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.

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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.

photo credit: marfis75 Elefantastisch. via photopin (license)

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.

photo credit: Brett Jordan Word (lock) via photopin (license)

Nowt on Telly

If you’re like me, you’ve spent a fair amount of time watching things on TV that, in hindsight, seem a complete waste of time. Then you watch the next instalment if only to see if this one’s any better than the last. Perhaps, as I have, you’ve become inexplicably hooked by a couple with more money than sense being filmed looking for a property in the country.

If I see one more undercooked rack of lamb on Masterchef I may throw up.

There’s an antidote to the hollow feeling that comes from wasting an evening in front of the box. It might be hard to swallow for the first few attempts but it’s well worth persevering. If you do, a whole new richness will enter your life. Every day will hold the promise of discovery and excitement. Life will feel that much more worthwhile.

There’s a magical effect produced when a TV is switched off. Your attention becomes your property again. You can do with it whatever you wish without it being constantly dragged to the screen.

Then there’s the silence. Opportunity for stillness. Your mind relaxes, free from a constant bombardment of images and sounds.

So what do you do instead? What’s this magical alternative to relaxing in front of the telly?

Read a book.

It’s the best antidote to boredom and that empty feeling of having wasted time.

Ok, I’m an author so I would say that, you might think. There he goes, trying to peddle his books, you might say.

In response, I admit that I’m as affected by TV in all its forms as anyone. I waste vast amounts of precious time slumped on a sofa in a semi-comatose state.

As soon as I pick up a book and start reading, I feel so much better. Reading is a much richer experience than TV can ever be.

I’ll prove it to you, if you have any doubts. Read any book that has been adapted for TV, then watch the program or film. It’s become a cliche that the book is always better than the film but this just isn’t fair. A book is a book and a film is a film. They’re different media. You can do things in books that films, even using the most sophisticated computer generated imagery, can’t possibly display. The greatest actor on the planet can’t hope to communicate feelings with the same intensity that living inside the character’s head can.

Try Lord of the Rings, even if you’ve seen all the films.

Read The Handmaid’s Tale, even if you saw the TV programme.

Read The Shining, then watch the film.

Read anything by Iain Banks, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, Neal Stephenson.

Why not try the greatest crime writer in the history of the world, Raymond Chandler? His books have been made into films again and again. The Big Sleep is a particular favourite of mine.

You don’t even have to buy a book. We have a brilliant library service in Lancashire.

If you do want to make a purchase, support an independent book shop.

By the way, there’s a TV adaptation of China Mieville’s The City and the City coming on the BBC. Get the book. Immerse yourself. Then enjoy the program in a very different way.

Freefall Writing

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Without-Parachute-Barbara-Turner-Vesselago/dp/1785921711/

No matter how long I’ve been writing, there’s always more for me to learn. Reading other writer’s work is a brilliant way to do that. Writing itself, just putting words on paper is also recommended. However, a school teacher once told me that practice did NOT make perfect. ‘If you carry on making the same basic errors, you’ll never improve. CORRECT PRACTICE makes perfect’ is how he expressed it.

With that in mind, though they say you shouldn’t take any notice of school teachers because ‘those who can, do and those that can’t, teach,’ I try to take every opportunity to improve my writing technique.

Content isn’t a problem for me. I’m blessed with a very inventive mind that is harder to rein back than it is to get going. Getting it down on paper in a manner that will keep a reader engeged is the trick as far as I’m concerned.

Many years ago, I was introduced to Barbara Turner-Vessalago’s Freefall writing method and I’ve been attending her two UK workshops every year since.

My first attempts at novel writing are the stuff of legend. I wrote a SF trilogy with a casual, stand-offish point of view that was packed with self-conscious humour that didn’t work and served only to dissipate what little dramatic tension I’d created.

Barbara taught me to write from a more authentic place. To embody what I was saying. To feel in to the characters and the situation. To drop into a place, look around, see what was happening, smell the air, listen to the wind in the trees, watch my characters react to their surroundings.

Her workshops are wonderfully transformative. She is a supremely gifted mentor and the feedback she gives is always exactly what is needed. Unfortunately, there are only two courses per year in the UK and only twelve writers per workshop. Of the twenty four potential places, though, at least half are taken up by gluttons like myself. So the opportunities to attend are very limited. If you ever get a chance, I advise you to take it because you won’t regret it.

After much heart-searching, Barbara distilled her teaching into a book which provides a very cost-effective alternative to her workshops and is the next best thing.

With Barbara’s blessing, I’m going to be giving a short introductory workshop to Chorley and District Writers’ Circle on February 27th. Check out  http://www.chorleywriters.org.uk/ if you’re interested.

If you can’t make it, get the book.

Chekhov’s Gun

My wife had trouble sleeping and discovered that not watching the TV (or any other kind of screen) in the evening made a positive difference. It has also helped me.

In the absence of television to amuse us, we turned to reading together. A good book is a very rewarding shared experience. Even better, we find, is reading aloud. Most nights, therefore, I read to my wife who sits on the sofa in front of the fire with her knitting. We started with my books. It’s important for me to hear what I’ve written because it helps me eliminate clunky bits and also adjust the rhythm of the sentences. Reading to someone else also has the advantage of giving the opportunity for feedback, a valuable resource for any writer.

My wife is particularly good at picking up things that don’t work. Awkward sentences, inadequate explanations, lack of detail, that kind of thing. There’s a good adage when it comes to feedback:

If someone tells you that a piece doesn’t work they’re almost always right.

My wife is getting very good at helping me put things right.

Reading makes me a better writer. Writing makes me a better reader. I think it works for everyone.

In the days before television, books were the main source of entertainment and delight. There was a time, not so long ago, where not everyone could read and being read to was a valuable experience. Before that, storytelling was a purely verbal craft. I find that reading to my wife is wonderfully intimate and connective. It’s a joyful and rewarding experience that nothing televisual could ever match.

My wife doesn’t only have to listen to my books, though. We both delight in reading other things. Recently we’ve completed Peter Hoeg’s The Susan Effect and Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. Currently we’re getting on well with The Paranormal Policeman by D J Harrison (which is yet another one of mine).

As a writer, I can appreciate the craft that goes into a good book. One of the things that I particularly watch out for is the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. This convention insists that something introduced into a story, such as a gun, must be used. Otherwise there is an element of dissatisfaction for the reader that they might not even be consciously aware of. In the Susan Effect there’s an actual gun hanging on the wall which is taken down, examined and put carefully back onto position. My experience tells me to watch out for it later on and sure enough, there it is, popping up at the end in a very satisfying conclusion. A popgun, you might say if you were a humorous writer.  I told my wife about Chekhov’s gun. She’s now on the lookout for more examples and says it makes reading (or listening) to stories even more enjoyable.

My editor once pointed out the way I was dangling items in front of my readers then never mentioning them ever again. She told me to cut it out, that it wasn’t something a good writer ever did. I had to mention the Sternwood chauffeur in The Big Sleep (Marlowe never finds out who murdered him) but her justifiable reply was to the effect that if I ever became as proficient as Raymond Chandler then I could please myself. Until then, I’d be best advised to knuckle down and learn my craft.

That’s what I’m doing and reading to my wife is a big part of that.

Stranger then Fiction

Truth is stranger than fiction. This familiar saying is a quote from that master storyteller, Mark Twain. Any writer of fiction, like myself, has to bear this in mind.

Why?

Well, I suppose it’s because too much realism can be difficult for a reader to swallow. Real life tends to be fragmented, things happen that are often completely unrelated. The relative importance of events can be very hard to judge and often remain opaque. Things come and go. Things that seemed to matter one moment fade into complete insignificance.

None of these aspects of reality are conducive to telling a good story. In fiction, it’s essential to have a structure. A beginning, middle and end. There has to be a satisfactory outcome for the reader, something that can’t be guaranteed by a factual account.

You might have observed that books, films and TV programmes based on true events are always heavily dramatised. The complexity of the real has to be simplified and carefully presented in order to tell a story in a way that will hold an audience. Outcomes, especially, are manipulated in order to deliver that essential happy ending.

Here’s an example of what I’m trying to say. Consider this as the plot for a thriller.

The Russians invade Ukraine on a pretext. They arm the local thugs and support them with Russian soldiers who are ‘on holiday’ there. A Russian-supplied ground to air missile system is deployed to shoot down a civilian airliner and kill hundreds of innocent men, women and children. The AA battery is quickly spirited away back to Russia and vigorous denials are issued.

The CIA find satellite evidence of Russian involvement in the atrocity. Secret agents in Russia collect damning information about the incident and also uncover links between the Russian leader and organised crime. More diligent investigative work discovers billions of dollars of offshore funds linked directly to Putin.

OK, so far so good. Let’s put an ending to it:

In a race against time, a plucky CIA agent puts all the information together and then manages to dash to the UN building, through a hail of FSB bullets, and give it to the US Ambassador. A Security Council resolution proposed by Russia is blocked when the revelations are made. Russian allies voice their disapproval and withdraw support. Hundreds of thousands of lives are saved in Syria as the disgraced Russian regime is prevented from continuing to support the vicious Assad regime. A popular uprising in Russia ousts the president and the world becomes a better and more peaceful place.

This is the kind of thing required to make a good story. Of course, it’s fictional. The true outcome is as follows:

FIFA decide to hold the World Cup in Russia.

See what I mean?

photo credit: Delta_33 Malaysia Airlines 9M-MTC Airbus A330 via photopin (license)

Growth

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Stephen King considers The Shining to be his breakthrough novel. Instead of doing more of the same that had earned him fame and fortune, he consciously decided to make the Shining something more. The way he did it was to concentrate on the character of the father and his upbringing so that the demons that afflicted him later on in the book are as much internal ones as the result of supernatural forces. According to King, being propelled by some external irresistible force provides too much of a comfortable excuse and dilutes the power of the narrative.

I found this insight extremely valuable and it has changed the way in which I view my own writing. My crime fiction books are primarily plot driven. Fast paced, breathless even. I try to pack as much story into each paragraph as I can. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Vonnegut advised, I try to spend my reader’s time as wisely as possible.

Lately, though, I’ve been working with my writing mentor on a project which is more an examination of character and relationships than whirlwind narrative. For me, it has been a completely new way of doing things. I’m a great proponent of the write the whole thing and don’t look back until you’ve finished method. It has served me very well in the past and has the great merit of not having to make any judgements as I go along.

For this novel, and it’s grown to novel proportions already, I’m constantly trying things out because I have the great benefit of someone I trust who can give me an opinion. There’s been a lot of stuff that I’ve submitted which hasn’t gone down at all well. Fortunately, I’ve sufficiently matured as a writer to view negative comments as even more valuable than positive ones. Sometimes I find it hard to agree with them but most of the time I’m able to reflect on the truth behind them and take them on board.

This has resulted in lots of rewrites, many versions of the same scene, drastic plot revisions galore. For example, an early version had the protagonist in a hospital bed paralysed apart from a couple of fingers on one hand which he used to type long accounts of early childhood. This might immediately seem cumbersome and overly melodramatic to you but it took me a while to get that myself.

I don’t know if this will be my breakthrough novel and, quite honestly, it might not even see the light of publication. What matters is that I feel that I’m growing as a writer all the time and that’s important.

photo credit: JoeInSouthernCA Vintage Movie Poster: “The Shining” via photopin (license)

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/






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)