Monday, 29 October 2012

Seven Deadly Sins or the Ten Commandments


Here are some of the ladies of the Closeburn Guild who invited me to tell them how I write my books. Since the Guild is affiliated to the church I tried to pitch my talk in that direction.
             My own novels are character driven, rather than developed from careful plotting but most writers agree that there are seven main plots with many angles and variations on each one. Some refer to the “Seven Deadly Sins” but for the Guild ladies I used the ten commandments since these provide the guidelines for most people who lead a decent life whether or not they follow any religion. As fiction writers we can have the good characters follow these “guidelines for life” but giving a character an occasional slip makes them believable and reminds the reader they are human beings with the usual failings and frailties and hopefully arouse the reader’s sympathy or tenderness. The bad characters provide a contrast and the writer can make them jealous or devious, obsessed with work or ambition, or even murderers, especially if you are a crime writer.
            There is an illustration of  every kind of plot in the bible so it was fairly easy to illustrate this for the audience. However nasty I make my characters I usually read about someone equally bad in the newspapers, but in the bible there can’t be anyone much worse for cruelty than King Herod ordering all the baby boys to be slain, or the crowd hanging a man on a cross until he died. Then there is deception which we often get in novels. Illustrating this point I used Jacob who deceived his blind father because he wanted his brother’s inheritance. There is temptation as represented in the story of Eve and Adam, or the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness. Temptation, deception and jealousy are frequently used in fiction, or we might have the smaller or weaker person triumphing over the more powerful as in David and Goliath. As writers we often need subplots too but even these can be found with Noah and the floods. In various novels I have used floods, fire, storms as subplots, as well as road, rail and air crashes.
There are many more illustrations but this is not the place to present a lecture on bible stories, even supposing I considered myself sufficiently knowledgeable.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Here's to Janice Horton's 'How Do You Voodoo?' day!

Friend and novelist Janice Horton is having a blog launch of her Hallowe'en novella 'How Do You Voodoo?' today. It's a cracking read, full of dark moments leavened by lots of fun, and the toffee-nosed heroine finally learns her lesson. Thoroughly recommended!

Janice has asked for a 'spell', using some of the ingredients on her blog page

Here's mine:

To make the man of your dreams appear before you...
Take eagle's feather and single rose. Have no fears!
Add twig of hawthorne, some dragon's tears,
Thistledown and northern lights
Deep in the witching hour of night.
      Make your wish. Open your eyes.
      In front of you will be – your surprise!

Good luck with your launch, Janice.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Cut Down to Size

Confession time – a shocking one for a Scot, and a writer at that, to make – but I admit I have not read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. I did try many years ago but found them such heavy going, I gave up.

I may try again now that Professor David Purdie has reduced Scott’s novel Ivanhoe from almost 180,000 words to 95,000. Professor Purdie, who is the chairman of Edinburgh’s Sir Walter Scott Club, believes by cutting much of the “excessive description and extraneous punctuation” will attract modern readers who have turned their backs on Scott’s work. The new book will also be published as an e-book.

Sir Walter Scott is often described as the ‘father of the historical novel’ and Ivanhoe, perhaps his best known novel about 12th-century knight, Wilfred of Ivanhoe received international recognition. Goethe said Scott had invented a “wholly new art”. However, and that was then, in the 19th century and readers’ tastes have changed.

Professor Purdie sums it up in an article in The Herald by saying: “The paradox of Sir Walter Scott is he remains much admired, but little read. The collected works of Scotland's greatest novelist adorned the bookshelves of our grandparents, the attics of our parents and the pulp mills of today. That is a pity.”

He is apparently bracing himself for criticism from the purists who disapprove of such tinkering with the master’s work, regardless of motive. “Whatever the motive, no-one adjusts the text, or the score, or the brushwork of a master and escapes with impunity, 'scaithless' as Scott himself would say,” he says.

Many classics are abridged for children and directors often cut bits out of Shakespeare’s plays. Television adaptation play fast and loose with Dickens’ texts even to the extent of dispensing with characters, so what Prof Purdie has done is not totally revolutionary – and I might have another go at reading it.

What do others think? Is it a good idea which will attract readers to Scott’s work or should it be kept exactly as he write it?

Which books do you think would benefit from some judicious pruning?

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A question of polish? What part of writing do you like best?

Who likes writing best? Who prefers editing? As writers, we all approach our task differently – after all, we are as individual as the many characters we create.

I like to know what my story is about, the main conflicts and struggles my characters will have to endure, and more or less where they will end up - and I like to know all of this before I start. I make myself write a detailed synopsis and I do a lot of work on the characters and their motivations. But it's not until I actually start writing that I really get to know my characters properly. That's when I discover that they have hobbies, and that these hobbies might affect some element in the story line. For example, Judy's stutter is stress-induced and disappears when she solves her problem. Or Jane likes running as a way of escaping things she should be facing, but one day her running route takes her to a spot at the exact time there is an accident, involving the man she has been avoiding.

I love it when my people come to life like this, and it only happens when I start to make a connection to my page through my fingertips. The moment when some small idea is sparked off and takes life is quite magical. It's why we write - well, why I write, anyway.

However, I spent years editing books, not fiction on the whole (although a commission to edit two short novella by Naomi Mitchison was a real challenge and was well documented!), and the training has never left me. I love the process.

I liken writing a novel to the process of making a piece of silver jewellery. First you do a design, then you plan the engineering of the piece – how it will hang together, what will swing loose, what needs to be solid. Then you cut the main shape from the flat sheet of silver, and start the hard slog of hammering and sawing, annealing in red-hot flames and hammering all over again. Once the whole piece has been fashioned, the hard, patient work of polishing and finishing starts. First sanding with a coarse-grained paper, then increasingly fine paper. This is to get rid of the 'fire-stain', the grey marks made by the heating/annealing process. Then it's time to move on to the final stage – polishing using jeweller's rouge, again in various grades of coarseness.

Finally, buff the whole piece up with a soft cloth until it gleams and sparkles and causes gasps of amazement. Just like a finished novel.

To answer my own question then, I guess I like the buffing and polishing, making it sparkle. But then again, every part of the creative process has its own magic...

How about you?

Monday, 8 October 2012


Ah yes, but what shade/tint/hint of/hue of blue? The cool, watery blue of the sky on a cold, cloudless winter day? Or something darker - navy merging with purple perhaps?

I've often wondered if The Scarlet Pimpernel would have grasped the public's attention and been so lauded had it been called, simply, The Red Pimpernel? And take Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (or is that Dwarves?). Is there any white as pure as freshly-fallen snow? Milk White and the Seven Dwarfs wouldn't have cut it, would it?
And how about Fifty Shades of Old Army Blanket anyone?

I imagine you might be thinking here that I am obsessed with colour? Well, you wouldn't be far wrong.
I have a junior school teacher - one, Miss Yelland - to thank for that. It was the time when we were all doing practice 11+ papers for the exams that would seal our secondary school fates. Day after day we worked on those papers. Then Miss Yalland said we could write a story instead one morning. Theme of our choice, but it had to include a colour.
I'd always loved writing stories and was - trumpet-blowing here - good at it and always got top marks. I wrote a story called 'Pamela and the green dress'. So, when Miss Yelland called me to the front of the class waving my three sheets of lined paper with my pencil-written story on them, I thought it was for more praise.
But no.
"Green, Linda?" she said. "Boring green? I would have given you 8/10 for this story had it not been for your use of the word 'green', but I'm going to mark you down because of it. So boring, dear, when there are so many wonderful shades from which to choose. Emerald, Chartreuse. Sage,. Grass even."
On and on the words came, like a river of jewels washing over me.
That short, sharp, lesson stuck.
I've had over 300 short stories published now and as you might imagine colour - be it clothes, or sky, or shoes, or hair, or whatever - has featured in all of them.
It can be a challenge to find an interesting way to describe a blonde, for example. I do my best to avoid corn-coloured, and bottle-blonde. It's not easy coming up with something that little bit different that will catch an editor's eye, but I think it has to be done.
That said, I don't have a bottomless pit of colour variations in my head. And so I cheat. I pick up paint charts whenever I'm in a DIY store. Paint manufacturers have a wonderful way with words to describe their wares.
I'll take 'yellow' from one of them I have here on my desk. (You don't want to see my desk! It's a mess, but I know where everything is, honest.)
Wordsworth's daffodil. Iced citrus. Wild primrose. Bitter lemon. Honeygold. Sun-ripened straw.
If I need inspiration for my heroine's crowning glory (or my hero's) then I take a walk down the hair colour aisles in Boots or wherever and I'm spoilt for choice.
A rifle through the liptstick display is another source of ideas. I have a dear friend whose signature lipstick colour is Fabby Fuchsia. She'd look wrong in anything else to be honest, and I'm sure that in your mind's eye you can see those pouty lips and the exact shade on them.
Or how about the wacky descriptions you find on bottles of nail polish? My favourite is Plumptious Plum.
Magenta - a colour I love to wear because it lifts my spirits - is our gift from the printing industry, manaufactured as it was to make colour-printing possible.
So, dear friends, a little wander throught the rainbow - in which my favourite colour/shade/tint/hint of/.hue just has to be indigo.