Wednesday, 31 December 2008

A letter from your character to you

I can't remember where I picked up this tip for getting to know a character in your novel.

It's once you've done the basic notes about his family, background, tastes, desires, fears, pets, past relationships, things he likes/dislikes about his looks etc., and it works surprisingly well. You write a letter to yourself from him/her.

Here is one I wrote for Emma Redfern, an ambitious singer;

Hi Lexi,

Well, you wrote me so you know I’m gorgeous to look at. Blonde hair, shoulder length, and the sort of childish features that made Marilyn Monroe so sexy. I’ve never had any trouble attracting guys’ attention, and I don’t mind admitting I use it. Why not? I’m determined to get where I want to go, and I don’t let anything get in my way. What do you mean? Of course I’m a nice person. I don’t go around beating up old ladies or robbing banks or anything. Some women don’t like me, it’s true, especially when their boyfriends can’t take their eyes off me. That’s their problem…

Phil fell for me the minute I walked in the room. You can always tell. He’s not the type I normally go for, but he’s quite sweet. A bit old for me. And married – I didn’t think that mattered at first, but it turned out to be a major drag. He’d never take me anywhere in case we met someone he knew. We went to Paris once for a romantic weekend. There was some friend of Paula’s on the plane, a middle-aged woman who rushed up to him, and he was totally spooked. He didn’t relax until we were back home. I’d thought he’d be more help getting me established than he was, to be honest. Thing is, he cared more about me than about my career. In the end I thought I could do better.

Bryan had put his number in my mobile the week I was ‘temping’ for Phil – I can’t type with more than two fingers – and I called it. He took me to the Connaught on our first date, and on to Annabel’s. We were photographed on the way out for the first time. Within a month we were in Hello magazine. ‘Love in the city for Bryan Orr and his new girlfriend – Voices’ bass guitarist Bryan Orr hangs out with the platinum-haired beauty in London’s West End. The pair have been inseparable since they started dating last month. Emma Redfern is talented as well as beautiful; the Croydon-born songstress is at the start of a promising career in the world of music.’

Bryan was going to write a song for me that would launch my career and get me a recording contract. He’d do anything for me, Bryan. Anything at all. It’s funny, but if a man’s too keen, you don’t feel so keen yourself. Though of course I liked him, he was very sweet-natured.

Ric Kealey? He was always a bit off-hand with me, as though he thought I shouldn’t be there or something. And I told Bryan that Ric was taking advantage of him, and he shouldn’t stand for it. I don’t suppose that made Ric like me any better. Bryan took notice of what Ric said, and Ric didn’t like it when he stopped. He fancied me though, whatever he said. Yes, I did fancy him – most women do – there was a danger to him; you felt he didn’t care, he’d do anything he wanted...

(I've cut the rest, as I realized it was a spoiler...)


Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Bravery and trust - good things, surely?

At the start of my novel, Catch a Falling Star, my heroine, Caz, takes her breakfast on to her roof terrace. She is startled to see a man asleep, with a scruffy dog beside him. After a brief exchange, she allows him into her flat to use her bathroom, because she thinks he looks normal, not dangerous.

Most of my readers, on YouWriteOn and Authonomy, are okay with this. But a few people are shocked and incredulous. They see Caz's behaviour as too reckless to believe. I was puzzled by this, not least because in my twenties I did similar 'reckless' things, that involved reliance on my judgment of another human being. (Still do, come to think of it.) And I've never had a problem. Didn't they ever take that sort of chance? I don't regard myself as particularly rash, brave or trusting.

But then, while reading the umpteenth unpublished novel that involves females being raped, sliced up or having their heads cut off by males, I was struck by a revelation: evil psychopaths may be extremely rare in real life, but my goodness there aren't half a lot of them in fiction. And I think this informs a minority of readers' outlooks.

Or maybe they're just timid and suspicious. Poor souls...

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Slightly Published

Great Short Stories by Writers is now available to buy! And in it is my story, Comforted by Darkness. Which means that I am, in a very small way, a published author.

See it (and buy, should you wish) on Amazon.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Is there an echo in here?

Word echoes, how I hate them.

When I started writing, I had no idea I had a problem with inadvertently repeating words, until it was gently pointed out to me by my peers on Youwriteon. I was appalled when I realized just how bad I was - entirely capable of using the same word three times in the space of ten lines. There's also the common variant of starting successive sentences with 'He' or 'She' - one YWOer started thirteen sentences this way, in one paragraph.

I an still prey to word echoes, but constantly check and re-check in order to remove them.

Indeed, I'm now so aware of it that I notice repeats in published books - John Le Carré writing 'it occurred to her' in successive paragraphs in The Little Drummer Girl, for instance. So I reckoned I'd got it licked, until I read this excellent article, The Ten Mistakes. Oh my God, 'There was'...I'd got 61 of them in 51,000 words, including 'There was a pause' and 'There was a silence' really close together.

It never ends.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Wrong season, darn it...

I started writing Catch a Falling Star in June, and set it then - though I don't specify the date anywhere, I'm using a 2008 calendar. The events of the book cover five or six weeks in the lives of the characters.

The scene I'm currently on has my heroine, Caz, at 3am on July 19th, searching for Ric who is breaking into a lavish country house. And the point I'm making is this: I'd find it a lot easier to get the atmosphere if London wasn't so wintry, cold, and dark by teatime. Or if Caz was circling the house on an icy night. I could get right into her numb fingers, her visible breath, how the cold claims her as she crouches in the herbaceous border to watch the people in the house.

Instead of which, the hood she wears for concealment makes her hot, and the balmy night air is fragrant with summer flowers.

The old imagination is creaking under the strain.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Online Novels is back!

Online Novels, the site which provides links to novels available to read on the internet, is back.

Its owner took it down briefly in response to vituperation from some authors who feared they would lose first publication rights - improbable, since Harper Collins lets writers load entire novels, and gave permission for the links to the site - or that their novels, for which they have not found a publisher, would be stolen and passed off as someone else's work.

Carlie Lee and I once joked about novel theft on the Authonomy blog:

Carlie said...

What if a huge publishing conglomerate had a stable full of super-star writers, who (due to excess engendered by disproportionate earnings) lost all of their plots, and they were forced to prey on fiercesomely intelligent but sweetly naive unpublished authors such as ourselves and steal all of our ideas. Really, it is all quite concerning...

Lexi said...

Interesting thought, Carlie...

Hey, it would make a great plot for a novel!

The heroine, sweetly naive, poor, yet feisty, is determined to confront the handsome, dissolute author who has stolen her book. She borrows a dress and gatecrashes the book launch.

Their eyes lock across the crowded room; for both of them it is true love; but the novel, stolen by the unscrupulous publishing conglomerate, stands between them.

Will he be able to give up his drink and drugs-fueled lifestyle and write once more? Can she ever forgive his plagiarism? Will the huge publishing conglomerate get what's coming to it?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Rack: thoughts of a pedant

One of the most frequent typos I come across while reading unpublished writing is wrack when it should be rack. I've come across it three or four times in the past month alone, in expressions such as:

racked with sobs/coughing
to rack one's brains

I think it happens when writers reach for a word or expression without fully imagining what they are describing, because of course the reference is to the torture rack; a horrific device for extracting a confession by subjecting the victim to graduated pain and destruction. Just looking it up to find an illustration for this post made me feel sick.

And I had an additional thought; why is torture viewed as entertainment, if it happened long enough ago? Surely no one would regard IRA knee-capping or the torture of American soldiers at the hands of the Vietnamese as ghoulishly fascinating? But otherwise normal parents take their children to the London Dungeon, or the basement of Madame Tussaud's, for a merry outing learning about the ingeniously cruel tortures humans devised a few hundred years ago. Very odd.

(N.B. An interesting case is rack and ruin, where the reference is not to torture, but to wrack, an old spelling of wreck. But it's still spelled rack.)

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

When God made time, He made plenty of it... just doesn't seem like that right now.

I'm up to 46,000 words of Catch a Falling Star. I'm aiming for 80,000 words. I can't spend as much time on it as I would like, because apart from my day job, Authonomy is keeping me busy.

Catch a Falling Star is currently at number 14 in the Editor's desk chart, and like a shark that has to keep moving or die, the book has to keep attracting new voters just to stay in the same place. To move up you need (roughly speaking, because the value of votes varies according to the rank of the reader) more than one a day. The best way to entice people to read your book is to read theirs, and comment. I enjoy doing this, but it's terribly time-consuming.

Why bother, I hear you ask, when Harper Collins has not yet (as far as we know) made an offer on a single book on Authonomy?

Well, the best thing about Authonomy, for me, is the huge quantity of enthusiastic comments that have been made about the book. People genuinely seem to enjoy reading it. This has given me real hope it will be publishable when finished.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

They'd steal my book, but I'm too clever for them... an idea you often come across in the unpublished writers' circles I frequent. Some people fear that, if they expose their novel on the internet, it will be stolen by unscrupulous agents, publishers, or another author. The next thing they know, it will be in print, with someone else getting the credit and the money.

It's no good telling them that if they can't persuade an agent to take their book on, it's unlikely anyone else will have better luck with it. Pointless saying they'll be lucky if anyone wants to read it, let alone steal it. Because they know better, and you are being naive.

So when a nicely-designed website called Online Novels appeared, giving lists of titles, authors, brief synopsis and a link to five hundred entire novels available to read online, what do you suppose happened?

Well, as soon as I found out my two novels (Torbrek... and Trav Zander) that I'd posted in full on Authonomy were on the site, I wrote to thank the website owner, and I put a link to it on my blog. Yippee, more exposure for my writing! And, given that they are about to be printed on Youwriteon via POD, I hoped I might sell the odd extra copy through the site.

But the news caused pandemonium on the Authonomy forum. There was talk of 'giving your novel away for free', of manuscripts being 'pilfered'. People rushed to take down some of their chapters on Authonomy so they were no longer complete. One chap said,

'What I actually just realized is that there's the damn archiving robots out there and now there is a slight chance a full copy of my book may be archived. '

Another said, 'God, that's scary! Glad I haven't put all of it online!'

Several of us argued that it was in fact excellent publicity; but others emailed so rudely to the nice woman who had set up the site that she decided to take it down.

Online Novels no longer exists.

And I'm rather fed up about it.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Men and women, sex and writing...

The other day I criticised a fellow unpublished writer for making his heroine think about her fiancé:

Sex with ***** was good - and it was frequent.

I told him women tend not to think about sex like this - it's a thought a man is much more likely to have. And it got me thinking about gender differences, and how they affect the way we write, particularly about sex.

Reading sex scenes written by the opposite sex is an education. As a crude generalization, men appear entranced by the mechanics (they'll tell you their hero is getting an erection) while women's interest is more romantic and diffuse. Women will go for quality rather than quantity, and hugs, hand holding, significant conversation and emotion are an important part of the picture.

In fact, considering the difference between an average seduction scene written by a man, and one written by a woman, it's a wonder the planet ever came to be so over-populated.

Monday, 20 October 2008

You can now Follow This Blog!

...but please don't feel you have to...

Just by clicking on the FOLLOW THIS BLOG in the right-hand sidebar you can, should you wish, follow this blog.

I think this means you get alerted to new posts, or something...why not try it, and stop me looking like Lexi No Mates?

Saturday, 18 October 2008

A cheering review...

I am indulging myself by posting a comment I got on Catch a Falling Star, as I was so pleased by it. It is fantastic when a reader gets your writing. It may be the reason why one writes...

Kate Kasserman's own book, Independence, is doing very well on Authonomy.

This is what she wrote, in full:

Hi Lexi! Ariom Dahl sent me your way -- and as soon as I clicked on the link I realized that this was one of the books I've seen talked up all over the place. Well, and now I know why! So, there we go -- I gave you a vote, no question, and since I can see "frenchbob" right below me as I type, I'll just say that I agree that I don't understand why this hasn't been published already. I had to read all ten chapters, and I am grateful to you for not absorbing my evening by posting more...but you might *consider* posting more, and drop me a line if you do ;) ...

So, this is another one of those cases where I've got no criticisms to offer; I didn't even notice any typos. The writing is descriptive, fluid, and very polished, and I have a great feel for all your characters, and the mystery is both CLEARLY DEFINED and very interesting. MY, but Phil certainly seems to have involved himself in, shall we say, a NUMBER of interesting...coincidences. No question that he knows a lot more than he's saying. But somehow, in a book as carefully put together as this, I can't quite see Phil as the main villain; I am SURE you're misdirecting me!

Giving Ric Dog was a good choice. Caz never mentions it outright (relying on and referring only to her instincts), but it *does* make even a scruffy stranger seem more trustworthy when a goofy dog is attached to him. And that's an important thing (although a small one) to establish early on, because while as we go on through the story we see Caz's idealism and straight-shooter naivete, of course we don't know this AT FIRST, and Dog (back when he was just "a dog") helps bring it into the realm of plausibility that she'd give this random vagrant a little toast and a lift.The careful attention (it came across as well-researched and realistic to me, though I know DIDDLY about rocking horses) given to Caz's vocation both develops her as a character (the attention and love she pours into her work, and the fact that it's a vocation for which she's taken risks and made sacrifices) and adds some interesting detail to the necessary transitional parts of the story. HAHAHA, and that scene when Ric DELIBERATELY WITHHOLDS his admiration of her workspace until the very last moment, because he is THAT GOOD at reading people (and, er, manipulating them) was priceless!!

When Caz was talking about her business difficulties, I was yelling at her "RIC CAN SELL! GET THIS MAN ON SALES IMMEDIATELY! I DON'T CARE IF HE'S NEVER DONE IT BEFORE -- HE'LL BE GREAT!" Heh heh...and of course Ric was already two steps ahead of me, and then some...ALSO priceless! (I do psych evals of job applicants in my day-job, and I KNOW A SALESMAN when I see one!!)Anyway, fantastic work, and best of luck!

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Getting ratty on forums...

I've been dropping in to the Authonomy forum, to find out what's going on, promote Catch a Falling Star and chat.

All human life is there; people who make you laugh out loud, people you really get to like and a few obnoxious people. And the point of this post is to say; why do people think they can change anyone else's opinion on a message board? It's a rare thing to change someone's mind at the best of times, but the speed with which antagonism builds up on a forum has to be seen to be believed.

It's a bit like the way drivers get extra aggressive when in their cars. And it's a mistake to get involved. I'm sure all my readers agree, the sensible course of action is to ignore and wander off. Don't feed the trolls.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

POD on Youwriteon

Phewph. I have just finished the formatting of my first two novels to send to Legend for Youwriteon's POD deal. It took about two days, including covers with backs and spines.

Luckily I like formatting; I love fiddling about till the text looks its best, and I ADORE dropped caps at the start of chapters. I'd have illuminated capitals if I could, red, blue and gold, but plain dropped caps are pretty good.

To keep costs down, you don't get a proof copy, which means I will have a niggling worry at the back of my mind, until I see the books, that I've made some stupid mistake.

I do hope I haven't.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Cover for POD

Your opinion, please...

I'm hoping to POD my two fantasy novels with Youwriteon, and I've been considering a new cover for Trav Zander.

I'm not sure the old one is neat enough. But I'm not skilled with Adobe Photoshop to do the professional job I'd like on the new one.

Which do you prefer?

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Harper Collins' editor's comments on 'Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation'

Here is the review I won on Authonomy by 'Torbrek...' getting to the top five at the end of August:

The manuscript here is a fun, solid foundation for an engaging youth adult fantasy.

It’s a well-written story following Tor, an appealing young woman who has been forced by political circumstance to pose as a man in order to join the army and use the master sword craft passed on by her grandfather. The reader meets her shortly after she achieves her aim, and as she faces her first initiation trial – to slay a dragon and rescue a princess.

Only, like Tor, the dragon, Xantilor, doesn’t turn out to be entirely predictable – and so begins a friendship that elevates Tor through the ranks to Dragon master and offers a beleaguering kingdom a chance of survival against a tyrannical neighbour.

It is a very appealing premise, and the sassy heroine and opinionated older dragon offer the reader an entertaining pairing of heroes, but at the moment it doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Primarily, the fantasy world needs more realisation; secondly, we'd feel closer to the characters if their motives were explored in greater depth.

For example, Tor’s own history is fascinating and has been carefully thought out. Skardroft’s destruction of Cramble, her grandfather’s legacy, and the weight of her disguise are all important and establish the wider political situation in the readers mind. But because the depiction of these details seems a little rushed, the picture as a whole is a little hazy. The tyrant’s ambitions could be revealed earlier in the story, as this and its connection to Skardroft’s hate of the Hundred Knights should be the framework into which everyone’s personal motives are woven. The core of the work is in place, but I wonder if there’s quite enough around it.

There are some really great characters and ideas in the story. I’d like more of them – and I’d like to be more afraid of them, too. The downfall of the dragons is certainly intriguing, and Corfe is brimming with wicked possibility. Overall, the manuscript is of good quality with an engaging voice and lightness of touch – but more work is certainly required to strike the right balance between a quickly paced story and a richly built world.

I think this is a perceptive and fair assessment of 'Torbrek...'; but it was my first novel, and I don't want to spend any more time on it. Catch a Falling Star, my third book, is what I am working on now.

Monday, 22 September 2008

More Authonomy...

Catch a Falling Star has gone up from 27 to 16 in the Editor's Desk chart on Authonomy.

I'm happy with the new chart. Though the sock puppet people retain most of the unfair advantage they gained, they have all dropped in the charts. It's unreasonable to expect Harper Collins to come up with a perfect ranking system in an imperfect world; this one is now pretty good, and it should be much harder for the next lot of cheats to make it to the top of the chart. So it will get better. And they can always tweak the algorithm.

Well done, Authonomy team, and thank you.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Latest hot news on Authonomy!

'The support of higher-ranked talent spotters counts for more than lower-ranked ones'

With these few words from the Authonomy team, hope revives in the honest members' hearts.

It's going to happen next week - and it'll be retroactive.

Will the sock puppet/friends-and-relatives-backed books go down? They will. And in what direction will my books go? Will I be overtaken by books backed by highly-ranked talent-spotters? No idea. Interesting, though. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Authonomy and the sock puppets

*N.B. Since I wrote this yesterday, Harper Collins has added a new layer to the system, involving voter ranking (see post above) which will, I hope, address the issues I outlined here*

In case this term is new to you, a sock puppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception within an Internet community.

When Authonomy launched its ranking system, I was hugely impressed. It was clever, subtle and entirely positive; it was not possible for ill-natured competitors to vote you down (and believe me, this happens on some sites). The newly unveiled top twenty was full of quirky, original, well proof-read books of all genres; and I'm not saying this just because my three books were in the top ten. I had the advantage of being on the site since day one, and there were only a few hundred books to choose from; but people voted for my novels because they read and liked them.

But a problem soon arose. In Authonomy's FAQ is a cheat's charter:

'Our really savvy members know that attracting external readership can really boost their visibility on the site. So if you already have champions from outside the authonomy community – whether that’s friends and family, or visitors to your blog, facebook profile or other website, you might also encourage them to join the site and give your book their support.'

How many friends, family and fans does an unpublished writer have, people who have actually read and liked his/her book? I've got five, and of those, only my daughter has joined Authonomy.

But some members appear to have many more. Dozens. Who join the site in batches of six or ten, back one book, and leave for good. One book in the top five has over eighty of these obliging 'friends and relations', all of whom joined in the last twelve days. It's difficult not to draw the conclusion that the author is backing his own book under multiple aliases.

(Ah, but the IP address would give him away, you say. No, not if he has a non-static IP address, which is different every time he signs in.)

As you'd expect, his is not the sort of book which will light up the eyes of a Harper Collins' editor, should it hit her desk at the end of the month.

And it's not just that one extreme example, either. A whole batch of lack-lustre novels (and the odd quite good one) has sprung to the top in very short order, while truly excellent books are pushed downwards in the chart.

Authonomy is aware there is an issue. They said;

'We are sorry to say that a handful of individuals are attempting to fraudulently manipulate the authonomy rankings. This is unfair to the vast majority of users to this site. We would like to make it absolutely clear that we will not tolerate cheating and will take appropriate action.'

But all they have done is quietly remove a few votes from some unlucky offenders, while others carry on.

This is discouraging, to say the least, for those of us on Authonomy who rely on votes from people who genuinely enjoy our writing. And if things go on this way, I can't see any agent being impressed by the top twenty - and if the books there are uninspiring, why would she look further down the rankings?

Will the problem disappear as thousands of people join the site, sweeping the cheats away? I'd love to think so, but it's so much easier to manufacture votes than earn them.

What would I do, if I ran Authonomy?
  • Allow only three 'friends and family' per writer, who must declare themselves

  • Rigorously check the backers of everyone in the top five

  • At my total discretion, reduce cheats' scores to zero and make them start again

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Jade Goody stole my title!

My whodunit, Catch a Falling Star, was briefly called Wild Regrets, from The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde:

And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
None knew so well as I:
For he who live more lives than one
More deaths than one must die.

Then I hit on the much better title, Catch a Falling Star; googled it anxiously - no one else had used it for a novel. Hurrah!

And now Jade Goody has snaffled it, for a ghosted autobiography to come out next month. Plih.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Virtual shopping

I have discovered a new, writer-related pleasure, and it's totally free!

Cyber shopping for one's characters.

The big stuff I've already done; my heroine, Caz, has a Hoxton workshop which is not my workshop; it's a bit further west, so she can see the Gherkin; I based it on a lutemaking friend's workshop, and built her a flat on top. It's in Fox Hollow Yard, a fictional place which is partly an amalgam of real places, partly made up.

It's the small stuff which is pure pleasure; which guitar would Ric own, what clothes would he buy, what motorbike would he choose? (A Harley Night Rod Special - not quite sure that's right). What cars would the characters drive? What would Emma buy when she's giving Caz tea under the misapprehension Caz is a journalist? What would Caz wear to catch the eye of Jeff Pike?

Read about it here in Catch a Falling Star.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Gold star on Authonomy!

Midnight last night saw the first five novels, chosen on Authonomy by members of the site, which will be read by Harper Collins editors. The top books were:

SPAMMER by Sylvia
Fiction, Crime, Thriller

TORBREK...and the Dragon Variation by Lexi Revellian
Fiction, fantasy

Fiction, Historical Fiction

Fiction, Crime, Thriller

BOOMERANG by Alan Hutcheson
Fiction, Comedy

These books are all quite different, quirky, and very well written; all, I would say (casting modesty aside) worthy of the editors' attention, and all voted for by readers who had read the first chapters, and believed them to be good.

(I do hope the links work, as Authonomy is still in beta)

Friday, 29 August 2008

Authonomy 3

AUTHONOMY, Harper Collins' new writers' website, is out of beta!

You can look at it (and join) here.

Update: apparently, I may be being premature (thanks, Alan). If you can't get access to the site, then I am. My apologies.

All I can say is, it's not the butler. Probably...

I'm writing a whodunit* at the moment, and I'm not sure I'm the best person to do this, because when I read mysteries and thrillers I'm easily confused. I'm also a bad guesser of who the villain will turn out to be. Credulous, and readily misled.

But the beauty of writing a novel is that, unlike a trapeze artist doing a triple somersault to the catcher, the author does not have to get it right first time. One can nip back and insert a telling yet subtle clue. One can move scenes around until they are in the most effective order. The characters get more complex and wilful as the story progresses, which helps.

I have made my heroine and first person narrator, Caz, bright, but a little naive; and like me, she does not spot the baddie until too late.

*I can't even decide whether there is one or two 'n's in 'whodunit'.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Authonomy chart is here!

Authonomy (Harper Collins' new website for tyro writers) is still in beta, but today, to huge excitement, the charts appeared on the site.

My first novel, Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation is at number one on the chart!

Now I know I had a big advantage by being one of the first members on the site, when we all rushed round reading each other's books, and I've also been active, which makes your books noticed. But I'm still as pleased as Punch and Judy.

(I'm also number one commenter - I was at two; it's a rolling chart - which means, I think, that I backed more successful books than anyone else. I don't yet fully understand the system).

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out...

Voltaire said that, and how right he is. Writing a novel is all about selection; once you've got an idea for characters and a plot, then crucial decisions about how you tell the story have to be made. And the decision that crops up the most is what to put in, and what to leave out.

I am paranoid about not boring my readers (even though, as my books are unpublished, there are so few of them. But one must plan ahead...) If I write a scene without zing, I will re-write it until it sparkles, or delete it. And I have to trust my judgment, because although I have had excellent and helpful advice on Youwriteon and Authonomy, I have also had contradictory advice, and advice that struck me as wrong.

I am the only person, in the end, who can decide what goes in my books.

My friend Alan Hutcheson wrote:

Why write a novel? Because reading really good ones is inspirational and we want to get deeper into that magic. The magic that leaves out the boring parts and takes us to a world where it is all exciting. Maybe scary, maybe funny, maybe disgusting and maybe frightfully rousing (read that however you like). But no boring parts.Great to read, even better to create.

That's why we write novels. It gives us a chance to leave out the boring stuff.

By the way, I hope I will be able to write exciting news shortly about Authonomy, Harper Collin's new website for unpublished authors.

And Catch a Falling Star is up to 24,120 words, and counting...

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Three cheers for the internet!

I'm writing my third book, and it occurred to me how amazingly easy computers make this process. Not just Word, which I love in spite of its little ways, but how simple research has become.

Almost anything you need to know about is right there at your fingertips. No more trekking to the library to find, if it's open, that it doesn't have the book you require, or that another borrower has taken it out.

Things I have researched recently with a few clicks of the mouse:
  • Penalties for being an accessory after the fact (actually obstructing justice and harbouring a fugitive)

  • Rock star excess

  • Brit Art

  • The poste restante service, here and in France

  • Hix Oyster and Chop House

  • Rock star earnings

  • 50 Best Guy Movies, and the female equivalent

  • parking options in Notting Hill

  • hic sunt dracones

...and that's just this week...

Sunday, 27 July 2008


'With a tremendous bound Jack was free!'

When I started writing, I would sit down with an idea for a scene in my head, not knowing quite where to begin; so I used to start at a bit where I knew what to put, and go on from there. I quickly learned that I didn't need to go back and put in an establishing paragraph or two; that the place the action started was the place to begin. You don't need to show the couple walking into the tea shop, sitting down and ordering, when the important bit is what they say over tea.

Similarly, once the object of the scene is accomplished, cut it off right there. Holly Lisle offers good advice on this here.

Mary Renault, one of my favourite authors, discovered the technique for herself, and called it Bound. To quote from David Sweetman's flawed biography, 'she meant the use of the cinematic cut, the ability to jump ahead, to précis talk and action where necessary. [Before this] she had no one to explain such things to her and all she could do was plod on, watching the novel swell, unaware of how to remedy matters.'

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Dogs in Fiction

My latest book is my first without dragons, but it has a dog, a mongrel called Dog. He looks like the dog in the photo on the left.

A reviewer on Youwriteon said he hoped Dog would be involved in the rest of the book, and that got me thinking about fictional dogs. Jilly Cooper said that if your novel was getting sluggish, kill off the dog. Could one bear to, though?

I made a non-comprehensive list of fictional dogs:

1. My favourite, Snowy, Tintin's dog. Beautifully drawn; Hergé could draw anything except horses. The scene where Snowy gets tipsy and is told off by Tintin is unforgettable.

2. In Mortal Engines, Katherine's pet wolf, also called Dog. I love wolves. The reader knows things are going very badly when poor Dog is shot dead towards the end of the book.

3. An unpublished (as yet) dog, The General in Alan Hutcheson's The Baer Boys. A lovable long-haired dachshund with lots of personality, The General is based on Alan's real-life dog, Odie.

4. Timmy the dog, George's dog in The Famous Five adventures. Loyal, brave and fond of ice-cream, he's the dog every child wants.

5. Most improbable dog; Nana, a prim Newfoundland dog, who was nanny to the children in JM Barrie's play, Peter Pan.

Have I missed any good dogs? I must have. Let me know.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Catch a Falling Star in at No. 1 on YWO!

I posted the first 9,000 words of my new novel, Catch a Falling Star, on Youwriteon on 3rd July 2008. Yesterday it received its fifth review, making it eligible for the charts. I was delighted to find today that it has gone straight in at number one!

Lorraine, herself no slouch at getting into the Top Ten (she's there as I write) concluded her review of my extract;

'I sometimes say I would read on, this is one of those rare moments when I’m really pissed that I can’t. Had this been a book instead of an extract I would now be curled up on the sofa, ignoring the world, because I want to find out what happens next. If the rest of the book is of the same standard I wouldn’t be able to put it down.'

The book is a mystery/thriller, told in the first person. Now I just have to write the rest of it...

Saturday, 5 July 2008

How to write a novel..

...with the most efficiency?

I guess there are many different ways to write a novel. This is only my third that I'm currently working on, so I don't know whether I've hit on the best method for me, or not; but I have noticed a pattern emerging.

What I do is, work out what the main characters are like, in quite a bit of detail; I know their childhood pets, first boyfriend/girlfriend, if they drink tea or coffee for breakfast, which bits of their appearance they dislike etc., and also what the book is about; the themes and outline of the plot. I make pages of notes on the characters, and jot down random ideas. I know the end of the novel, and write the key scene that occurs at or near the end.

Then I start writing. I usually know two or three scenes that I will write, and by the time I've written them I've thought up the next few. Like a walk through a dark wood with a torch. I make up other characters as I go along, and let them play off against each other. It's scary, because how do I know I won't run out of ideas?

I've tried writing scene titles on cards, doing time lines, and attempting to map out the whole structure of the book before I begin, but for me these methods didn't work. If I have a scene in my head, I need to write it down quickly before it fades, not put it to one side because my outline isn't finished yet.

How do you do it?

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Why a novel is a bit like a glove collection...

Writing a novel has something in common with my daughter's collection of single gloves.

She finds them lost in the street, brings them home, washes them and pins them on her notice board wherever they seem to fit in among the others.

And a writer, in the throes of a novel, does much the same while out and about; spots things that will add to his novel, pounces on them, brings them home and in they go.

(The sequinned shoe? No, I don't know what it's doing there. Inexplicable and unexpected. But then, it's not a bad thing for a novel to have something inexplicable and unexpected in it, either).

Friday, 20 June 2008

A book called...not sure yet

My third novel...

I wrote the first page of my third novel today, and no, I'm not going to tell you what it's about. I don't want to talk about it in detail until it's well under way, for fear of dissipating my creative energy.

I can say it's a different genre from Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation and Trav Zander. It will, I hope, benefit from all I have learned from writing those two novels.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Authonomy 2

The beta version of Authonomy is flourishing; nearly a thousand members, almost a quarter of whom have loaded books, or extracts of books. Some of the novels are very good indeed; so good I'm not sure why they're not in print already. Which got me thinking about how Harper Collins are going to use the site once it's fully up and running. Because there are two possibilities.

1. They can treat it like an online slush pile, with the better stuff conveniently shuffled to the top, and then use their normal methods of selection. Or,

2. They can use it as a way of finding slightly different novels from what they would otherwise choose; take a chance on books the site members love, but that an agent, with his specialized knowledge, would reject on various grounds.

I'd like them to go with 2, but think it unlikely. Which may turn out to be a missed opportunity. I read a fascinating article in the Bookseller by Alison Flood, Tops and Flops at the LBF. It's about how some of the books that got the most hyped London Book Fair deals have actually sold thus far. A few examples;

'The biggest début thriller deal of the year'; sales to date: 3,281 copies. Simon & Schuster secured the two books with a 'very high six-figure pre-emptive offer'.

Harper Collins paid seven figures for world English rights, excluding Canada, for a new novel set on a Canadian military base in the 1960s. Sales to date: 14,436

Orion bought Kate Mosse’s ‘Barbara Erskine-ish’ novel Labyrinth in a deal rumoured to total seven figures. Sales to date: 1,076,509

The point being that agents and publishers do not always get it right. One thinks of the first print run of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - 500.

Sometimes the public knows best. After all, it's the public who buy books. Or not.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Heroes and Villains

The characters in my fiction almost always come from within my mind; they represent disparate aspects of my personality, and I think this is quite normal for a writer. How else can you know how they think and feel?

My friend Alan Hutcheson agrees, and says even his cold ruthless killer Leslie in Boomerang has some Alan in him.

The result is that I like all of my characters, even the horrible ones; I know their redeeming features and why they are the way they are and do what they do. And I think this is what makes the reader engage with fictional people.

I dislike white and black characters. Superman - boringly virtuous. Voldemort - boringly evil. Bring on the rich and subtle shades of grey; Alan Breck Stewart - a fascinatingly flawed goodie. William Elliot - an intelligent and witty baddie. Give me heroes who trip over while rushing to the heroine's aid, and villains that impressionable teenage girls will secretly want to redeem.

Don't tell me what to think. Let me decide that Fanny Price, though the heroine, is a pain, and Henry Crawford is better off without her.

Much more fun.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Bathing in the Middle Ages

Yes, washing was popular then, and I bet London smelled better, too...

I remember Michael Palin remarking that they'd got it wrong when making Monty Python and the Holy Grail - they'd blacked out people's teeth, assuming that in the absence of dentists, teeth would rot and fall out. Of course, without sugar, medieval teeth were in better shape than our own, as can be seen in surviving skeletons of that period.

Another misconception is that no one washed in the Middle Ages. In fact, bath houses were popular, and some castles had running hot and cold water, and a full time bathman.

One of the most charming rooms in the twelfth century part of Leeds Castle is the Queen's Bathroom, with its draped barrel-shaped bathtub, with a tent-like canopy to keep off the draughts and afford a little privacy. Hot water, with herbs and flower petals, and a maid to hand you a towel - real luxury.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

He uttered a vile oath...

...but should I tell the reader what it was?

Swearing comes from early forms of word magic - the entirely correct idea that words have power. How far should you go with swear words in a book teenagers may read?

There's a scene in Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation where Tor, out hunting on her own, finds a boy apparently unconscious in the forest. She runs to help, and is crouched over him when his eyes open and look past her. He is a decoy. 'Oh no!' she cries, spinning round to confront five men come to get her.

My daughter read this and said, 'She wouldn't say oh no.'

Minty is eighteen, the same age as Tor, and I take her opinion seriously. 'What would she say, then?'


'Ah.' I left it for a couple of months, then there was an interesting discussion on the Youwriteon forum about swearing in historical and fantasy novels. I decided I should be more creative. What about, for general abuse and disparagement;

Go shag a dragon
He thinks he's the dragon's bollocks
Oh, pick the scales off a dragon!

...and from my friend Cat;

Skirt clinger
Go lay a dragon egg
He's the northern end of a south-bound donkey
You pile of dragon dung
His ladder doesn't reach the top

I have to say, I decided my daughter was right. For the moment at any rate, Tor's dismayed reaction is what Minty's would be.

Friday, 9 May 2008


I was lucky enough to be one of the first seven pre-beta testers of the new website for unpublished writers, Authonomy (the link won't let you into the site yet, as it's still beta).

You are able to load anything over 10,000 words of your book(s) - unlike most members, I've loaded all of mine, in case anyone gets carried away and wants to read the whole thing. You also load cover art, a pitch to make others want to read your book, and an image to represent you.

Each member has a virtual bookshelf he/she can load with up to five books from the site. I'm swapping mine around as I read new extracts. And you can leave a comment on other people's books.

It's all rather fun.

Monday, 5 May 2008


Those of you who regularly scan my blog for the tiniest activity on my part (I hardly like to say it, but perhaps you should get out more) will have noticed that I have changed the name of the novel formerly known as Rising Fire. I've also tinkered with the covers.

I'm not saying that Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation will be the final title. But that's what it is for now. Thank you Norm, whose suggestion it was.

I'd write a little about titles, but am reluctant to quote the excellent examples I've come across of unpublished novels' titles, as I think that while one's novel is most unlikely to be stolen, an amazing title is actually quite likely to be pinched by the unscrupulous.

Raymond Chandler used to list any good titles that occurred to him in case they came in handy. Sensible man. Wish I'd done that.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

No! No! It is NOT weird and wonderful!

Gripped by the dead hand of the cliché...

I am guilty of writing ‘she woke with a start’ in a first draft. ‘She melted into his arms’ really does say it all (this doesn't mean it's a good idea to use the phrase in a novel, though).

But what about clichés that are used with no thought at all? ‘Sea change’ frequently has me yelling at the radio, ‘the sea has nothing to do with it!’ The original Shakespearean metaphor in The Tempest has a point, as THE CHANGE HAPPENED UNDERWATER! But a political party changing a policy has nothing whatever to do with the sea!!!

And as for weird and wonderful, bright and breezy, chop and change, born and bred, each and every, first and foremost, fast and furious, facts and figures, fame and fortune, kith and kin (what's kith?) hale and hearty, part and parcel, prim and proper, rack and ruin, rules and regulations, safe and sound, tried and tested, trials and tribulations, vim and vigour...

All I can say is, AVOID.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Road Rage and Ramparts Rage

My fantasy novels are set in an alternative Middle Ages, so I research the actual period for background detail. I'm currently reading The Medieval Castle by Philip Warner, who has a lively writing style and a first-hand knowledge of battle, having fought all through WWII.
He describes the feeling of superiority engendered by looking down, from a castle or a horse, on the enemy. Castle defenders would jeer at and goad the besiegers. Emotions ran so high that when castles fell, the victors often 'massacred the garrison with ill-tempered thoroughness'.
Also, "it has been said that this blend of arrogance, quick temper, risk-taking and irrationality is a thing of the past."
I knew what he was going to say next. Here it is:
"Curiously enough, the automobile has created its own species of knights. Lulled into a false sense of security by the armour around him, flattered by the speed which he controls with a touch of the foot, arrogant towards those with inferior mounts or with no mounts at all, the modern motorist will display chivalry towards an attractive woman, pay grudging deference to the owner of a vehicle which is clearly superior, but otherwise behave with stupid over-competitive hostility to every other road-user.

The clearest conviction of the modern motorist is that every other driver is in the wrong; he is driving too fast, too slowly, too timidly or too aggressively. Even the carnage of the multiple accident leaves him relatively unmoved; the massacre of a few peasants had much the same effect on a feudal baron's emotions."

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Pedants' Corner

To lay and to lie...

A lot of people have problems with when to use lay and when to use lie. I know that lay is transitive, i.e. you lay something, an egg or a table, but lie is intransitive, i.e. you lie on the bed.

But I blush to confess, I only realized recently they are two entirely different verbs, that happen to share 'lay' as the present tense of to lay, and the past tense of to lie. For more details, see here.

It's left me wondering what else I don't know...

Monday, 14 April 2008

Literary agents' websites

I've been trawling through the lists of agents in Writers' & Artists' Yearbook, crossing off all those who do not look at fantasy or consider Young Adult fiction. Then I went to look up the websites of agents on my shortlist.

But quite a few did not have a website. How is this possible in 2008? To make a relevant submission, and to find the right person to send it to, one really needs to know more than the brief facts listed in W & A Y. I do not wish to waste their time or mine.

When I looked at the websites of those agents who did have them, on the whole they were not inspiring. If I was a published author, I would want my agent to have an exciting website, where there would be a section on me, showing pictures of my book covers, with a link to where you could buy the book, plus a link to my website. Hardly any of the agents I looked at had this.

As unpublished authors, we are told we need to be extremely professional for our work to be considered at all by a literary agent. I am happy to do this. But is it such a buyers' market that the agents don't need to bother to be the best they can be?
Final thought: maybe, right now, the next soon-to-be-hugely-successful author is comparing agents' websites, deciding who to send three chapters to...

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Amazon, how could you?

Don't buy your books from Amazon while they behave like this!

Try the Book Depository instead - it's good, with free postage.

Amazon has said that all Print-On-Demand (POD) books in America will now have to be printed through Amazon's printing company BookSurge, or be discriminated against by losing the buy now button. Amazon's share of the profits will rise from 25% to 55%.

Amazon is also going to penalize mainstream publishers who sell their books direct at a discount on their publisher's websites. Amazon is taking that discounted price as the book's "cover price" and then applying their own discounts accordingly.

These are bully-boy tactics from a huge business, which will not benefit either writers or readers. Read more about it on Youwriteon.

Yesterday I ordered Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds from Amazon. It will be the last book I shall buy from them until they change their minds.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Chapter headings

Why don't most authors write chapter headings?

Some do, like Jasper Fforde, and JK Rowling; in fact, these days you're most likely to come across them in Y.A. novels. Readers often don't notice them, but they add that extra something and are a lot of fun to write; you can tease and intrigue the reader, and even lead him in the wrong direction.

I've just written them for Rising Fire and Trav Zander. My favourites:

Socks and a revelation

Journey to the edge of the map

A wolf by the ears

Girls and spies

On the run - with canary

Friday, 28 March 2008

Revising Rising Fire (again) and wax modelling...

I've just finished making the goblet on the left for British Silver Week, and while I wax modelled the snakes it occurred to me that this has a lot in common with revising a novel.

You get the outline right, then change some major bits - for instance the snake necks where they meet the foot of the goblet, so as not to show the internal rod. Then there's a lot of smoothing, texturing, measuring and checking it looks good from all angles. Really very like revising Rising Fire.

I have no idea how long it will take in either case. I just go on until it’s done. Which can take ages.

There's another connexion too. I got the idea for the goblet from the design of Tor's dagger, that you can see on the book cover above.

(By the way, I do know the author does not design the book jacket - I did it for Youwriteon, where you can display a cover image).

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Show don’t tell…

I read an excellent screenplay, Nightshift, by Oliver L. Jeffery (read it here) which got me thinking about the way writers tell their stories, and the advice one is often given, 'show, don't tell'.

The novel is in a direct line from the storyteller beside the fire, with his listeners gathered around him, who would naturally be doing more 'tell' than 'show'. 'Once upon a time there was...' is pure 'tell'.

Films and television, on the other hand, are relatives of the stage. They deal only in 'show'. With their universal availability the public have got used to pure 'show', and this has infiltrated our attitude to novels.

A hundred years ago Bram Stoker wrote, ‘The Count…was very courteous and very cheery in his manner’ – today you’d be told to show his courtesy and cheeriness by his speech and actions. And indeed, it's often better to do that. But have we gone too far in this direction? I think perhaps we have. A novel is not a film. Actors will not be fleshing out the written words.

Novelists have to make it happen in the minds of our readers, and 'tell' is a useful weapon in our armoury, along with everything else.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Dragons and bikes

In Rising Fire, I describe the first time the dragon, Xantilor, takes Tor for a flight. I've never flown on a dragon myself, so imagination was called for. I wished I hadn't passed on the opportunity to take a microlight flight a couple of years ago (unlike Tor, I am not good with heights).

I looked up aerial photographs of castles and countryside for Tor's view. Thinking about birds, I realized you'd go up and down with each beat of the huge wings.

Then it occurred to me that riding a bike has something in common with riding a dragon. You're experiencing the sun or rain, the rushing wind, the speed, and in London enough danger to make it exhilarating.*

Though not, thank goodness, the dizzying distance from the ground.
*Sometimes I wish my bike had a fire-breathing feature...

Monday, 10 March 2008

If in doubt, go with your gut feeling...

It's your book - write it your way, you're the only one who can

A few years ago I invested 25p at a school fete buying a paperback called, rather clunkily, Why Good Girls Don't Get Ahead...But Gutsy Girls Do, by Kate White. It turned out to be one of the most inspiring and thought-provoking books I've ever read.

Its main argument is that girls are brought up to be pleasers, to play by the rules, and while this works just fine at home and school, take this attitude to the workplace and you will never be a high achiever or fulfill your potential.

But it also discusses the importance of trusting your gut feeling. When Kate was editor-in-chief at McCall's, one of her jobs was to select the cover photo, knowing that her choice could make newsstand sales fluctuate by several hundred thousand copies. Deliberating her first cover for September, she saw a paparazzi shot of Demi Moore; 'it practically took my breath away and I decided in that instant, "This is the cover".'

As she showed the touched-up photo round the office, people voiced concerns. Demi did not have the usual 'buy-me' smile; the background was black; a pregnant Demi was about to appear nearly naked on the cover of August's Vanity Fair. Kate began to have doubts.

Then she remembered her initial 'oooooh' reaction. She decided to go ahead.

The issue sold 300,000 more copies than the September issue of the year before. She said she learned how easy it is to get talked out of going with your gut when the pressure is on.

The moral of this post? Listen to the advice of others, but go with your gut feeling. Don't let people talk you out of your own certainty.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

By my faith, but you're a bold rascal!

This is Sir Tristram speaking in that great book, Le Morte d’Arthur, finished in 1469 by Sir Thomas Malory:

‘And fair knight, and well proved knight, thou shalt well wit I may not forsake thee in this quarrel, for I am for thy sake made and gotten upon a queen; and such promise I have made at my uncle’s request and mine own seeking that I shall fight with thee unto the uttermost, and deliver Cornwall from the old truage.’

Beautiful; but would a book set in the Middle Ages (or an alternative Middle Ages, as mine are) get away with its characters talking like this? I think the reader would find it hard going. I took the decision to have my characters speak in contemporary language, and sometimes get told off for it. Some readers want what they are used to from films and historical romances; a sort of pastiche, which bears little resemblance to the language used by Malory or Chaucer, but which they feel comfortable with. It's no more authentic than modern speech, of course.

I had a go at writing a bit:

‘Prithee, fair maid…’

‘Unhand me, my lord! Fie, for shame, I am promised to another, as well you know!’

‘Nay, lady, be not so intemperate. What lies, I wonder, beneath that haughty mien? Perchance you are not as cold as you seem…’

‘Sir, if this be jest tis an unseemly one! Take care; my brother rides hither apace, and will wreak vengeance for any affront.’

Hey, that was easy – I wonder if there’s a market for a medieval bodice-ripper?

N.B. I'm sure you all recognized the title as a quote from the Errol Flynn Robin Hood of 1938.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Youwriteon Book of the Year

Not Rising Fire alas, but some good news...

Go here to see who won YWO Book of the Year 2008. I've read most of these extracts, and they are of a high standard, worthy winners, and all very different.

The excellent news for me is that Youwriteon is publishing an anthology of all the short stories in the Best Seller Chart, and I have two in there; Showing Them, about an unpublished writer, and Comforted by Darkness, about a woman's encounter with an enigmatic stranger.

So guess what everyone I know will be getting from me, signed, for Christmas?

Monday, 25 February 2008

Are you all right? You're looking a bit pale...

Cough in real life, and your friends' only reaction will be to back away from your germs. Cough in a novel or on screen, and it's both good and bad news; your friends will notice and show concern, but unfortunately it means you are going down with something serious, maybe fatal.

If you are going to be ill, my advice is to see if you can get one of those fictional illnesses; they're so much better than real life ones. They come in various forms;

1. TERMINAL ILLNESS Now here, fiction is way ahead. No physical decline, or feeling wretched, or looking terrible. No, you will be gorgeous till the end. If you look a tad frail it won't stop you doing interesting stuff like making love with the hero. Coughing delicately into a handkerchief is about the only symptom that will trouble you.

A final plus; a fictional doctor will be able to predict, to the day, when you will conk out. In the film The First of the Few, the doctor told Leslie Howard that if he rested completely he'd be right as rain; if he carried on overworking, he'd be dead in six months. Now that's the sort of certainty a patient needs.

2. INSANITY This is only ever bad news if you are a baddie; if you are a sympathetic character, you can go on much as normal with everyone smiling indulgently at your foibles. See Mr Dick in David Copperfield.

3. SMALLPOX Not a disease to tangle with; but Esther Summerson in Bleak House had a nasty bout of it, and when she recovered her face was pock-marked badly enough to scare off a tiresome suitor. But a year or two later, bingo! She's as beautiful as before.

4. LOSS OF THE USE OF YOUR LEGS Surprisingly common in novels, this. Both Pollyanna and Katie in What Katie Did suffered from it. But, and here's the good news for a heroine, it's ten pounds to a penny that with a little research, a specialist, experimental doctor can be found who will make you as good as new! Beat that, real life.

(And for the odd character who fails to track down a leg expert, like Madame Neroni in Barchester Towers, there is the comfort of being as beautiful and charming as you ever were, possibly more).

Real life versus fiction? No contest.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Take the comma quiz

Can you handle a comma?

I have a slight problem with that tricky little punctuation mark, the comma; I'm sometimes uncertain whether I need one or not. I'm not going to discuss them, as Lynne Truss has done it much better than I could in Eats, Shoots & Leaves. But it's high time I directed my loyal readers to a quiz, so here is one to test your comma usage:

It gives you handy advice and comments at the top; they are easy to miss.

(Oh, um, I got 76%. Dear me).

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

The Green Eye Rule

Most rules are made to be broken...

...though not, of course, rules about apostrophes, or spelling, where if you do not get it right, you are getting it WRONG, and there are no excuses.

No, I'm referring to the rules you will learn at a writing class, which you can see an excellent summary of at my friend Norm's blog. Don't misunderstand me, these are all useful points to bear in mind when writing, but like The Pirates' Code, they are really more what you'd call 'guidelines'.

There is one rule, however, that I've been fretting over lately. It was made up by another friend, Alan Hutcheson, and is called The Green Eye Rule. It goes:

'Thou shalt not give thy characters green eyes to make them seem special, intriguing, sexy, mysterious or otherwise memorable. If all the fictional characters with green eyes were stacked together they would reach halfway to Mars. Placed feet to shoulders the monolith would extend well past Uranus. Either arrangement would interfere with weather satellites and likely raise an objection from fringe human rights groups'.

Now before I knew Alan, I wrote Trav Zander, and the heroine, Isolda, is a bewitching blonde with green eyes. I did some low-level worrying about this, then when I went in for ABNA, I became aware that green-eyed heroines were not just two a penny in unpublished fantasy, they appeared to be mandatory.

So, teeth gritted, I went through the novel and changed Isolda's eyes to a smokey grey. I was not happy about this; I see her with green eyes. And she has a matching emerald necklace - emeralds, said to be unlucky - which played a minor part in the story. Star sapphires just don't work so well.

In the end, I changed her eyes back to green.

But not before I'd sent the typescript out to an agent, with, I realized too late, passages where the match between her grey eyes and her emerald necklace were remarked on.


Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Commit to the move!

From the age of nine, my daughter studied static trapeze and flying trapeze. She also learned cloud swing, where you balance on a loop of rope swinging in a huge arc, using its momentum to do tricks. One move guaranteed to make the audience gasp involves winding the rope round your ankles, then at the high point of the swing letting go with your hands, rotating and catching the rope the other side. You can see it on the video of Fabio Dorea. (Click the middle arrow then bottom left arrow).

I used to watch Minty being trained for this. And it's not something you can learn to do slowly, then build up speed. No, you have to commit to the move. If you don't leap out at the top of the swing, it won't work and you'll be left dangling. I marvelled at her courage.

As writers we don't need those sort of guts, but there are occasions when we too need to commit to the move.

The moment comes when a novel is finished: one has done one's best, had all one's second thoughts, got trusted advice and acted on it, revised and revised again till it's the best one can make it.

Time to send it out to find its fortune. Commit to the move.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Youwriteon update

The ups and downs of an unpublished author, Part Two...

Yesterday I came in to find an email from Guy Saville, author of The Africa Reich, which is so kind I'm going to quote it in full;

Dear Lexi

Just seen the YWO longlist and had to email you straight away to say: CONGRATULATIONS!!! I am so pleased for you. I'll keep my fingers crossed you make it to the shortlist... and then all the way. I think RISING FIRE has a really good chance of winning. I'll watch with bated breath.
Well done again, this should be a real boost to your confidence as a writer.
Warmest wishes

Guy x

Which was a nice way to discover I'd made the Youwriteon longlist for Book of the Year.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Quills, typewriters and Word

I had a brilliant idea while mulling over how to get more depth and layers into Rising Fire. I would draw a map! Several maps of the main cities, maybe one showing the three kingdoms! And not just boring old modern maps, I would make them look like something from the 11th century, with quaint thumbnails of dragons and palaces and swineherds. And I would write in medieval-style script.

I could post it on my website.

So I went on the internet and looked up medieval maps, illustrated manuscripts, and calligraphy.

Luckily I had some goose and swan quill feathers to make a pen. (Since you ask, they are used for laying down ground enamels before firing). I trimmed one with a scalpel, tracked down a bottle of ink that had been minding its own business quietly in a drawer for fifteen years, and got started. Several hours later I stopped.

Now I'm not saying I couldn't make a beautiful map if I tried. I'm pretty sure I could. I just can't spare the weeks it would take to get it right; learning along the way calligraphy and the application of gold leaf. I'll do it if I ever get rich enough to take time off.

But it got me thinking about the production of books. Scribes, writing with a coal fire below their desks to dry the ink as they worked; using feathers from the left wing of the bird, as they curved conveniently for a right-hander; devastated by any mistake, which could not be corrected, but only marked in red to indicate an error.

Then the invention of the printing press; but an author still had to write the manuscript by hand. The typewriter was a huge advance, but the enormous labour of producing a neatly-typed, revised novel meant that anyone who accomplished this was serious about it, and likely to be read by a publisher, and receive a two page letter explaining a rejection.

You know what I'm going to say next. These days, with the advent of personal computers and Word, it is child's play for anyone to produce something that resembles a book.

And an awful lot of people do.

I have great sympathy for the literary agents struggling with stacks of bad novels endlessly doing the rounds ('you've got to be persistent, look at JK Rowling') and even more sympathy with the unpublished good writers, unable to be heard above the cacophony.