Sunday, 4 December 2016

Advice for writers: hidden gems or crazy counsel

A variety of people are asked to give advice on writing. Many are successful writers themselves, so we should listen to what they say in the almost certain knowledge that they’re right. Right?

Wrong! Don’t ever fall into the trap of assuming someone is going to be right. Especially not if you’re a writer. As a writer research and checking should be embedded in your psyche.

Many sayings and words of wisdom become entrenched in the accepted canon of wise words for writers. Some are gems that deserve their place. Some are utter bilge. And many, maybe most, comprise a mix of good sense and dodgy advice. Just look what happens when you unpack that old chestnut, “show don’t tell”.

It all got me to wondering about this professional guidance. What is more likely to stick in the collective consciousness – great advice or soundbite without substance?

Consider that scary phrase ‘no smoke without fire’. People have lost friends, jobs, even their lives because of that one. Yet surely everyone, even if they’ve never struggled to start a fire with damp timber, knows that smoke can billow in huge dense clouds without the glimmer of a flame. How many times has a malicious accusation been made and an innocent party automatically labelled guilty without thought, evidence or due process because ‘there’s no smoke without fire’?

No smoke without fire is the refuge of the lazy thinker.  And writers shouldn’t be lazy thinkers. Why record the words at all if you can’t be bothered to think them through. I don’t want writers to be the sorts of people who gawp glazed-eyed, blank-brained and declare that ‘It must be true cos it said so on the telly’.

No smoke without fire does not come under the general banner of advice for writers. I’m using it to make a point, but I want to pick a few of the sayings that are doled out as good writing guidance and take a closer look as I unpack them, looking at what they really mean and whether they constitute good advice or not.

Will I find cleverly constructed phrases that roll beautifully off the tongue then crumble to inane idiom, or will I find genuine gems of insightful instruction?

Who knows? I don’t.

If I work for long enough I expect to unearth both those extremes and everything in between. But I won’t know until I have a heap of unpacked maxims exposed for what they really are.

Watch this space, and if you know of a saying that particularly chimes for you, for good or bad, then please let me know.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

To plan or not to plan

[This short article first appeared as part of the online launch of The Writers' Toolkit which remains available on Facebook and contains articles, tips, mini-tutorials and editorial comments on work that authors submitted for critique prior to the launch]

To plan or not to plan
There’s no rule. Some writers plan in such detail they have an almost book-length plan before they start to write. Others just go by the seat of their pants. It really comes down to what works for you.

I once wrote a book on the basis of half an idea that I liked the feel of. I simply ran with it and wrote. The book became so tangled that by the time I finished it, I didn't even know who had been murdered, though someone had. And the intended murderer had a cast-iron alibi that I couldn't break. 

Years later a publisher accepted a later book in this same series and wanted me to rewrite that original tangle of words so that the start of the story could be published too. What a nightmare! I rewrote that book from scratch more times than I like to remember. I changed the viewpoint, the style, even the main character. I sorted out the plot and eventually I surfaced with a book that works.

I learnt my lesson from that. I don’t plot meticulously like Jeffrey Deaver or Agatha Christie, but I always know how the story will finally untangle. But I'm not saying that everyone should avoid that seat-of-the-pants style just because it got me in deep water. It’s what works for you that matters. 

The discussion continues in the comments thread following the original article.
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Thursday, 28 April 2016

When is a manuscript ready to send out?

[This short article first appeared as part of the online launch of The Writers' Toolkit which remains available on Facebook and contains articles, tips, mini-tutorials and editorial comments on work that authors submitted for critique prior to the launch

The Danuta referred to below is Danuta Reah, co-author of The Writers' Toolkit.
Dyane is one of the authors who submitted work to the event]

When is a manuscript ready to send out?
Danuta is spot on in her answer to Dyane’s general writing question. There will always be things that could be changed. And there will always be readers who don't like the book. That's fiction. In the history of the world there is no universally liked work of fiction. You certainly shouldn't try to please everyone because you can't.

Agents tend to say 'Get it perfect' or (more realistically) 'as close to perfect as you can'. There's a lot in that. Some things you can do mechanically, like spelling, layout, proofreading for typos, quote marks in the right places etc. Building the story into a compelling read is what you do over a long apprenticeship. 

All ‘overnight success’ stories happened after a lot of hard work (the occasional ghost-written celebrity memoire excepted). 

You learn to find your writing voice. I had found several voices and was in discussion with a publisher, doing rewrites on one of my novels, when a completely different book suddenly took off – totally unexpectedly and from the back of a cupboard – and I was back into a different writing voice; one that I thought would never see the light of day. My first published novel was rewritten from scratch many times. I genuinely can’t remember how many. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have had an easier time of it.

I’ve tried to write down what helped me to publication. All those ideas, people, techniques that I used along the way are summarised on my website. The Writers’ Toolkit is a part of this – a more detailed explanation of the specific techniques that not only helped me to learn to write but that I also use now.

The discussion continues in the comments thread following the original article.
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Thursday, 21 April 2016

Milking the action and emotion

[This short article first appeared as part of the online launch of The Writers' Toolkit which remains available on Facebook and contains articles, tips, mini-tutorials and editorial comments on work that authors submitted for critique prior to the launch]

Milking the action and emotion: never summarise the dramatic moments
Dramatic moments can make your book stick in a reader’s mind. It’s worth getting the most out of them. The thing with dramatic moments is that they happen quickly and can be described in few words e.g.

• Jo teetered at the cliff edge for a couple of seconds before regaining his balance.
• Maisie suddenly realised who it was and flung herself into his arms.
• The car pulled out in front of him without any warning and Horace drove into the side of it.

But when writing a dramatic moment into your fiction, remember that for Jo, Maisie or Horace these are not split second events. Time will slow. Seconds will crawl by. They will experience a whole range of emotions and feelings – terror, shock, amazement, disbelief, relief. They will even be analysing the situation as it happens and might be aware of the faces of other people nearby (frozen in shock perhaps). This is true also of those who witness moments of high drama such as sudden car crashes. They too run the gamut of emotion as the events unfold. This happens because the brain works at lightning speed, way faster than physical reactions. If you’ve ever been driving and had someone pull out in front of you, giving you maybe a third of a second before the impact, you will know the reality of ‘thinking distance’ – an absolute awareness of what is happening whilst your body simply cannot react.

And if you can get right inside the head of the character to whom the dramatic event is happening, you will write some compelling prose.

You can employ techniques of language and structure e.g. fragments, short sentences, to give realism. You must take care not to overdo the internal analysis. You don’t want the reader suddenly to think, wait a minute, this guy’s been teetering on this cliff edge for half an hour!

If you have a viewpoint character in a bit of a sticky situation that is going to lead up to a big dramatic moment, stay with that character’s actions, feelings and emotions every step of the way almost second by second. But when you get to the real drama – the event that in reality will be over in seconds – get in even tighter. Go millisecond by millisecond with your character and make the reader experience the event with the character.

You will be surprised at how a single sentence such as ‘The car pulled out in front of him without any warning and Horace drove into the side of it’, can turn into several paragraphs or even pages of compelling prose as you take the reader through the event as though they are experiencing it themselves.

The discussion continues in the comments thread following the original article.
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Thursday, 14 April 2016

The balance between intrigue and irritation

[This short article first appeared as part of the online launch of The Writers' Toolkit which remains available on Facebook and contains articles, tips, mini-tutorials and editorial comments on work that authors submitted for critique prior to the launch]

The balance between intrigue and irritation
The trick of giving the readers enough information to intrigue them, without giving the impression you’re hiding anything (which irritates rather than intrigues) is to be tight behind the character’s eyes in a particular situation. As long as the character wouldn't explicitly be thinking about it or reflecting upon it, then you can get away without letting the reader know about it. To use an extreme example:

Your viewpoint character is a man standing at the top of a cliff. Someone else arrives. Your character greets the new person in a manner that shows they know each other e.g. ‘Hello, I wondered where you’d got to.’ Then the new arrival tries to push your character off the cliff. Your character clearly knows who this would-be assassin is, but in that situation the only thing in his mind will be the fight not to fall off the edge, the struggle to stay in balance, the frantic grabbing for a handhold. The reader might be desperate to know who it is, especially if this scene happens well into the novel, but it’s fine not to say, as long as you stay very closely with your character as they struggle not to fall.

Of course, the very second your character reaches safety or has the opportunity to reflect, then he will think about who it was who tried to kill him, and at this point you need to let the reader know. If you don’t want the reader to know, then cut to a new scene either before your character reaches safety or at the exact point. 

The discussion continues in the comments thread following the original article.
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Sunday, 27 March 2016

Synthesis: an outstanding collection

SynthesisSynthesis by M.A.E.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An outstanding collection of stories spanning the range from hard Sci-Fi to the edge of fantasy. With a Foreword by Robert Llewellyn, this collection is a melting pot of tension, drama, serious themes, surrealist plots, humour and a variety of settings from terrestrial to alien, past to future. Some stories span eons, some take the reader through an intense but brief few seconds as they unfold.

I read the stories in order and have since been back and reread out of order. I have every expectation of reading every one of these stories many times more. There’s always a choice to make when reviewing an anthology – general comments, each story individually, or general comments with a few specifics on the best of the crop. In this case, I was too hard-pressed to pick out best of crop, so I’ve done them all, but not in order.

Three professional writers, Drew Wagar, Stuart Aken and Boris Glikman, frame the anthology with their three very different styles: Wagar, the master of credible and incredible scientific backgrounds; Aken, known for his light touch and epic fantasy; and Glikman famed for weaving the surreal into everyday worlds.

Written in the stars by Drew Wagar – This is the on-board spaceship drama that Wagar fans will know and love. Hard Sci-Fi but right from the start the hint of something just slightly out of kilter. We follow the flight attendant Tania as she goes through the routine of a launch, one of the passengers catching her attention several times until she has to find out more, which is where things take a surprising turn as events snowball towards a denouement that is unexpected and yet ultimately inevitable.

Hybrid Dreams by Stuart Aken – A future world where science has tamed nature and genetics. Four-hundred-year-old Luce Quain meets a ‘natural’, an artist, and for the first time in a long time experiences something new. Will everything run smoothly for Luce and her artist? Of course not. Aken, as always, paints a vivid world managing to build a whole culture with its mores and customs as he captivates us with the human story that unfolds. The denouement when it comes is sudden, shocking, and not what any of them expect.

The Glikman collection comprises three short pieces where reality becomes surreality:
- A Cosmic Dilemma – this brief tale, as the other two, features a young boy at its core. On this occasion it’s a boy who, in a frivolous moment, wished for the world. And as it’s Glikman who’s telling the tale, the consequences will be significant and unexpected.
- The Curious Story of Frank and his friend Mr Stims – Frank is a loner, bullied at school, but he finds a friend in neighbour Mr Stims. Frank is not too clever. Mr Stims is very clever. At least that’s how it seems. But as with all Glikman’s stories, things are never as they seem.
- Amerika in the Sky – This is an end of the world story, or rather an end of half the world story, but it takes a new angle on an old theme, events described by an observer who was just a boy at the time – a boy who was ‘different’, who saw things that others could not. Bear that in mind as you are drawn through a narrative that describes absurdity and horror in a voice that ranges from the naivety of a young boy to the in-depth tones of reminiscence.

Author John Hoggard appears twice in the anthology with two very different but beautifully drawn stories:
- All in the mind – opens with a bang and compels you to read on. Wonderful imagery throughout despite most of it unfolding in bare dialogue. A skilfully written tale. And what a nightmare moment for anyone who knows the frustrations of the quest for genuine peace and quiet, as Dr Johnson is told just why he hasn’t been able to realise his dream. It’s almost a throwaway line, but how true! It sent a shiver through me.
- The House – you might think you’re heading into a creepy haunted house context when you start this one. Indeed the slightly sinister air as a small boy is drawn inexorably towards what surely must be his worst (if not last) decision grabs the reader and forces them to read on. The story that unfolds is very different from the initial expectation. But is it inevitably careering towards a horrific conclusion? I’m not going to give it away, that’s for you to find out.

David Styles’ two contributions are set in very different technological contexts from primitive to cutting edge, each giving a fascinating take on beginnings and endings.
- Alice – a well-written post-apocalyptic tale contrasting Alice and Joshua, characters who clash at so many levels but clearly don’t understand each other. Seeing the world through Alice’s eyes leaves the reader with much to wonder about. Maybe Joshua isn’t the villain that Alice paints; maybe he isn’t as antagonistic to her as she thinks. Either, neither or both of them might hold the key to this world’s salvation. The moment is captured in this short tale but the unseen wider context made me wonder if Styles might decide to expand this to a novel.
- Hope – an account of a dying Earth told from the viewpoint of well-drawn protagonist Hannah. It’s a story of finding hope and a personal journey that leads to an unexpected and yet predestined end.

Thomas Pitts’ two stories have little common ground except that there’s a playwright at the heart of each. He gives us unexpected and very entertaining angles on the genre:
- Nobel Savage – a playwright ponders a question that has been asked since before computers were an accepted part of everyday life. Pitts takes a slightly oblique angle, keeping the reader wondering. Is this a man vs machine story? Not in the usual sense, no. It’s clearly more than that, and you have no choice but to keep on reading to find out how it unfolds. Beautifully written with a bite in the tail.
- Two Reviews – This piece is written in the form of two reviews for two different plays from the Two Species Festival of Culture. The two species are humans and Hubenacks. One play is Hamlet, the other is The Return of Yaranay. One critic is human, the other Hubenack. The unspoken context is huge; the enormity of the leap to reach the situation where two different species from different star systems cooperate in a Festival of Culture, the separate and combined histories; the interactions, the culture clashes. Pitts gets all this across whilst none of it is explicit; the two reviews stand alone. It’s an unusual idea and it’s very well executed.

Pierre le Gue injects his brand of humour into three stories in the anthology:
- Fastbreeder – a Lancashire cheese warehouse in 1961 is not a standard Sci-Fi backdrop, but it provides a shrewd mirror on modern concerns. World events, too big to ignore, play an atypical role in tea break gossip. This was the time of the cold war and a reminder that some things have far-reaching consequences. Being told through the eyes of a young lad whose main focus is his Sci-Fi magazines gives the story both immediacy as events hit home and an ominous arm’s length view. The tale is beautifully framed by the cameo appearances of a cat called Woodplumpton.
- Night Monsters – The theme is an unexpected attack on a faraway world, but le Gue has found a new angle by setting it on a golf planet, Royal Lytham Two. It’s a light fast-moving narrative that builds real tension.
- Steampunk Striker – There’s a feel of inevitability; the incursion of technology into sport is almost bound to end up here or somewhere like it. Another vignette to make you smile from le Gue’s unique take on how the future will look.

Dying Star by Marko Susimets√§ – This is the tale of a dying planet and of Carc, who thinks he is the only person left who feels responsibility towards future generations. The responsibility weighs heavily and the reader is drawn along, identifying with Carc’s need to preserve the relics of the past, but apprehensive about what might happen especially as it becomes apparent that Carc’s mission is not entirely above board. It is soon clear that this will not end tamely or ambiguously, but the twist when it comes it quite unexpected. Cleverly done.

Private Show by D. K. Paterson – This one is a gripping tale of rabid online bidding where you find yourself desperate that the protagonist will win, even while aghast at the lengths to which he goes to secure the prize. Here are people prepared to risk all for one moment that will enliven their mundane lives. But quite how mundane these lives must be, and exactly what is at stake isn’t revealed until the very end.

Three Second War by Darren Grey – This story shines a spotlight on human versus artificial intelligence told from a non-human viewpoint, very skilfully drawing the reader into the context of complex decisions meticulously worked out over nanoseconds. Global events unfold within the timeframe of the story which is just three-point-one seconds. A compelling read.

Starburst by Andrew Wright – It’s a discovery that should benefit all mankind and indeed that’s how it seems, until the day it goes cataclysmically wrong. Incompetent politics and ill-advised action make things worse. We see the dire consequences through the eyes of one man who has been central to everything. Wright cleverly weaves a human story through this tale of devastation.

Regen by Colin Ford – This is a story exploring the future of medical science, the inevitable progression of advances in transplant technology. It cleverly paints the context of the futuristic world through the eyes of a man waking after a medical procedure. It’s all routine of course. Or is it? Something seems to have gone wrong only it isn’t what you might expect.

The Moon a Balloon by Rose Thurlbeck – This is a Sci-Fi adventure from the time when the earth was flat and five flying geese could provide the speed and power to go anywhere on or off planet. The reader is pulled into rooting for Count Nikolai no matter how absurd his ambitions. Thurlbeck creates some lovely imagery around the mechanics of the Count’s craft. There’s an added charm to this one as the layers of the story creep up on you. As you read to the end, you realise you’re going to have to add your own interpretation because what Thurlbeck shows us is strictly from the Count’s point of view, and he is a man of grand but blinkered vision. What happens? No spoilers. Read it for yourself.

If we start killing by Ulla Susimets√§ – This is a world that has evolved beyond perennial cycles of war and killing and achieved a higher moral status. But when danger looms, imminent and deadly, the ancient questions and debates resurface. Council member Lintu fights for what’s right in the age-old battle of good versus evil. Through her battle the story unfolds in this skilfully crafted tale.
The Everything-Equation by John Goh – This is a beautifully constructed moment-in-time story as three versions of Mick Chimes talk themselves through the paradox of their own discovery. The clue to the ending is right there near the start if you can spot it.

Eternal by Shaun Gibson – This is an epic tale expertly condensed into a short story. It’s a tale of endings, some personal, some monumental and all-encompassing. The emotional journey of its central character is drawn against the backdrop of the entire universe. And ultimately it’s a love story.

Indirect Harm? by John Harper – This is man versus machine in a chaotic chase through a jungle, the sort of chase scene that fans of Harper’s longer fiction will recognise, the nail-biting hair’s breadth judgement calls, the life-or-death split second decisions. One man’s story unfolds as he homes in on his prey, but it won’t end there. The reader is rushed along on an ever tighter focus, then very cleverly made to step back and see a wider perspective.

Lisa Lives by Anthony M Olver – This is an ingeniously spun story that begins routinely with Lisa late for school, yet right from the start Olver has seeded the sense that something is not quite right. With talk of stranger danger and Lisa late for her bus, we fear the worst, but the denouement when it comes takes a completely unexpected turn.

Man-akin® by Nici Lilley – This is a story that takes its reader on a rollercoaster of emotions. It shines very little direct light on the world in which it’s set, and yet gives a clear picture through the eyes of the protagonist as the horror of her experiences unfold. A story to make you shudder at the thought of where future events might lead mankind.

The Package by Aaron Miles – This is a space pirate story, but not the usual setting. No speeding spacecraft, no backdrop of stars. The action is played out in a dingy warehouse between hierarchies of villains where a simple package triggers serious and violent disagreement over what constitutes a moral stance. Miles builds a compelling sense of menace along with an ever growing suspicion that all the pieces have yet to be revealed – as indeed proves to be the case.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Leaping through time

It’s July three years ago. Right now. On Wednesday 2nd March 2016 it is July 2013. Or it would be if we didn't have leap years. And this is what the July weather looks like:

Are we all three years younger or three years older, or are we pretty much the same except that our units of time measurement are subtly different? Maybe the fact that our year-unit has failed to keep proper time with the revolutions of our planet has completely screwed us up as a race. 

Pause while I pop back to March 2016 for a reality check and wonder how much more screwed up we could possibly be as a race.

Having gone this far, let's do without the less fashionable leap-second as well. The lack of the leap-second would be a slower burn thing in terms of becoming noticeable, but we would gradually slip out of phase with day and night. But again hasn't 21st century living pretty much done that already.

The leap thing, be it second or year, seems fairly innocuous. A few people get exercised over the myths surrounding 29th February, but it’s only a day, it’s soon forgotten. The leap-second doesn't have the same effect of course. It has been and gone before anyone can get hot under the collar.

Maybe what we really need is the leap century. 

Given that the turn of the century always prompts groups of unstable megalomaniacs to nurture their paranoia and work out new ways to kill as many of their fellow beings as they can, whilst laying waste to the only planet we have, is a leap century the answer?

If a single century could last perhaps ten times as long, then that mid-century optimism, sense and pursuit of the common good might have taken firm enough hold to counteract the let’s-be-irrational effects of the century’s turn when it comes.

Meanwhile it continues to snow gently on this balmy July day three years ago: