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Louise's current project is to make all her sweet romances available on the internet.
Look out for her new Regency romance, Regency Fortune, coming soon!


Monday, 2 November 2009

No Time to Write

The PGCE course is keeping me busy - but the challenge is doing my brain good. I have returned to an idea for a fantasy novel I started years ago but didn't have the maturity to realise. I'm getting ideas for it. Good ideas...

Dear Blogger, please don't delete my blog. I plan to return to it after this course is over xxx Louise.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Clever Old Dan Brown

A while back my friend Tom sent me a link to an article criticising Dan Brown's English. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/6194031/The-Lost-Symbol-and-The-Da-Vinci-Code-author-Dan-Browns-20-worst-sentences.html
The article is by some very clever people who dissected a paragraph or two of the DaVinci Code and pointed out all the mistakes. I spoke to Tom yesterday on the phone and we had a little chuckle about such howlers as a silhouette with ruby eyes and then moved on to talking about other stuff.

Later I started feeling uneasy about laughing at Dan Brown's English. After all, the man has accomplished something which I can't - millions of people have enjoyed his book. And people are not stupid. Why would readers enjoy writing that was littered with impossibilities? Is a silhouette with bright ruby eyes really impossible? Yes, unless, of course, you have access to special effects. Remember the Jawas in Star Wars? Those slinking little shadows with the glowing eyes? Great, weren’t they? Much more effective than plain old shadows. A good strong, graphic, comic-book image. A silhouette with an interesting twist.

The more I think about it, the more I think what a fabulous idea a silhouette with ruby eyes is. I’m busy with course work at the moment, or I’d go through a chapter looking for similar graphic ideas, but if even 25% of Dan Brown’s so-called style errors call up such strong images, then no wonder his writing is enjoyed by so many.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Taking off Tight Shoes

Other than essays I still have no idea what I'll be writing next, but I can feel my whole system relaxing now that I've said openly that I'm not even going to try to write romance anymore. It could be that I'll end up writing romance, of course. But I'm not going to try to be commercial any more.

I have been mulling over the concept of morning pages, and I'm not sure that I'm up for the idea as a permanent discipline. It conflicts with GTD (Getting Things Done by David Allen) which is a much better way of making sure that your mind isn't wasting energy. However, I'm sure that it would be a great way into a new project. I suspect it will be Christmas before I get time to read any more of Julia Cameron's book.

I got a lovely fat, unexpected royalty check today. There is no glow like it! Real money from one of my books. I shall buy some new clothes to teach in.

I've observed my new class and thoroughly enjoyed it. Do not believe those who say standards are declining. They are smart, sophisticated, hard-working and competent young people who will easily get A-grade A-levels. I was deeply impressed by some of their insights. And what joy to be talking about English at work!

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Bookworms Rule OK

How wonderful to be in a job where my lifelong habit of curling up with a book when I should be doing something else is a help and not a curse. Today I was given the book list from the English department where I will be doing my teaching practice. I'd read better than 80% of the books on the list - some of them several times. I knew this was a good move.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


Did you know that we have false vocal chords? And that they can clamp down when a person is stressed, meaning that the true vocal cords can't work? Very, very interesting.

Relaxation is often the key to good writing. When you go away and someone or something else does all the work and you come back and there it all is - pages and pages of much better writing that you could ever do by yourself.

You can see where I'm going with this, can't you? But itsn't it interesting that we say 'voice' about writing and that it's so closely linked with the real voice.

Learning to control false vocal chords is like wiggling the ears. It feels impossible at the moment, but this is a trick I must get the hang of!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Voice and Morning Pages

I've done a few morning pages - not regularly, and not in the morning, but freewriting for 3 pages and yes, I'd say it was a valuable exercise. My head is in full monkey mode at the moment, whirling and chattering, so unless it's siphoned off, there is no clear pool for a story to well up from. Blogs are good, but necessarily censored - the value of morning pages is that nobody sees them and they are not for re-reading, so you simply let blow.

I've been thinking about voice these last few days - once again I've lost my voice. I wonder if the world is mirroring my writing? Have decided to take action. Tomorrow I'm seeing a voice coach. Some books from the library confirmed that technique and exercise affect how your voice performs, and I certainly can't teach with a sore or missing voice. It will be interesting to see if the two improve together.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Massive Clearout

Stuffed my Micra as full as it would go and went to the tip with:

The very first books I wrote - long hand in exercise books: Tyger Tyger - 150K fantasy; Australia Cruise, written while on a boat in Australia and clearly demonstrating that I didn't understand Mills & Boon. Balina; a clueless romance (but probably more alive than the ones I was straining to make commercial), Hobson's Choice, an attempt at a serial and a ton of ideas, false starts and general jottings.
Boxes of copies of my old books.
Mountains of romances that I kept meaning to read and study so that I could find out how they did it.
A depressing pile of folders full of books that didn't sell. Music School, Olympic Obsession and Penny among others. I did like the title and high concept of Gypsy Remedy, but I threw the old MSS away.
A remarkably persistent box of attempts at Mills & Boon. Some less than thrilling erotica, and attempts at horror novels and fantasy. Also a pile of short stories.
Folder after folder of work from writing courses, Open College Units, A-Levels and my degree.
Piles of Romantic Novelists Magazines, British and American.

Chrystal Rose and I have agreed to part company as well. There hasn't been an enthusiastic response to the book/script as it is, and I don't want to spend time on a rewrite. It must be a nightmare trying to produce a movie. I wish her all the best.

I may not know exactly what I'm going to do next (All the more so as Point Horror is no more) but at least I've cleared the decks for the next stage.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Janice Radway's Structure of a Romance

After a workshop on romance in Todmorden on Saturday, I promised to post my notes about the structure of a romance.

Reading the Romance by Janice Radway (University of North Carolina Press) Verso 1987 is an interesting read. It's mostly about what readers get from reading romances, and although I took pages of notes, I've mostly forgotten what she said. (Time for a review?). What I have remembered, and often refer back to, is Radway's work on the structure of a romance.

Joseph Campbell realised that most stories have the same outline, which he identified and called the hero's journey, but all the stories he looked at were stories about and for men. Vladimir Propp looked at folk tales, again mostly about and for men, and he too found that the same features or functions popped up over and over again. Functions are a way of looking at the underlying structure of a story. If a hero gets a magic ring, which takes him to an island, or a flying carpet which flies him to another country, or a white horse, which gallops him off to the mountains, then although the details are different, the same thing is happening. A magical agent takes the hero to another place.

So far as I'm aware, neither Propp nor Campbell spent any time on women's stories. Radway did, however. She wondered if the same functions would pop up in every story from Jane Austen to Barbara Cartland and everyone in-between - and sure enough, they did. If you follow the structure below, and take the female character to be the hero of the story, you can consider that the movie the Terminator is a romance. The male character is a donor (literally!) rather than a hero.

Here are Radway's functions of the romance. The first five functions are the reverse of the last 5 functions.

1. (pairs with 13) The heroine's social status is upset
2. (pairs with 12) She reacts antagonistically to a powerful male
3. (Pairs with 11) She interprets his behaviour as evidence of purely sexual interest in her.
4. (pairs with 10) She responds sexually and emotionally to him
5. (pairs with 9) She responds to his behaviour with anger or coldness
6. He retaliates by punishing her
7. They are physically or/and emotionally separated
8. He treats her tenderly
9. She responds warmly
10. She reinterprets his behaviour as the product of previous hurt
11. He proposes/commits/show supreme acts of tenderness
12. She responds sexually and emotionally to him.
13. Her social status is restored.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Yet Another I Don't Know What to Write Blog

Here's some ideas:

Do the Morning Pages, as suggested by Julia Cameron.
Look into a new genre - Point Horror springs to mind.
Concentrate on another income stream!
Continue the review of all the writing text books I've read - there are 6 huge notebooks full!

I didn't get far with the workbook - but I am wondering about morning pages. The idea is to get up and write 3 pages every day, about anything, in order to clear the mind.

But then what happens to the commitment to morning exercise? If it doesn't happen first thing, it so does not happen!

Incidentally, Julia Cameron encourages one to play around - artist's dates, she calls them. So I wasn't wasting time with Wordle after all.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

When the Student is Ready????

My mother gave me this book last weekend. I've often looked at it - but it seems a bit flaky and demanding for a busy life - but I won't be working over the next few weeks. I do agree with her basic premise which is that we are all creative. People are so talented. If you ask a young child if they can draw a house, they smile and say yes. And draw you one, often with a few flowers or a tree thrown in. At what age does that change to: Oh, I can't draw. I'm rubbish at art?

The exercises she suggests clear pathways through which creative forces can operate. This book is all about letting go to a higher force. Well, why not? I've always been attracted to the mantra: 'Let go and let God.' Another image she uses in the introduction resonates because she talks about a spiritual chiropractic - exercises to attain alignment with the creative energy of the universe. A chill ran down my (much straighter spine) when I read that, because for the last year I've been working on my body, which was bent out of shape. A healthy mind in a healthy body?

Here are the basic principles. I have changed her terminology from God to energy or source or whatever else seems more comfortable than the Catholic images the nuns embedded in me!
  1. Creativity is the natural order of life. Life is energy: pure, creative energy.
  2. There is an underlying, in-dwelling, creative force infusing all of life - including ourselves.
  3. When we open ourselves to our creativity, we open ourselves to the creator's creativity within us and our lives.
  4. We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, are meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves.
  5. Creativity is the universe's gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back.
  6. The refusal to be creative is self-will and is counter to our true nature.
  7. When we open ourselves to exploring our creativity, we open ourselves to energy sources and good orderly direction.
  8. As we open our creative channel to the creative energy, many gentle but powerful changes are to be expected.
  9. It is safe to open ourselves up to greater and greater creativity.
  10. Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source. As we move toward our dreams, we move toward our divinity.

She warns us to expect emotional tumult during the course. Well, as they say around here, you don't get owt for nowt.

How to Waste Time

Click on this link to see what Wordle made of yesterday's post!
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alt="Wordle: A decision"
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Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A Decision

Yesterday I went no mail on the romantic novelists loop. It felt strange - for about 12 years, I've read the emails every day. The RNA are a lovely bunch of writers - very supportive. They offer chat, gossip, debate about the art of writing, tips about the market (some of which made me money) advice and commiseration. Although I didn't often post, I felt part of a group. I had never understood sport - when Andy says about his football team: 'We won!' I think of Jerry Seinfeld shrugging and saying: 'No, the players won. You watched from the sofa!' Then I went to Manchester and watched the romantic novelists team on University Challenge, and suddenly understood that feeling of vicarious pride. 'We won!'

So why drop out now? Well, I think I've finally, finally, finally given up on the dream. When I first started to write, like so many authors, I thought I'd knock out 4 or 5 Mills & Boon a year and live the life of Riley. Ha, ha, ha!! It was such a wonderful idea, except for one small problem. I don't understand Mills & Boon and never will. I may well write a book which contains a love story, but I will never be a successful contemporary romance author because my head doesn't inhabit that world and what's more, I don't want it to!

So what's next? Er...

I am swotting for the maths exam, but I'd like to go back to reviewing my writing class notes as soon as possible. A thorough review and a fresh start.

I could get to like maths. What a shame I was so badly taught. I see what it's about now. I don't have the hours to spare to learn any more than scraping through the exam (due to dyslexia, at least 10 X longer than other people, don't forget) but it's lovely to be at peace with the subject.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Another Unread Writer's News

It's joined the other two in their shiny wrappers. I've cancelled the direct debit - not because I'll never read a writing magazine again, but as part of the general reorganisation of finance necessary to be a student for a year.

I am absorbed in studying for the numeracy exam at the moment - making friends with Pi and areas of cylinders and other such everyday items. Terry Jones made a great programme on numbers once. They interviewed an Australian Aborigine who didn't 'do' numbers. He did 'one' and 'many' and that was it. He could name all his grandchildren, but asked how many of them he had, the reply was: 'many'. He seemed happy enough, sitting under his tree in the outback, but then, I couldn't get a visa so unless I went feral, it's not an option.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Good News

I've got a place on the PGCE course. I'm so pleased. I'll be talking and thinking about English and writing all day - so from now on, my head's going to be in one place only. This has to be progress.

I do know that teaching is stressful and demanding, (I taught for 5 years in Japan) but it's always easier to do what you enjoy doing, and everything I do at work will make me a better writer, which has to be a good thing.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Editors Know What's What

It may take me a year or two or even ten before I get it! What I've understood this week is the place of unpleasant events.

I've been thinking about revamping three chapters of a novel that was turned down for being 'too racy' a situation, and also for having too much tragedy to begin with. Basically it's about a wild child who has a near death experience when her plane crashes and then, disguised as a nun, she has to go through the jungle with the hero and two children and they meet terrorists and...

As usual I huffed and puffed over the criticism (stupid editor - if the tragedy didn't happen, my heroine wouldn't have been alone in the jungle with a gorgeous man!) and slung it in a drawer. Yesterday, feeling miserable with a tooth infection I curled up in a chair with a chick lit novel and a pile of antibiotics. I didn't enjoy the book - and one of the things I didn't like was....too many unpleasant events! After all, Jane Austen managed to write riveting novels without dragging in cardboard violence to ramp up the tension, didn't she?

And then I realised I was objecting to this book on the same grounds that my romance, Blessing in Disguise, was turned down for. And I suddenly got it! I totally understand what the editor meant. The next question is what to do about it? And only an hour's thought solved the problem. Suppose the nun and the pilot didn't die, but were too poorly to trek through the jungle so stayed with the plane. As well as softening the tragedy, that gives me an unresolved question: will they be saved, and a better reason for my wild heroine to be disguised as a nun - it isn't my wild child who worries about being alone with a man, it's the surviving nun who begins the deception and makes the heroine promise to continue it.

Yes, editors do know best! I'm going to revamp the first three chapters and try them on Little Black Dress.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Younger Man

Would it be too much like mothering to have the heroine fall for a younger man? Especially if it was a Pygmalion/Suzy Wong type story where he was uneducated. I can't see it being very attractive, but is that because I'm so steeped in my own culture that I can't see outside the box?

I'm trying to think of a new idea for a plot, but I don't think that one is going to be it. You'd have to be sensitive about class and cultural issues as well. What about a posh uneducated hero? Oh, that was Tarzan, wasn't it?

Rats, there must be some twist that would make it work.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Skills for Writers

I picked this up for £1 at a car boot over the weekend, for Andy, really, because he keeps thinking he'll learn (I hate to see people hunting and pecking over a keyboard - what a waste of time). I thought I was a fast typist - I learned to type with a very early version of Mavis and took RSA Word Processing 3, which is quite fast, but oh, dear, I've gotten into bad ways. What I do now is whack all the text in and then correct it later, but my accuracy has obviously slipped over the years. When I took the diagnostic the program suggested I review my skills! So I am!

Still no news from college - it's very hard to concentrate while waiting to hear.

Talking about news, no more Black Lace!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Hebden Bridge Festival

Hebden Bridge is a foreign country (spot the mangled quotation). At least, it is when the sun is shining. It was full of people sitting outside enjoying themselves. NOT a sight I associate with the north of England.

I went to the library as part of the festival - for two one-to-one sessions with writers who wanted to have a romance published. It was interesting meeting the people whose work I had critiqued. Usually the reports go off by post and that's the end of it. I've had one complaint, and lots of very nice thank you letters, but the process is usually anonymous. I sometimes wonder if I'm too much of a blunt instrument. But what use is a critique if all I say is 'marvellous, darling!' Publishers always say that the book's super, but just not right for their list, but that doesn't help you know how to improve it. Both writers promised to let me know.

The organisers had laid on the most fabulous buffet - organic cakes and sunshine. Life doesn't get a lot better.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Writer's News

Today Writer's News arrived, all sealed up in its plastic bag. I put it on top of last month's Writer's News, which is all sealed up in its plastic bag - it really has been a bad month! I usually tear it open and read it cover to cover.

We are both working this weekend, but we are not going dancing tonight - by mutual consent we are going to flop in front of the TV and chill out.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Rejection Pains

Another rejection this morning. Flowers from the Heart was sent back. It doesn't matter how nice the letter is, and it was a very nice letter, there is still nothing good about rejections.

Or interviews, which has been my lot all this week. Still, nothing ventured, and all that jazz. If you want to get anywhere you got to get up and give it a go.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Synopsis Tussle

Why is it so difficult to write a synopsis? Is it because writers are naturally discursive?

Three chapters are ready to go. I've researched two likely publishers - but can I come up with a lively one-page document?

Will try again tomorrow.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Write Don't Blog

The book is progressing nicely, but doesn't leave with me the urge to blog.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Shopping & Lots of Words

Saturday I went shopping and dancing but Sunday and Monday were good. Chapter Two is finished. I can work every day until Friday now. It will be good when three chapters are ready, because then I can put a proposal together. Sometimes I stop after that stage, thinking it's no good to finish a book without a home, but I think with this one, especially if the film does well, a publisher might want the book quickly so it would be best to finish it.

Friday, 22 May 2009

1000 words

Oh yes, I'm into it now. There's nothing like a holiday to refresh the batteries.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

673 Words

The holiday was great, but I didn't do a lick of work. This morning though, I felt right for the first time in ages and sat down and got going. 673 words - which is OK, given that I had to get back into it.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

A Holiday

Finally got all the decks cleared, sat down at the computer on Monday morning and realised I was completely and utterly brain dead.

Went up town and bought a cheap week in Cyprus, leaving Wednesday. I have to have a break.

Printed out the new version of the film script to take with me, but the laptop, which I haven't used in ages, has died. It would cost £50 odd to fix it. I'll work on mapping out some scenes, and resting!

It's scary how the weeks slip by. I'm looking forward to getting back to work.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Back to Work

Finally managed to sit in front of my computer - I'm not writing this morning, there's too much mess and too many things I want to clear up first, but at least I can clear the decks and I will be able to start again on Saturday.

Bad news re the Glass Cliff - the line I sent it to has folded. It was nice of the editor to let me know. I do have another idea for a place to send it, but they require a finished novel, so it will have to be shelved for now.

I am looking forward to getting back to the Find a Man Campaign. As soon as the first 3 chapters are ready, I'll start looking for a home for it.

I have also signed up for a two-day 'preparing your lessons' course. It is a long time since I did any teaching, and I want to make sure that the workshop on romantic fiction for Todmorden Library goes well.

Monday, 27 April 2009

5000 Words - and a line!

That nice big line you draw under the bottom of things and say: 'Finished!' My degree is done.

The last 5000 words was on the strategies Toyota use to maintain market position. Nothing to do with being a writer? Well, no, actually. The hardest thing in an essay (I think!) is to come up with a thesis. You have to decide what you want to say then hang all the other stuff around this spine - the clearest example is with my last essay, a mere 3500 words on the building of Holyrood. I decided that had they done risk assessments all the way through, and acted when important milestones were missed, they might have come in on time and in budget. Each paragraph in the essay talked about what happened when they didn't do this, and what happened to other parliament projects such as the Welsh one who did risk assess. Any material that didn't fit this main thread got thrown out. Sometimes sadly because I'd done loads of research. With a bigger essay, and material one's less familiar with (Toyota!) it's harder to find this spine. But a good spine is what gets you good marks, and sales.

Writing a book is exactly the same, and I think finding this theme or premise is the hardest thing about writing a book. All books need a spine running through them. The plot of the book might be about a heroine opening a business and trying to do well, and that sets a lot of scenes for you, but if your theme is that honesty is the best policy, then that too sets a lot of scenes and characters for you. Robert McKee talks about this in his book story - he charts out all kinds of variations. For example, if honesty is your theme, then pushing this to the limit gives you a character who lies to themselves. I might dig up his book and review it again.

Anyway, the wonderful thing is that give or take a day's training in Preston, a hospital appointment to check out the blind spot in my eye and an application to Burnley College, I am free to get back to The Find a Man Campaign.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

A New Adventure

I am going to do a workshop for Calderdale Libraries. This is the blurb I sent them:

Lancashire author, Louise Armstrong, has dozen sweet romances in print. She is currently turning a film script (The Find a Man Campaign due out 2010) into a novel. You can read about her writing life at http//:louisearmstrong.blogspot.com

Workshop - we'll be looking at the structure and ingredients of a perfect romance (hint: you start with a hero to die for) followed by a workshop exercise designed to intensify your descriptive powers.

Now, back to Toyota and their management strategies.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

3,500 Words on Business

I didn't want to study Business Studies - I wanted to study English, but at the time I enrolled on my evening degree course, you had to do two subjects, and I thought Business might look OK on my CV. It just goes to show that you don't always know what's best for you because I'm deeply thankful I took it.

The two disciplines are very different - English is no longer about books (they say things like: 'The author doesn't matter). It's about taking a lens and viewing the text through it. Marxism, say, or psychoanalysis or Colonial theories, or Queer studies, whatever theory is fashionable at the time. I got a lot out of the course overall, but I struggled to understand people like Lacan and found a lot of it unrealistic and horribly trivial.

Business, on the other hand, is about taking a big, huge complicated mess and simplifying it. What could be more interesting and real than taking a hole in the ground and producing a landmark building? My last project is on the Scottish Parliament - Holyrood. Death, drama, power struggles, comedy and tragedy, it's all there. From the comfort of a chair I've been enjoying the BBC programme and wading through the reports and audits on the fiasco. Then you get to compare it with projects such as the Welsh Assembly and the Australian building which went somewhat better and figure out why. Wonderful stuff. I'm sure it will help me write better novels because the process of research and piecing together what I want to say about it has taught me loads as well.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Find a Man Campaign

Hurray! Everyone likes the first chapter of the Film to Book project, so I can now say that it's going to happen. As well as writing the script, Chrystal Rose is producing the movie and it is set to come out in 2010. Several titles have been suggested, but the one I like best and want for the novel is 'The Find a Man Campaign.'

The sooner I can get my last essays finished, the sooner I can get back to it!

Writer's News was interesting this month - an article about a new trend called 'urban fantasy' caught my eye. The Glass Cliff fits the genre description perfectly. I'm right on trend, although I have to admit it was accidental!

There was also an article about the competition from other media. It seems that what readers want from books is the emotional experience that only books can deliver. This explains why the deep POV for third person is now so popular in the States - and we always follow their trends, so that's something to think about, and become proficient in.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Teeny, Tiny Cheque

One from the BBC today. Better than nothing, but don't give up the day job!

This week, when I wasn't at maths, the dentist, work, Pilates, college interviews or any of the other things that so get in my way, I finished the first chapter of the film to a book project. I am pleased with it. I sent it to be critiqued, and will send it to the film person, to see what she thinks, but now I'm going to have to change gear: it's time to finish my college work. At least this time, when the two essays are done, I'll be able to draw a line under it.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

More Zeros

I like getting cheques, I really do, but the space for millions was blank, the space for hundred thousands was blank, the tens thousands was blank, and the thousands, and, oh dear, the hundreds as well!!

My half yearly royalties from Virgin amounted to £19.46.

Must do better! Although it is only fair to say that the two erotic novels I wrote for Black Lace have been good little earners.

I did do 1000 words on my new project today. I have one more week to work on it, then I'll need to break off and finish the last two essays for my degree (8,500 words). But, by then, I'll know if I'm going to go ahead (and public) with it, or give up.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


ALCS sent me another cheque this morning - Thankee kindly, sir and God bless!

They function like the PLR system in this country, collecting library fees and so on for authors. A couple of my books have been sold overseas, so I filled in the forms, not expecting much. Well, as usual with my cheques, there are rows of zeros at the wrong side of the figures, but it's all good practice for the days of milk and honey.

I wrote another 750 words today, but I wouldn't say I've got started properly yet.

Friday, 20 March 2009

A Short Review

Very short! I can't remember a thing about this book, presumably I read it all. I've written down one quote from Tolkien himself, saying that 'part of the attraction of LOR is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist.'

Incidentally, one of the most sustaining experiences I ever had was reading some of Tolkien's unpublished poems from when he started writing. They were not good. They had all the elements of his style and all his subject matter, but because his technique wasn't good at that stage, they didn't come over very well. Imagine if he'd said, 'Oh, I'm rubbish, I'm quitting.'

The only other note I've made is on the technique of writing in the responses that you want the reader to have. If you want the reader to feel shock, show a sympathetic character physically reacting. '...in his living face they caught a brief vision of the power and majesty of the kings of stone. For a moment it seemed to the eyes of L that a white flame flickered on the brow of Aragorn like a shining crown.

Eomer stepped back...'

I took a workshop run by Garry Kilworth once and I remember him saying that all editors long to find fantasy novels with that huge sense of history in them.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Glass Cliff in the Post

There's nothing like a fresh eye. Thanks to my critique partner, and a whole free morning, I have completely revamped the synopsis, especially the end, which was very weak, and got the proposal in the post.

I need paper!

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Any Comments Gratefully Received

The Glass Cliff is a contemporary Gothic horror set in the industrial north.

Businesswomen Kari Jordan is delighted when she is promoted to chief executive of Clegg’s Building Company in Lancashire. She’s sure of herself and sure she can rise to the challenge, until dark forces are unleashed against her. Then she doesn’t know if she is going crazy, or if she is truly being fought with Voodoo.

It’s as if she’s two people. Kari hears that a potential whistle-blower’s father is dead. Her deeper, primitive self turns faint. Her rational self insists that the man drank too much, and the whiskey bottle hex was just a coincidence. In the same way, after an attack on her car, she thinks the satellite navigation malfunctioned. She says that only reason she’s selling her Mini is to celebrate her promotion with a Mercedes. She’s shocked to the core when the Mini crashes, killing the new owner, but the deeper Kari’s fears, the harder her rational self works to dispel them.

She has to prove that the five company directors are milking the company and get rid of them. But as she uncovers their misdeeds they fight back with worldly weapons and with voodoo. Kari is smart enough to understand she’s in danger, but she’s too educated to accept the evidence of her own senses, and she’s busy. She doesn’t have time to crack up. She visits a psychiatrist who tells her that she’s been promoted too quickly. Her unconscious mind is suffering from a fear of success. There is a lot of literature to prove the theory. Solid, rational, scientific proof, the kind Kari believes in. There’s no proof and no witnesses when one of the directors lets slip that she’ll be killing a kitten that night, whispering in its ear first so that it carries a message into the underworld.

Voodoo? Kari can’t believe it. Corruption she can go head to head with and understand. She’s met, and defeated it before. But if her enemies are using supernatural forces against her, then she must defend herself. When her computer screen saver flashes up a voodoo hex she visits her psychiatrist again. He tells her she’s paranoid. She walks out.

Against her better judgement, Kari has become involved with a campaign to save Overlook Cemetery, 26 acres of beautiful Victorian ruin. The unworldly campaigners, her landlady, Annette, Barry from IT and a stargazer called Ivor, need Kari’s business acumen to help them fight their battle. There’s dark grumpy Mike Heron, of course. His abrasive personality annoys the hell out of Kari, but he is efficient. He introduces her to a healer, Sue Lincoln. Kari finds herself wearing violet because it’s healing and getting all touchy-feely. Through Sue’s therapy Kari discovers the real personality that was hidden deep within. She feels like a peeled snail. How is she going to defeat her enemies now that she feels so vulnerable?

Handsome, blond, successful Dean Rainford might be the answer. From the start he courts Kari. He says they’d make a great power couple and she has to agree. She finds herself leaning on him, confiding in him, trusting him as she’s never opened up to a man before. He talks to her about Overlook Cemetery. Dean’s right, the city needs more car parking and the campaigners are a shower of flakes. Kari makes a special trip to the local pub to tell the Friends of Overlook Cemetery that she’s quitting. They manoeuvre her into having her aura cleansed. Soaking up warmth and camaraderie, Kari can’t believe she was about to abandon the campaign for profit. She crosses a personal Rubicon not so much by accepting an amulet, but by learning a protective visualisation.

It’s all rubbish, of course, and it certainly doesn’t work. Although Kari manages to sack Dr Ian Wallace, (despite an unsettling visit from his Beninese wife) nothing is going well. Dean is angry with her. A construction worker dies. Kari is held legally responsible for a breakdown in health and safety that caused the accident. It’s her darkest hour. She doesn’t seem able to operate at her old level or in any of the new ways that she’s been exploring. The whistleblower finally gives Kari the information she needs, but then she dies. Kari is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the corruption she finds within the company, and the danger around her. She won’t give in. She collects up every weapon around her, spiritual and temporal, and goes to confront the directors.

The directors have decided to deal with Kari for once and for all. They summon Baron Samedi who, although happy to create death and mayhem, is by no means a biddable spirit. The Friends of Overlook cemetery appear to help Kari. The Baron takes Bob West instead, and Frances’s sanity. Former skeptic Jagtar Batoa sizes up the situation and decides to emigrate to Canada. The company would appear to be under Kari’s control, but she becomes aware that she has one more enemy left. It appears to be Mike Heron, but its actually Dean Rainford.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Creating a Synopsis

A few years ago I attended a workshop run by Marina Oliver at a Romantic Novelists conference on writing a synopsis. Marina knows what's what. She does quite a few workshops and she has written several books about writing, as well as being an author herself. I think writing a synopsis is really hard, so each time I like to use teaching notes as an outline in the hope that eventually I'll get the hang of how it is done.

Marina advises writing down some basic information first - title, genre, theme, name of heroine, significant facts about the heroine such as her aims, the name of the hero and some significant facts about the hero such as his background. From this you can work up a first sentence. One good tip is to always write the synopsis in the style of your book.

The Glass Cliff is a contemporary horror story set in the industrial north.

Well, I've spent all morning wrestling with what comes next. I think I need to go back to Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet and see if that helps.

Monday, 16 March 2009

To Do List

The weather was so lovely and springlike that I didn't do any work at the weekend. I did read Writing Magazine in the bath, but it's no wonder that I'm not rich and famous yet! Must try harder.

However, the NWS critique is in the post and I have a couple of week's breathing space before the next two college assignments are in the post so next comes:
  • Write a synopsis for The Glass Cliff and get it in the post
  • Create a website
  • See if I can turn a film script into a novel (I won't name the film until I know whether it's going to happen or not).

And I have the next three mornings free. Hurray!

Can also report that I passed Numeracy Level I with 93% and have started working on Level II. I'll get another morning a week back when I've achieved the second certificate.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Applications Complete!

And in the post. All I have to do now is cross my fingers and pray that all the logistics (including an offer of a place!) work out and I get to teach creative writing.

Should I be telling you this? There's a good article below on whether writers should keep blogs or not.

http://www.theglobe andmail.com/ servlet/story/ RTGAM.20090306. wbkread07/ BNStory/globeboo ks/home

What do I think? Sympathy for both sides. I get horribly stuck with books sometimes - and it's no use sending out rubbish, but I've also waited eagerly for a sequel.

Perhaps fortunately I don't have a pack of rabid fans watching my every move. The main purpose of this blog is to note progress, or not, towards where I want to be.

Tomorrow is taken up with a doctor's appointment, maths, work and a hair cut and Saturday is booked. OK then, Sunday I work on that synopsis!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Road to Success

I like books written by successful people. I don't like biographies much, because they tend to be a list of facts with a bit of speculation thrown in. Autobiographies are much better because as a reader you get a better sense of the personality of the achiever. Renee Fleming is fascinating. Did you know she wasn't that good at the time of finishing her studies? Everyone turned her down, but she carried on, learning, studying, perfecting. Here's a few things I noticed:
  • She sought out successful people - in person or by book and DVD and learnt from what they did.
  • She turned setbacks into stepping stones - it's lucky the Met turned me down because then I could study with X.
  • She asked for help - she had terrible stage fright at one point and she visited therapists, sports coaches, psychologists, other singers ... anyone and everything until she had an answer.
  • She worked hard.

Good for her!

This week is application form week - there's three of them to complete for Bury College, but I will try to review another book tomorrow.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Public Lending Right

I forgot to mention PLR!! Possibly because it's not an exciting cheque that arrives in the post but is paid straight into the bank. There's been some debate in America - they think authors shouldn't get PLR. I am deeply appreciative of mine! Only 3 figures this year. Missed 4 by a whisker, but it is paying for all kinds of useful and necessary things. I love reading the statement - some of my books go out from the library 2,000 times over a 12 month period. It's so great to think of people reading them - and enjoying them I hope.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Editor's Role

A nice man from Bolton brought the new toner (now there's service!) and so Florist is printed and in the post.

I cannot remember where I saw this, but somebody once said; 'It's not your [the writer's] job to decide whether your book is any good or not. Your job is to write the thing. Leave it to the editor to decide whether it's any good or not.'

Monday, 2 March 2009

Revamp Complete

Florist is now completely rewritten and, I think, much better for it. The best thing for a novel is some professional feedback and time in a dark drawer. I can't understand why I couldn't see it the first time round. It would have gone in the post today, but I need toner. The old cartridge lasted for at least two years and the printer seems fine so I rang the office supplies people (I met them through my old job in Blackburn) and he said: how's the writing going? What a good memory.

Finished my reflective essay last night. There's only 8,500 words between me and my degree now!

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Advice from Simon Cowell

We watched the X-factor round at an addict's house, and being aware that Simon Cowell has a reputation for being some kind of horned fiend, I was amazed to find that I agreed with everything he said. Round at someone else's house (there are a lot of addicts) I saw him conducting auditions for an American show. 'What shall I do?' asked one hopeful contestant. 'Tell me what you want. I can take direction.' Simon Cowell stirred into life. 'That's the worst thing you can say as an artist. You should know what you're about,' he said.

I've been thinking about that ever since.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Nothing on an Editor's Desk - anywhere

Suddenly realised that I have nothing out at all. No irons in the fire. Zip. The one true thing about writing is that no one is going to tap me on the shoulder and invite me to become a successful writer.

Fired off an email to someone who advertised on the RNA's cyber chapter that she wants a novelisation of a film and rang up D. C. Thompson to find out the name of the new editor of the People's Friend Pocket Novels. I wrote a book about a florist who hurtled around London in a little green van. The old editor liked the first three chapters, but wasn't satisfied with the end of the book. It's been in a drawer for months, but with some distance I can see exactly what she means, and more importantly, how to fix it. Decided to get my head down over rewrite and EVERYTHING can go hang until it's in the post.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Writing Historical Fiction

Another out of print book. I don't think the advice dates. Although I've compressed the notes I took, they still seem relevant and helpful.

Martin is quite interesting about negative space. In Kabuki, for example, the moments where the rapid action stops and the actors hold the pose and freeze have the effect of impressing that moment on the mind and making the action sharper. Or, if you think of the way painters use shadows to highlight the foreground and figures. Scenes of high drama and deep emotion need moments of comparative tranquility to give them emphasis. The RAP RAP RAP of fast action can be wearing. In moments of extreme stress, tiny details such as a flower, a touch, a smell do take on significance, and can balance the pace.

Martin talks about the reasons for setting a story in the past - and I think she's right in saying that the only good reason is that the story couldn't have happened anywhere else. The past is great for romances because the hardest thing is to find good reasons why two gorgeous people who are absolutely made for one another stay apart for a whole book. There were so many barriers in the past that have now fallen: class, divorce, wars, politics, especially family feuds and acceptable behaviour for women. Class still exists of course. In the reality TV programme Undercover Princes the prince from Sri Lanka had to marry a bride from a noble background so he ditched the girl he'd been dating. What a sap! I could have written a much better ending than that!

Anachronisms. When I wrote a Black Lace novel, The Barbarian Geisha, set in historical Japan, I got Andy to proof read before it went to the publisher because he has the kind of logical mind that spots extras wearing watches in historical movies. I had committed all kinds of howlers: the heroine let off steam, and felt as if she were standing behind a pane of glass. She jogged along the beach. People feared germs. Pluto got a mention. It's very difficult to remember what your heroine couldn't have known.

Good advice is to keep an eye on realities of time within your created past. Think of cycles of the moon, how hard it would be to travel in winter, and characters ageing. I read Jane Eyre & Tess of the Dubervilles as part of my college course and became fascinated by how important natural light was to them. We are blinded by electricity - but back then they noticed Jupiter shining 'yellow like a jonquil' and the exact moment when the candles had to be lit. Balls were planned around a full moon so people could travel more easily. Everything was planned around available light.

Martin talks about describing your characters right away so you don't annoy readers who formed a different picture, and mentions the tension between what the characters say, and what they truly think (the scene in Annie Hall where they are chatting one another up with cartoon captions of their true thoughts above their heads has to be the best example of this?) Then there's a few snippets on revealing character, how to handle infodumps and choreography. Overall, a useful book.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Sunday, 15 February 2009

A Reflective Essay

Last year we had to do a reflective essay and the tutor said: just write down what you did and what you thought about it. We all dutifully just wrote down what we did and what we thought about it. We all got Cs, because that's not what the university wanted. This year, when the (different) tutor said: just write down what you did and what you thought about it, I said, 'Oh no! No more Cs for this student. That's not what the university wants.' He went off and checked and came back saying: 'Well, you can reference it, if you want to,' which left me no closer to knowing what to do.

So, what is a reflective essay? These days I usually ask Google to enlighten my ignorance, and as usual, Google came up trumps. I was fascinated by the first answer, which is that a reflective essay is something that a website staffed by people whose first language is not English (and whose syntax suggests a more than passing acquaintance with bank scams) is willing to sell you on a sliding scale of fees. If you are so desperate for this essay that you need it within 1.5 hours, the shortest time possible, it will cost you more than if you are organised enough to place your order four days ahead of the deadline. There's room for a piece of investigative journalism there - could you possibly gain a degree from a British university by submitting essays from these sites? I'd like to think not, but there's so many of websites I'm forced to believe they have customers.

There was plenty of other information kicking around, and after a couple of hours note taking, here's what I came up with:

Writing a Reflective Essay
In a nutshell, you should provide a thoughtful analysis of the work you just completed and give some sense of the importance of your experience to your educational development.
Identify and comment on selected issues and give examples of the work you just did (here’s where you reference).
You are observing yourself as you study. You should describe your actions and your response to your actions, and then place them in an educational context. The focus should be on how you have changed.
Try to:
1. keep a balance between describing specific aspects of work and making general statements
2. show clear connections between a topic and what it made you think or believe
3. describe the good and bad aspects of the finished project or module
4. show that you are aware of how subject knowledge and understanding are developed
5. show that you recognise difficulties and demonstrate your approach to problem solving.
6. be nuanced – you are evaluating percentages, not giving fixed absolutes.
Aim: to compare and contrast the experience you had against the course goals and evaluate how the work you just finished helped you, or not, to reach those goals.
* state module aims
*give a statement of the general view you gained from the experience - describe incidents that helped shape that view
Body of essay:
*describe the process you followed and the experiences you had while completing the course work
*something that went well
*something you misunderstood
*something you consider crucial to your understanding of the topic.
*the main things you learned or developed.
*any skills you learned or improved (why/how)
*say how you reacted/felt/behaved re the list above
*describe which significant material or issues made you reflect and think deeply
*say how the experience changed or affected you
* talk about the less/most enjoyable aspects and say why.
Talk about any course aims you will think further about or any issues where you changed mind. Give that percentage of improvement (or not) towards the learning goals. Say if you have been prompted to go on to any further knowledge, or to learn any more skills, and say how you will continue.
If you were to repeat the course, what would you do differently and why? What do you think now compared with what you thought when you started.

No 'Just' about it.

Saturday, 7 February 2009


Here's a piece from the RNA:
Romantic Novelists vote Richard Armitage Sexiest Thing On Two Legs.
British actor Richard Armitage has leapt from last year’s 4th place to this year topping the ratings in the Romantic Novelists’ Association 2009 Valentine’s poll, to take the title of Sexiest Thing on Two Legs, beating top Hollywood stars to the number one spot. Johnny Depp, who topped last year’s poll, was pushed firmly into second place, with Hugh Jackman and George Clooney mere also-rans. "Richard Armitage took 20% of the vote, more than double the count of any other male on the list,” said the RNA pollster. “He was a clear winner from the off.” The RNA is not alone in admiration of the actor, as numerous online Richard Armitage fan sites will testify. The ardency began with North and South, grew by leaps and bounds with the leather-clad baddie in Robin Hood, and shows no sign of diminishing as Spooks takes to the airwaves. ‘It’s a coup for Britain,’ said one starstruck writer, ‘not just for sexy Richard.’ According to romantic novelists, the sexiest male celebrities of 2009 are:
1 Richard Armitage
2 Johnny Depp
3 Hugh Jackman
4 George Clooney
5 Daniel Craig
6 Sean Bean
7 Alan Rickman
8 David Tennant
9 Pierce Brosnan
10 Gerard Butler
Who is number one? I have heard of most of them - 6 is over half, but how did I manage to miss something so exciting?

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Great Textbook

This was the first good book on writing fiction that I came across - I made so many notes at the time that it's taken me days to go through them and precis them. Watts says that drama is from a Greek word meaning a thing done. Stories are about the actions of human beings when faced with obstacles - not things that happen by chance, not things that are done by others. The example he gives is this: Do kids buy (and read) books called 'Mummy Rescues Danny' or 'Danny, Champion of the World'?

To make a book interesting, the author has to raise questions and delay the answers. Suspense looks forward because the answers are in the future. Mystery looks back, because the answers are in the future. Watts says that the best stories raise questions on three levels of conflict.
  1. Inner - an uncomfortable emotion which prevents the main character from reaching their hearts desire.
  2. Interpersonal - the main character wants one thing and the villain has another completely incompatible aim.
  3. Environmental - Physical as in car chases or war and mental as in the disapproval of social groups.

Then you need to think about another three things:

  1. Your subject matter - the tangible reality. It's a book about a zoo or a circus or whatever.
  2. The thread - a line of thought that runs through the entire story - bravery, perhaps.
  3. The thesis - what you think about the thread summed up in a single sentence. Fools rush in? A brave man only dies once?

And finally you get to work on structure:

  1. Stasis - everyday life where the tale begins
  2. Trigger - an event of any kind which is beyond the control of the main character and starts the story rolling.
  3. Quest - generated by the trigger
  4. Surprise - otherwise known as 'get out of that one'. Conflict made concrete, always moving the story forward.
  5. Critical path - to continue on her quest, the main character has to decide how to deal with the problem. This will reveal what kind of person she is.
  6. Climax - the decision made manifest. The pattern can be minor (scenes), major (acts) or grand (the story as a whole). If the surprise was a burglar breaking in, the decision would be flight or fight, and the climax would be shooting the intruder.
  7. Reversal - the surprise/decision and climax must make the main character's life be different (fairy tale poor to rich) otherwise why should we care? Aristotle talks about 'spectacle' otherwise known as 'bring on the dancing elephants.' Why are some car chases boring and others not?
  8. Resolution - plots must have causality and result in significant change in order to satisfy. Here we need a fresh stasis that result directly from the main character's actions.

I find subplots difficult to craft. Watts says that they can be used to slow down the main plot and they should involve minor characters who circle the main character with spotlights, showing aspects of them that we otherwise wouldn't see, and the story should resonate with the main plot or, in the case of comedy, directly contradict it. Which book is this? The main plot charts the rise and rise of the hero, but all the subplots chronicle disaster after disaster.

When it comes to description and exposition, Watts says readers are interested in the truth of a thing, not piles of dull detail. Readers make pictures in their minds - if you write 'tree' they will picture a tree drawn from their knowledge, so if you then add that it was an elm tree, they have to unmake their picture and accept yours - and Watts warns that readers hate that. If you are going to be specific, give the details first. Say: 'I was there and it was like this.'

He also advises using stage make up and gestures. I once watched an interview with an actor who'd won an Oscar for a performance he kept thinking was over the top. He said, 'I kept asking the director if I should tone it down a bit. I thought I'd get panned for being a ham.' It's an interesting line, because that can happen, but too much veracity is dull. I've been asked to tone books down, but they have been bought, so probably too much is better than too little because anything dull comes winging back with a note saying: 'not for us.'

There is tons more good stuff in this book and it's one I would recommend.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

How to Make Words Work

Another out of print book - how fast texts become obsolete. This is about advertising and copy writing and it's a good read for an author as well. Howard talks about working like an athlete - practise hard and analyse your performance and you will improve. There is a lot about the power of words. Apparently just looking at the word 'happy' produces measurably different physical responses from looking at the word 'sad'. I can believe this because I had to read Midnight's Children for my course. A very useful exercise as it turned out, because when I said I hated it, my tutor, quite rightly, told me that wasn't a good enough response and to find out why. Imagine the worst foreign toilet you ever experienced. It's hot and you don't feel well. This book made me feel as if I was locked in a place like that. It made my skin crawl - and a lot of that was to do with the words on the page: snot, spew, sweat, soiled, creepy, foul, mire and many more, all in one sentence. When I'd finally got through it I picked up a children's book: rose petals, velvet, fresh green grass, sunshine and birdsong. The contrast was amazing.

Another good point he makes is that people have limited time and interest. You can capture them with the unexpected, surprise and involvement. To get them involved you make it personal. Not 'The Witch' but 'I married a Witch.' The facts are not enough. "Apples are good for you, contain minerals and vitamins and can aid good health" is an unsold book. 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away,' catches interest.

The point I find most interesting now is his comment that if you want to make 30 seconds seem like a long time, you don't do to much in it. He's talking about TV adverts of course, but he quotes Irving Berlin as saying about songs: 'All I need is a catchy phrase that anyone can understand.' If you have a few separate elements and you bring them together in a simple message, it's more effective. I think it's the same with books. When I read beginner's books (if you are published, everyone has a novel to show you!) they always seem woolly, diverse, scatter gun. There's too much stuff piled in there and it doesn't seem to fit anywhere. I think it's Orson Scott Card who says that readers all have a set of little questions in their heads and one of them is: 'Why are you telling me this?' Its made me think again about the importance of the high concept. Jaws is a good example - the book and the film are simply about a big fish and its effect on a town with a tourist beach. How simple is that? And how well does it work?

The final piece of advice is the one that stayed with me. I think of it every time I get one of those work emails where you have to fight your way to the meaning through a thicket of imperfectly understood grammar and business jargon. Howard says in all business communication your guiding principal should be: 'Would I say this to a friend?'

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

If you Want to Write

This is a great book - I remember enjoying it a lot. Her advice boils down to be brave and be honest, but she gives lots of fascinating examples, both from students she has taught and from famous people. For example, she says that Vang Gogh's first drawing was in a letter to his brother. 'It is so beautiful I must tell you how it looks...' he writes. Her style is charming too - I've kept lots of her expressions in my notes.

I think she's right when she says that if you are forcing yourself to write, then you are afraid you will fail. When you are sure, 'you smile and set about it'. Working with love is easy and interesting - there is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.

I also think she's right about living in the present: it's no good 'working up a lot of bogus feeling' because nobody will care a bit. 'My heroine is wonderful' is propaganda, and propaganda is not storytelling. Let a person come alive in your mind, and describe them accurately and objectively, then it will be interesting. Easy then! But she also talks about writing your true emotions and tapping into powers that will help you do that. A very good book.

Non-Sexist Writing

This is a useful and interesting book. I've made notes on three main areas. One is to think about individual words - don't say man the reception desk (especially if you are talking about a female) say staffed the reception desk. They give many examples. If in doubt you can always use the usual form, I'm never sure about words such as chair/chairperson/chairman, but it is good to be aware of the differences. The next is to recast sentences to avoid any awkward constructions when speaking generally - a child can feed himself, for example, could become a child can eat without help. The third section is very interesting - it's about trivialising. I think it was Adrienne Rich who said that being called a poetess brought out the terroristess in her. It can be obvious, as in two Thais and their wives, or more subtle, as in 'she helped slaves to escape.' Doesn't 'led slaves to freedom' sound stronger?

Monday, 26 January 2009

Style of Your Own

Another out of print text - you can tell it's a while since I read them! I enjoyed reading this book by Ivan Roe. It is for both fiction and non fiction. First he warns you to beware of out-moded styles. Childhood books can be very dated and what about the people who taught you? Look out for a bullying manner combined with the trick of exclusion:
  • anyone who has thought seriously about...
  • how many people stop to think...
  • the OUTMODED idea that...
  • Disregarding the one factor that could prove everything I say to be rubbish...

It's a matter of attitude, he says. Are you telling people or sharing with them? Readers should be thinking about themselves and their own discoveries as they read. Readers are always alone, even if they are on a crowded beach, and they want to escape for a while, have their mind massaged, but not pummelled, and to learn something. They like to read quickly, and hate dull sentences and having to look things up. That's why you should use short sentences, personal pronouns, active verbs and concrete nouns. Concrete terms are easy to understand. Abstractions slow things down. Roe thinks that long descriptions are dull (so do I) and he suggests looking for a couple of good observations which will help the reader to fill out the rest. Here's one of my sister's that I liked. 'He had a face like a smashed plate.' If you can start the reader's imagination, then you have engaged their attention.

Roe gives quite a lot of examples of how to be concrete, including a good analysis of the Gettysburg Address. He finishes by saying: Don't worry! Know what you want to say, use your ears, then say what you mean.

Friday, 23 January 2009

A Text Book One and a Half Inches Thick

On corporate strategy. And the writing is small and the pages are thin. I do seem to have mismanaged my life! I have to put down my current project of reviewing writing books, which I was enjoying immensely, in order to wade though the next set of course work, which no doubt will do me good but couldn't be described as enjoyable. I feel like the old nursery rhyme which ends 'And the pig won't go over the stile and I'll NEVER get home tonight.'

I need to keep the idea of teaching creative writing firmly in mind. I'm reading corporate strategy in order to complete my course work and get my degree and then do a PGCE and then, finally, get to talk about writing all day. It all makes sense, honestly!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The Way to Write Crime Fiction

This book seems to be out of print. My notes from it are mostly copied paragraphs from crime fiction - she quotes Ira Levin, Graham Greene and so on. She advises that the elements you need are:
  • A criminal case which contains a violent death. It should have its own special features which often hold the key to the mystery . It should be set in a normal setting, but contain unexpected elements.
  • Excitement - create it in your style with simple uncluttered writing and short sentences, then raise questions or pose threats or reveal mysteries on every page and finally, create situations which require an immediate response from the main character.
  • Characters - have a limited circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity. Then a hero who is dependable, honest, lacking in self-confidence and slightly awkward. They must beat danger by being brave and persevering. Sidekicks should be dumb, and they must say what they are thinking. (Radice points out that Maigret is his own sidekick. He lies awake in bed asking himself obvious questions.) Then a villain - who will be interesting to the reader because criminals are active and free in spirit nor do they knuckle down under routine and a boss.
  • Clues which add up to a tenable ending which the reader could have arrived at by a process of deduction. Clues can be hidden in lists, which readers always skim over, or you can use misdirection: go on about the great relationship a woman has with her daughter so we don't expect the man in the case to be her estranged son, or announce a false fact loudly, or by having lots of people assume that it's so.

And that's it! Probably there was more in the text if I'd known how to find it.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Plot Number 14 Love

I only made notes on plot number 14, love - ignoring the other 19 because I was still trying to write for Mills & Boon at this point. Tobias begins with a bit of a lecture on sentimentality. I don't know if I made the connection at the time, I've not noted it, but he's making the same distinction that CS Lewis did: sentimentality relies on the reader's experience rather than creating a fresh experience for them. He's rather stern about sentimentality being a BAD THING, but as Lewis says, that might be what the reader wants. It's probably a good idea to be aware of the difference, whichever route you go down.

RB does give a good example of sentiment - a poem by Edgar Guest that goes: 'Sue's got a baby now...' we don't know anything about Sue - nothing - so we have to draw on our own associations of motherhood in order to create a picture. He says: 'an' she, is like her mother used to be:' Well, how was that? There's a whole range of mothers out there. (I am still haunted by a report I read on a child with brain damage & learning difficulties caused by 'non-accidental head injuries'. What horrors lie behind those four careful, professional words? Is that sentimentality? It's my experience and imagination filling in gaps?) Anyway, the poet goes on a few lines later to say that Sue is 'more settled like' and again you have to put your own ideas there. One person might imagine Sue previously running around with bikers, or shooting up heroin. Another reader's ideas of giddy rebellion might be Sue wearing short skirts and handing her homework in late.

As for love, Tobias says only that a love story is essentially boy meets girl BUT, and someone or something always gets in the way. All the plot hinges around the BUT. I made dutiful notes (this was 1996) but I've read better books on romances since. The most interesting point he makes is that love is not a gift, it must be earned, and that love untested is not true love.

Monday, 19 January 2009

An Experiment in Criticism

I finally found the book that I thought had notes on the Lewis essay and see that I didn't manage to get my head around it - this won't be much of a review of the book. It's more a record of my early studies. Partly because I had no money at the time, I got all my books out of the library so I don't have a copy of this, which is a shame, because it's an interesting read with a lot for an author to think about. (I still get text books out of the library because then I'll read them and make notes and get them back on time. Those text books I own tend to sit on the bookshelf waiting for me to have time to read them.)

From memory then, I think this book suggests that instead of trying to categorise books by their literary merit as good or bad, you look at how people read them, and instead categorise the types of reading into 'good' or 'bad', and thinking this way, leads you into an exploration of what happens as people read. Lewis talks about readers who simply 'use' books as a method of finding what they expect to find there - which covers most of the literary criticism that we did on the degree course - as opposed to those who cross the frontier into the new experience that's in a good book. If only wolves could write books, he says. Imagine!

Lewis relates how astonished he was when a student 'a very intelligent post graduate' said that he read simply for the experience. They were discussing Last of the Mohicans, and the thrill of the chase. Lewis said that he'd assumed everyone preferred the vivid wonderfulness of a good book, but no, his student said that too much literary stuff could detract from the pleasure of the chase. All he wanted to do was mainline the emotional experience, and this is difference I was thinking of re the last post.

I'd need to get the book again to be sure though, because I haven't taken notes. I tried - there's a couple of pages, but rather than being my notes I've ended up copying out complete sentences - Lewis is too erudite for me to be able to paraphrase or mind map at that time, and it looks as if I realised it and gave up. I wonder if I could do it now?

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Endless Rapture

I had to order this book from the library and it eventually came from a private collection in Kent or a university in Dublin - somewhere obscure anyway, but it was worth the wait. Helen Hazen wrote Endless Rapture to explain why women like such vile heroes - and her theory does make perfect sense, once you've waded through the text. I remember being a bit confused by the book at first, and I mind-mapped it, which helped to make her thesis clear.

Hazen says that men and women have different stories - which is true. Remembering the awful 'Devil Wears Prada': when did you last read a story where a young man unwisely puts success in business before his personal fulfillment, loses his masculinity and ends up a neurotic, lonely eunuch? For those who haven't seen the film, the heroine gets a job in fashion, becomes absorbed in it, neglects her friends and her boyfriend and oh, horror! Forgets all about the work she did in college on rights for janitors. Janitors! Don't get me started.

Hazen says that stories for men require an evil opponent: dragons, Darth Vader, the mob. In stories for women the wrong that needs righting is masculine insensitivity, neglect and brutality. All women want their men home from the wars, out of bars and gambling dens and to be treated with respect and honour. The weapons may be different: feminists use anger and politics, romances use love and femininity, Christians use religion - but readers all want that man behave the way she wants him to.

I remember being given around 200 Mills & Boon in the early 80s. I read the lot. I soon noticed that a favourite theme was being raped by a rude man with a helicopter/yacht/castle in Spain, which baffled me at the time, but Hazen points out that adversity makes the conquest sweeter. Women don't want to be raped any more than men want to have their balls thrashed (Casino Royale) - but if the worst thing happens to the main character and they still overcome it - what a great story!

So, if the plot concern external evil, the bigger the baddie the better. If the plot concerns internal evil, the worse the hero behaves to the heroine before he ends up begging to marry her, the better. And that's why romances feature a man who treats the heroine like dirt - which leads on to another point which C.S. Lewis covers in an essay about the different types of reader. I can only get into that kind of story if the background reasons for the bad behaviour are feasible. Mary Stewart did great heroes - you end up wondering why they didn't behave even worse then they did - and they grovel beautifully. Category romance readers take the emotion neat and are happy with a sketched in back story - but it is exactly the same story. I might try to look out my notes on that essay - although it's almost certainly in an unlabelled, unnumbered, untitled book, which kind of makes me understand why they insist on proper references at college.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Teach Yourself Writing Crime Fiction

The next text I studied was 'Teach Yourself Writing Crime Fiction' by Lesley Grant Adamson - I can't be sure it was exactly this title, because I wasn't noting down source details in 1996. I've made two pages of scrappy notes, but this may be because I didn't know what I was looking for rather than suggesting a light read.

I've noted a technique Adamson talks about that readers are now used to from television - it's a way to cheat yourself out of a single viewpoint by slipping in a tiny extra detail. For example, suppose a sweet old lady is gardening and your main character talks with her and believes her. Your MC then walks away, but you can linger on the gardening woman for a few seconds and show her face looking ugly - or she could savage the rose bush - a little something to set up tension.

I made quite detailed notes on her way of describing a setting - and I still think they are very good. She suggests firstly describing the setting, she uses a shopping mall as an example, then giving the main character's emotional reaction to the setting and she shows you how to select details to create a mood or image. Suppose you want a feeling that things are in the wrong place? Then you could describe scraps of paper from the cash machine fluttering around, or rubbish bobbing in the fountain and make it all impinge on the main character - a wrapper gets stuck to her shoe. She turns up her collar against the wind that is whipping the garbage around.

She also makes the good point that adjectives should rise in intensity - do not follow terror with alarm.

The next note I've made is the opposite of what some people advise: she says open with a wide canvas then focus in on the suffering/adventures endured by the main character because this tightens the tension. This does make sense because it's real - I once saw a great Sopranos scene on TV where the main character (Tony Soprano) is visiting an old mobster in hospital. Tony is recounting mob victories. The old man is talking about his blood cell count. The old man's world has narrowed to the battle taking place in a cell. However, Robert McKee cites films like the Terminator where the stakes get bigger and bigger. Linda goes from being a waitress to saving the world. Maybe you need to do both at once?

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Review of Writing Books

I still can't get going on my novel, but with the lighter days I am feeling more like doing something, so I thought I'd look through my writing notebooks and then maybe put them in the attic and free up some shelf space.

The first book I picked up is dated 1996/7. It is an early book, probably the first and I've little idea how to go about studying anything. At that time I would have been learning how to type and doing my Open College A-units, (which are around GCSE level.) I've written out some pages from Hamlet and Barbara Cartland, then I seem to have gone through some Gothic books by Phyllis A Whitney and Victoria Holt, writing out a precis of what happens in each chapter. Then I turned to Mills & Boon and did the same with a Vikki Lewis Thompson novel and one by Rosalie Ash. There's some notes on a sex scene from a 1993 novel - 'takes place on a yacht' I've noted. I've written down all the descriptive words - and noticed how the female character's feelings move from fear, to instinct taking over to desire. He's a bit of a bully boy - there's pages of him 'pinning her down with one hard leg' and 'blocking speech' lots of words like ' catch, alarming, possessive, rough, push, twist' and so on. It would be interesting to look at a newer book and see how it's changed - if it has! I've given up trying to write for Mills & Boon though. I do like a romance - I like books where the female gets what she wants, but their particular world is not one I inhabit. At this time, I was still sending off attempts to Mills and Boon, but the rejections came pinging back. Towards the end of this study book (an A4 lined hardback notebook) I seem to have started thinking: 'Why don't I understand what's going on in these little romances? Why can't I write one?' And started looking at books about writing.

There's a page of notes from a book or an article by Mary Cadogan - possibly called 'Women and Children First'. I didn't have the habit of making a note of source material in 1996! Cadogan states that a bestseller may have an original storyline and a flair for language but it must agree with popular sentiment. It's important that the book appear to give reasoned consideration to serious issues, she says, but it will actually shirk logical developments and outcomes in favour of endorsing social conventions. Although the novel must appear to demand intelligent participation from the reader, it must work within popular sentiment. I've also noted that she finds a fundamental conflict between authenticity and readability in historical fiction. Most authors treat the past as if it were the present, sacrificing remoteness for readability. Understandable enough. It's hard work reading old fiction - but when my A-level class finished, we all said we had got the most out of the Chaucer tale we studied - because it took you to such a far-away world.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

On Becoming a Writer

My current college project is done - it soaked up an insane amount of hours - costing and budgeting being so not my thing! I took self-publishing a text book as the project example, so at least if I ever want to self-publish a book I'll know more about how it's done.

But, before publishing a book one has to write the thing! As I'm still feeling stuck, I thought I'd review some of the texts I've read so that at least I'm doing something. This one is a classic by Dorothea Brande. It was written in 1934, but deals with the questions that never change - where does your voice come from? What stops you from writing? The mind map was done a number of years ago, and I didn't realise until it was nearly finished that it had turned into a heart - very appropriate, and I see that in her barriers to success, she has them all stemming from fear.