Old friends – or foes?

I’m a member of a small writers’ group – the group is small, not the writers – and we meet regularly in members’ houses to share our scribblings. There’s usually five of us, three writing novels and the other two concentrating on short stories. Another three members attend occasionally but geography and other commitments sometimes make it difficult for us all to be together at one time. So it is, I imagine, with all such groups.

Recently we decided we would compile an anthology of our short stories and aim to self-publish. The technology is now fairly straightforward and the costs can be reasonable if you shop around. The important thing for us about the venture is it would allow all of our writers to participate, even if they can’t make meetings. We decided the theme would be our county, Donegal, in the north west of Ireland, or, perhaps more broadly, the area now widely known as the Wild Atlantic Way, which stretches 1,500 miles along the coast from Derry in the north to Kinsale in the south.

So, with due diligence, I started to trawl through old, forgotten, short stories I’d written over the years, trying to decide which could be reworked for this new enterprise. What an experience. Some still made me smile, some made me cringe, most made me wonder if I’d actually written them. They were like friends not seen for many years. Those you went with to school or college half your lifetime ago. Vaguely remembered but somehow changed.

I know I’ll need to work at it but I’m enjoying getting to know them again.

Research – is it a step too far?

I’m a procrastinator in my writing. In real life I’m pretty good at making decisions and figuring out the shortest path between two points. My creative self is significantly different.

First of all I plan. Some time ago I discovered the joys of Scrivener after working my way through FreeMind, Writers’  Cafe and half a dozen other programs designed to supposedly increase my output. I can’t help thinking that if I’d dedicated half the time to writing as I did to mastering (huh!) the software I’d have finished my first novel in half the time. Still, you never know if the effort is going to be worthwhile before you put it in. I’ve certainly been impressed with the way Scrivener has helped but it’s a shame it took me so long to get to it.

Secondly, I commit that cardinal sin warned against by writing pundits – I edit as I go along. I’m not sure why it is but I read and rewrite every sentence, every phrase, two or three times before I move on to the next. Not that it stops me making mistakes, nor enables me to write faultless prose, that would elevate it to the status of being time well spent, it’s just something I do.

Finally, I have a need for accuracy and this leads me to endlessly research history and location. My family and friends tell me this is because I prefer the chase to the feast and I’m afraid they might be right. Today, for example, when writing two short scenes, I happily Googled 1930s women’s fashion, the distance on foot between Alexandria and Suez, and the names of British troopships sailing to Cape Town in 1852. I thought, perhaps, I was going too far when I typed ‘how far can a donkey walk in a day’ into my browser. I was going to include the answer in this blog but decided you can waste your own time if you really want to know!

Elementary my dear Watson

I’ve recently returned from a long holiday in France and whilst I did do some writing (honest) a lot of my time was spent reading. I’d loaded my Kindle with a mix of material but I set myself a goal in the first few days of getting through an anthology of the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. There are four novels and five collections of short stories.

In one respect I failed, I only read three of the novels and all of the short stories. I chose to miss out on The Hound of thsherlock-holmese Baskervilles, partly due to me having read it before (but then I’ve read them all before) though primarily because it’s been done to death on TV and film and also I didn’t enjoy reading it the last time.

The plots of all of them are absolutely bonkers but they’re largely very well written. The crux of the story is almost always revealed within the first couple of pages then Holmes darts here and there gathering clues until the culprit is revealed. With alarming frequency what happens to the perpetrator depends largely on their social class. Genteel, or just plain rich, murderers always seem to have had a good reason to have done away with their wife/husband/business partner so Holmes lets them go or speaks on their behalf at trial. Woe betide anyone from the lower classes, however, as they’ll find themselves shot or at the end of the hangman’s noose.

A device used quite a lot by Conan Doyle is to have the perpetrator, once they’re caught, tell the background story of why they committed the crime, it seems quite a clever way of revealing this without Holmes having to appear even smarter. Unfortunately, if you’re wading through every story it can become a little wearing.

Conan Doyle wrote many of the stories for publication in periodicals and I was fascinated to see two of them share the first few pages word for word. I was also interested to note that the title of Mark Haddon’s highly successful mystery novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was taken from one of the Holmes short stories Silver Blaze.

The stories are of their time, as is the language (I lost count of how many times Watson ‘ejaculated’), but I think any aspiring crime/mystery writer should at least take a look at them to consider structure and how to move a plot along.

For my part, I loved them, though I’m not likely to try to read them all again on one holiday!

A new project

So the final draft of my Inspector Given sequel is finished and with my publisher for consideration, it’s also been submitted to a couple of agents and I’m sitting here with fingers crossed – making the typing much more difficult than it needs to be. I’ve had some excellent help from my daughters and their spouses with the final edit. Two spotted the villain quite early so that’s been changed!

I’ve started a new project, significantly different to the detective novels and I’m finding it both challenging and thrilling. It’s certainly something I couldn’t have written a few years ago because I simply wouldn’t have had the skills nor the confidence to make it work. I’m not sure that I have now but I’m enjoying trying to write it. It only has a simple working title for now, so I can file it, and I’m finding that the time spent learning to use Scrivener was worth it because it is a complex structure, switching time, point-of-view and voice frequently.

Basically it tells the story of three generations of a family through the medium of a mother sitting at the bedside of her daughter who is in a coma. The timeline begins at the height of the Irish famine and ends in the last days of the Second World War – so not much danger of historical accuracy errors there then.

If you’d like to see a draft of the opening scenes, or maybe ask a question about my use of Scrivener email me at charlie@charliegarratt.com

Sorted!

A couple of years ago I damaged my back so now find it difficult sitting at a desk for long, consequently I use a laptop in a good armchair when I’m writing. This still wasn’t a problem whilst doing the edit on a paper copy, the way I prefer. However, over recent weeks I’ve been transferring the changes on to my digital copy and balancing the manuscript on the arm of my chair whilst typing has been a real pain. Then this morning ‘Eureka!’. I came up with an idea that’s transformed the situation – my music stand.
Now, with paper copy firmly displayed and Scrivener on the laptop I’m flying.
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I even have a ledge for my pen – magic – I may stay like this forever.

Why can’t they get it right?

As an author of crime fiction I strive for accuracy and continuity. Now, I may not always get it right but at least I try. As a result, both a blessing and a curse, I notice flaws in other people’s work, particularly on TV. Sometimes it’s just the easy ones, the result of editing or costume changes but at others it’s just plain poor.
I’m currently watching Homeland and ended up screaming at the screen last night for two awful errors. The first was the dialogue between the various terrorists switching between English, German and Arabic with no rhyme nor reason to it. The one language they’d have in common, I imagine, would be Arabic – notice I say ‘imagine’. I hope I’d have researched it and explained the differences if there were any. The second was more subtle, though a double blunder. Someone is called into a room with ‘you’d best watch this on TV’, then a news item starts (so how did they know it was going to be on?). On the item an American is being interviewed by a German TV journalist in English. The programme is on German TV but no subtitles.
I know we have to suspend disbelief but come on, give us half a chance.

Another rejection

Can’t believe it’s so long since I posted anything – where did that time go? I’ve been editing my novel, not as much as I should have been but it’s been perched on my shoulder pecking away at my conscience all the time. Oh, and I went on holiday. Part of my paper draft is marked ‘edited in Bruges’ so that’s a pleasant reminder of sitting in a pavement cafe in the sun with an inevitable Belgian beer.

Earlier I posted about a rejection letter (email actually). Yesterday I had another. It began ‘Dear Author’. Three months to send back a standard email which they couldn’t even bother to personalise. I wrote back, politely, to express my dismay at this rudeness. I started the email ‘Dear agent’!

I’m not surprised by the rejection, especially as I’ve edited deeper and deeper – I’d have rejected the sample chapters myself. I found a massive error in the second chapter, a mind-numbingly stupid one, even though I’d edited several times. The general advice seems to be to have the draft as polished as you can get it before submission and I thought I’d done that. The step I missed, I think, was having someone else read the sample chapters once I thought I was happy with it. I’m lucky enough to be married to someone who is also a writer and we actively critique each other’s work but I didn’t run these past her. She’d have spotted the errors in an instant. I’ll not make that mistake again.

How do you make sure your material is as good as it can be?

Thank you for your proposal.

Yesterday I received a rejection email from a literary agent and I was pleased to get it. Disappointed in the rejection, naturally, though happy someone had been courteous enough to let me know. I’m old enough and life-experienced enough to understand I won’t always get what I wish for, so I can cope (just!) with being told my book isn’t good enough or suitable for their list. What I find difficult to accept is that agents and publishers don’t seem to understand this.

In scouring the submission guidelines on the websites of literary agents I’ve found quite number saying ‘we try to make a decision within three months and if you haven’t heard from us in that time please assume we won’t be proceeding’. I’m aware that many agents are extremely busy – but they haven’t time to drop back an email saying ‘thanks but no thanks’? One agent justified their position by saying they receive 1500 submissions a year. By my calculation that’s around 6 each working day – consequently possibly ten minutes a day, maximum, to email a standard rejection letter to six authors waiting for a reply. Authors who’ve spent years writing the book, not to mention spending ages researching a particular agent’s guidelines, writing a synopsis, constructing a covering letter and making the submission.

I’m not having a blast at agents, just asking for a little professional courtesy.

What’s your experience?

Editing can be fun – or so they tell me.

On Sunday afternoon a wonderful thing happened. I finished the first draft of my second novel. I’m not a Stephen King-type 2,000 words a day writer but I had been consistently pushing out 600-1,000 words every day for the past two or three weeks trying to get the job done. Coming to the end was a strange experience, different to A Shadowed Livery, and, because I’d decided to put the manuscript to one side for a while (they say you should do that), I suddenly felt bereft and I’ve been the same for the last couple of days. Not quite knowing what to do with my time. So yesterday evening I began another project. I say ‘began’ but I was actually returning to a novel I last worked on two and a half years ago. I’m not sure where it will go but there’s 7,000 words in the bag and a fairly comprehensive draft plan in place. I think I may have given it up when I started the editing of my first novel because the date coincides with receiving a contract from the publisher.

I’ll only work on the new project intermittently because I do want to get back to the real job of editing ‘A Rose by Any’. The first task will be to re-sort the chapters – some are an acceptable 2k-3k words but some are as high as 7k, just a result of expansion in the redraft. Then I’ll check the whole thing with Pro-writing Aid, a great tool for finding all the repeated words and phrases, cliches, over-long sentences, etc. I had a note they’ve released a version for Scrivener so I’ll have a look at that one soon. These steps are really a bit of a slog, but necessary (even without Pro-writing Aid I’d have to find all that stuff).

I’ve already made some project notes as I’ve worked on the first draft, such as checking for conflict in every scene, strengthening my protagonist’s internal goal, ensuring there are barriers to achievement of his internal and external goals, etc. So I’ll work on these larger themes next.

Then to reading the manuscript again. Slowly, sentence by sentence. Can I say this any better? Have I said this before? Does this need to be moved? Underlying this is the check for spoilers related to this and the previous novel, completeness of the narrative (e.g. have I left anyone standing at a bus-stop for ten chapters?), are my characters rounded and the overall shape of the novel.

All of this, of course, is only the first phase of the edit, getting it as good as it can be before it’s wheeled in front of a publisher. If they think it’s good enough then the process starts over again – only this time it will have the benefit of external eyes.

Actually, I’m looking forward to it. Let me know your tips and tricks.

The joy (?) of being an author

I’ve had my head down for weeks, so apart from five hours a day wasting time on my newly discovered Twitter (@charliegarratt3), I’ve been redrafting the novel, working title: Let Venom Breed. Back at the end of June I was in the mire, still 20k words short of target and lost down narrative arc alley. I’ve added about 16k words since then and am close to finishing the first draft. Five months ago I’d only reached 40k words and only had my last few scenes to write. Consequently, my first full draft will actually incorporate a substantial redraft – if that makes sense.

I’m in a good place mentally with my writing and I’d say, without receiving sponsorship, or anything, I don’t think I’d have arrived at this point without Scrivener. I referred to it in an earlier post where I’d just started using a trial version of the program and was still unsure. I used the trial and was so happy with it I bought the full version. I also plugged in to a free online workshop from Learn Scrivener Fast which gave me a few more helpful tips (although they have chased me a bit to buy other products – but I guess they’re in business so it’s fair enough). It’s an incredibly versatile piece of software and I’ve found the payback to be well worth the time I had to put in to learn how to use it.

So, enough of the free advertising for them. Not really meant to be an ad, simply a bit of writerly advice to have a look at it. If it helps, why not?

Biggest problem with spending so much time writing is that there’s not much left for marketing of the previous novel, A Shadowed Livery. Anyone want that job?