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).
Today 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.
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*.
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.
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!)