Carrbridge in Winter - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography





Monday, 31 October 2011

So many arrows.....

Structure! I need structure to my day! When I started writing, short stories were my focus. I didn't give a thought to any other sort of writing. And when I say 'short stories' I mean the women's magazine variety that earn cash.....mercenary little madam that I am! And then I thought I'd enter competitions - and that required a different sort of writing. I could explore deeper, darker themes. Everything chunterring along nicely. But then came a little lull in both markets.......I wasn't selling as much and the sort of stories that were selling weren't the sort I wanted to write. So, what to do? My daughter-in-law presented me with a challenge.....could I write something about her - she's a sculptor - and get it in our country magazine? Well, why not? I wasn't writing fiction but I could do beginning, middle and end and make the 'story' flow, so I had a go. And for a while feature writing featured large in my life. Then came the recession and county magazines could no longer afford to pay freelance writers. So, back to short stories for women's magazines who - glory be! - again wanted the sort of relationship stories I write.
Have you ever, someone asked, thought of writing novels? Well.....who doesn't? We've all got one in us, right? I found I had seven in me before I wrote one that anyone wanted to buy - but I did learn a lot along the way. And along the way I was asked to be a preliminary judge for a writing magazines's short story competiitions. Another arrow in my armoury.
And then came edits on my novel - still ongoing ....and with a deadline! And I still have all the above ongoing as well.....so structure needed. Mornings for edits, afternoons for short stories - all varieties. A bit of competition reading between things i might want to watch on the box in the evenings.
So structure, Linda, structure.......fit in the blogs when you can.......so that's my blog for today, done and dusted......
Happy writing and reading, everyone.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Points of view, appropriately!

Okay, so some novelists hit the jackpot with their first ever effort, but for most of us, learning the craft of writing is a long, hard slog. Those of us who choose the novel as our preferred genre have to learn, in particular, how to sustain the reader's interest over 100,000 words or so – no mean feat. The end result should look effortless and seamless, but in fact there are many, many decisions to make along the way.

Main plot points? Setting? Cast of characters? Tale told chronologically or not? Sub-plots? Themes? Story arcs? Emotional journeys? The list of choices is endless.

One of the first decisions to be made is on whose story it is. My august mentor, Anita Burgh (who has her own blog at anitaburgh.blogspot.com), is insistent on making sure all her protegés know and understand this. Usually, we establish the main character right up front (and normally end with him or her), so making sure the reader is completely engaged in the plot line that will drive the book. Clearly the 'owner' will have his or her own point of view (POV). If you are writing in the first person, this is the only point of view you will be able to use throughout the whole book. Personally, I find this quite challenging and prefer to use several viewpoints, so that I can come at the main plot from a number of different angles.

If you are using multiple viewpoints, however, you have to be very careful. Anita taught me to be absolutely rigid in this, always making sure there is a line space between switches of viewpoint at the very least, so that the reader can follow whose 'head' you are in. Also, it's important that every character who has a point of view also has a story arc, so that the reader is engaged his this line of the story.

Should there be rules in fiction writing? You could argue that rules rather undermine creativity and freedom of expression, and perhaps they do. But as a reader, I would strongly support the view that 'head-hopping', as it's known, is a no-no. I recently read Family Album, by Penelope Lively. I really enjoyed her fine evocation of character, but at one stage I was left utterly bewildered during a round-the-table scene where we were in the head of each and every one of her characters in the space of a paragraph.

Can you break rules? Of course. Rules are always there to be broken. Elizabeth Chadwick recently tweeted that she had decided to change the POV briefly within a sentence because it worked best that way. Sometimes it's a judgement call – a complete POV switch could seem clumsy or overly intrusive in a particular context – but for my money, less experienced writers should stick with the rules.

That's my point of view, anyway!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Learning curves

My fellow points-of-viewers are probably reaching for the smelling salts now (if they're writers of historical fiction) or the vodka/spirit of choice (contemporary writers amongst us) to find I have at last managed to find my way into the blog! Learning curves and all that. Sorry it's taken me so long ladies, but I'm here now.
So, what to write about.....I'll stick with learning curves at the moment. I've never contributed to a blog before . When I started in banking at aged 17, some of the ledgers were still being handwritten, so be kind to me!!
Got a huge learning curve on board at the moment - doing my edits on my first novel. For the lovely Choc Lit for those who don't already know. In my ignorance, I thought that once the thing was written there'd be a bit of a tweak here and there and punctuation changes but no......it's a lot more complex than that. I began to wonder, when I saw all eleven pages of what was required of me, what utter tosh I'd written in the first place. I am fairly used to editing short stories......add 5oo words, take 200 out, make your heroine less sharp and so on. But that's only for 2000 words at the most. TO TURN FULL CIRCLE went in at about 72,000 words and so far - and I've by no means finished yet - I've added another 3K. I'm hoping it'll be all right on the night.
Now then, I never in a million years thought I'd have an historical novel published (well, I haven't yet, but I have received some of my advance so.....it looks likely I will) because in all the (far too many) years I was on the Romantic Novelists' Association's very excellent New Writers' Scheme, I wrote contemporary romance. But then a sub-editor I worked with (love you, Jean) at My Weekly asked me to write an historical short story. I didn't like to say no, because Jean often went above and beyond to get my stories the way My Weekly wanted them so they'd be published. And so I was on another learning curve. And to my utter delight I had more feedback on this story from fellow writers and some readers than I had ever had for the 150 short stories or so that went before it, so I was encouraged to go for it and write a novel. I have a sequel to TO TURN FULL CIRCLE planned.....well, almost finished to be honest (although I'll be ready and waiting for the edits next time) and have a third rattling around in my head in idle moments.
Some will know that I am profoundly deaf but am one of the lucky ones to have been given a cochlear implant. I was in my mid-fifties when this op gave me a new lease of life, let me escape from a very silent world. Another learning curve for me, there, as I re-learned sound. Bacon frying was the sweetest sound, I can tell you - I was so excited hearing it, I couldn't eat it afterwards! Daft or what?
So, enough already, I think. Look forward to reading comments of whatever variety.
Now, all I've got to work out is how to add photos to blogs and I'll be out of infants....maybe.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Wise Woman’s Fear – A Lack of Integrity

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Wise Man’s Fear’ by Patrick Rothfuss. It is giving me a great deal to think about as both a reader and a writer – and overall a fear that I will never, ever be able to write a book half as good as this one!

What is it that makes this book so good? It’s a fantasy epic, beautifully written, with an enthralling plot and engaging characters. The main character, Kvothe, makes so many wrong decisions it is hard to keep track of them, but throughout it all the reader keeps with him, loves him, believes in him and wants him to win through. But none of those things, singly, make this a brilliant book

They are all important, but the guiding light is the genuine, absolute interest and belief the writer has in the world and the characters he has created. It is this integrity that gives the book its life.

So how can we get this into our own writing? First, we need to know what we believe, and then what our characters believe. We have to know everything about them, their past and their future, their nightmares and ambitions. I don’t personally think you need to know the exact details (he was born here, she went to school there) so much as the essence of them – the pain and the euphoria, what caused these; and if your characters experience neither of them, then why not? You need to know, or your readers will realise you don't - and then you will lose them.

So I’m going to keep on working on my imaginary world and especially on my characters, truly getting to know them, and hoping that I can express them with some of the depth and clarity Rothfuss achieves. And maybe the little bit of fear that I won’t, will give me the edge I need to keep trying.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Novels - Reading and Writing them

I have always been an avid reader, from Enid Blyton's Sunny Stories to Girls' Crystal magazines, graduating to novels by Charles Dickens - a love inherited from my mother. I was also fortunate to have a good English teacher who patiently opened our hearts and minds to Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Sir Walter Scott and various other authors.
            However reading tastes change with the years and I doubt if I would have the patience to read some of the novels I once enjoyed. In my late teens I moved to books like Reach for the Sky, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Cruel Sea. They seemed to relate to real life. When my children were born and I was a busy farmer's wife I read light fiction for relaxation and escapism. I loved Lucy Walker's Australian Novels, Lucille Andrews medical romances, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Daphne Dumaurier and some Barbara Cartland and Catherine Cookson novels. In more recent years I have read novels by Dick Francis, Wilbur Smith, Sebastian Faulks. E.V. Thompson. I enjoyed Half Hidden by Emma Blair about the German invasion of the Channel Islands. I did not expect to enjoy Steig Larson's trilogy but I did and I am sorry he did not live to finish the fourth novel.
            I see now that I should not have started mentioning names as there are so many more writers whose work I have enjoyed over the years. I am almost ashamed of the number of books I own and I doubt if I shall ever manage to read them all.
            So as a writer do I read less? Unfortunately the answer is yes in my case. After a long spell in front of the computer my eyes tire more easily. Some people reading this blog may be readers, but not authors, so here are the steps to the novel on your shelf. Apart from the effort and application, not to mention imagination and inspiration, required to write that first draft of a novel, it is necessary to read through from the beginning (often two or three times) crafting the novel to the very best story we can manage - gripping attention at the beginning, making characters come alive, strengthening the plot, maybe adding excitement or tension, and bringing the story to a satisfactory conclusion. Once it is the best novel the author can write it goes off to publisher (usually via an agent these days). Even if the editor likes it she has to convince the rest of the publishing team that it is saleable. After that it goes to the copy editor who checks grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and queries any facts which he/she thinks could be wrong. This version is then returned to the author who must check the details which have been changed and either agree or query them. The novel then goes back to the publisher who will have commissioned a jacket for the book. He sends it to the typesetter. It comes back in the form of loose pages set out for the printed book. Once again the author checks for any misprints and to see whether any passages have been missed out. This I do with a ruler, line by line. Some authors start at the end and work back because we should not be reading the story at this stage.
            Many publishers now send the copy edits on line, but the postman has just brought a special delivery with the copy edits for my next novel, Another Home-Another Love, so I must go and start my real work now.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

To Kindle or not to Kindle?

I received a Kindle for my birthday and loaded it with books – lots of books – to take on holiday. No more worries about the suitcase being too heavy, or about running out of books in a resort which has no English language bookshops. I could simply download more if necessary.

I did, however, feel a bit guilty while making my holiday selection. Much has been said and written recently about the ‘death of the book’, which the prophets of doom maintain is being brought about by the digital revolution. Was I hastening the demise of books as we know and love them? Wasn’t I already contributing to the closure of independent booksellers by buying from Amazon, the biggest bookseller in the world?

On the other hand, though, I downloaded many books which, because they are published by small independent publishers or even self-published, would never have been stocked by High Street booksellers. It feels good to have been able to support new writers this way. I’ve been able to read some pretty good novels from crime to romance to contemporary fiction at a fraction of the cost of those by best selling authors whose mainstream publishers keep prices higher even as eBooks.

Since my holiday, I have taken my Kindle on a couple of train journeys. At an outpatient appointment it not only helped the interminable waiting pass more quickly, it prompted a number of discussions about Kindle and on books in general.

I have, however, gone back to borrowing books from my local library. I have bought books both online and in book shops. When I go to bed it is a ‘real’ book I read.

When I next manage to go on holiday I will be taking my Kindle. I feel less guilty now because I don’t believe the demise of books as we know them is going to happen any time soon.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Question: Does writing make you read less?

I've thought about this quite a lot of late. I used to read voraciously. As a child, I used to get two books out of the local library every day in the school holidays, then return them the next day and exchange them for two more. Once I was so busy reading as I walked back along the road home that I walked smack into a lamp post and nearly bashed in my front teeth. When I commuted to Collins in Glasgow from Stirling, I read books like War and Peace on the train. When I had to travel to London on business from Scotland, a book was always my faithful companion. This was guilt-free reading. At home, there always seems to be something I should be doing instead.

And of course, I now write. Writing takes me deep into the world of the imagination, the world that books offer. Only now, of course, I'm creating the world rather than entering someone else's world. I find it so deeply, thrillingly absorbing, that a) it's hard to come out of it and b) there's little time left for other worlds.

I do still read, of course I do. I read my friends' work. I read recommendations. And when I read, I'm always learning more about the craft of writing.

Sadly, though, there just aren't enough hours in the day for all the things I long to do!

What Books Mean To Me


When my oldest son was 10 or 11 he was due to go on a long coach journey with the Ice Hockey Club. On the way to dropping him off, he gave me a sudden panicked look. ‘Can we stop at the library? I haven’t got a book.’ My first reaction was to say, ‘Do you really need a book, you’ll have lots of friends to chat to.’ But I didn’t. I took him to the library where he chose a couple of books (I seem to remember one was an Alan Garner) and he was happy. And I could understand why.

Books aren’t an alternative to friends, but for some people they are just as essential. They’re good to have, and good to have with you. They are somewhere to escape to, they entertain you, enlarge your understanding. They can be returned to again and again. They are reliable. I was going to say they never change, but that isn’t true. The book might not change but what you get out of it certainly does.

Without books I could probably have been happy. But with them I am happier still. Here’s to novels – the reading and writing of them. The pic is one wall of our sitting room - it makes me smile just to see it!