Sunday, 26 June 2016

Summer Sun

Balmedie Beach

What happens when a photographer that struggles to sleep finally has a period of settled weather, an alarm set for 0230hrs to catch the sunrises. Although it is not uncommon for me not to need the alarm.
Destinations are usually the beach and this week a trip to Dunnottar and Stonehaven to catch first light. The beauty of the lengthening days means that even in the middle of the night it is still rather light allowing for some fantastic shots.

On a few occasions I have been surprised to find other like minded soles out and about taking photos at strange hours of the day.

Stonehaven Harbour at First Light

Pink Skies at Balmedie Beach

The Merkat Cross at the Castlegate, Aberdeen

Reflections on the River Dee

Short and sweet this week concentrating on the photos. Preparing for my summer holidays so look out for lots of photos of the West Coast Scotland.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Dangers of #1LineWed by Jennifer Young

There’s a trend on Facebook just now, one that affects writers only and one that I tend to approach, if I approach it at all, with extreme circumspection. If you’re a writer, or even if you only follow writers, you’re bound to have come across it.

It goes something like this. “Go to page 7 (or whatever) of your work in progress. Then post 7 lines/sentences from paragraph 7.” There’s something similar on Twitter, too. On #1lineWed you’re encouraged to post a single line from your current work, picking up on a specified theme or including a certain word. 

They aren’t promotional posts; just a bit of fun, with the added bonus of showcasing your work. (But no buy links, okay?) Nobody comments, nobody criticises, nobody suggest improvements. They just repost them or retweet them or ignore them. No stress, no strain.

So why don’t I jump at the chance? Why, when I’m tagged in one of these, does a little bit of me die inside? Could it possibly be because the seventh sentence on the seventh page of my latest book (I’d love to say it’s my seventh, but it isn’t) isn’t exactly world-shaking. It’s: “Tom, let’s go”.

The reasons I like and dislike this little game are not just related: they’re the two sides of the same coin and the currency we’re dealing in is a writer’s insecurity. The craft of writing requires attention to every single word. To get it right, each syllable has to be spot on; and the words need not only to be the right ones but they have to be in the best possible order. 

A single sentence picked at random from your novel can expose you, horribly. And even if you have a sentence that doesn’t just work but you’re proud of, the sentences before and after it can let you down. Most of the sentences I see are pretty good. Some of them aren’t so good. But taking a sentence of your own in isolation? That can hurt.

That makes it a good thing. It means I have to look at anything I post with an intensely critical eye. More often than not I end up changing it before I post. (There aren’t many rules in this game so I think it’s okay to post something edited.) By the time I’ve wrestled with seven lines (or whatever) I can have spent a long time getting it right.

That’s the down side: it makes me realise just how difficult it is to get every single word right. If I spend an hour on 129 words over seven lines, how much time do I need to spend on 70,000 words over 200 pages? I don’t have that time. I don’t spend it. But maybe I should. 

Maybe, after all, I’m turning out slack, sloppily-written work which would benefit from hours of polishing. And maybe, if I had to polish to that level of gloss…I’d never finish anything.   

Saturday, 11 June 2016

How To Get Beyond Procrastination

I am a master at procrastination. I’m a Master of Arts, as well, but we won’t go into that. (Bit of a Mickey Mouse degree, really.) My Oxford dictionary says procrastination is to “defer action”, “be dilatory” and “postpone”. It is all of those things, and it seems to me to only occur when you’re supposed to be doing something that you HAVE to do. I mean, you wouldn’t defer the pleasure of reading a new book by a favourite author, would you? Not unless you’d promised yourself a treat after you’d finished doing this incredibly hard task at which you’re - er - procrastinating.

So, procrastinating is putting off something which you really ought to do. In the case of writers, it’s frequently a deadline. In the case of the pre-published writer with no deadline, it rarely occurs, because writing is something done purely for enjoyment. If, however, you are enrolled on a scheme such as the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s excellent New Writer’s Scheme, then you have a deadline, to submit your nurtured baby for a critique, possibly a second read, feedback - and who knows? Possible publication. This is an excellent training ground for the exigencies of the published life.

Sadly, this argues that procrastinating means you’re doing something you don’t like doing. Actually, most of us do like it. It’s just that it’s incredibly hard work. It isn’t simply sitting down at the keyboard and copy typing 2000 words a day. You’ve got to think as well.  The sensible advice is, of course, to plan every inch and tittle of your story to the last full stop, then you probably could sit down and copy type it, but even if you have prepared a proper outline and/or synopsis, story-telling is organic. Situations and characters appear out of nowhere. Sometimes you greet them with an air-punch and a shouted “YES!”, frightening the cat. Sometimes you just wrinkle your brow and say “How the hell did that happen?” And then you have to stop and think about it, and then, yes - you’re procrastinating. Wandering into the garden to deadhead the roses (did that yesterday), writing a guest blog (doing that today), dusting - what? Dusting? Well, maybe not.

I haven’t really helped, have I? When it comes down to it, if you’re procrastinating so much you’ve completely lost interest, I’d stop. Even if the hot breath of an editor is on the back of your flinching neck. I’ve done it. Told my editor this story isn’t working and could I start again. That made the deadline even shorter, but it worked a lot better. And the nearer you get to that deadline the less procrastinating you do because you haven’t got the time.  As with writer’s block, about which I’m not sure, you just keep going. All right then, go and make a cup of tea, deadhead the roses, write a blog. But Come Back. And just write. Go on, you know you want to really.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

PLOTTER/PANTSER DEBATE – Part One Hundred and … by Gill Stewart

When it comes to writing, I’ve always considered myself a Pantser – one of those people who write by instinct, into the mist. I start with a character or a couple of characters, a setting … and off I go. If during, or at the end of, the writing process I feel there is a problem with some section I’ll mull it over, perhaps let a critique partner have a look, and try to change it – again by instinct.

Part of the story plot spreadsheet - will it work?

Now, thanks to my editor and friend Claire Watts, I’ve decided to try a new approach. I don’t know if it will work, or if I’ll repeat it after this initial experiment, but I’m going to try plotting. It's sort of backwards-plotting, as I have already written the book, but it's a start. I'm breaking down my current wip into detailed scenes, analysing each one, and trying to see if that way, objectively, I can pin-point what is and isn’t working.

It’s really amazing when you start to see where the holes are in your story. And then of course you think – why couldn’t I see that before? Obviously a genius or a natural-born storyteller would do this automatically. Someone like me needs more of a hand – or maybe just a kick up the backside. I’ve been so concerned about making my writing realistic that I’ve sometimes forgotten that I am a storyteller and that The Story Comes First. Commercial fiction, which is what I write, must work first and foremost on the level of the story. And I realise that sometimes I’d been forgetting that …

So far I’ve broken the work down into 98 scenes, although some of those are linked so it’s probably more like 40 - 50 scenes. Now I’m analysing each one. When you start writing notes to yourself like ‘what is the point of this scene?’ or ‘check this actually works?’ you feel you have finally got to the nub of what you need to do. The next question is – can I do it?

My main concern is that this process will change my writing from being (I think) deeply felt but sometimes drifting, to feeling manufactured. I definitely don’t want manufactured! What I’m aiming for is deeply felt but properly focussed. Has anyone else tried this approach? Watch this space for how I get on!

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

People Who Inspire Us...

This month each of the blog team shares thoughts on who inspires them. Hope you enjoy and we'd love to hear who or what keeps you keeping on, too...

Rae - This was a tricky question as, over the years, there’ve been many, many writers who’ve inspired me. So I’ve cheated and plumped for two people - one fictional, one author - who are linked and whose stories encourage me now.

The first is Skeeter Phelan, the protagonist in Kathryn Stockett’s uplifting debut novel, The Help. Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights era of 60s America, first Skeeter goes against her mother’s wishes by becoming a journalist. Then, at great personal risk, with the help and friendship of African-American maids, Aibileen and Minny, embarks on a writing project that exposes the racism the women face as they work for white families.

My second inspirational person is the author, Kathryn Stockett.  Over a three and a half year period, Stockett received 60 rejections letters for The Help, before finally being accepted by an agent and publisher. Today it’s described as a modern classic and has gone on to sell over 10 million copies in over 35 countries and be made into a major movie production, which, in turn, became a 2012 Academy Award nominee.

So why are Skeeter Phelan and Kathryn Stockett’s experiences so important to me? Well, I’m about to send my first novel into the world – approaching agents and publishers – and have been warned how troubled the road to publication can be. I’m girding my loins, thickening my skin for the next part of my writing adventure, remembering the determination of Skeeter and Kathryn Stockett, and Aibileen and Minny too. All women who believed in the story they wanted to tell.

Gill - Many people have inspired me at different times and in different ways so it has been hard to decide on just one person. Until, that was, I thought of Diane Pearson, and then the choice was easy. When I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) as an inexperienced, unpublished writer Pearson’s classic novel Csardas was one of my all-time favourite books. So the very last thing I expected was to meet this author, let alone be spoken to by her. Yet at the first or second meeting I attended, a stately elderly lady patted the chair next to her and began to ask me questions about me and my writing. She was warm and encouraging and it was only later I learned that this was indeed Diane Pearson. At that time she was President of the RNA. A year or two later I attended a workshop given by Diane on the opening scene in a novel. She asked us to read out some of our opening sentences and was kind enough to comment positively on mine. And again it was her warmth and her encouragement that struck me. She made me feel that writing was something I could do – and so I went on and did it! Not on the level of Csardas, obviously, but to the very best of my ability. Diane inspiration stays with me not just because she is a great writer who supports other writers, but also a really lovely person.

Jennifer - Once upon a time, on a farm in the wilds of Canada, there was a boy. He sat in a cardboard
Commander Chris Hadfield -
photo courtesy of NASA
box and wrapped himself in tinfoil, pretending to be an astronaut. You may have heard of him. His name was Chris Hadfield.

Young Chris grew into Commander Chris, a real life hero in charge of the international space station. He dealt with triumphs and disasters. He faced extraordinary risks. He conducted a worldwide choir from space, singing a song he wrote specially for them. I'm not usually inspired by people - my ideas come from events and places. But, challenged to say something about a person who inspired me, I didn't have to think very long.

On a grey day in January I went to hear him talk about his experiences. He filled every seat in the Usher Hall and kept his audience enthralled for an hour and a half. He described in chilling detail those few seconds after the engines of the space shuttle are fired up and, as he put it 'you know you're going somewhere. You just don't know where'. He invited a teenager up onto stage and allowed him to try on the space watch he used to control the landing craft that brought him back to Earth. He picked up a guitar and sang Bowie's Space Oddity.

It may seem a little geeky but I learned a lot from Chris Hadfield that night. The most important thing was that you may begin in a cardboard box in a field in a country with no space programme - but if you have a dream and enough determination, you can make it to the stars.

Lesley - I'm supposed to write a post about someone who inspires me. That's difficult. The name that
Dame Judi Dench in Cabaret
springs immediately to mind is Judi Dench, whom I saw in her role as Sally Bowles in the first UK stage version of Cabaret, and whom the creators of the show say she is still their favourite Sally. I've loved everything she's done, and I admire her ability to learn words. My own ability in that regard is fading fast, and she's quite a bit older than I am.

In the writing sense, there is no one person. My love of books started very early – my parents told me I was demanding books at three years old – and all my favourite children’s authors inspired me to follow in their footsteps. Monica Edwards, Malcolm Saville, Pamela Brown and Noel Streatfield, all their books inspired me, and later my favourite Golden Age detective authors. So I’m a bit hopeless, really. But one person did actually make me believe I had a future as a novelist when I was scrabbling along writing boring computer features for trade magazines, and that was Anita Burgh. She knows how grateful I am.

Scotland-Assynt-Cul-Mor-Ben or Coigach by Colin Prior
Neil - The Glaswegian born photographer, Colin Prior is an inspiration to me, as his landscape photographs highlight the natural beauty of the earth. Also the fact that much of his work is of Scotland, makes me believe I might capture the same picture or at least visit the location. He also takes portraits of local people from all around the world and these are beautiful representations of the person's life.

Linda - I’ve chosen my dear old dad as my inspiration. Dad was born in deepest, rural, Essex. When he was just three-years-old his father was killed in the Great War. Although he never, ever, complained about the hard times of his growing-up, poverty doesn’t come close. Dad left school at fourteen and went to work on the land, ploughing with horses mostly. I often wonder what he might have made of himself had he had a decent education because he was an avid reader – Wilbur Smith was a favourite. I don’t think there was an evening of my growing up when I didn’t see Dad with his nose in a book. He also liked listening to piano recitals.

When I was doing ‘O’ levels I gave him George Eliot’s Middlemarch to read and asked him to tell me what he thought of it. ‘Well, dear,’ he said, ‘she didn’t use one word where a thousand would do, did she?’ And that short sentence taught me more about reading critically than a whole host of English teachers had done.
Dad was full of little sayings – some funny and some sage. If I was ever angsting over something – reading the Lesson in church, an exam, a tennis match – Dad would inevitably say, ‘You can do it, kid.’ When I started to get short stories published I asked both my mother and father to read them. My mother refused point blank to even open the magazine. Dad read them and said, ‘Well, dear, they’re not the sort of thing I would normally read but I can see they are very well written.’
There are still times when I’m unsure of things but I can still hear Dad in my head saying, ‘You can do it, kid.’
Yes, Dad, I can!

Jennie - From a writerly point of view it’s impossible for me to name one author of fiction whose stories I’ve read, enjoyed and been inspired by. Reading from the tender age of about three or four, I’ve read and enjoyed the words of hundreds of authors over the years, some of whom no doubt planted the seed in me to be a writer.

But struggling with writing my contribution to this blog I decided to look up the word inspire in the dictionary to see if it  ...  well, inspired me.

This is what my online dictionary says about the word INSPIRE:

Origin: Middle English enspire, from Old French inspirer, from Latin inspirare ‘breathe or blow into,’ from in- ‘into’ + spirare ‘breathe.’ The word was originally used of a divine or supernatural being, in the sense [impart a truth or idea to someone.]

Not a lot of help there then apart from the ‘import a truth or idea to someone’. As for ‘divine or supernatural being’ ... that could be my muse who has been away on holiday for the last couple of months. I could really do with her returning very soon!

I do read a lot of ‘how to’ books about the writer’s craft so I can safely say the books of people like David Morrell - Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, Donald Maass - Writing the Breakout Novel, and Stephen King - On Writing - do impart truths and ideas to inspire me every time I pick one of them up.

And that’s it really - sorry not to be more profound!