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Archive for June, 2009

#flashfriday

I took part in #flashfriday for the first time this week – it was kind of an accident, as I happened to post a version of Ghosts on Friday and I thought I might as well add the hashtag to my tweet. It was fab! I got some really cool comments on my story and read some excellent stories by other people. I’d recommend you have a look

Portfolios, curse them

I’ve spent most of the last few days sorting out my portfolios for three courses: Editing Skills, Writing the Short Story, and Techniques. Need to get them done and out of the way so I can concentrate on the poetry course, which starts tomorrow… I’ve done the first two, now tackling Techniques… don’t suppose I’ll get round to writing a proper blog post for a couple more days. So I thought people might be interested in the reflective piece I wrote about Ghosts.

Ghosts – reflective piece

Ghosts was based on a nightmare I had many years ago. The initial version was short and stark, written almost exactly as I remember the dream. I found I’d instinctively pre-edited to remove the ending, where the mother runs to the living room and sees the dead bodies of her children. It was much more powerful to end when the mother realises that her children are ghosts.

To turn it into a story, I needed to add some background. Finding a reason for the man to attack the woman was easy – he’s her ex-husband who was sent to prison for abusing her, and now he wants revenge. This is only implied in the story, it felt important to keep the immediacy of the action and not clutter it up with backstory.

I also had to make some sense of the change in viewpoint – in my dream the narrator outside the door was the same as the mother inside, but as I wrote it down the narrator outside became the killer. However, I didn’t like the resulting single shift in viewpoint.

All the creative writing textbooks (implicitly or explicitly) seem to recommend the use of one viewpoint, particularly for short stories…

Creative Writing workbook – ed Linda Anderson
Linda Anderson – ‘First-person narrative requires the creation of a compelling, single voice telling its own story in a way that produces a strong sense of realism.’

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes – Jack M Bickham
‘…if you have found more than one viewpoint, get it out of there! Rewrite, if necessary, to make it all a single viewpoint. […] without good handling of viewpoint, your readers may forget whose story it is…’

I decided to write it from varying viewpoints, just to see if I could make it work. What can I say, tell me I shouldn’t do something and I’ll go and do it.

The next draft was written in sections from the viewpoints of killer, mother, child, killer, mother, killer, mother. I went back to the textbooks for advice:

The Creative Writing Coursebook – ed Julia Bell and Paul Magrs
Elleke Boehmer – ‘So one of the first things that a writer needs to confront in taking on the ‘I’ is that this voice is as much of a projection, a character out there as well as in here, as any other. That it is as much of a construct as the third person.’

I revised to ensure I had constructed distinct and realistic voices for each character. The killer is clearly mad, out of touch with reality but driven by a desire for revenge. The mother is scared but determined not to let him defeat her. The child is confused and doesn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation. In theory, if I got it right the reader should be able to follow the story and be helped rather than hindered by the shifts in viewpoint.

I tried the final draft out on several people, they didn’t seem to have any trouble following it. Some of them displayed milder versions of the emotions I’d felt when I first had the nightmare, which must mean I’ve conveyed the story effectively. Personally, I’ve loved writing this piece because it enabled me to play around with something that’s been in my head for a while, and to experiment with doing something writers ‘shouldn’t do’. And I’m very pleased with the end result.

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This isn’t a real post – still not going to have time for that till tomorrow or Sunday. But I’ve rewritten Ghosts, and thought I’d post it just to prove I’m still here. It’s hopefully even more disturbing (those of a nervous disposition probably shouldn’t read it), and I’ve experimented with changing the point of view throughout.

Any comments welcome.

Ghosts

Do I live here?

Concrete stairs circle above and below. Bright colours on rough brick walls try to tell me where to go. I don’t understand the language of the spray can. Dismal passages march away in impossible directions. Everything smells of piss.

Perhaps…

I look down at my feet, tell them to take me home.

They seem to know where they’re going.

I need to keep my bearings in this angular world. I cling to the dark wooden hilt, hold the sensuous curve of metal before my face. It reminds me I have a destiny.

The door is a tongue fitting snugly into the mouth of a narrow damp tunnel. There isn’t enough light for me to be able to tell what colour it is. The walls and ceiling are moving inwards, dripping.

I knock twice. She will let me in.

* * *

I’m playing with the children in the living room when he knocks. No-one ever visits us here. A visceral fear I haven’t felt for over a year wraps around my shoulders like an old friend.

I put the chain on before opening the door.

He pushes so hard the chain breaks, then advances slowly. He’s waving a glittering crescent. A knife.

I scream at the boys to hide, and run through the kitchen. I hope he will follow me, as he did many times before. There is a French window leading onto a balcony. I stand to the side, behind a dark green plastic chair, and wait.

That pot plant needs watering.

* * *

I don’t get it. What was that massive bang? Why’s Mum telling us to hide? She sounds scared. I poke my head into the hall.

The front door is wide open and there’s a man with a scary scowly smile walking towards the kitchen. I run back into the room and hide behind the sofa. Billy is already crouching there, making patterns in the dust.

I hope the man doesn’t find us.

* * *

Flashes of betrayal strobe through my mind. Her blood, her bruises, her doctors. Dark uniforms. A room full of people, she stands in a box, I sit in another box, alone. She tells lies. Years in a small room, alone. My blood, my bruises. No doctors.

Where’s the bitch? My knife is slavering, begging me to sink its fang into her chest, slice the over-ripe flesh away from her rotting bones.

* * *

He bursts out of the kitchen, knife lifted high. Cold stones fill his eye sockets, his mouth is tangled in a knot of hatred. I scream and cower. I don’t dare defy him again.

Maybe if I say I’m sorry…

Snarling, he advances. No human lives inside his skin. I tried to pour my humanity into him once, nearly became an animal myself. I use that part of me now. I dive for his legs, lift, feel my muscles tear, topple him over the balcony railings.

* * *

I fall, tumbling over and over. Violent bloody spirals stream from the tip of my blade, painting my rage on the clouds.

* * *

My sons run into the kitchen, laughing.

We hid, like you said,’ says Stevie.

‘Has the man gone?’ says Billy.

‘Yes, darlings, you’re safe now.’ I kneel down to clasp them to me, I want to hold them so tightly they become part of me again, safe within my womb.

As they approach, I look at them, properly look at them.

Billy’s blond hair is matted with gore. His cheek is ripped open and he has been stabbed many times. Stevie’s throat is gaping and he has a dark red apron of blood.

I can see through them.

Wordle generated image

Wordle generated image

(generated at Wordle – a great place to spend a few hours)

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Just so you know, things are getting silly… I don’t have time to think, let alone write blog posts this week. So unless I suddenly discover those extra hours I’ve paid myself for, I won’t be writing any more till the weekend. I do have some ideas churning away in my head though, so it’ll hopefully be worth the wait.

Random thoughts about words

‘Hiatus’ confused me for a long while. I thought it was something quite active at first – it sounds like it should involve rushing around. One of the ladies at the cafe where I worked on Saturdays when I was a teenager had a hiatus hernia. I felt very sympathetic, as I imagined it was similar to having a muscle whipping around loose inside her belly, like a snake that had got its tail trapped. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I discovered ‘hiatus’ actually means a temporary break or a gap in something. It doesn’t seem to matter though, I still think of it as a lively word. I wonder how many other words I have a totally inaccurate understanding of.

When I was younger, about 5 or 6 I think, I started to obsess about the way words sound. I spent a whole week trying to persuade myself that ‘cold’ was in fact an acceptable word. I’d say it out loud to myself over and over, and it would never sound right. Strangely, it was always one word at a time that bugged me, and once I’d finished worrying away at the word of the week (or day or hour or month) I became quite comfortable with it again. I still get occasional flashes of weirdness about particular words. Never about written words though.

And then there was ‘ha-ha’. I asked my mum and dad why this combination of wall and ditch had such a stupid name. They said it was because when someone fell down the ditch because they didn’t see it was there, everyone else would say ‘ha-ha’. Which seemed perfectly reasonable. I believed that for decades. Then I found out the real reason – it’s half wall and half ditch: ha-ha. I have never forgiven my parents.

What do you say to a child who asks, ‘Why is a chair called a chair?’ I always used to respond, ‘It’s got to be called something.’ Which is totally unsatisfactory, but it usually got me off the hook. I suppose an alternative would be to point said child in the direction of The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, but that would seem a little unfair. It’s a good book though.

Why is there no English word for schadenfreude?

Why are swear words starting with ‘b’ so much better than any others?

And finally, I can say ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ backwards. Not quite sure why. But it’s a fabulous word which means the act or habit of describing something as worthless.

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Some writing

Excuses

You wouldn’t believe how busy I am at the moment. I don’t believe how busy I am. I haven’t even got a job… I sent myself a tenner, and there still aren’t 28 hours in the day. I am such a charlatan.

I’m going away for the weekend, and have got a ton of stuff to do before I go to bed tonight, so I don’t have time for a proper blog post before Sunday. So, I thought I’d share some of my writing. Hope you don’t mind.

Any comments/crits welcome. They’re both works in progress, Ghosts more so than Sailor.

Sailor

I wake to the call of seagulls circling,
creep to the bow, cling to sodden ropes,
surrender fear and allow dark visions
to pierce senses that reason denies.

Polished wood glows softly in moon’s light,
sails swell, breaking waves on the wide sea
of night. The ship fades around me, wind
untangles my thoughts and weaves me away.

A whale shoots an arrow’s path, skims
the rough ocean’s surface, target unseen.
Fixed to glistening silver skin, the black stain
of a raven perches like royalty, urging haste.

Salt-laden water seeps into my boots,
subtle currents tease me with a promise
of an island home, where my wife’s dreams
roam free, riding whales through reflections of stars.

Postcard used as a prompt for Sailor

Postcard used as a prompt for Sailor

Ghosts

Do I live here?
Concrete stairs circle above and below. Bright colours on rough brick walls tell me where to go. I don’t understand the language of the spray can. Dismal passages march off in unlikely directions. Everything smells of piss.
Maybe…
I look down at my feet, tell them to take me home.
That works. They seem to know where they’re going.
I’m at the door. It is a tongue fitting snugly into the mouth of a narrow damp tunnel. There isn’t enough light for me to be able to tell what colour it is. The walls and ceiling are moving inwards, saliva dripping.

I’m in the hall, about to answer the door. I’m terrified. I don’t know why.
A man pushes the door so hard the chain breaks. He has a knife.
I scream at my children to hide in the living room, and run through the kitchen. There is a French window leading onto a balcony. I sit on a dark green plastic chair and wait.

That pot plant needs watering.

The man runs towards me, knife lifted high, blood dripping. I dive for his legs and tip him over the balcony.
He falls, tumbling over and over. Violent bloody spirals stream from the tip of the blade.

The boys run into the kitchen, laughing.
We hid, like you said,’ says Simon.
‘Has the man gone?’ says Blake.
‘Yes, darlings, you’re safe now.’ I kneel down to clasp them to me, I want to hold them so tightly they become part of me again, safe within my womb.

Then I look at them, properly look at them.
Blake’s blond hair is matted with blood. His cheek is ripped open and he has been stabbed several times. Simon’s throat has been cut and he has a dark red apron-stain down his front.

I can see through them.

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I have discovered this wonderful technique that will give you an extra four hours in each and every day! It’s astonishingly simple and requires no effort on your part. Scientific tests prove that users of the technique quickly see remarkable increases in productivity and energy levels. All you need to do is send me a tenner and I will reveal the secret.

Oh, if only. Never mind the money-making potential, just having enough time to do everything I want to do as well as everything I absolutely have to do would be a miracle.

Time Management

There are definitely secrets to effective time management. Here are a few:

  • Plan – know what it is you need/want to achieve and when you need/want to achieve it by.
  • Prioritise your tasks. What absolutely has to be done today? What can wait till tomorrow? Which are most important?
  • Schedule – identify time slots that are booked up and those that are free. Pencil tasks into your free time.
  • Discipline yourself to concentrate on the tasks you’ve allocated yourself. (this is where I fall down big time!)
  • Be flexible – unexpected tasks will always crop up. You may need to reprioritise and/or reschedule – that’s OK. Get used to it.
  • Be realistic about how much you can achieve. If you set impossible targets you’ll fail, which leads to angst you can do without.

There you go, time management for dummies. Easy, isn’t it?

Hahahaha! Of course it isn’t. You have to find tricks that work for you. If you know you’re easily distractable by various internet features, turn off your network connection when you’re supposed to be working. If you get bored easily, make sure you swap between tasks frequently (but not too frequently, because you need ramping up time to refocus on a new task). The list of possibilities is endless – you have to work it out for yourself.

Anyway. This post wasn’t going to be about the ins and outs of time management… as usual I’ve got distracted.

Writers’ Group

One of my courses ended last night, and it was the best class I’ve had so far. Our tutor* deliberately set us up to be able to continue on our own as a ‘writers’ group’ – something we’d said we wanted to do.

She told us we had five minutes to come up with an idea for a writing exercise between ourselves and was uncharacteristically silent while we floundered around. We eventually decided to go with the first suggestion that had been made (isn’t that just typical).

We wrote for fifteen minutes, then took it in turns to read our writing out and discuss it – again she (more or less) sat back and let us get on with it – this showed us that we can work effectively and usefully as a group without a ‘teacher’ to tell us the answers…

…so we now have a date for our first meeting, and I can’t wait! I’ve been hoping to get something like this going for months, but have never quite had the bottle to put it in motion.

I was buzzing so much by the end of the evening that I didn’t get to sleep till the wee small hours… but that was OK because I made a significant dent into Hodd, which I’m finding quite hard going. It’s good though… I’ll post a proper review when I’ve got to the end.

* who is absolutely brilliant**, and has been an inspiration… Sheelagh Gallagher, take a bow!

** in fact, all the tutors I’ve had so far have been fantastic… Anthony Cropper, Cathy Grindrod, Cathy LeSurf… stars, the lot of ’em.

The best use of my time

Back to the point of this post. I really struggle to do everything I want to do. I spend far too much time on the internet, which can arguably be called ‘networking’ but is mostly just playing. I’m not very good at using the odd spare 20 minutes effectively. And I’m the best procrastinator on the planet! (anyone want to spend the next few days proving me wrong, I’m happy to put the time in… when I’ve finished cleaning the toilets…)

So I need to identify the best way to use my time, and cut out all the useless activity. So far, this is what I’ve come up with:

  • Continue writing this blog. It takes a significant chunk of time, but I’m learning so much about the process and the finer points of writing.
  • Set aside specific times when I’m allowed to go online and STICK TO THEM. That’ll be hard, but I’ve got to do it. Firefox, you are not my friend.
  • Make a realistic list of tasks at the beginning of each day so I can prove to myself I’m achieving something.
  • Put a lot of effort into the aforementioned writers’ group – I’ve got so much out of giving and receiving detailed and informed criticism.
  • Give the Absolute Write forums a try, but don’t spend all day on there (I’ll probably write a whole post about this, but in the meantime go have a look, they’re great).
  • Get into the habit of picking up the writing textbook I’m currently reading every time I have a spare 20 minutes.
  • And just f***ing write! Stop f***ing procrastinating! (sorry, but I really do need a slap)

Sorry…

…this post is a bit rambling, but this is all stuff that needs to be thought through by anyone who wants to take writing seriously. IMHO, of course. YMMV. And not forgetting JFDI 🙂

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My writing space

It’s been one of those long weird days… so I thought a little light relief might be in order.

Every writer needs a dedicated writing space. I’ve set mine up in the window bay of my bedroom – it’s the only place in the house where I can shut the door and be relatively undisturbed by the hairy hordes.

My Writing Space

My Writing Space


It’s not luxurious, and it’s not spacious, but it is my own.

Items in this space are as follows:

  1. my chair, which I bought from Ikea. It was expensive, I went for the leather cover as I wanted it to be somewhere special to sit. I love it. It’s called Poäng (which probably means something in Swedish, although the online Swedish-English translator I found doesn’t think so).
  2. the footstool that goes with the chair. If I don’t end up with varicose veins from sitting with my legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle, there’ll be no justice. But it’s very comfortable.
  3. books. lots of books. lots and lots and lots of books. There are reference books, how-to-write books, books of short stories, poetry, and even a few art books in case I’m lacking inspiration. I’ve only been doing this writing thing seriously for 9 months and already the books are overflowing…
  4. combination pinboard and whiteboard, which I bought because it seemed like a good idea, but so far hasn’t proved very useful. I do stick lots of post-it notes on the doors of my wardrobe though.
  5. home made sun screens – essential as the window faces south and the curtains go straight across the bay rather than round the windows. They’re perfectly adequate, and will be even better when I’ve got round to covering them with bold and interesting designs.
  6. diet cola. I would fall asleep without a regular infusion of caffeine. I did try to train my palate to like coffee, honestly I did, but it just won’t work. And as I drink tea so weak it’s not much stronger than water, I’m stuck with fizzy stuff to feed my one remaining addiction.
  7. stationery. lots of stationery. lots and lots and lots of stationery. I guess this is my other remaining addiction. Any writer worth their ink can never have too much stationery.
  8. A4 paper holder, which permanently holds a list of forthcoming competitions to spur me on to great achievements, and temporarily holds, well, other bits of paper. It’s invaluable, as my space is so small there isn’t really anywhere to put paper where I can refer to it easily.
  9. a piece of cardboard. essential for placing underneath netbook when wearing shorts, preventing uncomfortably hot legs. The netbook is not in the photo, but it is the central hub of all my writing endeavours. I dithered for weeks over whether to buy it – I think it’s the best couple of hundred quid (OK, just over £300 with the extra long life battery) I’ve spent in the last few years.
  10. my latest book purchases – Infinite Jest (some mad people have set up an online book club which will read this over the summer, it sounded like fun) and two Salt Publishing books (join in their just one book campaign – small publishers cannot be allowed to go under).
  11. my printer, cheap but it works.
  12. paper and cartridges, hidden away in a revoltingly coloured plastic box.
  13. an unusually tidy pile of coursework and other stuff.
  14. secret diet cola supplies, hidden away in a box carefully positioned to stop my chair moving backwards and banging against the windowsill.
  15. another unusually tidy pile of books and papers and stuff.
  16. a baby filing cabinet. The top drawer contains stationery (I love stationery) and the bottom drawer contains lots of bits of paper.
  17. a card with lots tongue twisters that my mother sent me. When I don’t know what to write next, I say a few of these, and somehow this kicks my head back into action.
  18. pile of clothes. I wasn’t going to label these but I realised there’s an item of female undergarmentry visible, so a strategically placed label seemed in order.
  19. a clean carpet. The reason you can actually see it is my son had just vacuumed. He’s got large debts he needs to pay off, so I pay him a pittance to do the housework so I don’t have that excuse for procrastinating. It doesn’t work, the internet is always there.

So, what does your writing space look like?

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Paper vs pixels

Do you prefer to write with a pen or typewriter, or using a computer? And do you prefer to read a real book, or are you happy with an ebook reader?

Things change

I’ve written before about character development – I don’t agree that writers should start by knowing everything there is to know about their main characters. I’m not just being lazy, I tried it a couple of times and discovered that as I developed my story, the characters changed to fit the situation and the theme. And of course, the situation changed to fit the theme and journey, and the theme changed to fit the characters… you get the idea. So spending hours and hours getting into the mind and history and subconscious of my characters was a waste of time. Well, maybe not a waste, but it would have proceeded a lot more smoothly if I’d thought them all through at once.

The Waterfall Process is BAD

I have a horror of fixing things in stone that stems back to my days as a software developer. We used to follow the ‘waterfall process’ (in a vaguely uncontrolled way)…

  1. Write the business specification which describes what the client wants. Well, what they say they want.
  2. Write the analysis document which describes the functionality you plan to give the client. This is what you think the client wants – not necessarily the same as the business specification.
  3. Write the system design which describes how you’re going to provide the functionality. This never quite matches the analysis, and always moves further away from the business specification.
  4. Develop the software which usually provides a whole different set of functionality.
  5. Test the software against the business specification, to which it now bears no resemblance.
  6. Give it to clients and do a lot of fast talking to persuade them that it’s exactly what they need.

This model isn’t in favour much these days, but the issue of scope creep still rears its ugly head. It’s perfectly reasonable for developers to suggest improvements or make changes to work round problems, and it’s also reasonable for clients to have second (or third or fourth) thoughts about what they want. However, if developers don’t keep going back and changing all the documentation to match, you end up with a pissed off QA team. They keep raising bug reports only to be told, ‘Oh no, we changed that spec.’ And they get cross. As far as they’re concerned, your story isn’t consistent.

This explains my sense of deja vu when I realised my radio play didn’t meet the specification. I’d followed the process of developing my characters, identifying the theme and journey, writing the story summary, then getting on with the scenes. It didn’t work. I had fixed the characters and the story by writing them down in great detail, and I found myself writing scenes to conform to the work I’d done.

Once I let myself think outside those constraints, everything fell into place. All the story elements fed into each other, rather than trying to fit pre-cut jigsaw pieces together I was changing the shapes and smoothing the edges to make them connect effectively.

So I wrote a play that was internally consistent, flowed well, reflected the story I was trying to tell. And I was left with a character summary and story summary that didn’t match the final scenes – so I’m going to have to go back and change them for the portfolio. If I didn’t have to hand them in I’d just throw them away (same as we used to do with old analysis and system design documents).

Words are ephemeral, till you write them down

I was on a boring training course once. Can’t remember what it was about. I did what I always do in those situations – I doodled, and I found myself writing thoughts and ideas down. I watched the words forming on the page, and had a weird kind of out of body experience. Maybe it would be better described as an out of mind experience – it seemed as if the words were appearing from nowhere onto the page, becoming real. My thoughts were escaping to lead lives of their own.

Once you’ve written something down on paper, you can’t erase it completely without destroying the paper. If you type it into a document, it will appear on the screen but can be just as quickly removed, leaving no trace. Words made with pixels don’t exist in their own right. Words on paper do. Words in your head don’t really exist either. You’ll forget them if you don’t write them down, and you’ll be left hoping something will trigger their return.

The ephemeral representation of thoughts and ideas is exactly what I need to ‘plan’ my writing. If something sticks in my memory, it’s probably worth remembering. If it triggers lots of wild associations, so much the better. If it doesn’t work, I can rub it out without feeling guilty about wasting paper or destroying words. (I do have a horror of destroying written words that stems from my lifetime love affair with books.)

On the screen is even better. I can shuffle sentences and paragraphs around till they fit, I can create and destroy, I can delete the lot and start with a clean sheet if I need to. I can revert to a previous state of affairs, I can make global edits. I can flit around my document(s), working on whatever I feel like working on. I can create links between various aspects and make sure everything connects up.

What about reading?

When it comes to writing, I’m a pixel girl every time. Given the choice of a real proper book or an e-book, however, I’d go for the former. I do have a Sony e-book reader, which I raved about for a while, but I have to admit I’ve gone back to reading mostly printed books. Part of it is the limited availability of the books I want in e-book format, but much of it is the solid comfort of opening up a block of paper to find words that won’t change on pages I can feel. I guess when I go on holiday I’ll appreciate the reduction in volume of one Sony Reader compared to 10 hefty paperbacks, but otherwise I think I’ll probably stick with real books.

The permanence of words printed/written onto paper, which gives me such problems as a writer, reassures me as a reader. Isn’t that strange?

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Well, having finally almost caught up with myself (I can see my bum wobbling away in the distance, just need to sprint for a little while longer) I thought I might burble briefly about three jolly fine books.

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

Good grief, this book is amazing. It’s the one I chose to break my ‘fiction fast’, and if anything was going to persuade me that quitting reading fiction (just because I ought to be reading Stuff What Is Good For Me and not escaping into Other Stuff) was a bad idea, this was the book to do it.

Matthew Swift was killed two years ago. Now, he emerges from the telephone line, naked and confused. It just so happens he is a sorcerer, living in a London riddled with magic that can be used by those with the power and the knowledge. And as he tries to pick up the pieces of his old life and come to terms with his survival, he discovers that there are evil forces at work that he must fight. This is a fast-paced story, full of action and ideas and strange beings. I needed to keep my wits about me and read slowly to make sure every sentence sunk in, but it was more than worth the effort.

Kate Griffin has written several young adult fantasy novels (as Catherine Webb), and I think this is evident in the exuberance of her language. For example, I loved this line:

… the “Cave of Wonders, Mysteries and Miracles”, advertised by a small wooden sign swinging above an open door through which the overwhelming smell of cheap incense and musty carpets hit the nose like it wanted a pillow fight.

The scattering of frivolous similes and metaphors like these doesn’t detract from the atmosphere at all. The themes of the novel are very dark – betrayal, evil, selfish desires – and the violence level is quite graphic. For me, the occasional giggle served to highlight Swift’s struggle to deal with the horrors besetting him and still remain human (or nearly human).

Interestingly the reviews on Amazon aren’t great. And to some extent I agree with some of the comments – the ending is predictable, there are ideas that might be considered derivative… but I think Griffin’s wonderful writing style and the helter-skelter nature of the plot more than make up for these drawbacks. She made me think, which is all too rare these days (read that how you will!).

The text is very dense, it’s not a quick read. That is a Good Thing, it means you can stay in Swift’s world for days. I’m only sorry to have reached the end of the book… but… hallelujah… a sequel is due out later this year!

Rollback by Robert J Sawyer

I listened to this in the car – unabridged, of course. Sawyer’s style is perfect entertainment for drivers. He unfolds the story slowly, almost too slowly at some points, and lets you digest what you’re hearing before moving on to the next plot point.

The story itself is fascinating. A radio message was received from Sigma Draconis nearly 40 years before the start, this was deciphered by Sarah Halifax, a response was sent, and a second message from the Dracons has just been received. Sarah is now 87 years old, so when a rich entrepreneur offers to fund prohibitively expensive ‘rollback’ (rejuvenation) treatment so she can continue to converse with her Draconian penpals, she accepts on condition that her husband Don receives the treatment too. Unfortunately, the rollback procedure is still experimental, and it only works for Don, not for Sarah. The central theme of the novel is the effect on Don of this seeming disaster, but interwoven around that we learn about the Dracon messages.

Although the psychological implications of rollback are interesting, I did find myself getting frustrated with Don. Thinking back, I suspect I found it hard to identify with him because significant chunks of the story involved Don ruminating on how hard done by he was. Poor bloke wasn’t able to claim senior citizen discount on public transport any more… Still, for the most part I enjoyed thinking through the implications of being in such a situation.

More interesting were the philosophical discussions between Sarah and Don – basically she’s a brainbox and he’s clever but not quite that good, so she has to explain stuff to him. This is the sort of trick my writing teachers would have a fit about if I did it, but somehow Sawyer manages to pull it off. Rather than coming across as a lecture to the reader thinly disguised as a piece of dialogue, it sounded to me like a genuine discussion between two intelligent people with different sets of knowledge and different views, one that I could almost join in.

I would have been more taken with the book if I’d been able to care about Don, and also I was disappointed not to find out a bit more about the Dracons. That’s just me though. Amazon reviewers liked this book a lot. I would say yes, read it, but don’t expect it to be truly brilliant. I’ve read other books by Sawyer that I like better, for example Calculating God (which is reviewed less favourably on Amazon!).

I wonder if it made a difference that I listened to the book rather than reading it.

Dragon Slippers: This is What an Abusive Relationship Looks Like by Rosalind B Penfold

This is a graphic novel telling the story of a woman’s experience of domestic abuse. One of my teachers recommended it, so I flicked through it in Page 45, but decided it wasn’t for me, I normally avoid the ‘Tragic Life Stories’ sections of bookshops like the latest pandemic, and on a cursory reading this book seemed to belong there. However, the teacher brought it in to class last night, so I grudgingly agreed to borrow it. And discovered it’s actually rather good!

The story is very simply told, using rudimentary artwork. Despite this (probably because of it actually) the book clearly shows the stark horror of the situation and the frightening ease with which it develops. Thankfully it also shows how she escaped from her abuser – I don’t think I could have coped with that not being resolved. And it captures the heartbreak of having to leave his children behind, who she has come to love dearly, and suspects are also being abused in one way or another.

The simplicity of the format brilliantly underlines the ease with which women (and men) can get sucked into destructive relationships and be manipulated into contributing to their own subjugation. Why doesn’t she just leave him? Well, it’s not as simple as that… but in the end it has to be…

I don’t know enough about the subject of domestic abuse to be able to say whether this book is a true reflection of the way it works, but at the same time, having read it, I feel like I know a lot more about it.

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It was the last lesson on my introductory editing course today. More reinforcement of my incompetence – we covered hanging sentences (also called dangling modifiers, at which we all giggled childishly). This is the idea that as a rule, sentences should increase in dramatic power and end on a high note, and only reined in by the full stop. So, for example, I might rewrite:

He said he loved her, then touched her cheek.

like this:

He touched her cheek, then said he loved her.

or even:

He touched her cheek, then said, ‘I love you.’

These obviously increase in power. But then you look at:

He said he loved her, then winked at his friends.

which doesn’t need any mucking about with.

Now, this all makes sense to me. But give me a piece of text (mine or someone else’s) and I just can’t pick this sort of thing out. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will…

Get to the point, Pip

Sorry, got a bit side-tracked.

We had a discussion in class about when to edit, so I started thinking about the different aspects of editing and when’s the best time to do each. These are my thoughts so far.

Before you start writing

You need to know the basic story. I think you need a reasonable handle on at least two of the four central elements of the Grand Unified Theory: theme, characters, situation, journey. If you’ve got it all straight, so much the better, but if not it will emerge as you write your first draft.

How does this relate to editing? Well, if you come up with the seeds for a story and you decide it isn’t worth starting to write it, or you want to think it over some more, you’re editing.

While you’re writing the first draft

At this point it’s most important to get the words out as quickly as possible so you can see what shape the piece is taking and firm up your central elements in your own mind. You’ll come to understand the story (i.e. the whole world of the piece), and the boundaries of the plot (the part of the story the piece tells) will become clear.

I know people differ in their ability to splurge words onto the page without ongoing editing, but the secret is to do as little editing as is possible for you. Get to the end of the first draft as soon as you can.

After completing the first draft

This is where you need to check back that your four elements of theme, characters, situation and journey are represented as effectively as possible.

Are the scenes and/or paragraphs in the right order? Are some of them extraneous, or could you do with adding some? A couple of well-known maxims are to cut the first paragraph (chapter) or two from a short story (novel); and to identify the most powerful sentence in the piece and move it to the beginning. You can also get quite radical in moving chunks of text around to see what works best.

Other things to look at are variety of pace, checking the voice(s) and tense(s) used are consistent and/or appropriate throughout, and verifying your narrative distance (which person are you writing in? are you writing from an omniscient point of view?). Browne and King (reviewed in yesterday’s post) cover this sort of thing very well.

Once the overall structure is right

Now you start the donkey work. You need to go through the whole piece in detail, sentence by sentence, word by word, and make sure every single part of it is as powerful and effective as you can make it. Again, Browne and King will help.

Make sure you’re showing rather than telling. Use concrete objects or actions rather than abstract concepts. Put in enough detail to allow the reader to feel connected to the story. Make sure dialogue is believable and essential to the plot or character development. Check for clumsy syntax, repetition, hanging sentences, repetition, ambiguity, repetition…

Once the overall syntax is right

This is when you run the spell checker and grammar checker (if you like such things – personally I loathe them), do a detailed proof-reading and get other people to do the same, make sure you’re happy with the layout, check punctuation… My good friend Steph calls this ‘Lynne Trussing’.

Now is a good time to get someone to read the piece aloud to you. Does it sound right? Did they stumble over any phrasing or words? What do they think of the piece?

Then put it away

Take the piece and put it in solitary confinement for at least a few days. It’s best if you do this at regular points during the process, but it’s vitally important to do it now. Coming back to it with a fresh mind will enable you to spot problems you were too close to see before. Then read it through and see what you think. Hopefully you’ll be astounded by your brilliance.

Afterthought

I had a really profound summation lurking in my head… but it seems to have emerged via my ridiculously snotty nose (hay fever, or something) and is now encased in a sodden tissue in my overflowing waste bin. Sorry about that! Maybe tomorrow… got to go to class now.

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I had a bad morning. It’s a long story, so I won’t bore you with it… it involves a slow puncture, bald tyres, a quick visit to the garage that ended up taking 4.5 hours, and another £700 worth of work that really needs doing except I can’t afford it.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

All that sitting around did give me the opportunity to finish reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This is a fantastic book. It’s full of examples and explanations, and although the material is quite dense the authors describe their techniques in an accessible way.

Chapter headings are:

  1. Show and Tell
  2. Characterization and Exposition
  3. Point of View
  4. Proportion
  5. Dialogue Mechanics
  6. See How it Sounds
  7. Interior Monologue
  8. Easy Beats
  9. Breaking Up is Easy to Do
  10. Once is Usually Enough
  11. Sophistication
  12. Voice

Each chapter has a checklist and exercises at the end, and their suggested answers are provided at the back of the book (with perhaps too little explanation).

I loved the book. I really understood (in the sense of grokked, which according to Wikipedia was coined by Heinlein, although I thought it was Delaney) possibly 25% of what the authors were saying. The rest of it appeared like the winning tape in a very long race – blurry and far-distant, but something I will reach eventually after lots of hard work. This is a Good Thing, as I will be able to re-read the book many times and continue to learn from it. At the same time, I found it intensely frustrating to have to struggle so hard to follow why, for example:

Harley switched the walkie-talkie back on and slapped it to his ear. ‘What’s going on?’
He could hear Elwood yelling above the noise of the saws. ‘Mister, I can’t be responsible for your car, you leave it there. We got branches falling all over the place.’
‘Who’s there?’ Harley said. ‘Elwood, what’s going on?’

is better than:

‘What’s going on?’ Harley switched the walkie-talkie back on.
Elwood leaned back on the belt that held him high in the tree and yelled to Ford above the noise of the saws. ‘Mister, I can’t be responsible for your car, you leave it there. We got branches falling all over the place.’
‘Who’s there?’ Harley said over the walkie-talkie. ‘Elwood, what’s going on?’

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it isn’t better. But at the moment the distinction is really hard for me to grasp. While I was reading, I had to constantly remind myself that the authors have many decades of editing experience between them, and I can’t be expected to get it immediately. I have a feeling I’ll do the exercises and refer to the checklists many times over the coming years.

I was actually quite chuffed to find a couple of mistakes (at least, I think they’re mistakes) in the checklists…

Name before the noun (‘Renni said’) rather than the other way around (‘said Renni’).

That’d be name before the verb, surely?

Are you using interior monologue to show things that should be told?’

I’m not entirely sure about this one, but I reckon it should be the other way round (given their questions generally ask whether you’re doing things you shouldn’t be doing).

All in all, potential mistakes aside (they probably left those in as an exercise for the reader anyway), I would highly recommend this book to anyone who’s serious about polishing their writing to its gleaming best. And yes, unless you are also an editor with years of experience it will make you feel inferior and useless, but that’s just tough. Suffering is good for the soul, you know.

My name is Pippa, and I am consciously incompetent

<pause for round of applause from other twelve-steppers*>

The absolute worst stage of the four stages of competence model is the second – conscious incompetence. I hate being here. I’ve emerged from my blissful ignorance of how much my writing needs to improve to the sure and certain** knowledge that I’m not very good and I need to work very hard to get better. I am definitely not a ‘starter-completer’ personality type, more a ‘drifting-around-waiting-to-see-what-happens’ type.

*I feel a blog post that enumerates 12 steps coming on…

**I’ve always wondered about ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection’ – how can it be sure and certain if it’s a hope? Poor editing of the Book of Common Prayer***, methinks.

***Or whatever work of fiction it appears in.

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