody obvious it shouldn’t need saying. But it does. It took me ages to realise that’s what I needed to do.

For years, I wrote very little, preferring instead to prepare for that wonderful day when I would be free from all encumbrances, released form inhibitions and have the swathes of time I needed to write.

Poppycock. Baloney.

This was self-sabotage of the worst kind.

A writer needs to write. The thing that has helped me more than anything has been the development of a writing habit. This began when I managed to persuade myself that writing was more important than watching Coronation Street. As soon as the theme music started, I left the room, went to my quiet place and sat down to write. My wife and family became used to it. They were distracted by the TV and I claimed an hour or so of peace. This was my big breakthrough. I ‘came out’ as a writer as a result. I became a writer at last.

Now, my practice has shifted to early morning but remains an overt one. My wife doesn’t expect to see or hear from me until about 11am. By which time I have done my writing for the day.

Writing every day is good for my soul. It provides me with nourishment and contentment. On days when I can’t write, the ensuing day seems to have less sparkle.

However, if I don’t write, I’m gentle with myself.

Writing every day (or most of them) brings another benefit. Productivity. A morning’s writing can produce a thousand words. If I do that every day, we’re talking about three hundred thousand words in a year. Five hundred words a day would still produce the raw material for two or three novels.

The maths are compelling if you write every day. Two hundred and fifty words, a page, accumulate nicely to a novel a year proportions.

It’s doing it every day that makes this possible.

Quite honestly, I couldn’t write any more than I do. Writing is hard work. Exhausting work, physically, mentally and, if you’re having a good day, emotionally.

My advice is to write, then. Whatever you’re writing, write until you’ve finished it. Don’t look back. Don’t try to judge it. Resist the urge to throw it all in the bin.

Put it away for a while. Some like a month, me, I prefer a year.

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