- Write on, as Gerry and the Pacemakers never said…
This is how I was feeling a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully I now have that wonderful ‘almost-there’ feeling.
The dreaded middle-of-the-book slump. The urge to give up and get a proper job strikes yet again. Why am I doing this to myself, I ask. I sit in front of the keyboard and think. I can’t even remember the names of all these characters, let alone what they look like. My plot feels simplistic and obvious, my prose isn’t wowing me.
Staying focused is the hard part now. Two-thirds of the way into the book, and I am into self-doubt territory. The desire to write something new, something easier is strong. But I have to press on. This is not the time to listen to voices telling me to stop, telling me what I’m writing is rubbish. This is not the time to be concerned with quality or to agonise over the aptness of a phrase.
There are ways of coping – mechanisms for dealing with the tough parts of the experience. I could try Dr Wicked’s Write Or Die, set it on Kamikaze and write, write, write, furiously, for the allotted time before the programme deletes my words and they are gone forever. I may not churn out Proust or Shakespeare, but at least I AM still churning. Anything – even ten words – is better than writing nothing.
I could go for a walk, take some time off, watch TV or read a book, do some chores around the house, I could do ‘research’ – ie sit looking at stuff on the Internet. Just taking a break will renew my energy and strengthen my sense of purpose, so long as I don’t allow myself too much time away.
But then, sooner rather than later, I’d have to sit back down, take up my pen or put my fingers on the keys, and carry on with my story. I have to believe in my ability to tell my story and believe that it is a story only I can tell. Mary Wibberley, a British writer of romance novels, wrote a book many years ago which changed my life. It was the first how-to-be-a-writer book I ever read, and it taught me to believe, hope and above all, to write. It was called To Writers With Love, and in it she likened the writing process to that of mountain climbing. Her best advice? “Don’t look down.”
Don’t look down means not stepping back from the ‘problem’ and seeing too big a picture, allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by fear and a sense of something too large to be scaled. It means not getting dizzy but staying focused. It means keep battling forward, one step at a time, until you gradually reach your goal. Don’t allow yourself to become paralysed by the enormity of your undertaking, but move forward slowly but steadily, overcoming difficulties one at a time. Don’t get discouraged by looking around you at the achievements of others, or by listening to negativity or malice.
So, as Gerry and the Pacemakers didn’t say, but no doubt would have, had they been the cheerleaders of an Indie author: Write on!
I will battle on, through this Slough Of Despond, until I write those wonderful words that bring me such joy and a sense of accomplishment: ‘The End’.
- The Reader’s Imagination
Before we start, I need to state, right up front, I’m not a fan of description. In fact, I’m really not a fan of lots of description. I know I’ve said this before (several times) but I felt I needed to just slip it in there once more.
The thing is, description is based on a number of things, and we all have different ways of seeing the world. If I’m reading a book, and there is a long description of, say, a sunset, I guarantee I will skip it. And so will most other readers.
We’ve all seen sunsets countless times before. We’ve all been astonished and moved by their beauty, and bored our loved ones with photos that never seem to quite catch their true glory. Even if we are visually impaired, I doubt that any written or spoken description will truly bring a sunset alive in our minds. This is because a lot of what we see is based on our emotions and our previous experiences. A sunset is not just a 2D picture in an isolated context.
So don’t write, ‘Sophie gazed at the awe-inspiring glory of the sunset over the valley,’ then follow it with a massive description of the colours, height, width, timing, or scale of the sunset or the effect it had on everything and everyone around it. Your character may ponder, and drink in the natural beauty. Your reader will not.
It’s not just natural beauty or emotional landscapes that should be approached with a less-is-more attitude. Elmore Leonard’s advice on writing includes, ‘Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.’ With that in mind, be careful with description of people and places too.
We all find different things attractive or unattractive. This is never truer than when describing a protagonist. Not everyone likes chiselled looks or dark flashing eyes. So don’t describe your main protagonist as ‘irresistible’, and then itemise his or her physical qualities. Especially don’t devote a whole paragraph to describing them. You can be fairly sure that a large number of readers will find your ‘irresistible’ hero all too resistible if you go through every feature in fine detail.
Try to keep things fairly general and non-specific. Let the reader’s imagination do what it was designed to do by filling in the gaps and furnishing the details. Never insert a long passage of description unless it is absolutely vital for moving the plot forward. Even then, I would do it sparingly, putting a little in here and there, not in one long section to be waded through by only the most patient or determined reader.
Too much description is not only boring, it slows down the story, and dictates the terms for the reader too precisely. Give their imagination some scope, let them imagine the protagonist for themselves. Let the reader supply the furniture, the wallpaper, the ornamental details of the rooms, houses, towns and cities of your story.
- Happy Easter to all!
As you may have noticed, it’s been all-change again here at caronallanfiction.com. I’ve decided to go back to doing what I know works for me, instead of the hard-sell approach so many authors are advocating at the moment. I’m not really a hard-selling kind of gal, and I’m just going to say, so long as people read books, it doesn’t really matter whose books they read!
I was rather uncomfortable with the whole pushy ‘sign-up and get a free book’ thing. I give away lots of books anyway, and my site contains quite a lot of free material: fiction, life writing, sneak peeks, blog posts and author interviews so hopefully there’s plenty of interesting stuff that won’t cost readers the earth. What else would you like to see on the blog?
In other news, as you may know, my novella Scotch Mist is due out on 30 April. It’s a Dottie Manderson mystery – not a full-blown novel – but just a small story to keep things ticking over until the next novel The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish is released in the autumn/winter of this year. I felt like I needed to bridge a little gap for the reader to explain how things went from a to b. You’ll see what I mean! 🙂 If you haven’t already seen it, here’s a sneak peek of chapter one, just click on Scotch Mist.
Wishing you all a great Easter, don’t eat too many eggs, and as Bill and Ted said, let’s be excellent to each other. Or should that be eggsellent?
- Embracing the mess
A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about routine and how I think it’s essential to productive creativity. But what do you do if your routine goes to pot and everything is unsettled and out of sync? Just go with it. I’m thinking of that song by Scott Walker about a million years ago, ‘Make It Easy On Yourself.’ That’s just what you should do.
If you allow the stress of being disorganised to get to you, you will become depressed, anxious, feel guilty, and become increasingly non-productive, then get even more deeply depressed, so allow yourself the room to just do what you can manage, and don’t sweat it. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’re not achieving as much as you should, or planned to achieve.
Do what you can, and gradually normality will reassert itself. Even if you only write a small amount, remind yourself it’s a step forward from yesterday, and any progress, no matter how small, is good. You may even find, as I am beginning to realise, that it’s a normal part of your creative process.
I usually start strong, like most writers. I have a good idea of where the story is going, I know what it’s about. But for me, again like many writers, the problems arise about halfway or so into the story when suddenly I realise a) I’m useless at writing, b) my story sucks, and c) it’s never going to be ready in time.
The first couple of times this happened, I gave up on the story. That was a long time ago when I was a young writer. Then I realised I could work through the doubt and fear and finish a book. And for a long time, that’s what I did. But the last couple of years have been exceptionally stressful in my life, and pressures have taken their toll. And now, my old anxieties have resurfaced and this time it’s so much harder to push them away and carry on. But that’s what I’m going to do. Because what choice do I have? Do I want to give up writing? NO!
So now, I’m embracing the mess, and working with it, secure in the knowledge that, regardless of my feelings and the muddle that is my so-called WIP, I can do this. It might take a while, and it might be baby steps, but I will get there, and finish this book.
- The retrospective, full-on, face-to-face purchasing experience.
This is a rather satirical short story looking at the future of our globalised, centralised shopping malls that adorn our city centres. I hope you like it. (smirky-smirk)
March 15th 2078
I’m taking yet another group of tourists around the Shopping Mall Museum. It’s all a bit dull. ‘Come and see how our parents (or grandparents, depending on the age of the tourist) used to go about the business of acquiring new items for their home or person,’ I say. You know the thing. How it was in the ‘old days’. Same old speak, day in day out.
Why do they get so excited? I know when I go on holiday, it’s the last thing I want to see. I just want to rest somewhere sunward and drink a nice beverage. This walking around the Old Mall for hours, it wears you out.
I always have to tell them not to touch any of the exhibits apart from the ones in the gift shop. They don’t understand. But we can’t have all those old relics falling apart in their hands, can we? It’s not like we have great warehouses full of replacement stuff, is it, smirky-smirk.
I must admit, it is very funful to take them to the gift shop experience. The children look on with round-eyed wonder when I show them the little plastic cards and explain that for only 200 credits, they can get a charged mock-charger-card and can go over to the shelves and rails in the mockstore and choose a purchase before moving to the register for a face-to-face transaction with a human store assistant, just like they did only fifty years ago on this very spot. Even the adults get a bit misty-eyed thinking of about their parents doing this almost on a daily basis.
There’s always one funster at the back who wants to know why the Shopping Mall experience came to an end. But usually there’s an elder on hand to tell everyone how bad it was back then, all the queuing, and carrying of items, and the long, long selection process. ‘Imagine,’ says the oldster, ‘imagine having to select everything you want. Not just one or two things like you do here in the mockstore, but everything you need. Imagine choosing it all, how long it must have taken to pay for it, and that’s even before you try to get it home.’
Everyone nods at the oldster’s wisdom, and it makes so much sense. They gasp when I tell them it wasn’t uncommon for people of all ages and abilities to queue for as much as three to four minutes to make their purchase. They shake their heads as they go. ‘No one’s got that kind of time,’ they say. ‘How patient, they must have been. How much they must have suffered.’
When we leave, everyone feels a little sadder, a little wiser, more enlightened. Even those clutching a mock-shopper containing their Purchase seem a little wary of what they have done. It’s as if they know they have entered into a transaction with the past and it has changed them forever. It’s easily two minutes before anyone says smirky-smirk or grabs a self-snap. It makes me realise how important it is to keep this knowledge of the old ways alive. It makes me feel so humble.
- Sneak Peek: Opening scene from Scotch Mist: a Dottie Manderson mystery
I know I’ve talked of nothing else for the last two months, but as recently announced, the next instalment of the Dottie Manderson mysteries is due out on 30 April 2018, and is a novella called Scotch Mist.
No doubt you are asking yourself, what is Scotch Mist? I asked myself that question, and I asked a number of other people too. I even asked Mr Google! I had always thought it was a kind of ethereal mist that disappears unusually quickly ie, ‘He vanished away before their very eyes like the proverbial Scotch Mist.’
However I quickly discovered there is no real consensus. Everyone seems to think their ‘definition’ is the true one. It has been used to described the alluring ‘mist’ that rises from the glass when Scotch is poured over ice. It has been used to describe extremely heavy, unremitting rain, that the Scots, hardened and unbroken, dismiss as nothing but a wee bit o’ mist. Whatever it is, it captured a certain something in my imagination and the title had to be applied to this story.
This is a novella, so it’s a lot shorter than a novel, more like a long short story. Hopefully it will keep everyone quiet until book 4, The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish, appears towards the end of 2018. I needed a little bridge to get Dottie from the end of The Mantle of God to the start of what my daughter calls Dickie Dawlish, and Scotch Mist is just that bridge.
Here is a short extract that is part of the opening chapter. (At the moment – things change sometimes!) I hope you like it.
Anna McHugh glared through the prison bars at the sprawling body. When the figure did not immediately acknowledge her presence, she aimed a kick through the bars at the foot hanging off the end of the narrow cot.
‘Hey, idiot! I haven’t got all day to wait around for you, so let’s get going.’
The figure on the cot stretched and yawned in a leisurely manner, as if awaking from a deep refreshing sleep. He got to his feet and gave her what he clearly believed was a cheeky smile, but she glared at him again and turned on her heels. ‘If you’re no’ in the street in one minute, you’ll have to walk back.’ She returned to the waiting area at the front of the police station, and said to the officer behind the desk. ‘He’s ready to leave now, if that’s all right.’
The police officer gave her a grin as he turned to fetch the keys out of a cupboard behind him. ‘Just out the three days, isn’t it? I know you said he was at home with you all night. But we all know it was him what took that deer from the Hall. And the Laird of the Hall is also a very good friend of the Procurator. So maybe try and keep your man home at night, m’dear, if you don’t want him to go straight back to prison, this time for a wee bit longer.’
She watched him go through to unlock the cell door. ‘He’s no my man,’ she said softly. Her man was at home, behind the bar of his public house, and he would be ready with his belt when he heard she’d given William Hardy an alibi for the previous night. Her heart felt heavy, she dreaded going home. But what else could she do? She couldn’t let Will go back to jail for the one crime he hadn’t committed. She went out into the sunshine to the little car she’d borrowed from the pub.
It seemed everything she did for Will got her into trouble. How could he have given up her name like that, even to get himself out of a tight spot? Surely he knew by now the price she would pay for that? Her mind whispered that her mother would have said a gentleman never betrayed a lady’s confidence. But William Hardy was no gentleman, and she doubted he would say she was a lady, either. Why did she let him do this to her? If she could only get him out of her life—and her heart—perhaps her husband wouldn’t find so much fault in her. Which would mean far fewer bruises.
She sat behind the wheel, waiting. And waiting. She told herself she’d just give him another minute, then it became two more, and then another five. Finally after almost fifteen minutes the man came out, swaggering as he came, proud as punch of his exploits. Along the street someone cheered, and Will raised his fist in a gesture of triumph. Anna sighed. How was another night in the cells anything to be proud of?
- Routine – the nemesis of creativity
I recently read somewhere that routine hinders the creative process. To really be creative, we need to let go of organisation, routine and any kind of rigid preconceptions or framework, to allow ourselves freedom to explore in any direction and form that appeals to us.
I couldn’t disagree more strongly. If you think that routine is a hindrance and obstacle to being truly creative, I’d like to invite you to reconsider.
I suggest that it is routine that brings freedom and that freedom is often to be found within boundaries, not outside of them. Because parameters do one great thing for us, yes, even us creative types. They give security. And if you feel secure, you have the freedom to be creative.
All art is created within boundaries. Or a framework of conventions, if you prefer to call it that. Mozart created wonderful music. Yes, undeniably, he was incredibly creative and had a flair for genius. But. Musical composition is, in many ways, one of the most rigidly ‘controlled’ art forms in that very deeply-held conventions dictate the agreed (not necessarily explicitly agreed) common elements that must be adhered to, in order to create any form of music. Sonatas have a specific set of rules, if you like. All sonatas have common elements that make them what they are. Similarly, concertos, arias, opuses and symphonies all have elements which dictate how they are created and underpin the very stylistic identity of a given piece of music.
Now I am tempted to take a long detour at this point and show that this is exactly the same as the genre conventions in writing, but I won’t, as I’ve already waffled quite a bit, and I want to keep this blog fairly to-the-point (wow, who’d have thought it?).
Sometimes, I just go with the flow, letting words pour onto the page. There’s nothing actually wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for good reading, it rarely fits neatly into a novel, and I am a novelist, so that is what I need to write. Unfocussed, meandering writing is great fun, very cathartic and can help you to improve your writing overall. But for ‘everyday’ working writing, you need focus, not indulgence.
Within a framework, we have the freedom to be creative. Routine can be just such a framework. I’m actually not a very organised person with regard to my writing. But I have discovered that an established routine is my friend when it comes to cracking on with my WIP and meeting deadlines.
If you are organised, you can relax and focus on the job in hand. You make the most of your time, and have something concrete to show for it, so productivity is improved and you feel good about what you’ve achieved. Which makes it more likely you’ll do it again tomorrow. In addition, good output leads to increased confidence and positivity, and as many writers know, these are commodities that can be hard to come by.
Planned routine is anticipated, your subconscious inner writer is actually hard at work long before you sit down at your desk. You know what is expected, and what your intentions are. This means you ‘hit the ground running’ and are ready to go straight away with no need for warming up or getting yourself in the mood.
As I’ve said already, routine planned writing leads to increased output and measurable results, you see the word count piling up and you see that you are moving towards your deadline or goal. This gives you the impetus you need to write through the tough sections of your book, those tricky little scenes and the mid-book blues.
For me, one of the main advantages to this type of organised approach to work is that I remain ‘current’ with my WIP. I literally don’t lose the plot. By that I mean I don’t lose track of characters and plot strands the way I do when I’m here and there and all over the place writing whatever takes my fancy. The resulting draft is more seamless, the scenes transition more smoothly, and small details are less likely to be overlooked.
They say it takes six weeks to develop a new routine: three weeks to break old habits, and another three to establish new ones. Give yourself six weeks, starting today. Who knows, by the time we reach mid-April, you may be firmly in the Routine is my Friend camp.
- Coming soon–Scotch Mist: a Dottie Manderson mystery novella
Book 3 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries is out on 30 April 2018. Please note it is a novella, not a full-length mystery. It is available to preorder through Amazon now and once published, will also be available for Nook, Kobo, iPad, Android, Sony eReaders etc, as well as in paperback form.
Watch this space for a ‘taster’.
- Journals: and where to find them
Writing tutors always advocate keeping a journal or writing diary. I keep one sporadically, writing an entry a couple of times a week, then maybe not for a month, then four times in one day. It depends entirely on what is going on in my life.
Why is it useful?
Well, to begin with it’s therapeutic. You can use it to de-stress your life, like a best friend, it won’t tattle on you. You can pour out your heart and soul and love and bile into a journal, and no one will slap your face or lecture you. If you keep it private, you can say and do whatever you please, and know that your dodgy experiments and weak efforts, your anxieties and temper tantrums will never see the light of day, and your loved ones will be unscathed by the trauma that exists inside the average writer. So it’s a safe place to try new stuff or give a voice to things that are bothering you, or to learn how to do new stuff by practising and honing your skills.
It is a great way to keep track of what happens when in your life – all too often, especially once you reach ‘a certain age’, you can forget what happens in your life and how it affects you. Later you can look back and think, Oh I was writing such-and-such when Great Aunt Jemima had her hip replacement. It’s useful more often than you’d think.
I also use mine as a way of noting down odd things I see. I often write a blog post based on a journal entry about people watching. Title or character ideas can also be quickly noted down, or I might write something along the lines of ‘a funny thing happened on the way to the supermarket’. I also make notes of ideas – either for a story that is already part of my life, or a new idea that has just come to me or that I’m playing around with to see if it has enough oomph in it to create a whole novel from.
I write to-do lists along the lines of ‘Tues: finish chapter three, do blog post, tweet, Facebook, and emails to X, Y and Z. Wed: chapter four and think about a flash fiction or poem. Thurs: more social media; create graphic for marketing.’
I make notes about the technical side of writing and self-publishing – keywords to try, niches and genres, blurbs, other books to read, ‘how-to’ tips and ideas.
AND the main thing I use it for – to write rough drafts of chapters for ongoing work. On top of all these, if I have an epiphany on the bus into town, I can haul out my notebook and scribble away. I often add sticky notes to the page edges so I can find something important later.
I don’t use fancy-schmancy notebooks, I just use an ordinary lines A5 notebook. Okay so big confession: I am a bit of a sucker for a pretty cover. And I like thickish paper, otherwise ink just blobs through flimsy pages and ruins the next page or two. But I still don’t spend a fortune on them. Not individually at least, though I do buy them often and in quantity, but that’s our little secret. I’ve got stacks of them in drawers and on shelves and in boxes. I love to go through them sometimes, perhaps even many years later, and often get a fresh insight into an old problem, or find a forgotten piece that I can use in my writing or on my blog. Sometimes it’s just nice to look back and see a mention of a hope or cherished dream and think, ‘well I’ve done that now’.
Journals can be a gold mine, as a writer you really can’t be without one.
- Quick tips for historical fiction writers
Historical fiction is perennially popular. Readers love to read about people from different eras, with different expectations and experiences than we have today. The different approaches to mystery-solving or to marriage and romance offers an irresistible appeal. But there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re writing anything set in the recent, or even the distant past. Here are my five tips for writing historical fiction.
- Try to remember you are writing to entertain, it is not the main goal of historical fiction to educate, although that may be a part. When you’ve worked hard to carry out research, it is so tempting to cram it all in, making sure none of your effort goes to waste, but that will not result in a rewarding story for your readers. Pick a few key elements that are relevant to your plot, such as mode of transport, or social events, or maybe build your plot around a real event in history. Don’t write a lecture.
- Be accurate, but don’t be a pedant. True, it’s important to have a high degree of historical accuracy to avoid knowledgeable readers getting irritated by your mistakes, but if you are pedantic, you may create too alien a world, meaning you will spend a lot of time explaining the era to your reader. This, obviously, will impact on their enjoyment of the story.
- Language. Language is living and evolving, and if you write novels set in the past, the language they used then will certainly be different to the language we use today. However, remember that you are writing for a modern audience who may not understand if you stick too closely to the language of your era. To avoid a sense of incongruity, use a few key idioms from your research, and in general, simplify the language you use, especially in dialogue, making speech a little more formal than is normal for ‘now’. Also, take care to avoid very modern phrases and ideas. You can’t have women from Victorian England described as ‘Babes’, unless your book is about time travel!
- The same goes for costume, food, pastimes and attitudes. You can have your protagonist as a very forward-thinking person who bucks the trend, but in most cases they will have the same attitudes and beliefs as the majority of their era. Read books that were written in your chosen time period where possible, to get a feel for the norms and manners of the day.
- Check that what you think you know is true. We unwittingly absorb so much from inaccurate or Hollywoodised movies and books, that it’s easy to carry over their misconceptions into your work. We understand that communication was slower, for example, due to the relative lack of technology, but even in the mid-nineteenth century, in Britain, a letter could be expected to be received and replied to, within a week of posting. And transport may have been different, but speed was still possible. I once edited a ‘Regency’-era novel in which the healthy young male protagonist took three weeks to travel from London to Calais, a distance of a little over twenty miles. He could have walked it in a couple of days, even allowing for the sea-crossing, and there were plenty of fast stagecoaches to take one from London to the coast. So do make sure you check vital plot devices for accuracy or you will earn some one-star review from readers who are experts on the era and are frustrated by your mistakes.
Glaring inaccuracies will grate on a reader and spoil their pleasure in reading your carefully-crafted novel, so do your homework, but just don’t use it all in your book. At least it will come in useful for the next book in your series!