The Blue Dress

This week I thought I’d dig out a short story I wrote a few years ago, inspired by a writing prompt from Morgen Bailey on her site. A very short story. I was really into Flash Fiction at the time, although this one was special for me and I have often been tempted to write more about this character. This story was included in a compilation of work that was briefly available (it wasn’t popular!) under the title (I think it was partly the title that killed it 🙂 ) of The Commuter’s Friend. So here it is, I hope you like it.

The Blue Dress

“They’ve found something, sir.” A young policeman addressed him through the car window. Inspector Smith heaved himself forward on the seat and got out of the car. Seemed like these days he was always tired. Time to quit, go fishing, get away from all this. He’d given them thirty-five years, they’d had enough.

“Is he still alive?” he asked the constable. He looked too young to be a copper. Looked like he should still be in the Scouts. They all did, with their degrees in Criminology or Psychology, and their fresh faces, still with acne, some of them. The constable shrugged.

“The paramedics are still working on him. It doesn’t look too good, sir.”

Inside the funeral parlour, the assistant who had raised the alarm watched as a couple of paramedics laboured over the undertaker. The scrawny white chest was bared for the use of the defibrillator. Smith turned away, the image frozen, a moment in time, imprinted on his mind—a few greying hairs in the middle of the chest, the prominent ribs supporting the pale skin.

“How did you know this wasn’t just a routine call?” The constable was at his side, and the question was a welcome distraction. As Smith responded, they turned about and headed for the rear door. “I mean, we were called out to a robbery gone wrong, and straightaway, you knew. It was like magic, sir.”

Smith halted in the doorway and looked at the youngster.

“There’s no magic in this game, son. As soon as we went into the flat upstairs, I saw the dress.”

“I saw it too, sir, but it didn’t ring any warning bells with me.”

Smith looked at him. “You didn’t find it a bit odd that an elderly bachelor should have a blue dress hanging on a mannequin in his bedroom? A blue dress that clearly dated from the 1950s, and was the size of a girl of about 12 to 14 years of age? It didn’t make you wonder if the undertaker had a secret? You didn’t find any of that at all unusual, constable?”

The constable flushed, and looked down at his feet. “Well, I suppose…”

They headed into the back garden. There was a concrete area set aside for client parking. Beyond that a tall hedge enclosed a private garden. Some men in plastic all-in-ones had dug up a small patio area surrounded by climbing roses. In any other time or place, it would have been simply a beautiful bower of contemplation. One of the men got to his feet and beckoned the police officers over. He pointed into the shallow pit.

Smith looked. A cold hand clutched momentarily at his heart. He nodded and turned away. The constable was at his elbow like an eager puppy. “Sir? Do you know who it is, sir?”

Smith nodded again. He sighed.

“Jessie Flynn. 13 years of age. Missing since 1958. The owner of that blue dress.”

***

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.

***

Writers Write!

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Every week I try to think of something scintillating to write on my blog. (I know – shocker! I do think about it, honest.) This week, as I wracked/racked my brains to think of a topic, any topic, I read somewhere that “blogging comes easily to writers” because apparently it’s what we do. Not true. I mean yes, writers write – but I for one am almost permanently stumped for ideas of things to write on here – which is why it’s now Thursday and you are only just reading my Tuesday blog… I have read many books on all things writerly over the last thirty-five years. And I’ve bought even more (some I still haven’t read). Some of them have changed my life – no exaggeration.

In fact if you do want to make money from writing, there is some to be made in writing how-to books for those with the expertise. There is a vast selection of books available to help us as writers hone our skills in one specialist area or all areas generally.

So this week I thought I would indulge myself – here is a list of all the books about writing and writing technique or self-publishing or promotion that I have found helpful. I hope you do too – I heartily recommend these, and if any of the authors mentioned below are reading this – bribes are now acceptable by pay pal.

In no particular order:

Stephen King – On Writing – (everyone raves about this book, with justification. Honest, sometimes painfully.)

Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter – What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers (great prompting)

Douglas Wynn – The Crime Writer’s Handbook (I’ve got lots of page markers in this one) (get a used copy – the new one is listed at £81 on Amazon!!!)

Michael Boxwell – Make An Ebook (fab straightforward easy stuff for the average Joe or Josephine who wants to go it alone in the eBook world)

Ruby Barnes – The New Author (more brill stuff for ePublication and ‘new media’)

Barry Turner (Editor) – The Writer’s Handbook Guide to Crime Writing (also really expensive new! But full of great stuff.)

Robert R Ray and Jack Remick – The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery (for me – worked well but not on its own – see Louise Doughty below)

Sarah Mlynowski and Farrin Jacobs – See Jane Write (brilliant and hilarious)

Carole Blake – From Pitch To Publication (the serious biz)

Dorothea Brande – Becoming A Writer (this is the one that changed my life and showed me how to become a writer when those around me said I couldn’t; some critics have complained about its exercises – I found them helpful, especially in the beginning. It is still in print after 80 years – that tells you something! I hope the same can one day be said for a book of mine. Once I fell asleep writing morning pages as per this book, and woke up with the notebook on my chest, a pen in one hand and my alarm clock in the other; the worst thing was, I couldn’t remember all the wonderful stuff I wrote in my dream!)

Mary Wibberley – To Writers With Love – (I think only used copies available – but I found it helpful even though it is intended as a guide for authors of romance in the old-school style (1970s.) I particularly liked her bit about not tinkering with your draft until it’s finished!)

Andre Jute – Writing a Thriller

Louise Doughty – A Novel In a Year (I used in conjunction with The Weekend Novelist as above; and found it very useful in finding a new approach to characters)

Seumas Gallacher – self-publishing steps to successful sales (an alliteration nightmare but one of the most useful books I’ve read on the topic of platform-building and promotions)

James Scott Bell – Write your novel from the middle (interesting and very helpful and inspiring.)

K S Brooks – Indies Unlimited’s Tutorials and Tools for prospering in a digital age vol 2 – (this is probably the most useful book I have read concerning how us writers can put down our pen and notebooks and get out there in the virtual world – I have referred to this time and again and only got it two months ago – there are other publications by them and I will definitely get those in due course.)

Nancy J Cohen – Writing the Cozy Mystery – (shortish, sweet, and practical. Loved it.)

Them’s all you need! Anything else is just icing on the cake. I’ve got quite a few others, these are the ones that actually helped. If there is a book I haven’t mentioned that you found really helpful, please let me know, I’ll give it a go!

 

Woo hoo – exciting news!

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I am delighted to announce that Cross Check, the sequel to my novel Criss Cross, is now available from Amazon and Smashwords, in a variety of formats to suit tablets and eReaders and even laptops and PCs.

Not got a Kindle? You can still buy eBooks from Smashwords and read them on your tablet, laptop or PC using a variety of different formats:

epub; mobi (kindle for tablet); pdf, rtf; pdb; txt; and even – readonline !!!!
Also, if you just want a taster to get you in the mood, you can download a free sample which equates to about 4,300 words, or up to page 21

Please note: the language is foul and there is a fair amount of violence. Not much sex though. Sorry about that.

Many, many thanks to my lovely friends and family for all the support and encouragement you have given me over the last year as I laboured with these two books, and many others!

Now I’m going to put my feet up!  (Not really!)

The Arrival of Autumn

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On Sunday I wrote in my journal, “it’s a rainy, cool and windy day. Looking out at the garden, with the trees and the tall shrubs being tossed by the wind and the rain slashing the windows, I see a few first leaves falling and I know it is now Autumn.”
Like Spring, Autumn is a time of transition, not from dormancy into life, but into rest from the long busy-ness of summer. It is a time of reflection, of falling back to regroup, and to continue the military metaphor, it is a time for laying plans and forming strategies for the coming year.
And I, too, reflect and consider the future. I lay my plans and think ahead to the coming writing year. I plot. I scheme.
These last two weeks of working at a temping job have been a break for me from the messy, exhausting disarray of the last eight months that I have been out of work and able to concentrate more on my writing. So for me it has been a kind of holiday-in-reverse: usually one works then takes a couple of weeks’ holiday. And to the outsider, it appears that I have holidayed for eight months and now finally I am working.
But.
In the last year, I have: had a full-time job from September to December, and at the same time I also wrote a complete first draft of a novel. Since then I have written another first draft and about a quarter of a third. I have written at least 10 short stories varying between 500 and 8,000 words, I have revised and self-published (yes, I’m an Indie!) a full-length novel and also a ‘long’ short story (the 8,000 word one) as eBooks. At the moment I am rewriting one of my first drafts ready to publish it ‘shortly’. I’ve learned how to create my own eBook covers, I’ve set up a Facebook page and a blog, I’ve tweeted and google+’d and I’ve made many, many friends, most of whom are also writers, I have joined online book groups and read along with their ‘book of the month’.
So yes, two weeks working from 8.00 to 4.30 has been a holiday for me.
And around all this, I have done laundry, served meals, cleaned the house, paid bills, baked, shopped etc. I’ve read at least twenty books. I’ve top-spotted my cats. I’ve grown a few tomatoes and courgettes. It’s been a hectic and demanding schedule.
I’m making a list. Asking myself, what do I want to achieve in the coming quiet season? And, already I’m looking ahead. What do I want to achieve next year? Obviously I want to lose wight, get fitter, make that craft project that is gathering dust in a corner. But none of that is important to me.
My real goals centre around writing – I want to write the next story in both my series – so I will be thinking about the third and final book in the Posh Hits trilogy. And I want to write the next in my Miss Burkett detective series, set in the mid to late 1960s. Haven’t even finished the first draft of the first book yet!) I think I’d like to publish a volume of short stories. And there are so many possibilities for other projects – shall I dust off an old novel, mouldering in a drawer? Is the world ready yet for my take on reincarnation or vampires? Or shall I work on one of those extended and partially developed ideas, gone well beyond the notes stage. And – obviously – I will do a bit more life-writing. To be honest, there really aren’t enough hours in the day for all that I would like to do. And I want to go to a writer’s conference – haven’t been to one for years – not since Brisbane, to the Queensland Writer’s Festival, so that would be around 2000 or 2001?
So now I am ready to sit back for a while, to ponder and enjoy, the long, creative sleep of winter, and formulate my plans for the next twelve months. Mwah ha ha ha!