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)

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How the Universe Works

Ever wondered what make everything the way it is? As far as I can make out there’s just one fundamental law that governs everything, it’s called the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states simply that the entropy of any system always increases.

So there you have it. That’s all you really need to know to understand how the universe works.

I could stop writing now but I won’t. It may be that one or two of you would like an illustration of what the Second Law means.

OK, Here goes. If you put a drop of ink in a pool of water, the ink will spread out until the pool is a very light shade of blue. That’s the Second Law in action. It may seem innocuous and a bit obvious but it really does have huge significance. Let’s take another example. Drop a sugar cube into a cup of hot coffee. The sugar cube disappears because the sugar dissolves. No big deal, you might say. But, consider this. NO MATTER HOW LONG YOU WAIT THE SUGAR CUBE ISN’T COMING BACK.

The diffusion and the dissolving are not reversible. That’s entropy for you.

Another word for entropy is chaos. The world we live in moves inevitably from order into chaos. There’s nothing we can do about it. The Law is the Law.

It may be that we experience time the way we do because of entropy. Without entropy, time could go either way. It wouldn’t matter if it went backwards or forwards. The drop of ink coalescing in the midst of clean water would be just as likely a state as any other. But it’s not. The way I see it, the Second Law ensures that time only moves forwards for us, never back. Which is a pity because I’ve just sent my two main characters in the SF novel I’m writing back to 1977. I’m struggling to come up with an alternative theory that circumvents the Second Law. Any help would be appreciated.

So, if the universe is a cup of coffee and we are grains of sugar, we know what’s going to happen to all of us at some time. We’ll dissolve away, lose our individuality and become part of the coffee.

The least we can do is to make the universe a tiny bit sweeter.

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Nanowrimo

It’s November and time for the horribly named Nanowrimo which provides encouragement for writers to get down and write like hell for a month. 50,000 words is the target and it takes daily dedication in order to achieve it.

I’ve often referred to the desirability of a daily writing habit and how writing just a little bit every day can accumulate into a major work like a novel. I write about an hour or so most days, sometimes much more but rarely much less. This gives me an output approaching Nanowrimo proportions most months of the year.

As you can see from the banner, I entered Nanowrimo in 2014. I did this specifically to write the fourth Jenny Parker thriller when I’d already committed myself to a fantasy trilogy and a SF novel. It wasn’t going to get done otherwise.

The reason for telling you this is twofold. First, if you need an excuse to write every day, a word count objective can be helpful. Secondly, I want to describe what happened to my script after Nanowrimo.

The first draft of Exit Strategy, as it has become titled, was actually 90,000 words and was written during October, November and December 2014. I then put it in a virtual drawer and carried on with my fantasy novels. In the middle of 2015, I went back to it and tidied it up so that I could send it to my editor. She did her work and issued me with her usual very detailed and perceptive structural edit. This provided the basis of a rewrite, which I completed in May 2016 and called the second draft. This went back to my editor and she provided another detailed report which was used to create a third draft which I sent her in September 2016. This third draft, notably, included a new beginning, a new ending and several injections of pace into the middle. It also changed much of the plot. In other words, draft three was a very different novel to draft one. A much better one in fact.

Draft three was submitted to my editor and she marked up all the areas that needed attention in order to maintain consistency. Draft four was produced a couple of days ago and has now gone back to my editor for a line edit. Up to now, all the editing has concentrated on plot and structure. Now I’ve established what I’m writing about, we can start working on how it’s been written. The line edit will smooth over the words so that my readers can enjoy the story without being constantly dragged out of it by clunky expressions.

I expect the line edit to be done by the end of this year. Then I’ll have to go through it and make the changes necessary before the final process, proofreading, is done. Proofreading clears up glitches, typos, formatting inconsistencies and that kind of thing. Once that’s done, Exit Strategy can be published.

In summary, I finished ‘writing’ Exit Strategy at the end of 2014 and expect it to be published in early 2017.

Many people do Nanowrimo and self publish immediately. If I had done that, you’d be getting something quite awful, virtually unreadable and certainly not worth your time.

After two more years of work, Exit Strategy will be the best it can be. And I can be proud of that.

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.

Being Precious

If the world were perfect, this is what I’d look out upon from my writing desk.

In reality, it’s more like this:

Waiting for things to become perfect before I write would mean waiting forever. The myth of that perfect time and place being out there is one that we writers often delude ourselves with. I know, because I do it all the time. In reality its just another way of putting off getting down to work. Because writing is hard work and none of us like hard work, do we?

I used to think that I couldn’t possibly write anything meaningful until I was older. The age at which I would suddenly blossom into the next Vonnegut or Banks was always unspecified. My best option was to wait until I got there and then start writing otherwise what I wrote was bound to be rubbish.

I was, of course, deluding myself. Don’t make the same mistake. Nor should you ever feel that life has passed you by and that starting now will be too late. These are only excuses for not writing so don’t be taken in.

We are writers. We have to write in order to live our lives the way we are meant to. It doesn’t matter one jot whether we are critically acclaimed or even read and enjoyed. These are bonuses that few of us are blessed with. What matters is that feeling we get when we’ve written something.

Off you go. Get writing. Don’t let me distract you.

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photo credit: ‘Rainy Streets’, United States, New York, New York City, East Village via photopin (license)

Phlogiston

In 1703 a scientist called Stahl put forward a theory that combustion involved a substance called phlogiston.  Wood, for example, was  a combination of ash and phlogiston. When it burnt the phlogiston was released and the ash left behind. Metals could be made by taking a metal compound and adding phlogiston. Soot, or carbon, was almost pure phlogiston, which explains why heating it with a metal oxide yields the pure metal.

Phlogiston remained the dominant theory of combustion until the 1780s when Lavoisier demonstrated the existence of oxygen.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, phlogiston is a stupid theory when viewed from a position of ‘superior’ knowledge. Yet it was accepted as scientific truth for decades. What I’m wondering is how many of the things that scientists hold dear today are equally insane. Most of them, probably.

Yet, almost every idea is met with the rebuttal that it hasn’t been scientifically proven. Like phlogiston.

Get my drift?

I’m currently researching the life and work of Richard Feynman, an intellect on a par with the likes of Einstein, for my SF novel, Voyager. Feynman makes the point that science can only ever demonstrate what is wrong and can never be relied on if it decides that something is right. Even if observations and experimentation confirm a theory (or a guess, as he prefers) future refinement may easily demonstrate that it’s wrong. Like Phlogiston.

So, when they tell you that Homeopathy or energetic healing or Tai Chi or Yoga or healthy eating haven’t been scientifically proved to be beneficial then breath a sigh of relief. Make your own personal observations. Make up your own mind. Remind yourself of science’s limitations and track record.

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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

I am a BAD writer

The previous blog post to this one was 27th June. Almost THREE MONTHS ago. I’ve been a very bad writer.

Not only have I not blogged for two months, I haven’t updated the Facebook page or the website. Twitter has also been a stranger to me, apart from a few thanks for the follow tweets.

This makes for a very bad writer in this day and age. No wonder book sales have slowed to a trickle.

On a positive note, I’ve written a couple of short stories for a competition and 65,000 words of the second Tyrant novel. I’ve been enjoying this so much that I’ve neglected my primary duty as an author, to promote my books.

The fourth Jenny Parker novel has been through a first, structural, edit and I’m going to get round to rewriting the bits that need it very soon. However, even the prospect of getting another book out into the world hasn’t managed to tear me away from Tyrant’s grasp. It seems I’m writing this series for myself and not giving any regard to the marketplace. I’m not even anxious to have the first Tyrant novel, Horse, released any time soon. Maybe I’ll be able to write a couple more before that happens.

Which brings me to the point, a thing that all blog posts should have. Most writers these days have to look after themselves. It’s not easy writing a book so it’s a bit unreasonable to expect an author to also be editor, publisher, distributor and salesman. Personally, the thought of going anywhere near Waterstones with my books terrifies the life out of me. You see, I’ve never been good at sales. I once had a job selling vacuum tankers where I only needed to sell three a month to make a good living. Six months into the job I was eighteen behind schedule and they let me go. My total earnings during that period was two hundred and thirty pounds. And don’t think that might have represented a fortune in those days, it wasn’t that long ago you cheeky beggars. Mind you, that’s not much less than I’ve earned from my book sales while I’ve been away from this blog.

So, I really do need to start being a good writer again.

photo credit: Rue des Mauvais Garçons via photopin (license)

Amazon Royalty System

By the time you read this, Limited Liability may have been voted Book of the Year. Thanks to everyone who voted for it.

This whole book promotion and awards thing got me thinking. What am I really trying to achieve with my writing?

Then the news came from Amazon that they were changing the way they pay authors on Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners Lending Library. It used to be that if someone borrowed one of my books I got an equal share of the fund with everyone else whose book had been borrowed. Now I get a share which is calculated from the number of pages read. I don’t know about you but that seems perfectly fair to me. It means that a writer is rewarded for writing well and that authors whose readers can’t get beyond the first awful page get nothing.

Brilliant.

The KU/KOLL thing only applies to books which are exclusive to Amazon so almost all of them are unreadable self-published crap anyway. The new arrangement will be interesting.

Which brings me back to my original question which I’ll pose in a more specific way. If a hundred thousand people bought my book but none of them read it, would I be happy? I doubt it, even if I did have all those royalties in my bank account. What if they all read it but none of them liked it? Again, I’d be rich but unhappy.

Which leads me to the conclusion that I’m writing in the hope that my books will be read and that my readers will enjoy them. So why not give away my work for free? Two reasons. First I need to at least pay my editor, proof reader and cover designer. Secondly, it would brand my work as worthless. There are so many free books out there that most people are no longer interested in them.

I’ve been very fortunate that my books have been promoted by best selling author Stephen Leather without whose help I wouldn’t even be published. Because I’ve had this help, the Jenny Parker series has done well in terms of sales. The question I ask is have the people who bought my books actually read and enjoyed them?

I just realised that I can answer that question. I have sold several thousand copies of the second Jenny Parker novel, Proceeds of Crime. Those readers will almost certainly have read the first, Due Diligence, and liked it enough to buy the second.

So there you are, I can be officially happy according to my own terms of reference. I can also stop agonising over book sales and Amazon reviews.

I’ve just finished a fantasy novel involving a character called Tyrant. I enjoyed writing this more than anything I’ve ever written. It will be out in September and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.