Washy-Wishy

I saw this thing on the BBC website and loved it enough to want to tell you about it. As a writer, I love words and what they can do. I also recognise that years of practice have instilled in me some basic rules that serve me well. A writer’s job is to tell a story and not to advertise the way in which the story’s being told.

If I write a clumsy sentence, or even a single inappropriate word, the reader is immediately pulled out of the situation my protagonist is faced with and back to reality. Do that often and any reader will put down my book in disgust and give up. Having a compelling plot and interesting characters isn’t enough. The story needs to flow in a way that a reader will find comfortable and satisfying.

There are many craft books out there that help a writer to understand what works and what doesn’t. However, there are some extremely powerful rules that are instinctive and rarely expressed.

Take this, for instance:

Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth


Break this rule and, as the man says, you’ll sound like a maniac. Which will be off-putting to your English wonderful readership. ARRGH! See what he means?


Of course there’s more too it, there always is. I can almost hear the cries of Big Bad Wolf. What about that then? Shouldn’t it be Bad Big Wolf according to the rule, even though that would sound pretty awful?


The brilliant Mr Forsyth explains:


Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.


So linguistic reduplication is so important that it outranks the adjective sequence.

We don’t have to learn any of this, it’s all natural. Which makes it so powerful because my readers don’t spot that I’m breaking any rules, they only know that it sounds wrong and they don’t like it. So they stop reading. And I don’t want that.


No more washy-wishy prose for me, I’m getting Mr Forsyth’s book. 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Elements-Eloquence-Perfect-English-Phrase/dp/1785781723/






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Is Kindle broken?

Amazon KDP has been good to me. Way back in 2013, Due Diligence made it into the top twenty crime thrillers and the overall top one hundred kindle charts. You can imagine how chuffed I was. I sold several thousand books in a very short time and all because Stephen Leather invited his readership to try it.

A few years down the line, services like BooksgoSocial and Bookbub will promote your book for a modest fee. They can be picky, though, as they depend on keeping faith with their readers and not fobbing off some rubbish on them. A lot like Stephen, who took the trouble to read the copy I sent him. Not like Stephen because he helped me for free, as he’s helped lots of other writers.

Amazon, in order to promote their Prime membership, decided to offer free loans of books that were enrolled in KDP Select. At first they paid authors on the basis of downloads. Then they decided that this wasn’t fair. Short books received the same payment as longer ones. It didn’t matter if the books were read or not the author got paid regardless. Then Amazon decided to change the basis of payment. Every page read was recorded and totted up and the fund distributed accordingly. Seemed fair to most people at the time.

I quite liked it at first, I had a ‘pages read’ graph to go with my copies sold one. Some days, I’d pretend the pages read were the copies sold just to make me feel especially good. Then bad things started to happen. I got wind of authors’ amazon accounts being removed because of anomalies in their page counts. One of my books took a leap skywards for no reason, thousands of page reads where there had been a steady few hundred before. I got cold feet and took all my books off Select. Losing your Amazon account is fatal for an author in these digital times and I realised that abuse of the new Amazon payment system was likely to become worse. I was right.

Recently, really awful books by unknown authors have been hitting the top of the Kindle charts. Books with very few and very bad reviews. They got their exposure and thousands of sales by what’s known as clickfarming.

Clickfarming involves downloading the book hundreds of times and then employing someone to flick through each copy. Let’s say a book is 200 pages. After each 200 page views are recorded, Amazon count it as a sale. Then the book is catapulted up the charts, people see it and they buy it.

Not only that, but the author is paid a share of the KU pot on the basis of every page read.

Some organisations offer this service to authors for a fee. Others take all the money themselves by uploading their own books, often computer generated or pirated.

In order to make it more difficult for Amazon to detect them, some clickfarms add some ‘innocent’ books to the ones they are pushing.

Amazon delete the accounts of anyone they suspect of clickfarming and this seems to have included authors who were completely unaware of what was going on. I’ve not heard of any successful appeals.

So, keep your eyes peeled, stay sharp and safeguard your precious account. If you’re new to Kindle, think twice before enrolling in Select.

photo credit: ToGa Wanderings Free Internet via photopin (license)

First Words

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

(Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep)

Whatever I’ve been writing, I find that the opening needs to be written last. That might sound a bit contrary but believe me it works much better this way.

I have a tendency, in common with many writers, to start a story with some stuff that is best described as ‘backstory’. Information that’s necessary for the writer but not needed by the reader. Things like what the protagonist looks like, what he had for breakfast and the number of the bus he gets to work.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Give Up

William Shakespeare was not impressed when we met.

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

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

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

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

These are some of the thoughts I’ve had:

Writing is like golf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Characters

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

1. Getting punched in the face

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

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

2. Getting shot

Minor character dies without fuss from a single wound.

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

3. Dialogue

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

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

4. Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

a Bit of a Rant about Self-Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There you go, rant over for the time being.

photo credit: _Hadock_ Study Time via photopin (license)

Review of 2017

Dark days ahead?

 

 

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

https://tarasparlingwrites.com

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

Including:

January

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

February

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

March

President Trump announces that a wall will be built on the border with Canada to prevent Americans escaping northwards.

Paula Hawkins releases her follow-up novel to The Girl on the Train entitled Another Girl on Another Train.

The UK trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty confirming withdrawal from the EU.

April

The Canadian Government offers to pay for the wall.

Another Girl reaches number one in the bestsellers. At number two is A Girl on a Train.

Ireland, Denmark, Poland, Holland and Belgium invoke Article 50.

May

President Trump agrees to Canada’s offer. Canada point out that the offer was made on 1st April and was meant as a joke. Trump asks the CIA to provide a detailed briefing on the subject of jokes.

The remaining EU members except France and Germany invoke Article 50.

Leicester City, Sunderland and Hull City are relegated from the Premier League. Manchester United and Manchester City share the title. Dagenham and Redbridge both win the FA Cup.

June

Work on the Mexican wall is delayed because of a labour shortage.

France and Germany invoke Article 50, meaning that the UK has nothing left to leave. Teresa May holds a snap referendum which votes to stay in the EU now that Britain is the only remaining member.

July

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

August

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

September

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

October

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

November

Civil unrest in Russia results in Putin returning to Russia.

December

Civil unrest in the US greets Trump’s return from Russia where a week long celebration is held.

Nigel Farage renames the European Union as the British Empire. India, Canada, South Africa, Australia and the West Indies are admitted.

Christmas is moved to July in order to relieve the backlog of undelivered parcels caused by Amazon’s drone pilots going on strike.

You thought 2016 was bad?

Happy New Year

Submissions

img_0820

This is the result of the previous submission I made to the BBC. Note the date. January 1972. It’s taken me this long to recover from the feeling of disappointment. OK, I suppose I’m not quite there yet.

In 1972, submitting a script was much more difficult than it is today. There were no computers, printers, photocopiers, email, internet or automatic spell checks. I had to type out my manuscript on a typewriter, a process akin to carving out letters on to tablets of stone. Mistakes were impossible to correct. They hadn’t even invented Tippex in those days.

The kindest thing I can say about my 1972 submission was that it was typed reasonably neatly.

I’m now used to working with an editor, as you will have gathered from previous posts. I love the freedom this gives my novel writing. I am relieved from having to guess what works and what doesn’t. An editor tells me in no uncertain terms. I’m more happy to accept criticism these days now that I recognise it as an essential part of my writing process. You note I use the term more happy and not just happy.

I’ve (bravely) put the BBC disappointment behind me and have sent them another script, 55 years on from the first (and only) one. This temerity has to be laid at the doorstep of that distinguished Irish writer and friend, Daragh O’ Reilly. He’s developed a bee in his bonnet about radio plays and, just so that I can spend some time with him, I joined him on a course about them. I’ve always been a big fan of Radio 4  and the prospect of getting something out on the airwaves is a delicious one however remote the possibility might be. Writing for radio is very different to writing a novel. My story arcs tend to be vast, requiring several hundred thousand words to complete. I write novels in batches of three or four. A 45 minute radio play needs only about 7,500 words. This is all a bit sudden for my liking so I’ve submitted the first episode of a six-part series.

I need to get back to the third Tyrant book now, but, before I do, I’ll finish a new radio play that I’ve started . Then Daragh and I have a joint one to complete. Maybe I’m catching some of what he’s got.

 

 

Reviews

This isn’t a review site. Usually. Today I’m making an exception.

I like watching TV and I like watching films. I rejoice at the freedom the internet has granted me to watch more or less whatever I want more or less whenever I want to.

There’s also the ability to use a ten minute rule without the inconvenience of wasting money or having no alternative. If I’m not captivated within that time, I simply find something else to watch.

I suspect this technique is fairly widespread and applied not only to the visual arts but also to books. We writers need to take lessons from films and television to learn the art of grabbing attention and holding it.

The first item I want to tell you about is a film called Rurouni Kenshin.

I do like kung fu movies, I’m a big fan of Bruce Lee and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is one of my favourite films. Rurouni Kenshin achieves the almost impossible by bringing a general atmosphere of compassion and gentleness to a story that is essentially a series of fights, some of them quite bloody. The leading character plays a big part in this by being remarkably attractive. He brings to mind Tripitaka from the Monkey TV series. If you remember him you’ll know what I mean.

There are two more films in the series, I recommend all three. At least give them the ten minute test.

The second offering I have for you is In the Night Garden. This is something I have been watching in the company of my 2 year old grandson. It’s what lets him know it’s time for bed. As soon as Derek Jacobi says someone’s not in bed he looks guiltily at the screen and heads for the stairs.

I started off being mildly irritated by the whole thing but now it seems to have invaded my subconscious to the extent that it can surface at any time and I start singing the Iggle Piggle song. The facet that the Ninky Nonk can be small (as in the background of the picture) at one instant then big enough to accomodate the entire cast the next doesn’t bother me any more. We’re all in a dream and reality is only a single facet of that illusion.

These are two very different examples of how to captivate an audience. The brutal opening sequence to Rurouni Kenshin contrasts starkly with the character who emerges into the light. His struggle with inner demons makes for compulsive viewing. At any moment, his peaceful intent may crumble and then he’d be lost forever.

In the Night Garden celebrates the comfort of repetition and familiarity. Nothing much happens. Exactly what your mind needs to slow down and be ready for rest. The entire programme is formulaic to the extent that you can always tell how far you are from the end and, of course, bed time. It’s very weird, but good weird.

There’s a lot to be learned from films and TV that works. I ask myself what makes me feel connected with the characters and how the author has managed this process. I also need to know what keeps my interest until the end, has me on the edge of my seat.

Next week, I may review Timmy Time and Deadpool. On the other hand, I probably won’t.

photo credit: id-iom Why don’t you just switch off the television set? via photopin (license)

By Source, Fair use, Link

Violence

 

There are many violent things happening in the world. The murderous actions of extremists are on the front pages of our newspapers on a regular basis. In reaction, governments pledge to drop more bombs in the places that the terrorists might be. The term is fighting fire with fire. In the real world, it’s what the general public seem to require of our politicians.

In the fictional world of Jenny Parker, violence isn’t an option for her. Even if it were available to her, which mostly it’s not, she realises that the kind of people she has to deal with actually thrive on violence. It’s something they understand. Jenny has to find other means of saving herself knowing that threats of retaliation in kind aren’t going to change her antagonists’ mindset.

If someone’s trying to kill you shouldn’t you just kill them first? Isn’t that the only way?

I don’t believe it’s that simple. I find plots that rely on a hero being able to out-fight, out-shoot or out-muscle the villain somewhat unsatisfying. There is, of course, a degree of might-is-right inherent in the way we humans conduct ourselves and it’s a horrible fact to contemplate. But that doesn’t mean violence has to be the only way out of a difficult situation.

One of the reasons I write the Jenny Parker series is to get away from the convention that a hero has to be able to beat up the bad guys. My old karate teacher, Billy Higgins, used to say that a good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un. He also taught me that, regardless of how proficient I might be, someone bigger and stronger would most likely kick my ass. The point of the training was to be able to defend myself long enough to be able to run away. Sprinting is a noble form of defence, in my opinion. Mind you, I only progressed to the level of yellow belt which some might find highly appropriate.

Jenny Parker doesn’t have super powers, nor does she wield a samurai sword to deadly effect. She has to think on her feet and talk her way out of danger. It doesn’t always work, mind you.

In the world of thrillers as in the real world, I firmly believe that violence will never bring a satisfactory resolution to a conflict. There are more subtle and effective means. And these are much more interesting to me and, I hope, to my readers.

photo credit: Explosion (Verleitung, Ablenkung beim SEK-Einsatz) via photopin (license)