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)

Submissions

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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.

 

 

Inspiration

As Stephen King will tell you, writers rarely ask each other where they get their inspiration from because we don’t know. The more we think about it, the weirder it becomes, so we tend to take it for granted that the ideas will flow.

Some of us find inspiration comes more easily than others. There’s this horrible thing called writers’ block that gets in the way some times.

I’m very fortunate to have worked with the brilliant and insightful Barbara Turner-Vessalago for many years now. She has taught me the process that I use whenever I write. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing, this really works for me.

Most of the time, I’m writing a novel. I used to think that a novel was an enormous almost never-ending task. I was often so daunted by the immensity of it I would feel like giving up. Then I learned that any piece of writing has to be written one word at a time. One word isn’t so difficult to do. The next one comes even easier than the first and I’m away.

My starting point is almost always a place into which I parachute my characters and allow them to have a good look around. Then I see what happens and write it down.

Barbara’s writing process is called Freefall and I heartily recommend it to you. I have found that most books on writing craft only become useful when I’ve more or less finished what I’m writing and am looking for technical assistance to make it work. Freefall is so wonderful because it gets me going. Starts me off. I lower my self into a time and place, sniff the air, listen to the rustling of the wind in the trees, narrow my eyes against the setting sun and…

I think you’ve got the picture.

Until recently, the only access to Barbara has been through her workshops in Canada, Australia and two per year in the UK. I’m lucky in that I’ve managed to attend at least one a year since 2007. Now, she has published two books on Freefall. Get them. You will find them useful and inspiring.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Without-Parachute-Art-Freefall/dp/1908363045/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Freefall-into-Fiction-Finding-Form/dp/178592172X/

At the moment, I have the fourth Jenny Parker novel away for copy edit. The two Tyrant fantasy novels are sitting in a proverbial drawer maturing and my SF novel, Voyager, has just reached the 30,000 word hump which means it’s now got a life of its own and all I have to do is watch what happens and write it down. So I’ve taken a couple of weeks out to write a radio play. This is really good fun and a complete change to my usual form. As a prelude, I attended an inspirational one-day course presented by a radio producer called Polly Thomas. If I like what I produce, I’m going to actually submit the script to the BBC, who sent me the only rejection letter of my career in 1972.

Wish me luck.

photo credit: SFB579 Namaste Candle-Light via photopin (license)

Accountants

Sometimes I get asked why my protagonist, Jenny Parker, is an accountant when most thrillers are written about members of the police force or private detectives. My answer is simple. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

This legislation has changed the whole dynamic of criminal activity. Previously, the job of a criminal was to rake in as much cash as possible while avoiding the police and the taxman. After 2002, the business became a whole lot more complex. No longer were the bruiser, the enforcer and the hitman the arch-criminal’s most important ally. A new regime evolved in the criminal fraternity. The accountant came to the fore. Without one, organised crime syndicates were lost. Having huge piles of cash became a liability rather than an asset. Converting ill-gotten gains into legitimate money that could actually be spent was the new priority.

I also believe that any plot that can be resolved using violence leaves a lot to be desired. Who’s got the biggest muscles or largest calibre weapon doesn’t do it for me. Jenny has to survive in a world of danger with only her wits and determination. Nor does she have the safety net of an institution like the police force.

So that’s why Jenny is an accountant.

There’s a fourth Jenny Parker novel, Exit Strategy, that is scheduled to be published in December 2016. Although I say it myself, it’s the best one yet. I invite you to catch up with the others while you’re waiting.

I enjoyed reading this particular review of Due Diligence because it reflects the way that the money laundering regulations affect every one of us.

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful

5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing Read, 5 Jun. 2013

Verified Purchase(What is this?)

This review is from: Due Diligence (Jenny Parker Book 1) (Kindle Edition)

I couldn’t put this down. So glad I wasn’t reading this on a bus or train because at times I was near to crying in frustration at the cruel fates suffered by the protagonist Jenny. I could easily empathise with the “Kick me when I’m down” life she is experiencing. May say more about me than the book! Minor, occasional suspension of belief (see other reviews) is a small price to pay for a thoroughly absorbing novel, which after all is a work of fiction to entertain, not a treatise on money laundering.

(Have you tried to open a bank account recently? I couldn’t open an account to pay in a cheque from the Inland Revenue because it was in my old married name after I had reverted to my maiden name following my divorce. I’d tried paying it in to an existing bank account but they returned it saying I had told them I was the only resident in my property when actually there were two people – yep, me -married name, and me -maiden name. Caught by the money laundering rules for £1500 from the tax man! You couldn’t make this up.)

Anyway, this novel is entertaining, absorbing, gets your sense of injustice working overtime and is just a very good read.

photo credit: Bank of England Fan of £50 notes via photopin (license)

An Encounter with Jenny Parker

I always get caught out by flight times. 8 am sounds like a reasonable time to fly but it’s not. They say I have to be here two hours before, it takes an hour to drive and I need at least half an hour to shower and get ready. Counting back brings getting out of bed time to 4.30. Half past FOUR!

It’s hardly worth going to bed.

Add in the stress of travelling, of tossing and turning in bed worrying about the trip, being scared that the alarm won’t go off or the motorway will be closed.

They say to get here two hours before flight time and I always obey. There’s an automatic response built into my emotional make up that gets very scared at the prospect of being even a few minutes shy of the deadline. As usual, though, I’m through security and waiting in the departure lounge wishing I’d used the 90 minutes I have to wait here for extra sleep. Six am would have been a much more civilised time to roll myself out of bed.

I sit on the hard seat wondering if my dignity would allow me to lie down and have a nap like many others have opted for. It won’t. No surprise there.

A lady comes over and sits next to me. This is doubly disconcerting as there are lots of empty places where she could be in splendid isolation, as I hoped to be. She also looks a bit familiar, as if I should know who she is. I think hard but I can’t pick her out from the checkout assistants and CBeebies presenters that spring to mind.

‘You don’t recognise me do you?’ She says unhelpfully.

‘Erm, it’s early, I’m still half asleep.’

‘That’s no excuse,’ she says, ‘I’m Jenny Parker and you’ve written four books about me.’

‘You can’t be,’ I say.

‘Because I’m a fictional character?’

‘Yes.’

‘Because I’m the product of your imagination?’

‘That’s right.’

‘So where does you imagination get its ideas?’

‘I really have no idea. Thoughts just pop into my head and I write them down. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’ve written until I read it back.’

Jenny smiles but it’s not a warm kind of smile, more of a long-suffering kind. ‘What makes you think that you’re any more real than I am?’

That’s a good question and not one that is easy to answer even for someone fully in possession of their faculties. ‘I’m a writer, you’re a character. You depend on me for your existence.’

‘If I didn’t exist then you’d have nothing to write. Then where would you be?’

I begin to think about the consequences of her turning up in the flesh. What if my so-called imagination is just recording something that’s actually happening? I’m always telling people that my characters, especially Jenny, never seem to do what I intend. That they seem to have a will of their own. I can’t help feeling responsible for the extremely hard time she’s been having, though. ‘Maybe I should write something good about you. Give you a nice easy life from here on in. Would that help?’

‘It’s a bit late for that now,’ she says.

‘What about I change the ending of the latest book?’

‘That would only confuse matters. Why not just let things be as they are for a change? Leave me to get on with my life without all the dramatisation.’

She stands up, ‘that’s my flight,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to miss it.’ Then she merges into the crowd and disappears through Gate 27.

‘You won’t,’ I say. I imagine she’s going to London to negotiate a rather important deal involving Russian Oligarchs and the Italian Mafia. I do hope she keeps her wits about her.

Plodding Along

Sometimes its all you can do, plod along. Rapid progress is always nice but rarely achievable. Doing big things in one fell swoop is generally impossible and is very daunting. Like writing a story. Whether its a novel or a short story there’s little prospect of doing everything required at one sitting.

So, best not to try.

Many times I’ve heard the refrain ‘I’ll write my book when I’m [insert here a set of conditions that might never happen].’ Nobody has the time to write. There’s always something that needs doing. That’s why a writing habit is so important. Writing every day, even if it’s only a few words, is the best gift you can give yourself.

The arithmetic involved is compelling. I can write about a thousand words in an hour. So, if I wrote for twenty minutes a day I would have 121,000 words a year. A fat fantasy novel or two skinny crime thrillers! Twenty minutes a day!

I’m sorry to bang on about this but if you can’t grant yourself twenty minutes to do what makes you feel good then you’re not having a good day.

So I’m telling you to write every day.

I’m also suggesting that if you don’t manage to write then don’t feel bad about it. Be kind to yourself. But remember that writing is actually being kinder to yourself than forgiving yourself for not writing.

Then there’s another thing. Write for yourself. Don’t worry about readers in general or a reader in particular. In my experience, if you don’t have fun writing it then nobody is ever going to have fun reading it. Equally, if your guts aren’t churning with emotion as you put down the words chances are that it will leave most readers cold.

The publishing bit has been dealt with in numerous previous posts (as has this advice). Don’t worry about markets or genres or what you think might grab the eye of a literary agent. By the time you’ve competed your story, the market will have changed anyway.

Do seek help in improving your writing. Join a writers group, find someone to mentor you, don’t take any notice of the effusive praise lavished on your work by your friends and family.

Plod.

That’s my heartfelt advice.

It works for me.

 

Image courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk

Book sales and reviews

There’s a lot said about self-publishing. Much of it is derisory, as if self-published books are inherently inferior to those conventionally published. I suppose it’s because the vast majority of them are.

I’ve already referred to the plethora of titles that have been released by the relative ease of self-publishing and the way in which the sheer numbers make it difficult to be seen and purchased. Most of the self-published work is really awful, that’s true. This makes the half-decent or even quite good stuff hard to distinguish.

One of the ways to boost visibility and sales is through reviews. However, it drives me mad that unscrupulous authors are using fake reviews to boost sales.  If you’re willing to pay, there are people out there who will provide them.

I see reviewers on Goodreads giving five stars and a long positive review to a dozen books a day. You can buy fifty 5* reviews for about $1200 at http://www.buyamazonreviews.com.

If you want to make sure they’re good, you can write them yourself then send them to http://buyreviewsnow.com/ who will post fifty of them for $250.

I’m not recommending you do this, only pointing out what we’re up against. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your book is inferior just because you have fewer reviews.

To the honest author, reviews are gained with difficulty one at a time.

My experience is that a good book will get its fair share of reviews eventually, there’s no need to panic. People are busy, even if they absolutely love your book it’s not often they will take the time to put up a review.

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging readers to review your book. Many authors provide free copies in the hope of more reviews. It’s never worked for me, though. Begging is my preferred option.

There’s another side to reviews, though. Some people may take exception to what you’ve written and leave a really bad review. It’s hard to take at first. When I received my first negative review, I forgot all the good ones and believed my book was as bad as this person was saying. I considered giving up writing altogether. It’s human nature to be hard on ourselves.

I’ve been fortunate, I suppose, I’ve only had a couple of real stinkers. My advice is to welcome any review, good or bad, but never enter into a dialogue with the reviewer. I’ve seen experienced household name writers answer critical Amazon reviews and I don’t believe they achieved anything other than to give added exposure to the review. When I see a negative review I can make up my own mind about the person who wrote it and whether they have been reasonable and fair.

So come along to this, share your experiences and get that essential publishing strategy sorted out.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/self-publishing-workshop-tickets-14168627747

It’s being held on 18 January 2015 in Chorley, Lancashire. It’s a one day workshop to give you a head start on the publishing road. Even if you’ve self published loads of books, I’m sure that it will be a day well spent with professionals in every aspect of writing and publishing.

photo credit: symphony of love via photopin cc

Water for Bees

bee_drinking

There’s been a lot said and written about the terrible collapse in bee colonies and the reduction in bee numbers that threatens to disrupt human food supplies. About forty per cent of what we consume relies on bees for pollination. Farmers are reduced to importing bees from foreign countries to make up the numbers. This practice has its own implications for native populations.

Nothing to do with me, I hear you say. What can I do about it?

You can help provide them with food and water.

Food can be some flowers in a window box. There’s lots of information on which flowers are best but I would suggest something that blooms either early or late, in other words when the bees are scratting about looking for food.

Water isn’t something that is talked about much but bees need to drink. They can’t even consume their own honey stores in the winter, unless they have water for dilution they can starve. Water is also important for keeping the hive cool in summer.

Bees will collect water wherever they can find it. Ponds and large tanks of water drown lots of bees because their perception of polarised light is poor and they fly into them. They need a shallow water source with no ripples to wash them away. They have to drink and will put themselves at risk to do so.

A simple sloping ramp, floating wood or pond weed can let the bees land safely and walk to the edge to drink. Take a look at the water around where you are and see if you can make it a bit easier for bees to access.

You can make a difference!

Image Primo Masotti  maso101@libero.it