Rereading old work: the critical self

Gary Cooper in a gloomy mood ever since reading his first novel again after ten years.

I read a blog post elsewhere this week, in which a writer talked about rereading a book he had written and published years earlier, and his reaction to it. That set me thinking.

How do I react to reading my own work after a break?

I think it’s a bit like looking at baby photos of yourself, or making a special cake or a meal for a particular occasion. Or indeed whenever any of us do anything creative or out of the norm. Maybe you’re not like me, but I know a lot of people are just like me: a bit inclined to only see their faults, to see the wonky bits, the bits that had to be patched up at the last minute, the crooked hem of the new dress or the edge where the cake got stuck in the tin and you had to put a bit extra icing on there to disguise it. We tend to be overly self-critical, which is sometimes a good thing: we strive that little bit harder to improve and to do well, but on the other hand, it makes it hard to feel proud of our achievements or to accept praise from others.

When I read things I wrote years ago, I feel quite uncomfortable. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised and think, ‘ah, this isn’t as bad as I expected’, but there are definitely times when I groan to myself and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I cringe at some of the laboured metaphors, the overly descriptive passages and my almost fanatical use of The Three: I tend to group my descriptions in threes. In fact if you browse, read or peruse any of my works, writings or output, you will definitely, absolutely, surely notice, observe and see that a lot of what I write is grouped into threes! Who knew?

I’ll just quickly fix this bit. Oh, and this bit. Oh now that bit doesn’t work, oh well, I’ll just…

Well, I did for one, although not until someone pointed it out to me. I try to weed some of them out, unless I am deliberately emphasising a point, and keep them to a minimum. But years ago… No, they are there in all their triplicated glory.

As is my terrible grammar – I just never really know, what, to do with those, commas,.

I used adverbs liberally too (haha, like that!) but I’m not quite so obsessive about those. I don’t mind the odd one, whereas many authors absolutely scour their pages and destroy them without mercy. I like the odd adverb. Sometimes an active verb can be a bit too much, especially if the writer uses loads of them. I’d rather read ‘she said hastily’ than ‘she gabbled’ or ‘rattled’.

Stop authorsplaining and let me read your damn book!

What I don’t like is a ton of adjectives. You know when you read something like, ‘The old sprawling ramshackle creeper-covered house had a battered and pitted, badly-fitting oak door and four tiny grimy windows that peeped out from beneath an elderly ragged thatched roof in much need of repair.’ Just tell me it’s an old house in poor repair, I can furnish the rest from my own imagination. I just haven’t got the energy to read through tons of adjectives. the same with character descriptions or the characters’ clothes. I don’t really care if their shoes are hand-made in Italy from the finest, most supple leather and stitched by angels from their own hair. Just tell me they cost a fortune, I’ll get it.

It needs a bit of work…

The other problem with old work is that it can have you itching to reach for a pen and begin ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ it. But is that a good idea?

One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you can tweak your books if you need to, with little disruption to the reading public, to stock availability and relatively negligible damage to your finances. Not so the trad-pubbed, of course. There a revision might cost a packet both in cash terms and in terms of reprinting, delays, supply hiccups etc, and will only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. But an Indie book is not too difficult to fix if there are issues with it that are likely to lead to poor reviews, which might have a knock-on effect on sales.

You can’t go through history deleting all the anoraks and t-bar sandals. Sadly.

So I don’t think it’s a problem if you correct an annoying typo or an inconsistency that is mentioned a few times in reviews. That’s just courtesy. But if you give into the urge to revise, it can be quite hard to stop tinkering, and then before you know it you’ve changed the book so much it could be a whole new project, or you can actually break it, leaving gaping plot holes and chapters that no longer hang together.

I think when it comes down to it, with earlier work, you just have to accept it for what and how it is, like your wonky teeth in that old photo. Acceptance is not always easy, and to leave your old book alone is sometimes the hardest decision to make.

***

Tropelessly devoted to mystery books

If you read romance as a book category, you are probably aware of the concept of a trope.

A trope is, in a way, a kind of cliché or a stereotype. Although those words have a negative connotation. It’s more a set idea or plot outline that is used many times over, hopefully with variations on the theme. There is the Cinderella trope, or we might call it a rags-to-riches story. There is the second-chance trope, or another is the Romeo-and-Juliet ‘doomed love’ trope.

And so it is with mysteries. We all know about country house or closed community mystery.

There are quite a few often-repeated ideas. Each time the story is told, we hope the author will bring their own new slant on a familiar trope. Agatha Christie was of course the Queen of the trope: want a closed community? How about a familiar one: the country house mystery? For example, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. that’s all very well, but there are a variations on the country house. think of Murder On The Orient Express. The country house is exchanged for a snowbound train. Or you might prefer Death On The Nile – a boat instead of a train instead of a manor house.  Or what about Death In The Air – a plane instead of a boat instead of a train instead of a manor house. Or a hotel: At Bertram’s Hotel.

They all work brilliantly: a closed, finite circle of suspects the detective can investigate one by one, and eliminate until the only one left is the killer. Though of course, knowing Christie, the killer is usually someone we’ve investigated then eliminated, just to put the reader off the scent.

Or the romance genre’s trope, doomed love: this works well in mystery too. (Spoiler alert) I’m thinking of Death In The Clouds again, and this is also a second trope for Death On The Nile, and another book I love, Evil Under The Sun. These all have doomed lovers, doomed because they must suffer the consequences of their actions, or doomed because one of them is manipulated by the object of their affection, who is not what he or she seems.

I love the combination of two or more tropes in the same book. These can work well together to muddy the waters a bit for the armchair detective, making us focus on the wrong thing and miss finding the killer before Poirot or Miss Marple.

Other great tropes for the mystery genre include:

The Evil Victim: seemingly bringing their dreadful fate upon themselves and supplying us with a large cast of suspects and a large variety of motives. I love this one! These can be a spiteful domineering mother – Appointment With Death – or a tyrannical retired colonel living in a village –  The Murder At The Vicarage.

Or you may prefer what I call the Not Quite Eden trope: A number of people nip off for a well-deserved holiday, sometimes in an exotic location (Death In Paradise, I’m looking at you) but – who knew – they take their problems or issues with them, and in the summer heat, things come quickly to a head. with disastrous consequences.  Here we have our old friend Evil Under The Sun again, and Christie’s great Miss Marple book, A Caribbean Mystery.

There’s the Locked Room trope. This crops up in Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, in the short story, Dead Man’s Mirror and another of my favourites, the novella, Murder In The Mews. The novel And Then There Were None has also been likened to a locked room mystery but in my view this falls under the closed community trope rather than locked room as such.

There’s the Disappearing Weapon trope. I like this one too! (Look away now to avoid another spoiler!) Think of the removed trip-wire in Dumb Witness, for example, which led lesser mortals than Hercule Poirot to believe a ‘mere’ accident was the cause of death.

There is also the Missing Victim trope, one which is another favourite of mine, and is used a couple of times in Robert Thorogood’s Death In Paradise.

There are many more.

Here are a few other trope ideas that you might find interesting:

Revenge trope: Where the perpetrator is exacting revenge on parents, on siblings, on children, or any love or business rival who thwarts their ambition. This is probably as much a motive as it is a trope. This may include the Fake Reunion/Reconciliation. And often too, the Disguised Persona/Hidden Agenda. (Think Christie’s Pocket Full Of Rye)

Spiritual Assassin: This trope includes someone who feels they have a mission from God to punish wrong-doers. (Dan Brown uses this one a few times…)

The Unreliable Narrator: notoriously employed by Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Also used more recently in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is not always a popular trope with the reader who can feel a bit cheated – or maybe it’s more like embarrassment at being duped? When I read Roger Ackroyd for the first time, I was amazed and thrilled by being so brilliantly deceived.

caronallanfiction.comI also enjoy the Double Trouble trope- where there are two different, often unrelated, independent killers. This makes it very much easier to misdirect the reader, fill the story with convincing alibis and make red herrings a doddle.

My absolute favourite mystery trope – and one that I use in my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy – is the Whydunit. This is the style made famous in the TV series Columbo. You know who did it, you see it right from the start, but the joyous thing about the story is watching the often-ridiculed, apparently shambling detective put together their case with meticulous attention to detail and finally confront the murderer with overwhelming evidence that they are unable to refute. It’s all about the discovery of motive and opportunity, and of course, the search for clues. I love, love love this trope. And it has the merit of being easier to write for the author!!! There is no concealment, only great attention to detail.

How many can you think of? What’s your favourite?

***

The ‘other’ WIP

This is what happens: you get your notebooks ready, and your pens. You dig out all the scraps of paper you jotted down notes on over the last six months or so. You read them carefully and get yourself back into the 1930s, maybe put on a little Al Bowlly to create the mood.  Then you carefully read all your other little bits and pieces – the entry in your journal that you wrote two months ago talking about how excited you were to start your new book. You’ve been playing around on Canva creating a book cover, then you killed half an hour here and there creating mock-ups promos on Book Brush.

And then it happens. There’s a slight breeze in your office, the curtain stirs, the pages of your notebook riffle at the corners. You hear a sound. You hold your breath listening hard. Yes, you hear it, softly at first but growing louder, more insistent.

It’s the siren song of the Other WIP – like the other woman/man in a romantic relationship – it’s sole purpose is to try to seduce you away from your current  WIP with the promise that you will be happier with them, and trying to lure you away from your ‘one-true-love-WIP’, who, it says, doesn’t understand you and isn’t fulfilling your needs.

It’s hard to resist the call when it comes. Every little argument you raise up in rebuttal it knocks down flat with tempting scenes you could write, or snappy names for the characters you are refusing to bring to life. You hear snippets on the TV or the radio and the siren says, ‘Oh that would work very nicely in chapter 7, where…’ Or potential cover images throw themselves in your path every time you have to quickly pop over to Pixabay or Shutterstock. Everywhere you look the universe seems to scream out in favour of the Other WIP, and no matter how often you say the magic formula: ‘It’s not your time. You’re not until June and July!’ the words grow weaker and less convincing every time you utter them. You refuse to look at the little pile of notebooks lying ready for your attention later in the year. Oh dear, there’s a fine film of dust on them. You feel a twinge of guilt.

Because.

Oh how pretty, how fresh, how alluring the promise of the new story is. How bright the ideas are. The promise of ‘happy ever after’ is there, and the story vows it will be everything you’ve ever wanted to write.

As you glance back metaphorically over your shoulder at the sulking form of your Current WIP, you can only see the problems: the plot holes, the saggy bits where it won’t quite gel, where the characters do whatever they like, or they won’t do anything at all.  You see all those repeated actions, once so sweet and appealing, now just irritating. It feels as though you’ve been writing this book for years instead of just a few months. You tell yourself you’re just tired, and that if you work through this bit, things will be easier, more fulfilling.

But then it calls you again…

How do you choose? Stay on the straight and narrow road, sticking to discipline and your (slightly vague and woolly) plan? Or go for a joyous run ‘off-piste’ – pantsing it from morning to night? Yes, you know you’ll regret it come revision time, and you’ve got no first draft to revise, but there’s a tiny suspicion lurking in the back of your mind that maybe it could actually be worth it.

Decision time!

***

 

Persistence is futile – I mean – essential

 

I think I may have written about this topic before, but I feel it’s one of the most under-estimated skills any writer can have. (Persistence, I mean, not repeating yourself, I do that all the time. Actually that is useful too, for helping me to remember things through repetition…)What is persistence?

To me persistence means a dogged determination to the point of stubbornness to keep going, overcome resistance in yourself and the world around you, to press on towards a goal you have no tangible proof you will ever reach. It means turning your back on discouragement, detractors, self-doubt (which most writers have in abundance?, laziness, weariness, even pain and illness to MAKE yourself achieve something specific or reach a certain goal.

The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Why is persistence a useful tool to have in your arsenal? What does it contribute to your life or work?

Persistence:

  • is character-building – you come to realise you are capable of more than you may have believed initially.
  • is prioritising – you realise that the most important things in life don’t come without you working hard for them.
  • you learn to persevere, and build resilience and inner strength.
  • you learn to trust yourself and believe in yourself.
  • you come to value the results of your hard work.
  • when times are tough, you have previous experience to draw on to get you through.

How to be persistent:
  • Eat well, sleep well, take care of yourself, allow yourself down-time.
  • Develop a routine. Routines can enhance creativity, rather than block it or stifle it. A routine means you are mentally prepared at a certain time to undertake a specific task. that means half the work is done already!!
  • Keep a journal to record your feelings, even the negative ones. Allow yourself to rant or wail if need be. Don’t forget to record your successes, though, as these will keep you going during tough times when you feel like nothing is working.
  • Talk to people who understand and support you. You don’t need to be alone in the middle of your struggle.
  • Set manageable goals, even if it means doing a larger number of smaller tasks rather than a few big tasks. Breaking a large task or goal into small pieces is the key approach. By chipping away at a large task bit by bit you will make progress – it may not be easy to see the results right away but it is easier to work this way in the long haul, and achieving many small goals is excellent for your confidence. This is also a great way to talk yourself into tackling what feels like an impossible or overwhelming job.
  • Don’t listen to your negative thoughts. Learn to recognise then ignore your inner critic who tells you things like: ‘this is a waste of time’, ‘you’ll never be good enough’, or ‘it’s too hard for you’, and that old favourite, ‘not everyone is destined to succeed’. This is probably the hardest thing to overcome, and really requires you to laugh at the inner voice or negative thought and say ‘so what, I’m going to do it anyway.’
  • Roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth, and get on with it. Don’t wait until you are ‘in the mood’ or feel inspiration strike. Nine times out of ten, inspiration waits for you to make the first move. Show the universe – and yourself – that you are going to do this.
  • Reward yourself and feel proud of your achievements. And don’t whatever you do, punish yourself if you feel you have fallen short of your goal. Remember too that pride in a job well done is not a sensation that you necessarily get right away. If you have been engaged for a long time on a demanding project, it can take quite a while to recover, then feel a sense of satisfaction. Be patient, be kind to yourself.

Basically persistence is being super stubborn, and refusing to give in or back down. Find what you want to do and do everything in your power to do it.

Just remember, you can do anything you set your mind to, but it takes action, perseverance, and facing your fears.

Gillian Anderson

***

 

Living in the Past: the manageable cast

I’m in love with the idea of the closed or walled community.

Whether it is the hallowed halls of the much-loved country house of so many murder mysteries, or Brother Cadfael’s cloistered world, or a virtual closed community such as Miss Marple’s village with its familiar cottages, vicarage, post office, farms and manor houses, or Poirot’s Art Deco mansionette, with neighbours above and below, people you rarely glimpse and often only hear, or to take things a step further, your suspect or your victim could join a coach tour as in Judith Cranswick’s murder mysteries, or cruise on an ocean liner as in Dawn Brookes’ mysteries, or perhaps holiday on an island cut off from mainland, or a flee to a secret commune hidden away in the mountains, living a simple life a century behind the rest of the world. A mystery could be set in a submarine, or a plane, a train, in a hospital ward, on a space station, almost anywhere where there is a limit to how people get in and out of the place.

All these can be viewed as closed communities, separate from the wider world, with no one to turn to but themselves. As such they are excellent settings for a crime novel. This way you can limit and isolate a small group of suspects. ‘It must have been one of us.’

You’d think that with a small number of suspects, say a maximum of ten or twelve, you’d be stuck for ideas, but a number of that size, compared to, say, a group of four, actually gives quite a lot of alternatives, yet it’s not such a huge number as to be too big for readers to get to grips with. Is there anything worse as a reader than muddling the characters and forgetting who is married to who or who did or said that crucial thing which led to that big scene? So it’s got to be easy to keep track of the suspects.

All too often characters are not even remotely who or what they claim to be. In fact we as a reader more or less depend on that being the case. That’s the fun of it, after all. Secrets can be recently acquired or buried (sometimes literally) in the dim and distant past. A young couple who get on well, who seem devoted in every way. How do we really know that they are a couple? Maybe they are cousins? Or even brother and sister—oooh! What if one of them is already married to someone else?

But for me, without doubt, the best type of closed community to have is one where your story is set in the past.

If you situate a story back in the past, to before identity documents and proof-of-life searches, to a time before healthcare records, driving licenses, the internet, mobile phones, credit checks and credit cards, ATMs, CCTV and ANPR, it immediately becomes a hundred times more difficult to keep track of a person’s comings and goings. There’s a reason why there were so many bigamous marriages two hundred, or even just one hundred years ago. You wouldn’t have to travel very far to find a place where no one knew you at all. Even just the next county would be today’s equivalent of moving to the other side of the world.

You could be whoever you said you were. Who was to know any different?

In some ways it could be quite freeing: no more mistakes to hover over your shoulder like Banquo’s ghost. A goodbye to unhealthy relationships, or domineering friendship groups, toxic working environment or sad memories. Hello to bigamy, escaping justice and living the high life. If things happen to get too hot, simply up sticks and move on. A quick change in appearance, and you’re a whole different person, and no one any the wiser.

But this made it very difficult to bring someone to justice: only a parish register would contain the bare essentials of a person’s life: their date of birth/Christening, their marriage, or that of their parents. School or work records, but these wouldn’t usually have a photo or a detailed physical description. There might be the odd police record for those who had crossed paths with the authorities, but those minor obstacles aside, all you really had left was anecdotal evidence.

Of course, some people who commit crimes are not very good at keeping their head down and getting on with their new life, and making the most of the chance of a new start. Old habits resurface, and the crime is committed again, making detection a real possibility. By contrast, though, a person of reasonable intelligence, often incredibly devious or someone who was simply content to lay low and not draw attention to themselves, could reasonably expect to get away with most of the guilty secrets of their past.

But no doubt, they always looked over their shoulder, to make sure no one was watching them.

Hats for fun/frolics – we need to bring these back!

***

She’s such a character!

My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs, and it is the story – the plot – that is of primary importance. I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.

The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader.  It can be hard for me, let alone the reader, to keep track of everyone. With Night and Day: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1 I put in a character list à la old-school mysteries, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.

And I’ve tried to create complex, realistic people as my main characters. They have faults and flaws. It is not my intention to write a book where the main characters don’t grow or change, or are completely perfect. I want them to mess up – and my main characters do that big-time. I want them to be relatable.

In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. In addition, they also have careers and are involved with work colleagues who again cannot be overlooked all the time.

And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–the numbers are rising! Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.

Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot-of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. I’m not sure how well I succeed with that.

But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled, who don’t lash out, or say the wrong thing, or believe liars or cheats. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.

In addition to that, I’d like to think the characters grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, or keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to.

My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. Oh yes, she is still a mass-murdering monster – but a nice one.

In my stand-alone novel, Easy Living, the main character Jane goes from a rose-tinted truth-denying outlook to recognising and facing up to the truth about her relationship – and it hurts her a great deal to come to terms with that. It’s a good thing she has three close – though dead – friends who are determined to stick by her side every step of the way.

Someone recently sent me a personal message on Facebook to outline all the things she disliked about my work. We’re not friends. I hadn’t explicitly invited her to give me any career pointers or to advise me on my work. I say ‘explicitly’ because in a sense, by publishing my books, I have invited a certain level of criticism. And I do believe that we should have free speech and that people should be able to say what they think. I don’t believe in censorship that tells people what they are allowed or not allowed to say or think.

However, part of me wonders what this woman intended to achieve with her message. I admit I don’t really understand why she did it. Did she think I’d immediately promise to rewrite all my books her way? Or that I’d stop writing? Or that I’d learn some kind of valuable lesson from her and turn my life around? Or did she want her money back? An apology? If I have ever disliked a book, I’ve just not read any more by that author. No writer can be all things to all people, and a writing style I like may not appeal to someone else. I’ve never contacted someone directly to tell them I hate their work.

To that person, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. It’s perfectly fine that you have an opinion. I don’t plan to contact you to explain myself.

Does Dottie grow? I believe she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing. She’s a teenager, after all, and from a well-to-do, privileged background. She works from choice, not necessity, and can please herself entirely with what she does all day.

After two years of stumbling over corpses, she becomes more confident, more caring towards others. She becomes a business-woman and has to learn, almost from scratch, how to run her business. Added to that, as she grows up and goes out into the world around her, she is trying to understand life and human experience, is losing her childlike idealisation of people. Not only was the world of Britain in the 1930s light-years away from life in our era, it was also a time of massive sweeping changes. I like to think Dottie stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. In that respect, I believe she is relatable and ‘realistic’, hopefully sympathetic.

Obviously, I’ve only been writing for a few years. I published Criss Cross in 2013, and had only completed six full-length novels before that. So I consider myself still very much a learning writer. One day I hope to be an excellent writer. Until then I plan to grow and learn, and I hope my characters will do the same.

***

Alliteration and her sisters 

Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran. (rock not included)

Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.

We all know that one, don’t we? Though I usually get rugged and ragged back to front. I have to remind myself that whilst a rascal can be rugged or ragged, a rock can pretty much only be rugged.

As we learned in junior school, alliteration is putting together words with the same initial letter. In the case of the above phrase, R, the pirate’s favourite letter.  This repetition is the foundation of our childhood tongue-twisters. English is not the only language to have these:

French ones:

Les chaussettes de l’archiduchesse, sont-elles sèches? Archi-sèches. (translation: The archduchesses socks: are they dry? Very dry.)

Ces cerises sont si sûres qu’on ne sait pas si c’en sont. (translation: These cherries are so sour, we’re not sure if they are (cherries).)

German ones: 

Schnecken erschrecken, wenn sie an Schnecken schlecken, weil zum Schrecken vieler Schnecken Schnecken nicht schmecken. (translation: Snails are shocked when they lick snails because to the surprise of many snails, snails don’t taste good).

Der Grabengräber gräbt die Gräben. Der Grubengräber gräbt die Gruben. Graben Grabengräber Gruben? Graben Grubengräber Gräben? Nein! Grabengräber graben Gräben. Grubengräber graben Gruben.  (translation:  The gravedigger digs graves. The ditchdigger digs ditches. Do ditchdiggers dig graves? Do gravediggers dig ditches? No!
Gravediggers dig graves. Ditchdiggers dig ditches.)

So now you know! Feel free to use these at virtual-parties, to amaze and impress your friends.

Amuse your cat with a large repertoire of tongue-twisters in various languages…

Alliteration can be a useful literary device when writing, and like most literary devices, it is used to make the reader feel, view or interpret your writing in a particular way by creating a mood or appearance. But use it sparingly. The problem with any literary device, is that all too easily it can draw attention away from what you’re writing and turn the focus to how you’re writing. This will distract your reader from your story in the same way you can sometimes fail to see the puppet-show because you’re focusing on the strings.  Having spent all that time gently leading the reader to suspend disbelief, you don’t want to ruin things by breaking the spell now.

Here are a few more literary devices:

Sibilance is the repeated use of an S sound, or a hissing sound. You put together words with lots of S, SH and soft C sounds: Sid’s silly scented snake slithered smoothly across the shiny façade. Unlike with Alliteration, the repeated sounds don’t have to be confined to the beginning of the word.

Assonance is the repeated use of vowel sounds: cut jug, heed beat,   or the same or similar consonants with different vowels: jiggle juggle, dilly-dally.

Consonance is the repetition of matching consonant sounds: ruthless cutthroats, repeated reports. It can quickly descend into Alliteration if only the initial letter(s) are repeated!

”A soldier’s life is terrible hard,’ said Alice.’

These are used to create a certain mood, or an attitude, or making the reader see a character or setting in a particular way. These can also imbue your writing with a poetic or lyrical quality. You might want your readers mesmerised by a particular scene if you are going to follow it with something spectacular: the calm before the storm effect.  Think of movies where there is a soft love scene before the hero goes into battle.

In fact most poetry contains one or more of these devices. Think of Wordworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, with all the repeated Ls, the Hs, the Ds, the long vowels of wandered, lonely and cloud.  Or  Buckingham Palace by A A Milne, with its repeated lines and rhyming words. 

Or in this, one of my favourite short poems, there is a clever mixture of all these devices – see if you can spot them!

Song by Christina Rosetti 

When I am dead, my dearest

Sing no sad songs for me;

Plant thou no roses at my head,

Nor shady cypress tree:

Be the green grass above me

With showers and dewdrops wet;

And if thou wilt, remember,

And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,

I shall not feel the rain;

I shall not hear the nightingale

Sing on, as if in pain:

And dreaming through the twilight

That doth not rise nor set,

Haply I may remember,

And haply may forget.

These literary devices can have a unifying effect, making all parts fit together with a repetition of shared letters and sounds, or by ensuring the reader remembers certain sounds or words. But like all good things, in prose it needs to be used in moderation.  Don’t make your writing just a collection of tongue-twisters!

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Coming soon-ish: The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6

Hold everything! EBook NOW available to pre-order (paperback will be released at the same time)

This is an update on the progress of Dottie Manderson book 6 – The Spy Within. Like most of my posts about new books – it begins with an apology. I know, I know in a rash moment of optimism and craziness I said ‘coming Summer 2020’. Even as I said it, my fingers were crossed and I was telling myself, ‘But Summer can be any time between June or August, right?’

But you know, guys, look at what the rest of 2020 has been like. I’ve got a good excuse, haven’t I? Probably the best I’ve had so far. Therefore I’m pleased – though slightly worried – to announce that I plan to release The Spy Within ‘some time’ in October this year. That’s not long! (Note to me: Oh heck, that’s really not long! Argh!) I’m sorry it’s late, but it’s been a tough one. I know I say that about all of them.

To begin with, for some reason it was really, really long. I waffled far more than usual. So I’ve had a lot of tightening up to do. And I had too many strands of plot to juggle. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor). I’ve therefore had to cut loads out, constantly asking myself, ‘Yes that’s fine, but does it really tell us anything new?’ ‘How does it get us further forward?’ It’s quite hard to cut out a scene you love but which deep in your heart, you know serves no purpose at all. I have a document which is all outtakes. Not as funny as the ones you see on TV, that’s for sure, and getting longer every day.

The Spy Within is another crossroads story. Dottie is faced with some new and demanding situations, and of course uses her genuine love of people to find out the truth behind certain rumours and to ferret out answers to help William. We are going to find out a bit more about William’s background, meet a couple more of his family, enjoy quite a few afternoon teas (always high on my list of priorities), and finally the Mantle will come together, a year after the case in which it first featured. (The Mantle of God: Dottie Manderson mysteries: book 2.)

If you are Team Gervase, get ready for some hard truths to be revealed. And – hint, hint – to see your fave wiped off the slate. Sorry about that. Sorry not sorry. Haha.

If you are Team William, get ready for things to finally start going your way.  (Less of a hint, more of a massive nudge.) You might need chocolate, wine or your preferred indulgence/support for emotional scenes.

Chapter One is the only part of the book fully revised and currently not surrounded by warning signs, men in hard hats, and scaffolding, and if you’re bored enough tempted, you can read it here. Hope you like it.

 

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The perils of information dumping.

Writers are known for doing a lot of research, aren’t they? Or perhaps it depends on the kind of thing they write. It’s probably possible to write a book and not need to do much research at all.

Some writers seem to do tons of research, and they make sure that you, the reader, get to read all of it. ALL. OF. IT. They present it to you like a magician pulling a bunny out of a hat. This is called an information dump. Throwing all your research in this way can be tedious, and will slow down the pace of the story drastically. I mean, yes, it’s nice to offer these insights or explanations to your reader, but I don’t think it’s a good plan to completely exhaust your reader, overwhelming them with information so they feel like they’re cramming for an exam.

Do I really need to know the source of the leather used to make the hero’s shoes, or the style of the traditional hand-stitching that finished them off? I mean, unless that pushes the plot forward, I seriously doubt it’s something I need to know to enable me to enjoy the book. I skip all this type of stuff in books—there’s not enough time in my day or patience in my soul to read about the handstitchedness of a chap’s shoes. I doubt I even need to be told the hero is wearing shoes—I think it’s pretty much taken as read that he or she is wearing shoes, don’t you? Unless you’re the author or Kinky Boots or some other shoe-related plot, I don’t think it’s useful or helpful.

I don’t do a lot of research for my novels. Well, that’s not strictly true. If it’s something that interests me, I can waste hours on it, but if I’m purely trying to find out about something ‘ordinary’ then I can take it or leave it. I nip in, check the fact, and nip out again. Then I try to drip-feed it into the story if relevant–a little here, a little there.

As a writer mainly of murder mysteries, I know more than I really need to about methods of killing, about the human body after death, about the psychology of a killer—those are the things that intrigue me. My search history on my computer is enough to make a grown man blanch. But I try not to crowbar it all into my story except where it’s relevant.

As my main character in the Dottie books is ‘involved’ in the fashion industry, and because of personal interest, I spend quite a lot of time researching styles, technology relating to fabric production, and the mechanics of getting a frock to a customer from drawing board to shop assistant. And I’ll admit, quite a bit of this does get put into the book: readers have told me they enjoy the clothing details.

A lot of my research is conducted online, of course, as so much of everything is done these days. But any time I go out, I look for architectural features or cultural ideas that could come in useful in a book. I take photos of everything when I go out. (Or used to, back in the day when going out was a thing we all could do).

I’ve got tons of books too, on fashion history, cultural history, domestic and social history, and even on forensics.

For my research into designer brands—I’m not a designer brand kind of girl—for my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, I basically scanned Harrods website and selected the most expensive (insert item of choice here) I could find on their pages and awarded it to my protagonist. But those books have been around for the best part of ten years now, so may well be a bit out of date.

So if you plan to write a book and need to do some research, or if like me you are simply really nosy, here are my top favourites for online research:

Google maps – you can look around any town, not just in the UK but many other countries. Fancy a stroll around the streets of southern France? No problem. Want to drive through Warsaw? Easy peasy. Get a feel for the places you write about and see the real life layout (even if from two years ago) of your location. You can also get an approximate journey time and route all laid out for you. I love the internet!

Timeanddate.com – create yourself a printable or downloadable calendar from 1926. Or any other year from history. Want to know when there was a full moon in the Victorian era? No problem. Was Easter Sunday in 1958 in March or April? When was sunset or sunrise on a particular day? It’s all here. Super useful.

Wikipedia – yes everything seems to be on Wiki – but use with caution and try to verify the information here on other sites too, to ensure accuracy.

Want old street maps of London? Try maps-of-london.com

You can also get loads of useful information from police websites, every police service has them.

Newspapers online – so much useful material there.

The Victoria and Albert museum has a wonderful website. And no doubt other museums have, too. We’re all online nowadays, aren’t we?

Britainexplorer.com has information on interesting places. I used it to find out about a particular country house with priestholes or secret passages.

https://britainexplorer.com/listing/harvington-hall-priest-holes-and-hides/

Another time, I needed to know about everyday life in Britain in the 1930s, and researched telephones. Now we take a phone for granted, but in the 30s they were still pretty new and very much the preserve of the well-to-do. This blog post from italktelecom.com was very helpful

https://www.italktelecom.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-the-home-telephone

And when Dottie got her first car in The Thief of St Martins, I needed to know all about motoring in Britain in 1935. Check out this:

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/what-is-designation/heritage-highlights/englands-first-filling-station/

But if you take away anything from this, I hope it is, it’s easy to find out information you need, but use it carefully, don’t overwhelm your reader with information that is perhaps interesting to you but not actually needed.

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How to rewrite a first draft

Sorry, it’s a ridiculously long post this week. It’s a remodel of a post I did for good author friend Emma Baird back in August of 2017:

I love rewriting.

There, I’ve said it. I think I could be the only person in the history of the world who actually enjoys rewriting. In fact, I like it a lot more than writing the first draft. I hate that bit. Okay, maybe not hate. I love the thrill of writing the first 50 pages or so, when it’s all fresh and exciting, and the story begins to unfold on the page. I love, love love that.

But… sooner or later I always hit the first-draft wall. I know it’s partly because I don’t plot, so I get suddenly overwhelmed with two issues: ‘This is rubbish’ and ‘I’m lost and don’t know where I’m going’. I’m a pantser, so sue me, I hate to plot. But it makes the initial experience of writing a draft rather an emotional, rivers-deep-mountains-high kind of affair. But… rewriting, oh that is a whole new thing. I LOVE rewriting. You are free from the ‘burden’ of creating and, you can step back from your work, examine it carefully, and then you can begin to polish and tidy.

This is my favourite quote by any writer. It inspired me so much in the 80s and 90s when I knew I wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know how to be a writer. Mary Wibberley was a writer for Mills and Boon, so her book was aimed at writers of romance, and that’s why she was setting that word count of 56,000 words as an aim. For many years, as I tried to learn how to write, I would not relax and have confidence in myself until I had reached that 56,000 word point: when I reached that, I knew I could finish the book, even if it ended up being twice that length.

The point Mary was making was this: Don’t try to revise as you go. I know there are always a few people that system works for, but trust me, it’s not for most people. You get so bogged down in the detail that you never progress. You can spend your whole life perfecting chapter one and never move on.

Write the whole book, from beginning to end, always looking forwards, pressing on till you reach that glorious, astounding moment when you type: ‘The End’. If you can’t remember the names and places mentioned earlier in the story, just do what I do and put a massive X in its place. Or a note to yourself highlighted in bright yellow, so you can’t miss it as you scroll down the page. Or refer to a list of names and places you create as you go along.

It’s so much easier to revise a whole book. Like creating a sculpture, you’ve got that solid block to chip away at. You know where the story is going. You know the shape of it.

After finishing your first draft, don’t immediately start revisions. Unless you are on the clock and the deadline is almost on you, put the book away for as long as you can. This is the perfect time to write another book. Yes, really! Especially if you intend to write a series. Leave your first draft for at least a few weeks, ideally a few months, or even a year. You will need to approach it next time around with a degree of detachment to get out of writer mode and into rewriter or editor mode.

So you’re ready to start.

Read it. Don’t write anything. Don’t type, don’t tweak, fiddle, twiddle or jiggle. Just read the whole story through from beginning to end. You are trying to get an overview. Become a reader.

Then, later, go through it again but read it – as much as possible – out loud. I know that can be difficult to manage but it really will help you find some problems you otherwise will not notice. This time, make notes on how you feel about the book. Does the plot progress logically? (unless an illogical plot is essential to your story!) Do you have that sensation of tripping up as you read—a bit like when you miss a stair and think you’re falling—that’s when there’s a problem, usually a plot problem. Your spidey-senses will show it to you. Try to pinpoint what it was that made you feel like that. Put a sticky note on the page, or if you’re reading a computer file, highlight the section, or bookmark it, or make a new note in the Track Changes section.

If you’re frustrated by not being able to make changes as you spot them, or worried you might forget, again, make notes in the Track Changes feature of Word, or pencil notes in the margin, or use sticky notes if working with a paper copy. Just don’t change the body of the book yet. Hopefully after rereading the whole book, you will be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of your draft. You will see what needs to go. If not, give it to a trusted friend or writing pal to read. Ask them to be honest and not just pat you on the back. Rewriting can feel very much like ‘fixing problems’ or putting right things that are wrong. This can be quite demoralising. Don’t get into this mind set of ‘It’s no good, I’m no good’. Everyone has –or should have–a terrible first draft. Remember, you’re polishing, refining. Think of rough diamonds compared with the final polished article. You’re putting flesh on a flexible framework. It’s all good.

Save your file in its original state, then copy it and rename it. Rename as ‘final version’ or ‘second draft’ or something like that. If it goes to pot, you’ve still got your original first draft if you need it. (You won’t… but it’s like a security blanket.) Start tinkering.

Start with the easy stuff like typos, clarity, and grammar.

Then check consistency of character description and behaviour; the names and personal details of all characters; check place-names are correct and consistent throughout. Work with your timeline – is it clear when the events of the book take place. Is it dark at the right time, or have you got someone outside and seeing perfectly clearly at ten o’clock at night in winter? Weekends, summer-time, these can give characters different routines to the one for weekdays.

Then move on to point of view. With POV, consistency is everything. If you’re writing anything other than an omniscient third person viewpoint, then there will be things your characters cannot know until it is revealed to them. Make sure you’ve nailed that.

Next, check for all those words you overuse. For me, that’s words like So, And and Also. A friend of mine uses Thus in almost every paragraph… it’s really annoying. Check how often your characters do the same thing: mine are always gasping, sighing, biting their lips or tossing back their hair. They also glare a good deal. I’m rationing myself with all these overused expressions.

If you use unusual words to describe something, don’t repeat them more than once because unusual words stick in the reader’s mind and break the spell: the worst possible offence you can commit as a writer of fiction is to pull your reader out of the book and into the real world where they are a reader, not a character in your story. You want them to read your book, not remember they have laundry to do. Make less use of unusual words such as coterie or Schadenfreude, words that really stand out from the page. Find synonyms for words you need to repeat, so they seem less noticeably repeaty. (I know that’s a word, don’t nag me about it.) If you use cliches—please don’t—but if you absolutely must, do it just once, don’t repeat them.

Check hyphenation, apostrophe use, adverbs and speech tags. I don’t agree with the ‘never use adverbs, they’re evil’ approach, but do use them sparingly. (See what I did there?) Keep metaphors and especially similes to a minimum, unless writing poetry, they are also irritating, and often amount to little more than another cliche. Don’t use fussy speech tags: he responded, she retorted, they exclaimed, etc. Once in a while is fine, but to begin with, you don’t need to tag every speech, just enough so the reader can keep track of who said what. The word ‘said’, 90% of the time, is the best speech tag there is, it’s invisible, the reader ignores it.

Never, ever use the word ejaculate to mean exclaim. We don’t live in the world of the Famous Five anymore, if indeed we ever did. You just can’t do it without making your reader burst out laughing or become highly offended.

Check your tense scenes or action scenes for long, meandering sentences that slow the reader down and take forever to read, or have to be reread to try to figure out the meaning. Check slow, reflective, emotional or romantic scenes for accidentally humorous clangers, or break-neck short sentences that rush the reader too quickly through the text.

Read it again. And again. Tweak as you go, now, but remember some changes will have a knock-on effect and need to be addressed multiple times throughout the book, so don’t forget to change every instance of a word throughout the book, not just once. Be cautious with using find/replace as some words will be a syllable in a longer word. If you change his to hers, for example, using ‘replace all’, you will end up with words like machersmo instead of machismo and other similarly hilarious but disastrous typos. Now pass the draft to your close friends/beta-readers/book group, for your first round of feedback.

Then—I hate to say it—you need to do it all again. I read somewhere that if you don’t hate your book by the time it is published, you haven’t done enough work on it, and believe me I’ve come so, so close to hating a couple of my books. Your book is not ready for your editor or proofreader until you are absolutely convinced that it’s perfect. Trust me, it won’t be. But it’ll be pretty close. As an editor, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than getting a script that is little more than a first draft. It’s like seeing a neglected, unloved child. So show your baby some love.

When you make your first sale, it will feel like it was worth every minute.

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