Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Iron Sharpens Iron

On Monday I mentioned that I'd had an insight into my own creative process after a writer's group meeting. Yesterday proved just as revelatory.

I took an old woman...er...friend shopping as it was raining heavily, she needed stuff, she doesn't have a car and I do. As a thankyou, she treated me to a cup of tea in the cafe. OK, the cafe in Tesco's isn't that good, neither is the tea and wherever you sit you're directly under the loudspeaker they use to tell staff to go somewhere, but it is cheap.

We talked about each others book and whilst we were talking I had another epiphany: I have the conflict in the wrong place. My original idea was to have the conflict between the two blokes, but after the chat, in fact during the chat, it dawned on me that the bigger, more interesting and comedic conflict is between the kidnapper and the woman he impregnated who wants to rip his testicles out through his throat.

So I now know WHY my novel has stalled. It was heading the wrong way. With my new knowledge I shall be getting the novel back on track, as well as plotting out two radio comedy scripts and submitting a short story.

Never forget to talk about your book with other authors over tea/coffee/wine/cakes/biscuits as you never know what will come from those one on one chats.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Festival Final & A New Novel

We didn't do another rehearsal, but we did do a readthrough of the play beforehand, and on the night the play went even better.

As there was no time pressure (the evening was the showcase event) that worry was gone, and we were on first, so there was no waiting around biting fingernails. The play received its normal share of laughs and some extra ones, but from a smaller audience, and we waited until the very end to see Katie get her writer's award.

I have enjoyed the whole experience, not only of performing in a festival, but also performing on a bigger stage than normal and in front of a different audience, though I have to say that I am glad it's over. Why? So I can now conventrate on my writing again.

Which brings me to tonight's writer's group meeting. A while back we decided to plot a novel and after a week or two plumped for a crime story set around a stableyard. Tonight we plotted out the first three chapters and introduced some of the characters, as well as giving ourselves a rough draft of the next two chapters.

There are a lot of questions to answer, such as what the character's names are and how quickly do bodies decompose in a heap of horse manure. To that end a couple of our number are going to ask relatives in the police force about this as well as about police procedure. One will also enquire about getting a PCSO to come along one Monday to answer any questions about police procedure and what individuals would be charged with in the circumstances of the story.

The one problem we have had is focusing on our task. Keeping our eyes on plotting the novel can be hard going, especially as the detail can be very interesting and, sometimes, important to how the story goes.

For instance, the question of how long the body will take to decompose will impact on who gets arrested or not, or how they discover the identity of the dead person and how long it would take. That has not stopped us sketching out what will happen in chapters 4 & 5, but it does prevent us going any further or doing any writing on the forensics.

One of many things we have agreed on is that the story will not be driven by police officers investigating, but by the lead female and her view on the unfolding story and the characters and events taking place around her. It should avoid some of the more technical parts of some novels and allow us to focus on people.

I'd love to have your comments on the novel, and maybe some ideas for us to steal...er...pay homage to.

Enjoy the week.

Friday, June 24, 2011

We've Done It!

Six weeks rehearsal, lots of nerves and a flat battery later and we won through to the Saturday of the St Albans Playwriting Festival. Believe me, I am excited.

Our writer/director gets her recognition, and deservedly so, as does our little drama group.

I was due to leave the flat at 4.30pm yesterday to meet everyone, and then to drive down to St Albans, and found that I had a flat battery. A damsel in shining armour came and rescued her knight in distress and we still got there in time.

The most nervous person was the writer/director/prompter and, as we were on second, she had even more time to be nervous.

The performance passed by with only a couple of minor hitches and a lot of laughter at the correct items, although there was a bout of laughter when I collapsed onto a sun lounger and showed the audience my large backside. Before you ask, I was clothed, I just had to lay across it as if I was drunk from the night before and decided that the funniest thing to do was to let the audience see my backside instead of my face...until I spoke.

We sat through the last play about the assassination of a future US president, and then listened to the adjudicator ask the audience what they thought about the three plays. After that we waited to hear if the play would be performed again.

This time my car's battery is fully charged, but I'm still excited and looking forward to performing this play again.

On Monday I'll let you know what section we won.

Have a great weekend. I will.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Change Happens

Ebooks look set to take over from paperback and hardback in the near future, and like all changes there will be those who will fight it and condemn the change as not needed, not wanted, useless and other variations. There are also those who will say that the ebooks are one system crash from being lost forever. Hmmmmmmm. Ever seen what fire does to paper? Or water? Or time?

History is littered with changes in how we publish stories and I can imagine some similar tirades against them, such as those below.

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- "Paperbacks will never catch on. They're flimsy things that won't last a year and will never outsell hardbacks. They don't have the staying power or the beauty of a hard spine on a shelf."

- "Mr Guttenberg, people will never want printed books as they lack the aesthetic virtues of a hand-copied book, lovingly coloured by monks who know their job."

- "You want to abandon scrolls in favour of this...this...folio. Who ever heard of such nonsense. What about those whoso living is making the scroll holders for the temples and churches? What are they going to do now?"

- "You want to use paper made of pulped wood instead of animal skin? It'll never catch on. What about the risk of fire, or storage? And what will we do with all those animal skins, make shoes out of them?"

- "Papyrus? What's wrong with stone and clay? And have you thought about the environmental impact of replacing grain fields with these weeds? We'll all starve."

- "You want to write these stories down? Why, if you'll do that the human mind will turn to mush. What will happen if we don't have to remember things and just look it up in a book. No, the human brain is wired for our oral traditions, forget this immediately."

-----------------------------------

Have a good day.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Fat Lady Is Warming Up

Last rehearsal...tick
Lines learnt...tick
Nerves conquered....errrrrrrrr.

On Thursday we perform Famous Island. We had a few glitches tonight, but nothing major and, thankfully, we have a small set to put up and take down: two chairs, one lounger and one table. Our props are in two boxes, we have our costumes ready and we have timed our changes. The singing hasn't quite begun, but the fat lady's practising the scales.

The more I practice the play, the better I get at it and the deeper I get to know my characters. Just the same as writing really. The more time I spend with my fictional characters, the better I know them and the easier it becomes to write for them.

And with that pearl of wisdom I'm off to bed. See you on Wednesday.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Working at Reading

When you want to know more about a subject, say the history of Britain, do you read books on how to learn the subject, or do you read books on British history?

I suspect that all of you would say that you read books on the subject. So why do some people think that reading books about writing, or going to a creative writing course, is the only way to learn to write?

When we read a novel we are also learning how to write, about plotting, pace, characters, story etc. In other words, reading is part of a writer's work.

Remember that little piece of information whenever someone tells you to stop reading and do some work.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

8 Days and Counting

That's how long until I am on stage playing three people in a festival play...and my performance will be judged. EEEEEEEK!

I'm 95% there with my lines, as are the rest of the cast, and I'm still adjusting the performance for maximum comic effect. At least I hope it will be comic.

Last week I got a taste of performing at a festival when I was asked to prompt for one of KATS plays. We had been asked to perform a short piece as one of the contestants had pulled out and as the regular prompter for the play wasn't available and I was familiar with the play, I was asked.

The stage was bigger than I am used to but it was the atmosphere that I was looking at. Although I was only prompting I was certainly more nervous than normal and it will prepare me for next Thursday.

What was also apparent is that most plays in festivals are 'worthy' and 'giving a message'. If that carries on into the St Albans festival, we will probably be the only comedy which should go in our favour.

We now have two run-throughs on Thursday evening, a technical rehearsal at the theatre on Sunday and maybe two more rehearsals on Monday. If we win the under 25 section (that's the author under 25 section) then we perform again on Saturday.

Wish us luck.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Earning From Your Blog

I hate the word 'monetising' so I'm not using it, but that is what I am talking about.

The simplest way of earning a little extra money from your blog is to advertise Amazon. You have to set up an associates account, but once you've done that, it's easy as you just add their widgets to your page. Then, everytime someone (including yourself as far as I know) buys something via the link on your blog, you get commission.

How do you add one of these little wonders? Go to your 'design' page by clicking on the link at the top of the page, add a gadget, select the javascript/html one and paste the amazon code into it.

On the left hand side of this page, you can see three links. The top one is for my kindle book which is a link to the amazon page. I created that one by using the 'picture' gadget and providing a link to the Amazon page. This one DOESN'T get me any commission, but as it leads to a sale I'm not too worried.

The other two are a 'carousel' and 'then picture cloud' which are available from the associates page. Amazon build them for you, all you have to do is select the books for the carousel and in the case of the cloud, the widget will base its recommendations on your choice of category (books - what else) and the frequency of the words on your blog.

What could be simpler?

It's unlikely to provide you with a mass amount of income, but as they say, every little helps.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Too Much Of A Good Thing

I've spent most of the last two weeks reading books outside of my genre, specifically the last two books of the Night's Dawn trilogy by Peter F Hamilton.

As good as the series is, 3000 pages is a bit long and it's not something that I'm going to do again in a hurry. What I did learn from it was not to have too many storylines going on at once as you have to wrap them up at the end.

Hamilton had at least six going on, and those just were the ones that were still going at the end of the trilogy, and each of them had to be wrapped up neatly. It took him nearly 200 pages.

When you have multiple story lines that come together in one place at the end, this is not necessarily a problem, but when they all end in different places, then it becomes hard. I wasn't surprised to learn that the whole trilogy took over 6 years to write.

So, the thought for your WIP this weekend is, do you have too many plotlines going on in your book that will finish in different places at the end?

p.s. The trilogy suffered from 'male sex writing': Lots of times per night with the woman always satisfied.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A Meme, Where I Admit To Being...Me

A meme from KLo...but with my answers

......................................

TRUE OR FALSE

Q: Kissed someone on your friends list?
Facebook...yes. Blogger...yes. As I am a gentleman I will not name them.

Q: Been arrested?
No, but I was nearly shot as a terrorist. I used to make model guns as a teenager and one night I was fixing one of them and a lady saw me, assumed I was an IRA terrorist (I lived in an Irish neighbourhood), called the police who surrounded my house. They were just about to evacuate the surrounding area when my father came back from football, asked what was going on and told them about my models. I was given a right telling off.

Q: Held a snake?
No.

Q: Been suspended from school?
No...but I wish I had been, I hated it.

Q: Sang karaoke?
No. At least not yet.

Q: Done something you told yourself you wouldn't do?
Oh yes...and still regret them to this day.

Q: Laughed until you started crying?
No, just till my stomach ached and done it plenty of times.

Q: Caught a snowflake on your tongue?

Yes.

Q: Kissed in the rain?
Nope. I hate getting wet, no matter what.

Q: Sang in the shower?
In the shower, in the bath, in the car, walking down the street, on stage, whilst cooking, whilst reading, whilst watchng tv or playing a pc game. Occasionally I'm in tune.

Q: Sat on a roof top?
No. I'm scared of heights. I get a nosebleed standing on tiptoes.

Q: Been pushed into a pool with all your clothes on?
I fell into a pool fully clothed when I was four. My only memory of it is lying on my back under the water seeing bubbles come out of my mouth. Have hated swimming ever since.

Q: Broken a bone?
Broken a wrist and torn a muscle in my leg. I thought sports were meant to be good for you.

Q: Shaved your head?
I haven't, but my ex-wife did it to me once...by accident, or so she said.

Q: Played a prank on someone?
Not yet...but now you come to mention it sounds like fun.

Q: Shot a gun?
Yes. Air rifles and shotguns at targets and clay pigeosn, lee enfield army rifle with blanks on manouevres with the school cadet force.

Q: Donated Blood?
No. I don't trust doctors, nurses or dentists with anything sharp.

LAST PERSON...

1. You hung out with?
My kids. We watched a DVD and had beer and popcorn

2. You texted?
My friend Joy to congratulate her on having a letter published.

3. You were in a car with?
Joy. I took her to the dump. Well we went to the dump to get rid of an old microwave.

4. Went to the movies with?

Probably the kids, but it was so long ago.

5. Person you went to shop with?

I don't go shopping, I hunt. Get in, grab what I want, pay and get out...unless I'm in an electrical or computer store.

6. You talked on the phone?
My friend Sian.

7. Made you laugh?
My son Ieuan as he recalled his various reactions to my vasectomy as he got older. at 10 it was OUCH, at 12 it was oooh, at 14 it was, Ha ha you shoot blanks.

8. You hugged?
Mum

IN THE LAST 48 HOURS HAVE YOU...

1. Sung?
D'uh

2. Listened to music?
Oh yeh.

3. Danced Crazy?
I'm a dad. Every dance is crazy

4. Cried?
No.

FIRSTS .....

1.Who was your first prom (or homecoming) date?
Never had one.

2. Who was your first roommate?
My brothers...sadly

3. What alcoholic beverage did you drink when you got drunk the first time?
Dry Martini and Lemonade

4. What was your first job?
Working for barclays bank, which I stuck at for 3 years, 1 month and 18 days...not that I was counting.

5. What was your first car?
Mini 1000, registration GLR 118T, mid blue with an annoying habit of shaking when I went over 50mph.

6. When did you go to your first funeral and viewing?
First funeral was my step-grandfather in the mid 80s, the first dead body I saw was my father in 2006. As I looked down at him in the coffin, my first thought was, 'he looks cramped in there'.

7. Who was your first grade teacher?
No idea, nor do I want to remember.

8. Where did you go on your first ride on an airplane?

Corfu, an island off the west coast of Greece.

9. When you snuck out of your house for the first time?
Never have.

10. Who was your first best friend?
Martin Abel, and thanks to the wonders of Facebook, I'm in touch with him again.

11. Who was your first Best Friend in high school?
Never had one. Hated the place, hated the teachers and got bullied by most people. The friends I had never stood by me when I was bullied. Was glad when I finally left.

12. Where was your first sleepover?
Can't recall one, though I was farmed out to my aunt and five female cousins when I was a baby. The attention I got was amazing, though I can't recall any of it.

13. Who is the first person you call when you have a bad day?
No one. I find it hard to open up as people rarely keep quiet whilst I try and talk.

14. Who's wedding were you in the first time you were a Bridesmaid or groomsman?
My ex-girlfriend Wenda's. I went down to help set up and one of the grooms didn't turn up. As I was his size, I was given the task of stepping in for him. I still have the photo taken of me in my grey suit. It was also the first, and only, wedding I've been to where the groom was responsible for delaying the start because the video camera wasn't set up properly.

15. What is the first thing you did when you got up this morning?
Yawned and wondered why the morning started so early.

16. First time you tied your shoe laces?
I'm too old to remember that.

17. Are you Facebook friends with your first crush?

No, though it's not lack of trying to find her.

18. Who was the first person you met from the blogosphere?
Not actually met anyone from my blog followers list yet: at least no one that I didn't know before.

19. What was the first music album that you bought?
Wired For Sound by Cliff Richard

20. Who was your first celebrity crush?

Felicity Kendal.

....................

Now it's your turn.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Changing Perceptions - Final Part

Today it's authors.

I was thinking about the books that have influenced me over the years and it dawned that it wasn't so much the books as the authors, hence this list.

1. Stephen King
This man is at the top of the list for one book: 'On Writing'. It is by far the best book ever written on how to write and is also partly a biography. His no-nonsense style tells you in simple terms that you already have the vocabulary you need, and the talent, that you need to learn as go along and keep at it. There's a bit more to it, but that is my summary.

You won't find anything about a 7 point plot plan or 20 master plots and their derivitives, just plain, simple advice on how to write well. This is backed up in the second book of his that I've read, Insomnia. It moves along at a cracking pace, yet is still 600 pages long. Simple words used very well to tell a harrowing tale of death and paranormal destruction.

2. Tom Holt
A British Fantasy Comedy writer whose style is similar to that of a stand up comedian: drag the moment out and hit the audience with the punchline. As a result his humour doesn't always work and in his earlier books the endings can be a little lame. Despite that, he has over 20 books in print all of which have taught me the value of comedic description and given me some insight into improving my own writing in this area.

His latest book, Blonde Bombshell, is a peach of a tale and if you want to find out what happens when someone confuses a lightsaber with a torch, this will entertain you till the last page.

3. Robert Harris
I came across his first book, Fatherland, years ago when it first came out. His pacing was superb, his characters believable and the storytelling sublime. There are no wasted phrases or over-colourful desriptions here, just good story telling. In many ways he is similar to Stephen King in his talent and style, but he writes political thrillers.

His last book, The Ghost, is a superb example of his story-telling ability, concerning a writer brought in to finish the biography of a former British Prime-Minister who bears a remarkable similarity to Tony Blair. The author himself said in a radio interview the similarity is deliberate.

Other influential authors include Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Craig Thomas, Alastair Reynolds, Isaac Asimov, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Arthur Conan-Doyle.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Changing Perceptions - part 2

Today, films

1. Little Big Man
This was the first 'serious' film I ever watched. It was a boring Saturday afternoon and it caught my eye, so I sat down at watched it. Although there was precious little action, the story captivated me, as did Dustin Hoffman's performance. To this day I don't know why I should think it was good, but it taught me that good films don't have to be action adventures or war films.

2. Blade Runner
To my mind, SF films had to be action adventures (seeing a theme here), full of space battles and special, or not so special, effects. Although I was late to this film, seeing it on TV, it showed me the depth to SF and sparked an interest in SF books which continues to this day.

3. Platoon
In short, this showed me the horrors of war. It may not be the most realistic film ever, but it certainly shocked me out of the 'war is glory' thinking that was beginning to fade in my young mind.

4. All Quiet On the Western Front (B/W)
Another anti-war film that kept fairly close to the book. It looks incredibly slow paced compared to modern movies, but you can't help feeling sorry for the young men sent out to die. The most moving scene was the one with the French soldier in the shell crater in a movie which taught me that even the 'enemy' are human.

5. Airplane.
Zucker, Zucker and Abraham's masterpiece. Stupid jokes, ridiculous events and slapstick comedy. What fun it is to take cherished icons and give them a good going over.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Changing Perceptions - Part 1

Films, books, people, events, many things change our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Over the next few blogs I'm going to share some of the things that have changed my perceptions. Today I'm going to start with books on history.

I have always been fascinated by the past. In my younger days it was via soldiers and war films (thanks dad), but eventually grew into learning about social history and ordinary people. Out of the hundreds of history books that I have read down the years, three stand out.

1. Africa in History/Basil Davidson
I came across this book twenty years ago and is, to date, the best one volume history of the whole of Africa I have come across for not only does it cover the whole continent, but also its whole history. The European colonisation takes up less than a quarter of its 400 pages, the rest being devoted to its rich past and reminded me that one of the most glorious empires of history was African, that of Egypt.

The first part takes the story up to 2000BC and includes sections on the 'green sahara' and Africa's early peoples. After dwelling on the long history of Egypt, it diverts to the other parts of Africa, its peoples, trade and empires, such as that based around Timbuktu in what is now Mali.

What struck me most about the book was its descriptions of first contact with Early Modern Europeans, and the fact that until 1880, we Europeans were stuck on the coast, not daring to expand further inland. For up to that point, no European state could expect to conquer any part of Africa. It was only the advent of repeating rifles, machine guns and breech-loading artillery that changed the balance of power.

In short, the book changed my perception of Africa and its place in world history.

2. The Medieval Machine/Jean Gimpel
As its title suggest this book is about the machines of the medieval period in Europe, from the sixth to the fifteenth centuries. Nor is it just about machines and technology, but about the ideas that changed the way we lived.

The book starts with mining and farming, showing how it developed from odd groups of people banging axes into stone into organised quarries and mines run by merchnats and the machinery they used to extract water and ore. It also highlights the increasing sophistication of the plough, land use and the crop rotations theory that helped yields to grow, sustaining an increasing population. Not forgotten are the scientific methods used to develop new strands of plant, by grafting two other together or new species of animals by cross-breeding.

The machines covered include the water wheel, the windmill and marine technology that increased the size and safety of ships in the period. There is also a section on the development of clocks.

This book showed me that the past was not one, unindustrialised period of ecologically aware people farming in jollity, but was full of change and development of the mind, the land and the machines that people used to make life easier.

3. Seeds of Change/Henry Hobhouse
The subtitle tells you what you need to know about the book: 'five plants that transformed mankind'. This book tells the story of humanity's use of five plants and how they have shaped the society we live in.

First up is quinine, for the simple reason that it enabled the 'white man' to stay in tropical climates without dying of the various diseases they could catch. it wasn't foolproof and people still died, but it did reduce the rate substantially. The discovery of quinine lead, in part to the second important plant, sugar. If Europeans hadn't been able to stay in tropical climates, then sugar plantations may not have taken off in the way they did, and it was for the needs of sugar plantations that the Atlantic slave trade became so big.

The third plant was tea and its impact on western and oriental trade, especially how the trade nearly destroyed China when in order to stem the tide of silver heading East, Britain forced opium on the Chinese. Then comes cotton, its impact on the American South and how the labour intensive prodcution kept slavery going when otherwise it may have died out. Lastly we have the potato and how it took hold in Ireland and elsewhere in the world, and the consequences of dependence on one plant. (In later editions of the book, Hobhouse has added coca to the list)

From this book I learnt that often times it's the small things that make the difference, things that are almost unnoticed or unheralded by most people, often only acknowleged in hindsight.

It wasn't easy to select those three and other honourable mentions go to 'A Social History of the Third Reich' by Richard Grunberger that opened up the lives of ordinary Germans in Hitler's Germany; 'The World The Romans Knew' by NHH Sitwell which showed how far the trade networks of the ancient world were and 'The Great Wave' by David Hackett Fischer which told the story of the economic waves that have followed humanity throughout recorded history and tend to come in sixty year cycles.

My thanks go to all those historians for their help in changing my perceptions of the world.