And then there were three! The third Vita Carew mystery is a Christmas story. Vita is distracted from her studies by a mysterious patient in the hospital. He has been injured and lost his memory, and she decides to find out more. She is soon drawn into the strange happenings in Dr Potter’s rural medical practice.
I had a great time with Dr Potter and the evil Miss Edith Finch. I was fascinated by the idea of a pair of (very) psychologically disordered characters who bring out the very worst in each other. An evil couple is a deliciously creepy idea. And of course a doctor who turns to the bad is deeply unsettling. We rely on our doctors. We want to trust and believe them.
I’ve just retired from teaching. Until now writing has always been an activity squeezed in around the day job. I often wrote at 5am for an hour or two, and at weekends and during holidays. Now I can write all day long! I am wallowing in time, binge writing to my heart’s content – a thousand stories jostling in my head and fingers that can hardly type fast enough.
1 Don’t use a predictable title. If the theme for the competition is, say, ‘Bridges’, and you call your story ‘Bridges’, you can be pretty certain that lots of other entries will have the same one. Call your story something original.
2. Don’t forget the word limit. It’s easy for the judges to check! Too long is annoying and unprofessional; too short feels arrogant.
3. Don’t rush the ending. A strong ending is a memorable burst of energy that stays with the reader. It doesn’t have to be a ‘twist’ or a shock, it just has to give either a feeling of completion or sometimes a sense of loss. Poor endings don’t offer this, are often rushed and send the clear message at this point I ran out of ideas, or time. Inexplicably violent or tragic endings are just as unsatisfying.
4. Narration unbroken by dialogue. A story without any dialogue has to work very hard indeed to help readers identify and care about characters. Even a tiny amount of direct speech makes a big difference.
‘It does, doesn’t it?’
5. No accidental clichés allowed. Deliberate clichés for mockery purposes might work, but be careful; it can be difficult to spot the irony.
6. Embarrassingly revelatory subtext. Watch out for subtext. Sometimes stories seem to reveal ideas the writer was probably unaware of. Are all your male characters rakishly attractive? Do all your female characters nurse resentment and plot revenge? Do all the women need rescuing by strong male characters? Are all the men/women/young people/foreigners/builders/white collar workers (name your population group) in your story wrong’uns, or dim? Stereotypes creep in. All these things are up to you, if you’re doing them by choice. If it’s happening subconsciously you might be revealing more than you intended!
7. Unexpectedly offensive swearing. If you use the rudest words in a story it can make it more difficult for judges to choose it because a) swearing has to be very finely calibrated to have the right effect on every reader. What seems an off-hand, mild cuss to one person is a disgusting outrage to another, and a lazy form of characterisation to another still. Powerful, if you get it right; disastrously off-key if you get it wrong. The power of cursing comes and goes between the generations too. Some 1950s rude words would seem daft nowadays but others would get you reported to the police.
b) Certain swearwords are picked up electronically online, and intercepted by family-friendly filters. In other words, it’s difficult for organisations to publish/publicise your story online, which is off-putting.
Cuss with care. Know your reader.
8. Sex (see Swearing, above. The same principles apply.)
9. Starting in the wrong place. Many stories take a long run-up before we get to the main point. School-aged writers are inclined to start a story about A Day at the Zoo with, ‘I woke up that morning…’ and a few more paragraphs of breakfast and bus journey before ever reaching an animal. Their writing improves hugely as soon as they get the idea that they could by-pass breakfast and go straight to, ‘The lion stared at me and licked his teeth…’.
10. Empty-hearted coldness. If there isn’t any sign of emotion, your story will be flat. For example, if your character is confronted by someone carrying a weapon, we would expect them to feel something. You don’t need to say they are scared/terrified/excited, it works better if you show it in the way they act, feel, speak or think. (Preferably without using the word ‘heart’!)
11. Make sure you write a short story, not a book condensed into the word count or something that reads like an extract.
12. Anticlimax. Keep the punchline to the end or towards the end, or things will trail off…
13. Retrofitting a story to fit a different competition theme. If you have a story already and re-purpose it by awkwardly shoehorning in something to make it fit the title, it’s often easy to see the join.
14. If something startling is going to come at the end, don’t forget to foreshadow it earlier on in the story. If someone’s going to be killed with the lead pipe in the conservatory, someone needs to mention the lead pipe early on.
15. And the reverse of this, which is if you refer to the lead pipe/Glock handgun/lost handkerchief/stray dog in a significant way early on, something has to happen with it later, or the readers all feel short changed and keep wondering where it is.
16. Make your characters memorable. Differentiate them. Make their names different. If they’re called Mike, Mitch and Mick, you’re making the reader work too hard. (This is surprisingly common.)
17. Unpronounceable names are annoying, even if we only have to read them in our heads. Unless it’s really essential for your character to be called Honzuezhan Xvextzwytlzch, please reconsider.
(With thanks to Patricia McBride for her contributions.)
When he died in July at the age of 93, Andrea Camilleri, had published about 90 detective stories, 30 of them the hugely popular Montalbano stories set in Sicily. Camilleri started the Montalbano series in his mid 60s. He was, as The Guardian obituary put it, “not so much an author as a one-man literary production line”. Some years, when he was in his 80s, he published as many as eight novels.
Maestro Camilleri was a fascinating and admirable character. He had a previous successful life as an innovative theatre director and teacher, but it was at the age when most would retire that he first achieved a bestseller with the first Montalbano story set in Sicily. After that there was no stopping him.
Commissario Montlbano is known to UK viewers through a popular TV series. The dazzlingly wonderful landscapes of Sicily feature, alongside the slightly grumpy police officer and his cast of colleagues, including a pathologist who loves cakes and a girlfriend who only ever drops in. Reassuringly, no crime is ever too dreadful to prevent Montalbano going for a decent lunch.
So, if Camilleri is anything to go by, it seems quite conservative to plan another 20 or 30 novels in your sixties – or another 90, if you really put your back into the work.
I was at the 7th Self-Publishing Conference in Leicester yesterday. There was loads to digest. Orla Ross from the Alliance of Independent Authors gave the keynote which was a rallying cry to indie authors, urging professionalism and dedication to publishing the very best. Thus inspired, I went to workshops on metadata (yes, that’s how dedicated I am), crime writing with Stephen Booth (17 successful novels to date) and blog touring, with lovely Anne Cater, who made organising a blog tour sound as easy as pie. (Speaking of pie, lunch was good, too.)
Morgen Bailey’s Promoting Profitably with a Podcast was my favourite, because I’ve fancied a Granny Writes Books podcast for ages, and Morgen’s talk made it sound perfectly possible. Her handout is a treasure trove of podcast know-how and as someone already equipped with a microphone and an endless supply of curiosity about how other people write, I reckon podcasting is right up my street. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a time-gobbler – here I am already dedicating time to it – but I’m keen to give it a go. If you would like to be interviewed on a podcast about the writing stories of older writers – let me know!
So thanks to Morgen, Orla, Stephen and Clive Herbert of Nielsen Books. You have filled my head with ideas and my bag with business cards.
But really, the best thing about conferences and writing events in general is sitting next to someone and asking “What are you writing?”. The answer is always a surprise.
Thanks Matador and sponsors, it was a great day. And isn’t the Festival Bookshop fabulous?
As he handed over the prize-winners envelope*, the Master of Ceremonies announced that he didn’t really believe in writing competitions. Writing isn’t a competitive activity, is it? he said.
The audience seemed to agree. I might agree myself, usually, but not this time – because I’d won!
This, dear readers, is the blog of the 2018 Winner of the Chorley Writers’ Circle Short Story Competition! (Pause as blogger stops typing and bows modestly to left and right acknowledging virtual thunderous applause.)
Excuse me if I bask for a brief moment. The last thing I can remember winning was the Girls’ Skipping Race at school – 2nd place.
But this time I won! Hurrah!
OK. That’s enough. Normal service is resumed. Marketing advisers tell me to stamp Prize Winning Author all over everything from now on.
I probably won’t. Well, perhaps just for today…
* the envelope was empty – the cheque’s in the post, apparently!
If I had to add a Latin motto to the winner’s medal above, it would be ‘multi labore, minima victoria’ (after much labour, small success).
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 shelfwhere 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.