It’s the season to share so I’m sending virtual mince pies/glasses of your favourite tipple/best wishes to everyone who’s read and enjoyed this blog over the past six months.
Whatever and wherever you celebrate I hope you enjoy both the next few days and the whole of 2013.
In the meantime, I’d like to share the most incredible bit of busking I’ve ever seen. Nothing to do with Christmas but it sure stirs the spirits:
Wish we had flash mobs like that in my town!
In the meantime, I’ve just iced the Christmas cake. Time to sit down with a mug of coffee and work on the next chapter of King’s Port Rock.
Writing a novel involves many skills, from creating the concept to perfecting the punctuation: and pulling all of these together is an art in itself.
That’s why many authors depend on a detailed plan, something that will act as a kind of road map so they don’t get lost and go adrift as they weave their story.
But, forgetting the actual ‘writing’ skills for the moment, I believe there’s something even more important when it comes to joining up the dots and making sure all the pieces fit.
Before I explain, a disclaimer: I’m not that good at planning. I prefer the more ‘organic’ style of writing… e.g. take an idea (or three) and then go with the flow. I can put together an outline for a book and a structured chapter plan but something else always occurs to me along the way and then, as discussed in Melissa Bowersock’s guest post, the book goes off on its own tangent.
No, for me the most important thing is continuity.
The Tale Of Findo Gask is the story of a child thief growing up in poverty in a British city at the end of the 20th century. When writing the book, I didn’t want to set it in any particular town as the story was about Findo not where he lived.
But, for my story to work, it had to be believable. Which meant my creation had to be consistent. My ‘plan’ never left my head. However, what I did set down on paper was full names and dates of birth for every character. I also drew a detailed street map of the city – complete with roads, railways, river and major buildings.
Findo’s adventures evolved as I wrote the book but I had to be certain that what I was writing was feasible within the parameters that I’d set for him.
My new novel King’s Port Rock is going to be the first part of a series of stories – The Black Island Chronicles – set on a remote (and eccentric) British outpost that’s been ruled by one family for a couple of hundred years. Again I’ve got a map on the desk next to me, plus a family tree that stretches back nearly three centuries.
The detail of the book is still unclear. I know where the novel is ultimately going although how it gets there is a mystery. What is important is that basic facts about people and places don’t change – if Arthur Judd is 34 in 1998 then he can’t be 37 in the year 2000. Equally, if Beacon Hill is 500ft tall in Chapter Three it has to be the same height by Chapter Ten.
Well, that is unless I introduce some major explosions/volcanic eruptions/seismic action etc… hmm… new idea now forming…
I did say the plan could change didn’t I?
Today I’d like to welcome guest blogger Melissa Bowersock – with a post on what happens when books take control of their authors!
Books That Write Themselves
Some non-writers seem to think authors have cabinets in our brains with complete books filed away, just waiting to flow down our arms and out onto the keyboard. I wish!
We all have an idea when we start writing but it’s usually not even a fraction of the finished book. Mostly it’s an outline or just bullet points of the pivotal action and we create the rest as we go, fleshing out details on the fly. This is the creative process: stringing together the words that move the story along and develop it in a compelling fashion.
Easy, right? In a word: no.
Writing is hard. Aside from the mechanics of grammar, spelling and punctuation, writers must be aware of cadence, nuances of emotion, and choosing the right word to match the action.
I’m the type who hates to rewrite. I’d rather just sit and agonize until I get the word I want. Putting a less-than-exact word in, for me, is like building a wall and putting in an inferior brick, knowing I’m going to have to go back at some point and replace it. I’d much rather sit at the keyboard – or walk away from it – than put in a word that doesn’t serve the story.
The flip side is when it flows. You may have heard some writers say, “This book just wrote itself.” That’s literally what it feels like. When a book flows, the words just come – not just any words, but the right words.
It’s an author’s dream to write like that. When the book comes alive is when the creative process is almost effortless. I wrote one book like that in three months. Most take anywhere from six months to two years, so three months was like speed-writing.
What’s interesting when books “write themselves” is that they don’t always come out as intended!
I’m currently working on a ghost story. After hearing about the ghosts that haunt the London Bridge – and came over with it to Arizona – I thought that would make a good light comedy, something similar to The Canterville Ghost or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
I envisioned a ghost that was comically culture-shocked and helped along in her assimilation by a living human. As I began writing, I established the main living character, a man with a highly developed sense of responsibility, who felt crowded by the demands of his business, his mother and girlfriend.
As such, he was the last person on earth to entertain thoughts of ghosts but of course it’s into this very rational, controlled existence that the female ghost appears. The ghost’s first experience with cars and the man’s efforts to explain them set the stage for the culture shock.
That’s when things started to get surreal. Instead of the light bantering I expected to write, the ghost was genuinely confused and frightened and the man (Mr. Responsibility) very deliberate in his thoughtful, gentle explanations.
Before I knew it, the ghost developed into a sad, downtrodden 19th century girl and the man turned out to be wounded by the abuses of an alcoholic father. Suddenly dark secrets swirled behind both characters as they forged their unlikely friendship.
Separated by centuries of custom and different frames of mind, they struggled to make sense of what life had dealt them – and how they had responded. Certainly not the story I set out to write!
When I talk about this, people ask me, “How can it turn out differently? You’re the one writing it!”
I’m not sure exactly, but let’s go back to the words-as-bricks metaphor. As I lay the second course, I might place them just slightly off, but not enough to notice. The third course goes up and, yup, now there’s a definite lean to the wall.
Trying to write my way back to the original plan would be to change direction again, making the wall wavy and decidedly unsteady. Now my only choices are to continue with the new direction or tear it all down to the foundation and start over.
Usually, I go for option # 2 and delete however many paragraphs or pages comprise the unintended direction change. With this ghost story, though, I found I liked the characters and their dynamic of dark secrets. Unwinding the bandages to reveal the emotional wounds is way more interesting than the light humor I first imagined.
Who knew the book would write its own story?
Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic writer who turns her hand to any kind of story that moves her: contemporary, western, fantasy, romance, action/adventure, spiritual. She thrives in the Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona with her husband and an Airedale terrier. She is also a certified hypnotherapist.
Some excellent advice here for any writers.
When in the midst of writing a book, I like to go back and read what I’ve already written. I usually do this at the beginning of each writing session. I read the previous chapter or two to set the stage again in my mind, and it allows me to do some early proofreading.
Here are my next steps:
1. Read the book on my computer from chapter one to the end. This is my first full pass, and I’ll usually catch typos and missing words/commas/quotation marks. Sentences are sometimes reworked. Details might be wrong from one part of the book to the next, and I try to fix all of this on the first pass.
2. Wait a day or two and read it again. I still read the book on my computer, but I read out loud this time. I read as if I’m reading for the audio…
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Oh dear. It’s that time of year again. The season of paper hats, office parties and overindulgence.
Last night was the Christmas ‘do’ for the language school where I work – and today I’m living with the consequences of my actions.
It’s not a case of being weak-willed. When I get confronted with bottles of wine just sitting there on a table in front of me I simply have to drink them.
So, in recognition of today’s ‘post-festive’ feeling, a little seasonal ditty. (The first minute is a bit slow but then it turns into one of those songs that gets stuck in your brain.)
Teaching English as a foreign language can be entertaining on so many levels – getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of our language, realising how illogical spellings and pronunciation rules are, hearing students use words that are logical but wrong etc, etc.
But one of the most fascinating things is the insights into different countries and cultures.
When I was teaching in Portugal the classes were 95% Portuguese. We had a few Brazilian and Angolan students – other nationalities were rare.
But now I’m back in the UK I’m teaching part-time at a language school in Bournemouth where students come from all over the world. In the last six weeks I’ve taught students from Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Italy, Japan, Colombia, the Ukraine, Libya and Saudi Arabia.
Most of the time we concentrate on English. But I also like to ask the students about their lives and it can lead to some interesting classroom discussions.
The other week, we were reading about a couple in Spain who got a court order to evict their two adult sons because the boys not only weren’t working, but were also making no contribution to family life and showing no respect for their parents.
One of my students, Ahmed normally just smiles a lot and speaks very little. He’s not slow but he’s lazy and his English surprisingly basic considering how many months he’s been at the school. This time, though, he had something he wanted to say and worked really hard to explain his opinion.
Ahmed said that would never happen in Saudi Arabia. He said family is the most important thing and that parents would never chuck their children out, commenting that his family all live under one roof – parents, his brothers, their wives and children.
Paolo, an Italian student, joined the conversation. He joked that with so many people they must have very large family photographs.
Ahmed shook his head. No. Only the men. The others (Spanish and Colombian) listened with incredulity as Ahmed explained that the family photos only have men in them. The women can have photos but no men can see them.
He added that his brother can never see Ahmed’s wife’s hair. He can say hello to his sister-in-law but never, ever touch her. “Only me,” he said with a beaming smile.
A few days later I was teaching a different class. One of the Spanish girls poked a young Saudi in the ribs when he said something to wind her up. It was just a quick, instinctive action and completely innocent. But it made me wonder how it must seem to a young Saudi – coming from a country where men don’t even get to see a girl’s hair unless they’re married, let alone touch them.
Being a teacher has helped me a lot as an author – I understand much more about how English works and hopefully I can use that knowledge to improve my writing. But the cultural insights are also fascinating – I get a glimpse into worlds and lives that I might not see otherwise.
NB: My favourite word invented by a student was ‘diseducate’. It doesn’t exist but in the context used it made perfect sense!
Think Christmas could be boring? Need some books to keep you entertained/occupied?
Well, you could win a bundle of 30+ novels thanks to a contest being run by medieval romance writer Samantha Holt.
Samantha has persuaded a whole parcel of authors – including yours truly – to join in with the festive spirit and offer copies of their books.
For more information about the contest and the authors/books involved, simply click on the image above to visit Samantha’s blog. Alternatively, if you want to go straight to the competition, visit Samantha’s Facebook page here and simply ‘like’ the post about the competition.
Right. Anyway, that’s quite enough about Christmas: it’s still only the 7th December and I don’t want to even think about it for at least another week (preferably two)… I’ve made the Christmas puddings AND the Christmas cake – what more can people expect? Shopping can wait.
We all know you have to be crazy to be a writer – although this can range from mild derangement to being as a mad as a hatter.
It goes with the territory: as writers we spend large amounts of time with our heads in
alternative imaginary worlds that those around us just don’t realise are there. Sometimes these worlds take over our lives, demanding more of our focus than that bothersome existence real world where our nearest and dearest are trying to get our attention.
To be a writer you’ve got to be obsessive and more than a bit bloody-minded. After all, writing a novel involves many, many hours of solitary work – with no real idea if anyone else is going to be remotely interested in the tens of thousands of words we’ve produced. But we do it anyway. We have to.
That’s because being a writer isn’t so much a profession as a calling: even if it’s the voices in our own head that are telling us what to do.
So, with that in mind, I was extremely interested to learn about the history of insanity in my family. And, no, I’m not joking.
My mother has been doing some research into her side of the tree and recently got hold of two fascinating death certificates. It turns out that her great-grandfather, John Chilcott, was fished out of the Thames (drowned) in 1887. It seems he’d previously been living separately from his wife and children because of his irrational behaviour.
At the time of the 1891 census, one of his sons was living in the Metropolitan Lunatic Asylum at Godstone, Surrey. Now, I could claim great-great uncle Charles was on the staff but that would be a lie. In fact he died there five years later: aged just 39.
The truth is both of my mad ancestors were hatters.
Now, there’s some debate about the origin of the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’: its use predates hat making as a recognised trade. However, Mad Hatters Disease was a well-known condition caused by the use of mercury in felt-making for hats.
The outward effects of mercury poisoning can include: red fingers, toes and cheeks; loss of hearing; bleeding from the ears and mouth; loss of appendages such as teeth, hair, and nails. And then there are the mental problems: ranging from lack of coordination and poor memory all the way up to mental disturbance and emotional confusion caused by severe neurological damage.
Learning about the fate of my ancestors makes me extremely glad I’m living now. Unless you were reasonably well-off, life back then was extremely hard. (Just look at the old parish registers to see how many children didn’t even reach their first birthday).
It’s also slightly strange to realise that two of my predecessors may have suffered from a malady so closely linked to a common euphemism for madness.
At least, I hope it was the mercury poisoning that was to blame. Because if not it could be in the genes. But then I suppose that might explain something…
Anyway, for a bit of light relief, here’s everyone’s favourite Mad Hatter, explaining more about how he got into the role:
Wow! December is just such an exciting month. There’s the publication of Pagan’s Sphinx today, we’ve got The Hobbit coming out in less than two weeks, the end of the world just eight days later… and then Christmas?
According to the prophets of doom – and other assorted fruitcakes and ‘mystics’ – the world as we know it comes to a halt on 21st December.
That prediction is based on the Mayan ‘Long Count’ calendar, a complicated system of 394.3-year cycles.
The start date of the Long Count calendar is believed to be 11th August 3114 BC. This is the day on which the Mayans believe the gods erected three stones, lifting the sky off the sea and revealing the sun.
Unfortunately, because the sequences on which this calendar is based end on 21st December some people have interpreted this rather negatively as meaning… well… we’re all going to die!
But before you get all depressed, a word of reassurance. Those who’ve actually studied the calendars in detail, say the Mayans believed there had been previous cycles to the one we’re in now and there’s nothing to suggest there isn’t going to be another.
Plus, you’ve got to ask yourself, how much can you trust these Mayans anyway? After all, their civilisation collapsed in the 8th and 9th centuries AD and their cities were abandoned. Doesn’t sound to me like they knew everything.
But – just in case the world is going to end – my advice is: don’t worry. If the apocalypse is coming then it’s unlikely there’s nothing you or me can do about it so we might as well relax, smile and enjoy life (well, for the next 20 days anyway).
And to help take your mind off your worries, how about a bit of escapism? Pagan’s Sphinx comes out today. It’s the story of an archaeological expedition to North Africa in search of an ancient statue that might provide a link to the lost civilisation of Atlantis.
So, if you fancy an adventure in the African sun, involving some intrigue, a bit of romance, a few explosions and a very dead body then this might be just the thing.
And if the world doesn’t end, you can always count it at as early Christmas present!