Woohoo…NaNo2019 Funsies!

At this time of year, everyone starts putting out their ‘Tips For NaNo’ blogs. As I didn’t want to be left out, I thought I’d add my voice to all the advice aimed at writers planning to participate in this year’s (Inter)National Novel Writing Month through NaNoWriMo.org in November.

What do you mean, ‘what is it?’? It’s second fourth only to Hallowe’en, Christmas and Valentine’s as the most celebrated season of the year. Whether you are a seasoned author or a newbie who’s never written a whole novel before, this is a great way to challenge yourself to write a complete novel—though it could also be non-fiction, if that’s your bag, baby—by taking the challenge to write a whopping 50,000 words during the month of November.

I’ve done it several times now, and still haven’t quite made up my mind whether or not to go for it this year, as I’m just doing a final proof of my latest novel which is out at the end of this month, and I am, frankly, exhausted. But I do have some ideas I’ve been mulling over, so who knows, I might—just might—do something rash and go for it.

Even if I decide to do the smart thing and take a break, I can say unreservedly that NaNoWriMo is a great idea and I really believe it’s a valuable writing experience. If you’re not sure whether to do it, then I say, maybe give it a go, what have you got to lose?

You could gain a complete first draft!

Even if you don’t manage to complete the challenge, you will have achieved something – if you only write 10,000 words, or less than that – hey, it’s 10,000, or 1,000 or 250 words more than you had in October.

So here are my top tips for a great NaNoWriMo:

  1. Prepare. Yes, make sure you do. Even if you see yourself as a ‘pantser’, make sure you hit the ground running on November 1st by having a good idea of what your story is about, who the main characters are, and key plot points. You will need to write a little over1600 words per day every day to achieve the 50,000 word target by the end of the month. Reread any notes you have, and get your Word docs or word processing files, or your Scrivener files ready on your computer of choice. Do any essential research necessary NOW, don’t leave it until November.

I recommend setting up 30 files, dated: 1 Nov, 2 Nov, etc, so they are in the correct order time-wise, type up your story every day. Have another file called something like ‘Whole Thing’, and every day you complete, copy and paste that day’s work into the Whole Thing file, so you won’t have to do this at the end.

If you struggle to get going each new day, leave yourself a few words of direction at the end of your writing session, so when you come to start the next day, you’ve got a starting point.

It is a marathon. And like a runner in a marathon, you will have to learn to overcome ‘the voice’ in your head that tells you to give up, that you can’t do it. It’s not just athletes: you will find that voice also tries to trip up writers. You must learn to be stubborn, bloody-minded even, and refuse to give in even when everything in you and around you says you will fail and that what you are writing is terrible. So what, you will say, I’m going to do it. Carpe Stilum. Seize the pen! (I think…Latin is not my strongest skill)

If you get really stuck, go back and reread what you’ve already written, try to figure out what your original vision was and how you saw the story developing. If that isn’t working for you, try writing isolated scenes , conversations between your characters, events, try writing description of the setting in your story. Anything to keep going. Collect some images that will help to inspire you or give you a push forward when things are tough. You can find some wonderful images for free on Pixabay. Create a folder of these images to look at when you need something to spur you on.

  1. Keep your daily writing typed up. This is important if it’s your first time. Type your work into a computer file, don’t only write in longhand. Because at the end of the month, you need to copy and paste all your writing into the NaNoWriMo counter to get your achievement verified. And if it’s only written in notebooks, no matter how neat the writing nor fancy the notebook, it just—doesn’t—count. So don’t do what I did two years in a row (argh, the pain! Why am I so forgetful???) of writing mainly longhand then not leaving enough time to type up my work before the end of the month. It’s no good telling NaNoWriMo you’ve successfully completed the challenge if you don’t upload your ENTIRE 50,000 words for verification by their robot. In addition, remember their robot may not count quite the same as you, so ensure you’ve got a couple of hundred words over the 50,000-limit ‘just in case’. Don’t fail because you wrote exactly 50,000 words.
  2. Don’t get distracted. There is so much to look at on the NaNoWriMo site, and so many useful talks, motivational speeches, helps, suggestions, support groups, discussions and so on, not to mention the merch, but DO NOT spend time looking at this stuff if you haven’t done your daily word count. It is so easy to become distracted and to think, I’ll just write a bit extra tomorrow. Then the dog breaks its leg, and you’re at the vet till midnight and before you know it a week has gone by and you’ve got to write 3,500 words a day just to keep up. So don’t get on that slippery slope. Write first, have fun later.
  3. Be realistic. The aim here is not to write and publish a great work by Christmas. Okay, I’m sure some wonderman/woman will do exactly that—there’s always a handful of literary stars. But most of us will be aiming to simply write a complete, or almost complete, first draft during NaNoWriMo. Don’t write your 50,000 words then think the work is over, that your book is ready to be unleashed on a waiting world. This is simply the end of the beginning. Once you’ve finished your first draft, pat yourself on the back because it’s a wonderful achievement. Then request your winners’ certificate from NaNoWriMo.org and take a well-earned break. Put your first draft away. Then get it out in a month or six, and begin the process of rewriting, crafting, polishing. Work on it alongside the NaNoWriMo revision camps and workshops, and take pride in getting it as good as it can be. And—while you wait—write another book!
  4. Keep going through the tough days. At first it’s exciting. It’s fun. You feel a wonderful sense of achievement, and as you reach the end of week one, you survey your 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 words with pride. It’s all so easy, it’s all so wonderful. You should have done this years ago, why do people say writing is tough? BUT…often, (and it won’t just be you who goes through this) you can hit a brick wall. You struggle to wring 400 words from your imagination. Things happen in life and it can be hard to find the time. Suddenly the blank page is staring back at you, in what can only be described as a hostile manner, and you begin to feel like giving up. Now, yes, now it is hard. Maybe it’s not worth it, your inner wimp suggests.

Okay, take a breath, dig deep, you can do this. Hang on in there as they used to say in the 70s. Write a page of ‘I have no idea what to write’ or ‘I am so &*%%£! off with this writing game’. Anything, just to keep writing. Just keep at it and slog through the tough times. This would be a good time to read or listen to ONE or TWO only of the motivational speeches or posts, just so you know there are others going through the same experience. Keep writing, it will come back, I promise. You can make that 50,000 words appear. It’s not inspiration, by the way, it’s hard graft that will get you through this. Hard graft, and ignoring your inner meanie who says it’s time to give up and go home. ‘There’s always next year’, your inner meanie says with a snarky smile. Kick that B*****d in the shins and write on!

Woohoo—you made it! You are a writing genius and should feel sooooo proud of your achievement. Congratulations! Print off your certificate and put it on your wall to gloat over.

One of my books came out of a NaNoWriMo draft. I’ve written a number of other NaNoNovels but they are still on a shelf waiting for some TLC. Not every NaNoNovel shines and reaches publication, and not every novel that shines and is published started life written in 30 days flat in November. But NaNoWriMo is a valuable experience, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It will do wonders for your self-esteem as a writer.

Now stop wasting time and write another book. Oh, and, please, let me know how you get on! See you on the other side.

***

The red and gold thoughts of Autumn

For me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings.

It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-four years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!

New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.

I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the music softened by distance and the soft evening breeze.

I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’

I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?

I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.

I’m thinking too of that moment when you come home and you know someone else has been there. Someone who shouldn’t have been there. The stillness—too much—and the silence that waits. Your house feels guilty, complicit, hushed as if someone had been speaking and just this moment stopped when you opened the door.

I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, and I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.

I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?

If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.

‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.

Autumn – not for sleeping but for creating anew.

***

What I learned from reading Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie.

I’ve always loved reading, and mysteries have always been ‘my thing’. Of all the authors in all the bookshops and libraries in all the world, Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth remain my faves, with my girl Pat a nose ahead.

Why do I love them so much when a) there are thousands of modern authors out there, and b) these traditional mysteries seem rather old-fashioned by today’s standards?

There is a definite lure of the era: a time of long frocks, a time of afternoon tea, dinner parties, bridge evenings (I can’t even play bridge) and so forth. Yes, the plots can seem tame, contrived and are often insular, but as Miss Marple often comments, you see every aspect of life in a small village. It’s like viewing a sample of the whole of society under a microscope. I love to see how ordinary (kind of) people react in an apparently ‘safe’ setting when something goes wrong.

I often reread these books. I have read all of Christie’s works at least twice, often many more times than that, and the majority of Wentworth’s. (I’m still working my way through her non-series books.) Some of Wentworth’s books I have five or six different copies of, all with different covers, from different eras, and one of them is quite valuable. I won’t tell you which in case you nick it.

I recently decided to reread Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie. As you can see, I used quite a few sticky notes as I read it and made notes to myself–for funsies–at the same time. I wish I could say there was a special coded reason for using pink and green then yellow sticky notes, but it’s simply that I ran out of pink, then green…

There’s something a bit different about reading a book if you are a writer, and also, if you’ve read it several times before. (And, let’s not forget, it’s been on TV too.) As well as an enjoyable read, it’s been an interesting, and useful experience. Different things struck me this time. Here are a few of them: (btw – contains spoilers!)

Point 1. The book is quite long, I reckon it’s about 90,000 words or so. If you think in pages rather than words, it’s about 340 pages. That’s fairly standard for now, but many of Christie’s most well-known works are considerably shorter. (And Then There Were None, for example, is only 250 pages.) BUT the first clue comes on page 31! Wow! And even more interesting, the first red herring comes on page 30!!!!

p31 – the clue is: ‘A face that you liked but that you would find it hard to know again.’

p30 – the red herring is: ‘…the undercurrents that I sensed were nothing to do with Jane Wilkinson.’

Point 2. There are a lot of characters!  It can be hard for the writer to handle a large cast, and just as hard for the reader! To try to keep track of a lot of people without making them all into over-large caricatures takes a lot of skill and hard work. This is something I struggle with.

Point 3. There is a surprisingly large amount of sitting around talking. I know it’s not exactly an action thriller, but it still surprised me how static the story is in many places. Poirot notoriously eschews running from place to place violently searching for clues, preferring to sit and exercise his little grey cells. But still, it was more static than I remembered, and so I feel it would lend itself well to a play or film, (as it has!) because of the economy of sets required. It would be so easy to have a couple of side-boards, a couple of chairs, a different lamp and hey presto! You’ve got a completely different drawing room. Please note, future play-makers.

Point 4. Obviously we have a sidekick. A sidekick, such as ‘ma cher Hastings’, is such a useful device to enable the author to ask and answer questions she puts to the reader. I love Hastings, he is supremely gullible, naive, and a wee bit thick. The perfect sidekick, in fact, as he allows the detective to shine. Hastings, in this book, asks all the questions that the reader might ask given the opportunity, and answers a good many of them himself, almost always wrongly. Having a sidekick enables the author to speak Poirot’s thoughts out loud, so that his detection is not entirely internal, and we, the readers, can be involved.

Point 5. The use of attitudes of the era, and the use of appearances crops up regularly in Agatha Christie’s work. You can tell a wrong ‘un by how they talk about other nationalities, or how they dress or behave.

We see that those who make racial comments are often unmasked later as the perpetrators. Famously, in Death In The Clouds, the two main characters find they have much in common, including their racial attitudes. These commonalities help them to fall in love. But importantly for the reader, they also mark them out as the murderer and his unwitting accomplice.

In Lord Edgware Dies, there’s a touch of that same thing. We can identify some of the worst characters by their espoused attitudes towards other races.

In appearance too, anyone a bit different, or wearing colourful clothes, is set down as dandified and therefore downright suspicious. This works well for Poirot, who is often viewed with mistrust by those–particularly the men–who meet him. We know that Christie hated Poirot, who was probably her most successful character, and possibly got a secret joy from having him so vilely abused by those he met.

But the attitudes of others towards him plays into his hands. They observe his outer appearance, make a judgement about him based on that, and they fall into the trap of underestimating him. Through this, we are invited to laugh at the staid, traditionally-masculine Brit who refuses to get in touch with his feminine side for another forty or fifty years at least. And Poirot emerges triumphant once more–as he should.

Point 6. Suspects are set up and knocked down one by one like ninepins. The reader, along with Hastings, and even Japp, and Poirot himself, turns their suspicions first on one suspect, then these are (reluctantly) dismissed as being the perpetrator. Alibis are given, investigated, found wanting, then reinvestigated and finally the alibi is accepted. Until… well it’s almost become an in-joke that Christie herself invites us to share in – the least likely one is the true murderer. Usually it’s someone who has been suspected, then proved innocent.

This is a satisfying plot device actually, as it means working out timelines and getting your cats, ornaments and salt and pepper pots to help you envision the action on your dining table, just so you can be sure that what you think happens, could in fact have happened.

Point 7. This investigating, dismissing then returning to a suspect develops layers in the plot, and this is the intriguing and absorbing nature of crime fiction: edging closer and closer to a hidden truth, or to a definitive set of events. This is the intellectual riddle that draws readers to this type of fiction, and is so satisfying, because at the end, you think, just as the detective (or the writer) thinks, ‘Ah, now I know everything.’

Point 8. There are other points too, but I’ve waffled on quite a bit. So I’ll end with this: The detective.

The detective of any single book or series is clearly of supreme importance. Hercule Poirot (in this particular book) begins by being lauded by Hastings as a great man, but then as always, Hastings, and the police, and everyone else, loses their faith in him and begins to think he’s past it. Poirot himself declares his greatness, which Hastings wryly smiles over, because neither Hastings nor the reader would ever say such a thing about ourselves, but Poirot does not hesitate to state his abilities and announce his talents.

However, if he is vain, that’s not to say he is confident. He can be humble, he can admit he has made a mistake. In fact if there is one characteristic that defines Poirot for me it is his willingness to admit he has made a mistake and to reevaluate the evidence. He constantly rethinks his approach, going over and over the facts, because if there is one thing he trusts more than his own judgement, it is logic. He knows there must be an explanation and he will not rest until he finds it. The detective and the writer have a lot in common – persistence is everything.

So that’s it. That’s what I’ve learned or observed in Lord Edgware Dies. As a review, this isn’t much cop, but if it’s made you think, ‘I might read that’, then my work here is done.  Enjoy!

***

Coming soon: The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 5

As you may be aware, (I’ve talked about it a couple of times recently) there is a new Dottie Manderson book in the pipeline. I plan/hope to release it on 27th October, as an eBook and paperback on Amazon, and as an eBook and paperback through other online outlets such as Apple (not the print, though, soz), Kobo, eBook through Barnes and Noble’s Nook, paperback at Barnes and Noble’s online store, and a few other places. Still not at Waterstones, sorry, that would be a dream come true for me, but hey, maybe next year? I can’t give you the links at the moment for anything except the Kindle pre-order page.

The book is called The Thief of St Martins. It’s the fifth book in the series, and I’m really excited about it. If you want to read a sample chapter (that may or may not still be chapter one by the time the book is released, I’m not quite decided, but it will definitely be in there somewhere…) you can find the link to it below this brief description:

We last saw Dottie in the Summer of 1934, discovering that her mother was in fact really her aunt, and that she was the shameful daughter of her mother’s sister, her ‘aunt’ Cecilia Cowdrey. Some months later, to help herself to come to terms with this revelation, Dottie accepts an invitation to spend a few days with Cecilia and Lewis Cowdrey over New Year, although she’s not too sure what to expect.

Sample chapter that may or may not be chapter one on publication ;D

Meanwhile though, if you’ve missed out on books 1 to 4, here’s a little catch-up: (warning, contains a few spoilers!)

 

Book 1: Night and Day:

London, November 1933. Dottie Manderson stumbles upon the body of a dying man in a deserted night-time street. As she waits for help to arrive, she holds the man’s hand and tries to get him to tell her what happened. But with his last breaths he sings to her some lines from a popular stage show.
But why, Dottie wonders? Why would he sing to her instead of sending a final message to his loved ones? Why didn’t he name his attacker?
Dottie needs to know the answers to these questions and even though a particular, very annoying young policeman Sergeant William Hardy is investigating the case officially, she feels compelled to carry out her own investigation into the mysterious death.

 

 

Book 2: The Mantle of God:

Can a tiny piece of faded cloth really be worth killing for? Is the past ever truly forgotten? Dottie’s new friend William Hardy asks her to find out more about a scrap of fabric found in a dead man’s pocket. But as soon as she starts to ask questions, things begin to happen. It’s not long before someone dies, and Dottie wonders if she may be next. Can the insignificant scrap really be a clue to a bloody time of religious hatred and murder?
Join Dottie as she works to uncover the truth of a distant past, whilst uncovering secrets held by her own closest friends and family. Can Inspector Hardy put the murderer behind bars before it’s too late? Setting aside his own personal tragedy, Hardy has to get behind the polite façade of 1930s London society to find a killer.

 

 

Book 3: Scotch Mist: 

After the funeral of her friend and mentor Mrs Carmichael, Dottie Manderson is sent on a mission to find the dead woman’s missing son and to inform him of the death of a mother he never knew. Unbeknown to her, Dottie’s close friend Inspector William Hardy has also been sent on a mission, one that will force him to confront his past. His conversation with the Mrs Carmichael just before she was killed opened up questions about his father William would prefer not to ask. A sentimental lawyer has plans to bring Dottie and William together, acting on Mrs Carmichael’s bequest. But after a personal tragedy and some hectic months in his new role, is Inspector Hardy ready for romance? Perhaps if no one got murdered, he could think about other things?

 

Book 4: The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish: 

Dottie’s had a hectic and difficult time: she’s attended too many funerals, and has just had a massive row with the man she thought she loved. on the spur of the moment she makes a stop off on her way home, in search of a dear friend who needs her help. In any case, a few days rest in a hotel by the sea is just what Dottie needs. It’s not long before she makes the acquaintance of the newly-widowed Penny Parfitt, and her attractive brother-in-law Gervase. Dottie impulsively accepts their invitation to spend a few days at Penny’s home in the country.
Quickly Dottie realises that secrets and intrigues lurk beneath the pleasant surface of their lives. A suicide years earlier casts a shadow. Was it really suicide? Dottie begins to think something sinister has taken place.
But after all this time, can she find out what really happened?

 

So now that you know a little bit about these, I hope that you feel intrigued enough and inspired enough to give them a try. There are more in the pipeline, but as yet I’ve only planned the first ten books in this series. Will there be more? Yes, I think there will. By book 11 we will be into the war years: the war no one ever thought would happen. So I am looking ahead and seeing the potential for that. How will the war affect the lives of Dottie, Flora, Mr and Mrs Manderson, and of course, William Hardy? Who will fight for King and Country? Who will be left behind, and what will they do to cope with the strain of constant danger? I’m quite keen to get to that point. But there’s so much to do first.

 

I’m what writers call a ‘pantser’ ie I don’t plan my books in meticulous detail in advance, but I write by the seat of my pants, almost literally making it up as I go along. BUT I do plan loo

sely, sometimes years ahead. But if I told you any of those loose plans now, it would ruin everything, wouldn’t it?

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the wonderful people who’ve said such nice things, and given me so much encouragement with my writing, and with this series in particular. Honestly, you have no idea how amazing it is to know that someone somewhere has read and enjoyed one–sometimes more than one–of my books. Thank you so much.

And thank you too to my family and friends for all their love support and active assistance, ‘without whom’…

***

To Bludgeon or Not To Bludgeon

Writing murder mysteries means that I constantly have to try to find a different, even grisly way to ‘eliminate’ my victims. Like a lot of writers of murder mysteries, my search history leaves a lot to be desired. Those who know me have sometimes remarked (thinking they were safely out of earshot) that I’m a bit weird. I’m not really. (okay, maybe I am a teeny bit odd, but in a nice way, right?)

I just overthink things and take them a bit too seriously.

Like weapons for example, and the various means of disposing of someone.

I know some writers go over the top to try out a new method of dispatching a victim for their books. They might talk to experts, spend time at chemistry labs researching poisons, do a short course on blood spatter analysis, or go to firing ranges or interrogate forensic specialists. They might purchase a raft of books on forensic stuff, or even, like character Gil Grissom in an early episode of classic CSI, get a pig’s carcass delivered to his place of work and proceed to inflict various atrocities on it. I don’t think I could do that. I’d be unable to forget it was (once) a living creature. I’m not a vegetarian, just a bit squeamish.

It’s quite easy, though to absorb this kind of thing via osmosis. TV shows, factual and fictional, go into the aspect of how a person died to a very useful extent. And as I said just now, there is plenty of literature on the subject, as my book shelves will attest. Then there’s the internet… And news media…

It used to be said that the female weapon of choice was murder. Is that still true in these days of equality?

I’ve poisoned a few people in my time. Fictionally, of course. But the blunt instrument is still my favourite. You can whack someone with almost anything.

Spoiler alert:

If you follow my Dottie Manderson series, you can look forward to a death by blunt object in the upcoming book, The Thief of St Martins. You can read a short taster HERE.

Does anyone remember that brilliant episode of Tales Of The Unexpected from years ago where the woman killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooked it and served it to the investigating police officers. They ate the evidence! Fantastic. That’s definitely my favourite episode.

To date, in my books, I’ve had people stabbed, poisoned, die in various forms of road ‘accident’; they’ve been suffocated, executed, shot, strangled and bashed over the head. I like to vary it a bit, but it’s hard to get away from the old-but-good methods.

My murderous main character Cressida in The Friendship Can Be Murder books talks about how hard it is to come up with a murder weapon these days.

The Grandes Dames of the murder mystery genre, practising their art in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century—what one might term the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction—espoused the pleasures of poisoning. Fly-papers were meticulously soaked to extract their lethal properties, berries and toadstools were carefully gathered and sliced and diced and surreptitiously introduced into steaming casseroles and tempting omelettes. On every domestic shelf such things as sleeping draughts and rat poison and eye drops sat unnoticed and unremarked, and a home was not a home without at least a few jars of cyanide or arsenic sulking forgotten in garden sheds and garages.

But, sadly, these items are notoriously tricky to come by nowadays in our ‘Nanny state’.

Of course, one watches these TV programmes that explain all about the forensic process, so that one is pre-armed with useful information. Knives wielded by the left-handed protagonist cut quite differently to those employed by a right-handed person. Equally so the short protagonist and the weak slash feeble protagonist.

In addition the actual wound inflicted by a classic blunt weapon can yield so much information about not just the weapon itself but also the attacker—the approximate height, stance, and even weight and probable gender, for example, and the ferocity of attack is sometimes a gauge as to motive and psychology. Firing a gun leaves residue on one’s clothes, gloves, and skin, and, contrary to popular belief, it can be quite a job laying one’s hands on a firearm.

According to the Daily Tabloid, a gun may readily be obtained at certain pubs in our larger cities for as little as £30, usually from a gentleman going by the name of Baz or Tel, but the problem is, these tend to be the kind of establishments one would hesitate to enter in broad daylight, let alone late in the evening.

She’s got a point, bless her, and ‘fortunately’ she manages to find a way round these problems. I’d love to try flypapers! Maybe I’ll save that for my next book.

I’ve also been experimenting with a mad professor and an ‘infernal machine’. I might use that at some point. In another series–still not published yet–I’ve used a fetishist and a special piece of rope that he loves to moon over. Elsewhere I’ve had social leaders employ minions as an execution squad, and of course there’s another old favourite, the fall from a high place.

Most of my perpetrators are people who don’t usually make a habit of ‘this kind of thing’, they just find themselves pushed little by little into a situation where they feel they have no choice but to lash out at the person or persons who is putting them or their comfortable life in jeopardy somehow.

If there’s nothing new under the sun, it is at least pleasing to come up with a bit of variety, though bludgeon has, as Michael Douglas’s character says in A Perfect Murder, (based on Dial M For Murder, one of my all-time favourite films)  ‘a spur-of-the-moment ring about it’. I like the idea of a spur-of-the-moment crime, where the perpetrator loses control and spends a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to get away with it. It’s not all about the victim, you know!

***

How To Get ImposterSyndromeForAuthors.version1

What is it?

Imposter syndrome is a widespread professionally recognised psychological disorder encountered by people in all walks of life, but here I am talking about us writers. It’s essentially a negative, destructive mindset that gets a hold of you and messes with your head. It makes you doubt yourself – more than doubt yourself – if left unaddressed. It convinces you you have no right to stand with your peers or to call yourself a writer. If you let it take a hold of your life, it’s then all too easy to find yourself in a deep well of misery and be unable to function.

I’m speaking from personal experience. It was many years before I realised it wasn’t only me, it was a quite common problem that many people have to overcome, not just once, but sometimes many times in their life. Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about the occasional, short-lived self-doubt everyone has, especially when trying something new. I’m talking about paralysing, life-altering, behaviour changing self-disbelief leading to a deep depression.

What are the signs of Imposter Syndrome?

Check these out, be honest with yourself. If you can say, ‘Yes, that’s me’ to a few of these, maybe you could do with some help to overcome these issues in your life.

  • You don’t see your own strengths. Not just modesty, you really think you’re useless.
  • You believe your luck is running out, that any success you’ve had was a fluke, and is about to leave you forever. You are convinced that it is only a matter of time until people realise you are not a real writer, painter, sculptor, dressmaker, teacher, secretary, doctor, politician, musician… and that you will be publicly denounced for the fraud you are.
  • You feel like you need to work harder than everyone else just to stay in place.
  • You can’t accept compliments, but always feel uncomfortable, even apologetic, and need to rationalise how you ‘accidentally’ did something good or right.
  • You shrug off success as a beyond your control, going-with-the-territory result of your hard work, rather than your ability.
  • You’re a workaholic.
  • You’re a perfectionist and feel you’re never quite finished with a project. When something is done, you see only the glaring flaws.
  • Failure is not an option for you. You feel humiliated, even ashamed when you have to back down or cancel any project you’re working on. You feel people laugh at you or despise you for failing.
  • You’re not comfortable with confidence. You feel awkward and fake when promoting your work or talent.
  • Comparisons undermine and upset your brief flashes of self-confidence, and stop you functioning.
  • You only see the negatives and the limitations of your work. You may have worked hard for years to achieve a certain level of ability, but you only see your shortcomings.
  • You downplay your role in projects or in helping others, saying things like ‘anyone would do the same’ or ‘I had so much help from others’.
  • You have irrational feelings and thoughts such as, ‘I’m useless’, ‘I can’t do it’ and even the dreaded, ‘I’m giving up’. This last is the worst, because you can lose a lot of creative, productive time, sometimes years, even a whole lifetime, because of this destructive mindset. I’ve also known people to destroy their work (I’ve done this) in the belief that it is trash.

So now we know what it is, how do we deal with it?

The important thing is to remember you’re not the only one with these kind of thoughts. I recently read somewhere that ‘experts’ (no idea who) say as many as 70% of people suffer from this disorder. 70%. It’s possible that out of ten people you know, more than half have the same sense of inadequacy and fear that you do, or I do. That’s a lot!

So it’s obvious that it’s not just—YOU—this problem isn’t something that only affects you. Does that help? It helps me A LOT to know that huge numbers of other writers feel the same as me. Just knowing that means that it’s not just me, therefore a lot of my thoughts have to be false.

Some things we can do:

  • Know and acknowledge your strengths. Not everything you do is wrong or weak. Realise that you have assets and talents. If you don’t know what they are, ask your friends, family or trusted colleagues what they think are you best qualities or your biggest abilities. They will surprise you by seeing things that you didn’t even know were strengths. Hold on to what they tell you, write it down to look at when old doubts come back to haunt you.
  • Share your feelings, don’t keep them bottled up inside, afraid to tell anyone how you feel. Often people will respond with compassion, support and even, ‘Yes, I worry about that too’. If they don’t, find another person to confide in, someone who ‘gets’ you.
  • Count your blessings. Old school but it always helps to realise that there are many good things in your life. Start small, it is usually the small things in life that bring joy, rather than the big things. This attitude helps you to develop and keep a positive mindset.
  • Make large projects or tasks manageable by breaking them down into components or sections—this will help you to feel less overwhelmed and less daunted by what you have to do.
  • Grow to understand that it is not a failing to fail. EVERYONE fails sometimes, and you cannot go through life without that. So don’t fear it, but embrace it as an opportunity to learn and grow, and to connect with others as you are open about your fears and your failings.
  • Recognise that you are always changing, always learning. Learning is not something we only do at school. Our whole lives are about moving on and increasing our abilities. Just because you struggle with something now, that doesn’t mean you will always struggle with it. There is always room to develop and to build on skills. So be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to learn new things.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit if something isn’t working for you and give up on it. you will always learn something from any abandoned project. Don’t let it stop you from trying again with something else.
  • Learn to accept compliments without shrugging them aside. Learn to say nice things, positive and nurturing things, to yourself. Refuse to allow mean thoughts about yourself and your abilities to flourish. Try to avoid comparing yourself with others. No one is the same. No one can be the same.
  • Don’t let other people criticise you in a negative way. No one has the right to do that, and it’s usually born out of jealousy or guilt. If someone attacks you in this way, verbally, or on social media, however they do it, walk away, literally or virtually. Cut it off before it gets into you and eats away at your newly acquired self-esteem.

I hope this has helped. You can contact me if you want to talk more about this subject.

Further reading you might find useful:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/real-women/201809/the-reality-imposter-syndrome

https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one

https://impostorsyndrome.com/10-steps-overcome-impostor/

 

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10 tips for getting on with your writing

I think most of us have days when we stare into space and can’t think of a single thing to write. Here are my top tips for getting on with it. There’s not anything really earth-shatteringly new here, just practical ideas to keep you—and me—writing. Some are obvious, some are simple, some are just coping mechanisms that have worked for me.

  • Keep social media out of your work area. It’s so easy to ‘lose’ an hour or two just checking your emails or catching up with social media—and this is a really good one for disguising as work. But if you are a media junkie and know you spend too much time oohing and ahhing over other people’s cat pictures or searching for memes, do everything you can to keep internet availability to areas away from where you work. Keep your breaks short—just enough time to eat, drink, pee and then get back to work. (btw Eat, Drink, Pee is the little-known follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love. Less successful because it lacks the strong spiritual appeal of the original.)
  • Plan. Yes, even if like me, you are more of a pantser, when you struggle to move forward with your work, then leave yourself a couple of lines of notes that will give you a kick-start to begin your next writing session. I heard it suggested that a writer even breaks off in the middle of a crucial scene to create an easy pick-up point. However, if like me, you’re a bit forgetful, you might not find this idea too effective. Instead I prefer to scratch down a few lines in pencil, just to give myself a little push in the morning. (Not a morning person!) while it’s still fresh in my mind. I often have an idea in my head of where the story is going to go, but can forget some of this by the next day. This idea is a good one to avoid losing the plot—literally.
  • Take a notebook everywhere. Yes, I know this is an obvious one for writers, but trust me, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to either abandon a brilliant idea or rush to buy a notebook when out and about. And trust me, notes written on a napkin in ketchup or eyebrow pencil aren’t so easy to read when you get home. You don’t have to take along a huge, heavy notebook, just a teeny one that fits into a pocket will be fine, so long as you always have something with you in case inspiration strikes. For me, any time I’m left alone to stare into space can be a good time to write—on the bus, train, waiting for the bus or train, waiting for loved ones to finish work or try on a dress… or you could get a note-making app on your tablet or phone, I like Evernote. I do a lot of my best writing in a caff with a cappuccino at my elbow. So before you leave the house, make sure you have a notebook and about six pens. Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Notebook…?
  • Count your words. This is really a coping mechanism for if you are going through a sticky patch. It’s really aimed at people who, like me, write longhand before they transfer work onto a device. Each morning, before you start work staring at the crack on the ceiling, count the previous day’s word total manually. Doing this will mean a) you get a quick overview of what you wrote yesterday and that will help you to get into writing mode, and b) you will feel encouraged to build on what you already have. This works for me when nothing else does, even if I end up discarding half or more of the previous day’s work.
  • Break up the blank. This continues from the one above. If you sit and stare at the white page or screen in dismay and your brain refuses to create, try this:
    • Do Step 4 as above.
    • Then start each new page with the date and running word total in the top left corner.
    • Number the pages bottom right.
    • If you are using chapter headings or titles, write that too, or simply write chapter and the number.

You could also do Step 2 for this point, again to give yourself a little push.

  • Change your routine. This is another one that works well for me. Try sitting somewhere different to your usual spot, give yourself a new viewpoint. Listen to different music—even music you hate can be useful. I used to sometimes sit in one of my children’s bedrooms when they were at school and listen to some of their music. Just changing your daily routine or habits can trick your brain into creating fresh words. Try getting up in the middle of the night, if you’re a morning person, or go out and write in the pub or the library or the park. Anything different is good and will help to lift you out of your slough of despond and help get rid of that wading-through-mud feeling.
  • Revise. If you’re really stick, go back and look at your original premise for your WIP and see if there’s any aspect of your story you’ve missed, ignored or just plain not considered. Did you go down a blind alley? If you don’t have old notes to go back to, write down a couple of paragraphs of what you remember about getting the original idea for your story. How did it work out in your mind? How does that compare to what you have actually written so far? Try to see your story as a whole unit, like a ladder with rungs moving the story forward. What needs to happen to your characters to get the story to the next rung?
  • Read. This is the easy one. I’m not advocating spending weeks and months reading hundreds of books, but just take some time out to read for half an hour or an hour. Refresh your mind, read some poetry, or a familiar favourite book. Again too, you could try something new and different that will get your creative juices flowing. If I’m writing fiction, I read a non-fiction, usually history.
  • Write something else. So often I find the minute I start work on one story, I get ideas coming through for another. Usually it’s another story where I’ve already completed the first draft and am just subconsciously mulling it over. Try your hand at a short story or a haiku.
  • Doodle. Make yourself some brain-storming cluster diagram. Put your key word—or your character name, or anything to do with your WIP, and then bring lots of lines out from the central idea and at the end of each line, write a word or phrase or idea that somehow relates to the key word. You can do this for every character, or every location or plot point etc. You can put down anything that is linked with your main character, or maybe just ideas that are only tentatively linked. You could sit and create a list of words from your title, or your character’s name. You could try Googling your character’s name and see what comes up—but don’t get side-tracked, it isn’t supposed to replace writing but to stimulate it. Try brain-storming something completely different, a colour or a sound that is relevant to your story, eg blue—then write all the things you can think of to do with ‘blue’: the colour of royalty; meaning sad or depressed; lapis lazuli used to be used to make the pigment blue for artists, and was more expensive than gold, so hence very little of it used in paintings, only for the special few key characters, which brings us back to royalty again; the Greeks had no colour for blue, and used the word for brass; the Bible says sometimes when you pray the ‘Heavens are as brass’; does that mean they are blue, or they are hard and impenetrable? Blue is a cold colour, blue is the colour for baby boys—but used to be the traditional colour for baby girls up until the early 1900s, then mysteriously it swapped, so did this result in confusion? Hopefully you see how this technique can generate ideas.

So those are my top tips. Hopefully if you do get stuck with your writing, or you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, one of these might help you to get back on track and find fresh and exciting ideas. Above all if you’re struggling with a particular idea or a specific part of your WIP, don’t panic. Do something else for a little while or try one of these ideas. You’ll soon get your mojo back.

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Gold or silver?

I found these notes in an old journal. I had been pondering the attributes, from a writer’s point of view, of gold and silver, and how whether as metal or colour, they are portrayed in literary works.

Gold is the colour of royalty, of quality, of the authorised, and acknowledged, of states and state, religions and churches and faiths, of the accepted and acceptable, of righteousness.

Gold is pure, incorruptible, reliable, ‘pure gold’, good, honest and forthright.

Gold is given in blessing and to enrich, it is security, savings and wealth. Gold is warm and appealing. It is masculine, and constant; the colour of the noonday sun, giving life to all and sight to all. The ‘gold standard’ indicates a status achieved, a level of existence and compliance, of regularity and trust, and a line by which all else is measured. Gold is laid up for the righteous, we are told.

But silver? No. Silver is ‘other’. Silver is secretive and fleeting, it is mercurial and unremarkable in nature, and always not quite good enough: doomed to be second best. It changes hands easily, each time serving or claiming a new master.

Silver works its arts by night, it is hard, feminine and bright and although it’s the colour of small change, ready money, the easily-obtained (for some people, anyway), it really is a confidence trickster: appearing cheap and easy to get, but actually constantly demanding more from us, just that little bit beyond our grasp.

It is the colour of the stars and the light of the moon, alluring, beautiful, cold. Silvery and secret, sinister and elusive, it dances through the sky, always out of reach, now hidden, now displayed. The thirty pieces of silver, the betrayer’s coin, the turner of hearts and souls, the illicit, the unauthorised, the denied, or the denier.

 

These gorgeous images from Steve Bidmead, Arek Socha, Kevin Schneider and Patricia Alexandre, all at Pixabay.com 

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Working on the WIP

WIP stands for Work In Progress. What we really should call works in progress is WIFITDSE. I know that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, though. It stands for: Work I Frequently Interrupt To Do Something Else. I know I’m not the only guilty one here…

And what I’m talking about here is not wandering off and doing something totally different. I’m not talking about attending to long-forgotten chores to act as displacement activity, or your basic everyday procrastination. I’m talking about legitimate stuff that still somehow gets in the way. Research. Plotting. Blogging. And of course, everyone’s favourite: social media. (Because as we all know, networking and promo is soooo important, right?)

With my current WIP, oh it’s been so hard to just sit down and get on with it. There are a couple of reasons for this.

One is I’m a bit of an anti-planner. If I plan my book in detail, then something in me just throws its pen and paper down, folds its arms and says, ‘Well, I don’t wanna…’

I do plan—a bit—I know roughly who is going to get snuffed out, and I know roughly who will make that happen. With my Dottie Manderson series, I already know the vaguest outline of the next five books, even though I’m beginning to realise I won’t release some of them for another three years. I know the main theme of each book, the things that will happen to my main character, Dottie. That’s all there in my head. I just don’t have any details.

But some writers I know—quite a few actually—have a chart or a big page or something, all spread out and every chapter documented with who does what, who says what, what happened when they were all having breakfast, that kind of thing. Every page of every chapter is meticulously planned and positioned in the story. They use words like Story Arc and Resolution of Sub-plot.

I don’t do that.

I have a few snatches of conversation in my head, as if overheard from another room, and possibly a couple of facial expressions, and a random mental image of an object. This is all often scrawled on the back of an old fag packet or old envelope then stapled into a notebook. I have sticky notes all over the place, all different colours. But where some (organised, smart) people might have a different colour for a different kind of note, mine are completely random and it’s just a case of whatever I could put my hand on at the time I needed to make the note. During the course of the first draft I scribble a list of characters, their names, ages, occupations, and the only reason I do that is because I get confused by the ‘Mrs X said to Mr X, “I wonder if Mr X has seen Ms X?” I imagine you can see how that might get messy. But it’s my mess, and it’s how I work.

So I’m not really a planner.

And you don’t have to be either, if that’s not your bag, baby. One approach/size does not fit all. Find your method as well as your voice, and if it works for you, stick with it. This is my method, if it warrants such a name, I kicked against it, tried to fit into the popular writing systems and methods that works for thousands of others, and for me they did not work. So I am a big advocate of the ‘go your own way’ method: find the method that works for you. Stick with it, believe in yourself, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.

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I’ve heard that name before…

“That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers. Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character? And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder. Without a character, you have no story.

Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me: Meredith Hardew from a story Miss Beckett Changes Her Mind. Amy Harper and Kym Morris from The Silent Woman. (Both novels still lying fallow!)  These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story. I couldn’t even think of calling any of those people anything else. In fact this whole opening piece came to me in a flash, and I had to run to a stationer’s to buy a notebook to write it down before I forgot it. (Now I just put it into a note app on my phone! Ah technology, I love you so much.)

At forty-six, Meredith Hardew, with her handsome features, trim figure and excellent dress sense, was frequently taken for at least ten years younger than her true age. Not that she was in the habit of seeking out flattery, for she was one of those women who never thinks about herself, what she’s wearing or how she looks. She was far too busy running errands for someone or other.

But it doesn’t always work out like that. I can spend hours, days even, agonising over the right name for a character. There are times when I have delayed starting a new story because I can’t seem to find the right name for my protagonist.  though equally, when I am writing a first draft, I sometimes can’t remember the names I’ve already given my characters. I have even written several thousand words with varying numbers of capital XXXXs to denote each character, just to avoid abandoning the story and messing up the flow’. But it can get confusing. In these circumstances I often have to write long explanatory notes to myself of who the person is, as well as the XXXXXXs. there’s usually a Mr XX, a Miss XXX and a Jeffrey X, so it gets a bit muddled. But it does help me keep writing.

 However, I can’t always trust myself when a name does just spring into my head. Like the time I wanted to call my main character Ben, then I needed to give him a surname. Sherman. Hmm, I thought, Ben Sherman sounds really good.  It’s as if those two names were meant to go together somehow. What a great, natural-sounding name for a character, I thought. It sounds just like a real person. Too often I hear people moan, ‘No one would be called that, it’s not a name anyone would really be called.’ So I told my daughter about my new hero Ben Sherman. She rolled her eyes heavenward in what can only be described as her ‘For God’s sake, Mother!” expression. Turns out there’s already a real person/ designer with that name. I was right, it did sound just like a real person. Oh well. Back to the book of baby names again.

That lightbulb moment when you realise your character has a famous person’s name.

Names can be absorbed by osmosis from society and culture and we don’t always know where they’ve come from. I usually check my friends’ names on Facebook or for authors on Amazon to be ‘on the safe side’. I had also written five chapters of the Miss Beckett story before I realised that two of the main characters were named Meredith and Edith. Edith had to become Sheila. You need to keep the names quite dissimilar to avoid confusion, unless that is germane to your plot. Never feature Jack Peters and a Peter Jackson in the same book. (I’ve known it happen, and the confusion accidentally created by the author seriously impacts on the enjoyment of the story! You can’t suspend belief if you’re trying to remember who is who.)

Names go through trends. So if you’re writing historical fiction, don’t give your character a modern name. If in doubt, turn to a census of the time for ‘in’ names or look to the royalty of the day. Equally if you’re writing modern stuff, don’t give young characters the names of your parents’ generation, few little ones these days or for the past 20 or 30 years have been called Barbara, Sandra, Hazel, Nigel, Richard, etc. They have a slightly ‘previous generation’ sound to them. However, go back a bit further to the grandparents’ generation and you’ll hit all the names that are now so ‘in’: Jack, Alice, Freddy, George, and so on. I hope in the next generation after this one, my name will be back in again!

When it came to creating character names, Dickens was a master. He used names to ridicule his characters, to reveal societal trends and attitudes, and to denote characteristics or personalities. Think of Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild in Hard Times, think of Uriah Heep, Mr Cheeryble, Squeers. He also used another technique that is still useful for writers today. He used to take names that were ordinary and just slightly change them, creating something different and yet somehow familiar. Thus Philip became Chilip.

Think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, think of Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale – the woman Offred was the ‘property’ of Fred. Also for fabulous names it is impossible to beat Alistair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice character, Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird. So don’t be afraid to play around with names and have fun. Changing one letter or the order of the letters can make a world of difference, and this works so well with Sci-fi or Fantasy character names. Maybe Isaac can become Istac or Casai, Sophie can be Phosie, Mary can become Maare, John could become Hjon, Dohn, Joon.

In creating fiction, you are creating a whole world, so a few names is not much more of a stretch. Just make sure they are not the names of a successful designer.

The characters for my next book.

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