Friday, January 30, 2009

Be Brutal

When writing, how brutal should you be with your story and characters? Very brutal.

I've already dispatched one character to the scrapheap, though she may be resurrected for the follow up novels. Now, I'm about to relegate another one to the semi-background.

Why? I've finally discovered where the main conflict lies and who the two main protagonists are. From now, I shall be looking at the story through their eyes, whilst the relegated character acts as a conscience to one of the other two.

It all makes the story easier to tell, less complex to write and I can get my head around it.

Complex stories need time to develop and tell properly. Unpublished authors don't have that much time as there's work to do in order to pay bills and eat.

Be brutal, keep it simple.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I Am Right, You Are Wrong.

How many people feel that they are therefore above criticism?

Judging by Gavin Strachan's blog on the BBC website, this attitude is quite common in football now, even at the lower levels. It can also be seen in business and, especially, politics.

How many potential authors refuse to listen to suggested changes, or comply with submission guidelines?

To be fair, some criticism aimed at people is wholly unfair and has more to do with the bad attitude of the giver. But too many see criticism as unwarranted at any level. There lies part of the problem.

Another part of the problem is that in the past, and the present, too many people have used criticism as a bullying tactic, or a method of control. Critics of literature, theatre, films and music, among others, use criticism to get themselves noticed (and bigger pay packets), rather than as a genuine method of helping someone improve.

The reply from the critiqued has become equally fierce.

At the moment only the extremes of each side get heard. Genuine criticism has been lost in the noise and people fear giving or receiving it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

'Strike a Light!'

How much 'smell' should you put into your writing?

There is no doubt that in real life aromas play a big part in our opinion of things, be it a place, an item or a person.

Personally, I love the smell of old books and freshly cut grass.

Smells can also evoke memories. I remember an episode of MASH where Hawkeye had a bad memory resurrected by the smell of a wounded soldier.

However, having read a lot of stories recently I can't remember seeing much about the smell of something. My most recent read was 'Diamond Dogs' by Alastair Reynolds. There wasn't one reference to smell in the whole novella.

I've also tried to remember how often smell comes into a good piece of writing and it's hard to think of one instance.

So how important is smell? It wouldn't seem to be too important, or maybe its use is too subtle for me to notice it. If that's the case, then it should be used sparingly.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How Old Should You Read?

When trying to improve your writing, should you ignore 'old' books or embrace them?

The answer depends on what you intend to do afterwards. If you're reading a Thomas Hardy books do you intend to write in that style? Hmmmmm.

If, on the other hand, you're just enjoying it for its own sake, no problem.

There are, however, things we can learn from old stories and books. I'm slowly working my way through a collection of short stories by Ambrose Bierce. I've noticed that he often starts with a description of the area in which the story is set. It's not a description of every tree or the colours of the leaves, but a description of the impression the area makes on the character.

I decide to try that approach with my novel and found that it worked quite well.

How old should you read? As old as you want. Good writing is good writing, no matter when it was published.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Planning a story

How do you plan a story?

I write the whole thing out first, whether it's a novel or a short story. Then I see who the main characters are, who should be a main character but isn't and which characters don't work.

Afterwards I edit chapter by chapter, never moving on until each chapter is right. Then I start writing it out again.

It may take a few rewrites, a few days, weeks or months, but I get there eventually.

Occasionally I even get the story published.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Sometimes dreams are all that sustain us.

When I was young I dreamed of being in the army. Then I joined the school cadet force and was put off the idea. After that I had no dreams and ended up working in a bank.

Well, that's not strictly true, as I dreamed of being happily married. Good job, good house, kids, pleasant life.

Part of the reason for that dream was that my life as a teen was miserable: miserable with a capital MIS.

I wonder how many dreams are born out of misery and adversity?

What are, or were, your dreams?

Thursday, January 22, 2009


When should you quit writing?

It depends on why you write. If you write for the money, you should quit after 10 or 15 years without getting published. If you write because you like it, you won't even consider the question.

Me, I enjoy writing. I also enjoy playing my guitar. Although I may never become a professional writer (and I certainly won't become a professional guitarist), I enjoy creating stories and other worlds.

Quitting is not an option for the person who loves what they do.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Funny Ha-Ha

'Paul walks funny.'
'Like a chicken on a bicycle.'

To my nine-year old and his friend that is hilarious. To me, it's not, though it is funny watching them laugh at their silly and occasionally humourous jokes.

Getting comedy right is one of the most difficult parts of writing. As the above example shows, what is funny to one person isn't funny to another. What amuses one age group, will not amuse another. Add to the mix, culture, background, fears and phobias and many other things and humour becomes even harder to get right.

Slapstick and bawdy humour are about the only types that travel well, but even that is not assured.

Having done stand-up comedy in the past and written some (awful) comedy material, I have come face to face with this reality.

So if you're planning to write comedy, the best idea is to make it fairly general and cross-cultural. A good start to understanding humour in writing would be Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. They may not leave you in hysterics, but at least you'll get an understanding of how 'general' humour has to be in order to travel well. Or you could just write humour for a niche audience.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What Are The Chances Of That?

What is the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer? Chance.

There are some writers out there who will brook no criticism and think that the publishing industry is against them. A website worth a read in that regard is 101 reasons to stop writing. It has only reached number 17 so far, but it's well worth a read. It's also funny.

Those of us who don't think we're perfect, but are unpublished, just haven't hit the G-Spot yet. We haven't sent the right book to the right agent at the right time. Chance has not come our way, but we don't stop trying.

How do we get chance on our side? Be in a position to take advantage of it when it does come. That means writing as much as possible, critiquing it, getting others to look at it and critique it and send it off. The more quality writing you send off, the more chances you have to take advantage of 'chance'.

The internet has opened many opportunities, such as blogging, which can help us write. There are also many eZines out there that are begging for content. Some even pay.

Electronic distribution is not expensive, which is why many eZines are free and relatively advert free. Many of them are also of a high quality with good and experienced editors in charge.

The more short stories you send off to these eZines, the more chance you have of being published. The more you have published, the more your query letter will stand out when you send your novel to an agent or publisher.

Even so, you will get rejected more often than accepted. It goes with the territory.

Google ezine and your genre and see what comes up. Give yourself more chances to get ahead of the crowd.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Stupid Ancestors

If you read books about pre-history carefully you will note something very interesting: all our ancestors were stupid.

It took them hundreds of years to realise that the plants they ate daily could be planted near their homes/caves. It also took them hundreds of years to realise that if you put a barrier around your home you can keep wild animals out.

Of course, we moderns are very clever. Just look at how far we've developed technology in the past 200 years?

But did it take 1000-6000 years to develop farming? Or does the idea that it took so long just play to the arrogance and egos of intellectuals?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Something for the Weekend?

What do you get up to at the weekend?

On Saturday, I take my boys into town to spend their pocket money and have a cake & drink with them. In the afternoon I visit my mother with the boys and have a roast dinner. Sunday is slob day.

Sometimes I play a PC game, read a book or magazine, play cards with the boys.

In short, I don't work.

We all need to relax, to do something different from time to time. If you doubt me, then a lesson from WWII may change your mind.

In Britain, factory workers were asked to work seven days a week in order to get war production higher. The loss of the one day off caused production to drop. Sundays were reinstated as a day off and production regained its losses.

We need time out, time away from work.

What will you do this weekend?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Who's to Blame?

One of the most difficult parts of modern life is the view that there is always someone or something to blame.

Why does there always have to be a reason? Why is it always someone's fault?

In one sense there is always a reason. The trouble is that the reason is time and chance, or a random confluence of events, neither of which we can control...and that is the problem.

We want to blame so we can feel in control. The truth is that we aren't always in control and blaming someone or something is our desperate attempt to give the illusion of control.

When a natural disaster hits, the fault lies with those who didn't plan for it: when a car accident takes place, one or both of the drivers wasn't fully in control.

Sometimes, there is no fault, no blame. Crap happens.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Good Books

What makes a book 'good'?

Is it the quality of the writing, entertainment value, sales, critical acclaim? For a publisher it's more likely to be whether the book has made a profit for them, as may some writers.

Another way to ask the question is 'what is wrong with a book that entertains you, no matter how bad the writing'? Or, more cynically, can ill-educated people judge how good a book is?

Lots of questions, no answers.

I don't know if we can ever answer the question of what makes a good book as it will always depend on the reader's own judgement, this is art after all.

Even if we take books that have stood the test of time, can we really say that they are 'good' books. How many 'good' books have never seen the light of day in any period of history you care to mention. Do we really have the 'best' literature from the 19th century, or just the literature that was printed in enough quantity to survive?

Can we really say that the best books get published in the first place?

What IS a good book?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Character Hokey Cokey

'You put the old man in, take the young woman out,
You do a bit of writing and you shake it all about...'

Sometimes writing a novel is a bit like doing the Hokey Cokey. You put something in, take something out, turn it around and shake it all about. A character, scene, a plot development: and that's just the first chapter.

It doesn't seem to matter how much planning you put into a story, at some point you have a' lightbulb moment' where you realise that a character/scene/plot device doesn't work. You then have to rewrite it whilst trying to keep the story sensible.

At the moment I'm reconsidering one of the characters in my novel. Having said that, I have been thinking about this character for sometime. She's been a ship's captain, a security officer, a historian and even a man. The character has, in short, been a pain and a joy to write.

So I've decided to promote another, much better character to the fore, and delete her.

I have enjoyed writing some of her scenes and it will mean a different telling of the story, but her removal doesn't affect the main plot one little bit. That the story can be told without her is probably the most telling part of her role in the novel.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Economics of Trust

"The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy."

A statement that most of us will be familiar with as we look at government and the ever expanding number of lawyers and other bureaucrats.

Why do we need so many? A lack of trust. The less trust there is in a society, the more bureaucracy and bureaucrats we need to administer the rules and laws that govern us.

If we don't trust our employers to keep us safe at work, we need health and safety officials, both inside and outside the company, to inspect our offices and factories. How much extra is added to the cost of our food because companies can't be trusted to sell food that isn't contaminated? How much is added to local taxes because some people would rather sue the council than report a broken paving slab?

Despite this, there is still one major area where trust is endemic and keeps costs down: postage. How much more would we pay for goods if all deliveries had to be signed for? An extra £1 on a CD or DVD? Extra time on the postie's round? More postal workers to deliver the same number of packages and letters? Higher postal costs?

Because we trust the companies to deliver their goods and they trust that we won't lie about it turning up, these costs are kept down. If most people lied, what would happen then? More bureaucracy, more cost.

It would be easy to sit here and blame customers, consumers, citizens for all the increases in cost, but that would be a lie. Most of the increases are due to some bad businesses swindling people, causing government intervention, more laws and more people to administer those laws. How much health and safety legislation would we have if some companies hadn't caused fatal incidents (Hatfield rail crash for instance)? How many dog or firearm laws would we have if some people were more careful?

Some lawyers take advantage of this bureaucracy for their own ends, adding to the lack of trust and increasing cost of living, as do many politicians.

A wise man once said, that 'as long as more than 50% of people are trading honestly, the economy will grow. The more honesty in business, the more growth. Once more than 50% start trading dishonestly, the economy will shrink. It may take time to seep through, but these things can be seen throughout history'.

Sounds about right to me.

(For a good book on economic history, read 'The Great Wave' by David Hackett Fisher)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Sex Equality

For years, women have wanted to be equal to men and they are slowly getting there. But what about men's equality to women?

The treatment of women under law and by some men has, for centuries, been abysmal. They were treated as the chattels of the men and in some places still are.

The leap forward in female rights over the last 100 years in the west is welcomed. What worries me is that this equality seems to be going one way. Whilst women are becoming more equal to men, in law if not in culture, are men becoming equal to women?

Under British divorce law, it is still expected that the man will move out of the marital home as, in the words of a lawyer, 'the man is the more likely to earn an income'. Really? Does the law really think that no woman can ever earn more than a man? Is it plausible in today's western world that a man is less interested in or less less capable of looking after his children?

In the workplace, could a man charge a woman with sexual harassment?

Out of curiosity, what was your initial reaction to that question? Did you think that a man wouldn't consider it harassment, but would enjoy it? Isn't that a sexist generalisation in itself?

What is true equality between the sexes?

My opinion is that we will only have that equality when there are no preconceptions about the roles of men and women in life. When women can be builders and men can be homemakers, with no eyebrows being raised, we will have equality. But not until then.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Reading and Writing

If, like me, you're a writer, what percentage of your time should be given over to reading?

Half the time, a quarter, a third? What would you read? What about research?

When you analyse the process of writing, the actual time spent writing is fairly low. In same cases, such as non-fiction books, it can be as low as 10%. When writing articles or short stories, the writing time increases to, probably, more than 60%.

For me, a writer needs to spend at least half their time reading, a quarter researching and a quarter writing.

The reading will include books and articles in your chosen field as well as things outside your field. The researching may be more or less depending on what you write, or what you are writing at the time. For technical non-fiction books, the time spent in research will be greater than if you are writing an autobiography.

For me, the important part is that a writer spends half their time reading. But it's a personal preference.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Time and Chance

I don't subscribe to the view that the world is against me, or against any particular individual. I do believe that some people are unluckier than others.

The people who least believe in luck are, generally, people who believe that their own hard work has brought them success. The thought that they got to their lofty position in life with any help from chance is anathema to them. It's all down to their own hard their eyes.

That idea has so many holes in it: How did they obtain their genes? How did they pick their school? How did they pick their personality before conception?

Think of all the personal things that you had no control over, or were picked by your parents.

I'm not saying that hard work has nothing to do with success. Without hard work you won't be a success. My argument is with the belief that success is ALL about hard work.

How many of today's successful people would be equally successful in Zimbabwe, or China, or if they were born to poor parents in Bulgaria or Egypt or India?

Our place and time of birth is due to circumstances completely outside our control. The education we are given is outside our control. We can re-educate ourselves later in life, or change its direction as a teenager, but we can't control what we learn from our parents or our junior school...unless we have the right personality or genes...which we don't pick ourselves.

Sometimes success is down to being in the right place at the right time, or knowing the right person. In those cases what the person has done is put themselves in the position to take advantage of luck.

Events have occurred in my life that I could not control, such as being made redundant twice.

I have also had some luck. Despite all the problems I've had with being let down by a lot of people, I do manage to find some good friends. I also have three wonderful kids and I was born in a country that has decent, if imperfect, health and benefits systems.

My attempts at being 'successful' have not worked and I may never be a success according to some definitions.

But I know what luck is, what it isn't and I know that we all have luck, both good and bad.

Today, I wish my luck would change for the better.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

New Year?

You start the new year with a smile, look forward to the good things that could happen to you...and then you have an accident which results in your car being written off.

A country lane; no grit on the road; -10C last night; midday today; a bend in the road; a car coming the opposite way; a patch of sheet ice; BANG. My car written off, the other badly damaged, four people shaken, some minor injuries.

Just when you think things can only get better, along comes life, chance, luck.

Heaven help anyone who tells me it could have been worse (see previous blog).


However, sometimes you can make the best of a bad situation.

The homeowners next to the crash were kind to us, and took myself and my eldest in for a cuppa and some warmth. An incident which shows that there is still more good than bad in the ordinary people of this world, more trust that suspicion.

As we talked I told them about my work and it turns out they need a PC man to help them. Perfect...almost...sort of...maybe. Writing a car off is not the most cost-efficient way to advertise.

Monday, January 05, 2009

New Year, New Routine

Christmas and New Year upset our daily routines. We get up and go to bed at different times and the kids get out of sync for school. Good.

One thing I have noticed in the last few days is that as I have no set routine at the moment due to the extended holiday period, I can put new routines into place far more easily.

So this year I intend to replace all the old routines with better ones...which I will, naturally, replace next year, which I will replace the year after blah blah blah.

What will my routine be?

Not sure yet. But as I have an open calendar, I am looking forward to trying new ways to improve my life.

Friday, January 02, 2009

What a way to start the year.

Happy New Year!

Now that's out of the way, here is some good back problem has abated.

Just under three years ago I suffered a major back problem combined with a trapped Sciatic Nerve. Since that time I have been on pain killers of varying strengths, and hospital treatment (including two ambulance trips in one day).

Most of the intervening time has been spent gingerly walking around in case I do some serious damage to my back.

This morning I realised that I haven't had a major back problem for a couple of months. What's changed? My bed.

Perversely, the divorce that has resulted in me sleeping in the front room has helped. I no longer sleep on the concrete mattresses that my ex seems to lust after, but on an air bed. I get support and softness. I have two blankets on top of the air bed, then me, then a duvet and no back pain first thing in the morning.

Now that's how to start a new year.