My Writing Advice to Self of the week is this: whatever the genre, pack the action in!
A lot of my lovely readers are older and don’t care much for technology. I’m not stereotyping here – my parents, in their 80s, love a bit of tech. and are rarely seen without an iPad – but lots of their contemporaries like paper books best and wouldn’t know what to do with a phone that didn’t have buttons.
Fair enough, I say.
These dear readers, when they like the books, tell me so in offline ways: face to face, by handwritten letter, or in an email their friend has helped them send, all of which I appreciate hugely. What they don’t do is write online reviews, because – well because they don’t come from the review culture. In their day, if you bought something; you just bought it. You weren’t expected to give it stars or tell them the packaging was or wasn’t up to scratch!
But we hungry writers need online reviews. It’s how the algorithms work. So a little plea: if you enjoyed a book (any book!) please leave a little online review. A passing young person, or your nearest tech-savvy great-granny will help.
I loved the “great post-operative” one above.
Oh, and a few copies are in a give-away offer at the moment (see above).
I’ve been giggling this week about a tick I noticed in my own writing and other people’s – the tendency to sit down too much!
I don’t mean the authors; I mean their characters. In the half dozen books and manuscripts I’ve read in the past three days the characters spend an awful lot of time sitting about.
It’s not that the books are without action, there is plenty elsewhere, it’s just that between vivid scenes they all tend to sit down and (this being England, my dears) they often have a nice cup of tea!
As soon as you spot something like this, of course, it jumps out at you whichever book you pick up. Plots need pauses and a cafe or pub is a handy place for characters to meet and share vital information. People do chat over coffee and meet in tea shops – it’s perfectly realistic – but my resolution for Nanowrimo and beyond is to put a stop to all this comfort and get my characters moving.
They can talk plot lines and establish character out in the fresh air. They can reinforce their conflicts or mention that crucial detail whilst driving, walking, riding, break dancing, roasting an ox, drying their hair, shark wrestling or getting a tattoo, but they will definitely not be doing it sitting in a café.
I’m guilty of ignoring the Muse as a concept. I fall into the Get On and Do It school of thinking, generally, where writing is concerned. I’m practical: sit down; write this many words in this many hours; edit it for this long; send result out to this many agents/publishers/magazines etc. I’ve never had much time for the idea that there might be some external force – some fleeting, enigmatic abstract involved. Pah! I thought that Muse stuff was for people who like the idea of writing, but didn’t fancy doing any actual work. “Ah,” they could say, after a convenient half-hour at their tidy desk in their well-appointed study, “sadly, no luck today. The Muse wasn’t with me.”
If you read internet writing advice (especially the sort that comes in curly typography over dreamy pictures of moonlight or lakes) most of that ignores the Muse too. Mostly it talks about “turning up for work” and “getting your bum on the seat” and “putting in the hours” and so on. Basically the meditative photos offer sergeant majorly get up earlier; work harder advice. I’m fine with that. It is hard work.
But. I hate to admit it, but I increasingly believe there is something else. Here is a terrible truth: you can work really hard for a very long time and still produce a poor result; you can also work in a playful way for not very long and produce something fantastic. And the Factor X that makes the difference is what for the sake of convenience we might call the Muse.
I’m only just getting to know this creature. I don’t really trust her. She is female, Greek and mythological, which always means a lot of complications. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:
- she is very badly behaved
- give her the perfect conditions, sit and wait, and she probably won’t be arsed to show up at all, but when you’re doing twenty other things and don’t have anything to write with she’ll be there in your mind’s ear, whispering
- she is a bit of a thug
- you will have careful outlines and plans; she will spit on them
- she is a dangerous influence
- she doesn’t care if you work hard or not, but her ideas stick in your brain like chewing gum sticks in your hair and will not, will not go away
- she sneers at all sensible advice about, say, what the market likes, or what agents are looking for
- many of her ideas are so outrageous they must have come from outside your own head (surely!)
- she hates being bossed about
- the second you think you’ve worked her out, she’s off
- time is different for her
- your time, your deadlines or schedules are irrelevant; in Muse time things are done when they’re done.
In short, I thought the Muse would be like this: gently kissing inspiration onto the author’s fevered brow. (Paul Cezanne’s Kiss of the Muse)
It turns out she’s more like this:
a frolicsome party animal. Not what I was expecting at all!
(Original Blousy Muse artwork by Grannywritesbooks, as you probably guessed!)
I know that painters suffer a terrible temptation to re-work, change, add to and generally interfere with a painting that is really finished. Watercolourists, in particular, have to beware. Because of the delicate nature of the watercolour wash, they are very limited in the number of changes they can make without destroying the fresh beauty of the medium and wrecking the whole painting. They have to be disciplined; make the right decisions early, then stop.
But what about writers? We can make a million changes and nobody can tell. When should we walk away? How do we know when a book is finished? It’s not as obvious as it sounds.
Stop when: 1. You’ve finished the story.
When’s that? When they all live happily after? After the ball? After the Prince finds another princess with the same size feet and better monarching skills?
When is a story finished?
Maybe when you’ve finished telling the part of the story that interested you (this time – there are sequels, remember).
Stop when: 2. It’s long enough.
No, that won’t work. It’s the piece of string thing. 100,000 might be enough, but so might 50,000 or 75,345 or 23,479. (That’s art for you.)
Stop when: 3. An external factor prevents you from continuing.
There might be an editor or agent waiting. A publisher may be scheduling the cover design and printing. These are excellent reasons to stop writing and send it on the day you said you’d send it. They may not continue to love/pay you otherwise.
If nobody on earth is waiting or cares about anything you write, find someone. It can be a friend or relation. It can be an online writer-friend of some sort. Set a date. Tell them they will have it for their birthday/your birthday/Christmas – whatever. Then send it on time. If you don’t do this your ghost will haunt libraries screaming ‘Here! Here is the shelf where my poor novel should have been!‘ forever.
Stop when: 3. You can’t think of a single extra thing you could do to make it better.
You will think of something the moment you click send. You have spent a huge amount of time and creative energy on this book. It is lodged in your heart and soul and psyche and will probably not move into its next phase without waking you a few times in the night, but the time has come. Every last possibility for improvement has been exhausted and so have you. Send it. Now!
The following are not signs that your novel is finished. You should ignore them and carry on.
1 People keep saying ‘you’re not still working on that are you?’
2 You’ve begun to hate the title (and perhaps the whole book).
3 You’ve begun to despise the whole idea of writing books. Other people go out/have friends/eat in restaurants, for heaven’s sake!
4 A tidy house and clean laundry are a half-forgotten dream, and who, exactly, are those other people living in the house?
Many people, as they grow older, begin to show symptoms of conditions that, in their youth, they were able to manage or suppress. Writing is one of these conditions. In the past it may have been a very slight disorder, masked perhaps by employment or caring activities, but in older age, perhaps as a result of a change in one of these areas, it becomes more evident.
The sufferer, might, for example, begin to write more during the day. They may talk about their writing openly, in company. They perhaps seek out, and show signs of enjoying, the company of others gripped by the same condition. They may begin to send their writing out to competitions and sometimes, in extreme cases, they may even write whole novels and try to have them published, or to publish them themselves.
Life with such a person presents many challenges. The sufferer will, for example, almost certainly feel the urge to stop doing anything useful such as housework or shopping. They will lock themselves away for hours and sometimes emerge in a less-than-sunny frame of mind.
The partner of someone who is undergoing this condition – whether it is sudden-onset or slowly developing – is in a difficult situation. Their loved-one has begun to live an inner life that is completely unknown to them. One moment they show a passionate interest in the variety of birds found on islands off Mongolia; the next it is the effects of undercooked beans on the digestive system; or the likelihood of delay on the sleeper to Inverness on a Wednesday that is all they can think about.
In other ways they may appear perfectly normal, but you will notice a tendency for note-taking at odd moments. They may seem drawn to anyone with a particular area of professional expertise. At social gatherings all small talk is cast aside as they plough into the relentless questioning of the wheelchair gymnast/deep sea diver/forensic accountant they need to pump for information for their latest fiction.
If it is crime writing that afflicts them, it will naturally be police officers, security staff and anyone associated with the criminal law they head for, but with romantic novelists things are not so predictable; it may be the broken-hearted or the fabulously good-looking, but it may also be the shy, the plain or the socially inept. Either way, as their partner you can expect long hours in the kitchen at parties.
Then there is the Google search history. The best advice is: don’t look. The same applies to their Kindle library. A glance at either will indeed offer an insight into the workings of the fiction writer’s mind, but not in a helpful way. It is very likely to lead to unnecessary suspicion and anxiety, but remember this: just because your beloved has spent several days Googling methods of strangulation or undetectable disposal of human remains does not mean they are planning a real-life murder – well, not yours anyway.
All in all, life with a writer is frankly less a roller coaster, more a long downward escalator, but as you plunge the depths of household disorder, poverty and social exclusion, remember there are rare cases of successful publication and even financial reward.
Obviously this is as likely as a lottery win (14 million to 1 last time I checked the odds), but when it does happen, writers have been known to buy champagne. They never go back to doing any housework, though.
One of the pleasures of this odd book-writing habit is being contacted by readers who go to the trouble of seeking you out and telling you what they thought. They send comments and reviews, they share news, they ask how the sequel is coming on. It is really a delight to have a sense of real, live readers out there, going about their lives and genuinely enjoying what you have written. I write comedy, so I have the lovely thought that I might cheer them up and give them a little laugh here and there as well.
It’s a strange transition when your characters move from your imagination to someone else’s. People you haven’t met before can talk about one of your characters as if they knew them. The first few times it happens you think – how do you know? – and have to remind yourself, oh yes, I wrote it down, other people know about Sister B, or Alphonsus Dunn, or whoever it happened to be. It’s like someone else talking about your secret invisible friend.
Then there are the special category readers. I was ridiculously pleased when someone who had been a nun wrote to say that she had loved the book (it’s about a little convent trying to survive against the odds) and was going to send it to her friends the Carmelites, who would identify with the characters’ struggles. And there is another lovely reader who knows Peru and another who buys ten copies at a time and sends them all over the world.
Writers complain sometimes about how isolating writing can be. I have a sociable day job and solitude for writing is a luxury, so that doesn’t worry me, but it’s a tremendous bonus to have the sense of a patient and receptive audience gently waiting.
I’m including below a couple of hand-written reviews that were sent by readers who don’t usually write them, and aren’t users of Amazon or Goodreads, but who wanted me to know what they thought. I’m very grateful to them for taking the trouble. (I edited a bit. They’re long and thoughtful, but I didn’t change the gist.)
…To me, yes, unputdownable. The epistolary form, reminiscent of Jean Webster’s ‘Daddy Long-Legs’ of my schooldays, led me on, and temptingly on, to read one more letter, or chapter, and one more…
I congratulate Fran Smith on this, on its originality and delightfulness as we meet Sister Boniface and touch finger-tips with the much-travelled and adventurous Emelda. When I came, speedily but reluctantly, to the last page, I felt that the tale couldn’t end there. Hurry up, Fran, with Volume Two. Don’t disappoint the millions* of us out here.
And Jennie Rawlings – I just loved the cover.
I loved it – delightfully light touch. Elegant prose. Brought a smile. Beautifully wrought characters.
…liked how it was written – quaint, naive, commonsense; dealt with realistic current situations; well put together. Congratulations on the cover, it just catches the spirit.
* (I love the dear reader’s optimism here!)
The discharge payment and the compensation meant she could afford to buy a place, a tiny city apartment or a small suburban house. She made herself visit a few, standing in empty rooms, trying to look interested as sharply-dressed salespeople enthused over the view or the closet space. So many dead; it was hard to care. ‘Depression,’ said her sister-in-law, ‘post-traumatic stress’, as if a label from somewhere on the internet could somehow contain the whole thing.
Then one day driving the hills she saw a For Sale sign and for no good reason turned off and investigated. A small house, needing a few repairs, in a big empty garden.They told her it was an acre.
When, a few weeks later, the truck drove away and left her alone with her few bits of furniture, she sat in the garden as the light faded and listened. Country silence; here and there an owl or the rustle of a tiny creature in the grass, the creak of a tree in the surrounding woodland, but in between something she gradually realised was the gentle, neutral silence of peace. Six months out of a war zone, it felt like a miracle. She still woke at night hearing shouts and missiles, but less often as time went by.
City-raised, she knew nothing at all about gardening, but her instinct was to let the land alone. Mostly it was just grass, bumpy for lack of mowing, but over on one side was an apple tree, the grass around it dotted with fallen fruit. The apples were large and pale, almost square. When she cooked them, they turned instantly to a delicate mush. The tree had a gash, a fallen branch had left a jagged split in the bark of the trunk. This began to worry her. Should she intervene? Cut it away? Paint it with something?
In the window of the hardware store where she bought her paint she saw a poster for an Apple Day. Bring your apples for identification. It was at a specialist tree nursery, Runcie’s. Who knew there were specialist tree nurseries? So she went, with her pockets full of the pale apples. There in a marquee filled with their sweet scent, she found old Benjamin Runcie standing behind a table covered in neat rows of apples, each different, each labelled. Mr Runcie liked apples a lot more than he liked people. The Apple Day was not his idea, but he had to admit it brought the customers in. They came from all over. He took her apple and adjusting his glasses, inspected it, turning it over in his hand. ‘Lord Lambourne,’ he said, eventually. ‘Good for sauce. Won’t store, though.’
‘The tree’s split. A branch came off. What should I do?’ she asked.
He didn’t look at her, he was still examining the apple, taking his time.
‘They can look after themselves. Just tidy it up. They fruit best if there’s another apple nearby. If you have the space, that is.’
‘I have space, but how can I choose which variety?’ There were hundreds spread out there in front of them.
‘A Melrose or a Jewett Red. It doesn’t much matter, it’s for pollination.’ He looked at her for the first time. ‘We can deliver, if you want to order. Are you from round here?’
‘Kelsey,’ she said, ‘over beyond the river. I just bought a place over there.’
He focused on her properly now. This was home territory. ‘That wouldn’t be the old Hovey place, north of town?’
‘How’d you know?’
‘Not many places sold round here lately. I heard it was a veteran bought that place. Military man, invalided out.’
‘Well, that was half right. I just left the service myself.’
He looked at her steadily, then handed back her apple. ‘I believe we have a lot to thank you for,’ he said.
He came round the table, leaving a line of people to wonder who would identify their apples, and gestured to her, leading her from the tent out into the long lines of saplings of all sizes. He picked two pollinators, and handed them to her in their pots. ‘A housewarming,’ he said. ‘Just be sure to give them some water at first. They’ll be OK.’
They were skinny little things with just a few leaves. She planted them, by digging holes and stamping them in, apologising to them silently for not knowing any better. They grew anyway.
That was the beginning of the orchard. Whenever she passed Runcie’s she stopped in and bought another tree. By the time the nephew came, she already had fourteen of them, and more apples than she knew what do with.
The nephew was a bit of a revelation. He’d been a podgy baby and a whiney six-year-old. She wasn’t bad about birthday cards and so on, but they didn’t know each other. At seventeen the boy was tall and skinny. He arrived carrying a huge rucksack which mostly contained books: cookery books, on inspection.
‘I love to cook,’ he said, shrugging. ‘They want me to be a lawyer.’ They sat side by side outside her back door, drinking coffee. ‘I have a really good applecake recipe,’ he said.
‘Did you run away?’ she asked him. ‘Tell me.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s just a time out. They know where I am.’
‘And they agreed?’
‘They didn’t try to stop me, put it that way. Besides, they wanted a report on you.’
‘Oh yeah?’ she said.
‘They worry, I guess.’ He looked out in the darkness. ‘I thought, with all the apples and everything, you might need some help. I can cook with the apples. We might even sell some stuff. We could just try it for a few weeks. What do you say?’
She said yes.
* big debate in GWB household: pollinators or pollenators – Cambridge academic says ‘en’ – retro-educated hack writer says ‘in’ – take your pick!
This was written as a response to one of Chuck Wendig’s challenges: use the names of three apple varieties in a story of less than 1000 words.
I admire the blog called Terrible Minds by Chuck Wendig. His advice for writers is pithy, brilliant and rude (really rude – watch out if you don’t like a swearword). This is my entry for one of his flash fiction competitions, written when I should have been doing other things…The challenge was to include one of the following randomly generated sentences: “The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins.” “A poetic pattern retains inertia.” and “The criminal disappears after the inventor.” Extra points for using all three.
Summarize this passage in English.
She’s tried everything. Everything. Bribery is no good – all she can offer is an early end to the class, something forbidden by the course director stalking the corridors in silenced footwear. Threats make no impact – they just groan, or don’t understand, or care. Actually taking the damned things out of their hands, which she has resorted to once or twice, results in such a massive collective strop that any sort of co-operation is snuffed out, leaving a roomful of gorgon-glaring teenagers frozen in only-just-contained fury. In revenge they tick the frowny face on the end-of-course feedback form; very bad news to a teacher hoping to keep her job.
The day they market the mobile phone that can be embedded into the body is the day these young people present themselves at the implant clinic. Until then their beloved iPhones must always, always be within reach. Suck it up, Teach (or its equivalent in Mandarin).
It wouldn’t be so bad if the translation software were anything like decent. It’s not. It’s crap. But it’s still a million times easier, in your English lesson, if you’re Chinese and a teenager and you have spent sixteen of the previous 24 hours playing World of Warfare, or whatever, to pick it up, punch in the first Chinese word that comes into your head and write down whatever garbled rubbish the translator offers you.
Factor in misreadings and typing mistakes and you end up with a sentence on climate change in Scotland rendered as “The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins.”
They are not just wrong, they are extreme wrong, don’t-know-where-to-start wrong, why-do-we-even-bother wrong, but sometimes, she had to admit, they are oddly haunting: “A poetic pattern retains inertia.” Now and then they even sound like the beginning of a short story,“The criminal disappears after the inventor.”
The teacher sighs and looks out of the window. The instructress respires and defenestrates.