Should I thank that author? YES!

Me, delighted by reader’s email

Fanmail. It’s an odd idea, when you start writing books, that someone might bother to write and thank you. But they do. And it is a delight, after a long day fiddling with edits or fettling plots, to find a little email in the inbox which just says ’thanks, I enjoyed your book’.

The creativity of writing is its own reward, of course it is. It is a privilege to have the time and the opportunity to make up stories. If people actually pay their hard-earned money to read them, I already feel hugely lucky.

If they subsequently take the trouble to write a thank you message, that’s hitting the jackpot. So I feel like a lottery winner this week with three thank yous – one from Norway (written, of course, in impeccable English).

They liked the books. They urged me to write more as soon as possible. They promised to buy them when I did.

It made my week!

It also reminded me that I should do the same – write to authors whose books I really enjoyed. Take the trouble. Leave a review. I don’t do it often enough myself.

At the local supermarket the checkout staff sometimes hand out little cards asking for feedback. I confess to having stuck them in my bag and forgotten them in the past. I shall make a point of going online and recommending Traci on checkout 9’s work this week. I hope it makes her as cheerful as my feedback has made me.

A Bright Balloon

It’s an odd position – judging and being judged simultaneously.

The village I live in is running a short story competition and I’m organising the judging. At the same time, my novel has just been longlisted for a national crime writing prize.

Of course, being listed for a prize is great. Someone read it! Someone liked it! Such moments of reward are so few in the writing world (in my writing world, anyway – yours may be crammed with awards) that they need to be savoured and rejoiced in for as long as possible. That small burst of optimism has to last for many long and lonely writing months into the future; a lovely bright balloon of encouragement bouncing joyfully about. Even as I admire it, I know it will drift away or turn wrinkly and flat soon enough.

This has made me so acutely aware of the feelings of the writers being judged in the short story competition that I can hardly bear to choose one over the other. There is genuinely something to be admired in every story. And the range of them is huge; some profound and philosophical, others surreal, others hilariously funny. It’s not just comparing apples and pears; it’s more like comparing apples, Liquorice All Sorts and Chicken Vindaloo.

We’ll get there in the end, because that’s what judges do: compromise.

Fingers crossed, please.

Granny Writes Books: the podcast!

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?

Little sticks over the ravine

img_1067.jpgToday it seemed to me that writing a novel was like constructing a bridge over a deep ravine. There is only one place on the opposite cliff  where the bridge can safely attach; that narrow spot must be aimed for with precision.

The problem is that the bridge must be constructed out of tongue depressors or lolly sticks and you, the builder, have to built it whilst standing on it over the ravine, so it needs to be as solid as such little pieces of wood can make it. The beginning is extremely difficult, but with patient practice you eventually find a construction method of sorts and find a way to build something strong enough to stand on. You get used to the height and the crosswinds and a certain compulsive rhythm keeps you at it.

But then there is issue of direction. What keeps happening is that because of a few lolly sticks misplaced early on, the bridge veers to one side, away from the safe landing place on the opposing bank. This means dismantling all the lolly sticks back to the place where the wrong direction began, then reassembling them all – thousands upon thousands of them – until they head in the right direction, or seem to, because it is terribly easy to misplace one or two and very gradually lose the right line again.

I have several times, according to this metaphor, managed to build the bridge right over the gorge, almost to jumping-across point before realising that there is a dreadful mistake way back behind and a huge amount of work to do before the leap will be possible.

For some reason I never think of abandoning the tongue depressor bridge, or of throwing myself into the ravine, or even of staying on the other bank and not bothering to cross at all.

Strangely addictive, this bridge building.

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one stick at a time

On patient plot listeners

Plot listening comes way before external editing or beta reading. It comes around draft 4 for me, but it depends how you count and everybody’s different. PLs don’t even need to read the draft, they just have to be patient enough to listen as you mangle and chunter your way haphazardly through the ill-formed ragbag of half-formed ideas and rough-hewn, lumpy characters that is the early draft of a book. You can be repetitive and vague, over-specific, longwinded and forgetful about names (Did I say Aberdeen? I meant Nairobi.) yet somehow this patient person sits through it.

With crime writing it seems especially important because the twists and clues and red herrings the genre must have are too much for the ordinary (at least the fairly sane ordinary) human brain to contain all at once. It’s only when you run it past a listener that the awful omission of X or the impossible condition of Y suddenly becomes clear.

The PL sits up and asks something like, ‘But isn’t B in Moscow?/Where did you say he left the grenade?/Shouldn’t A have left with V after Fritz found the envelope, not before?’ and they’re right, and you, the shambolic writer, until then bitter and apathetic, are electrified by this helpful observation and leave your coffee to grow cold on the table, so swiftly do you sprint off in the direct of the laptop.

Hurrah for the patient plot listener! Find one immediately if you can. And reward them well. Jam is good for this, or pizza, but beer and sex* are fine too.

If they write things too, you probably owe them some PL time in return. But sex is obviously quicker*.

*only in certain circumstances, obviously

On the need for action (and surprising ostriches)

My Writing Advice to Self of the week is this: whatever the genre, pack the action in!

Bedtime reading at the moment is High Rollers by Jack Bowman. Jack Bowman is the pen name of Belinda Bauer and I bought her book at the Killer Women conference in London a few weeks ago. Belinda was a great speaker. She wrote High Rollers (‘Brace yourself for IMPACT’, it says on the cover) after being marooned in a holiday home with only one book in English. It was a thriller and she found it so predictable and the male lead character such a stereotyped action man with a horrible attitude to women, that she decided she could write one a lot better – and (unlike most of us who have had similar thoughts) she did!
In the chapters I read the other night, the hero and his potential love interest/sidekick makes a vital breakthrough in the investigation, is driven off the road at night, misses an opportunity to make love to his lady friend, goes back to check the evidence and finds it gone, returns and finds their hostel has been torched, is hurt in the fire and in rescuing a dangerous dog, is hospitalised, is wooed in return by the lady friend, is questioned by the police and fined, finds an escaped animal (an ostrich, as it happens) and helps to capture it only to find the bird itself holds another vital clue.
All this is in the middle of the book – the flat bit in many plots.
Now, we don’t all write fast action thrillers. I don’t, for one, but I know from reading manuscripts that one of the weaknesses that can occur in any novel is the sitting about talking (SAT) problem. It can be caused by a flabby plot moment – you know where you’re going, but not quite sure how you’re going to get there. Sometimes it is also a signal of authorial self-doubt (just tread water for a while, characters, while I figure out whether this novel is going to be worth the effort). Whatever causes it, dull passages of SAT have got to go.
Action is what we want as readers.
I don’t mean car chases or burning buildings, necessarily. In different genres the action might be far more cerebral, but it would still be action, in other words there would be change. Change of scene, of tone, of point of view, of shot distance or frame, of tempo, of colour or accent or rhythm. Change; movement; surprise!
The best of all books are a huge sequence of surprises. You never know how any single sentence will end, let alone a chapter or the whole story.
That’s my ambition.
And hats off to Belinda. The ostrich! Brilliant!

Stay away from that café!

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.

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Granny writes WHOPPING plots

Greetings from the Shed, Grannies*. I recommend a shed, especially one that is newly wind- and water-proofed. No gaping holes! The luxury!

If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, you can find all about it here. It’s a challenge to sign up and try to write 50,000 words in the month of November. There’s lots of cheery support on the website and ways to contact other people doing the same thing. Some will be near, others will be on the other side of the world. It’s free – donations aside – and it’s a great way to take the bridle off your muse and get her galloping. The idea is that you don’t edit your writing at all, you just write and keep writing. Some people make meticulous and detailed plans, some have a rough outline to work to, others do no preparation at all. Your genre, approach and style is up to you; the results of your efforts are your own – you don’t need to share anything except the title and your daily growing wordcount, and even then only if you feel like it. I’ve done it several times now and have never come even close to completing the 50,000 challenge, even so, I can’t recommend it highly enough. My first novel went from a vague beginning to a proper manuscript through NaNoWriMo. I’m using it this year to top up the sequel. We start tomorrow. Give it a go! Let me know how you get on.

I was reading George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl this week. Why not? I’m an English teacher; the pay may be shirt buttons, but I have the perfect excuse to read anything at all. Dahl’s Granny is a wonderfully transgressive character. She’s mean and ugly, she’s rude to her grandson, she’s horrid about his parents and she has brown teeth and a mouth like a dog’s bum – a simile that electrifies every child I’ve read it with.

George’s granny made me think about plotting. Not plotting how to to do away with your granny – plotting as in making your story grab the reader and sweep them along. Dahl is terrific at action. The next step is never predictable. Mild little George is oppressed by awful granny, he feels “a tremendous urge to do something about her. Something whopping.” And of course, he does. What keeps his young readers on the edge of their chairs is that every scene is a huge surprise.

My resolution for NaNoWriMo this year is, like George, to do something whopping with my plot. Nothing mild, absolutely nothing predictable, just one irresistible surprise after another.

Wish me luck!

PS this is one of the best blogs posts I’ve read lately. It’s from the Writer’s Workshop and includes a couple of really useful points about plots, as well as lots of other cringe-making mistakes most of us will recognize.

*NB For the purposes of this blog you are a Granny. Everyone is. We practice extreme inclusivity. If you don’t like the title, you can be a Refusenik (RK for short), and you are welcome too.IMG_0949.JPG

It should say ‘apologies to Quentin Blake’…