Is it ever good enough?

Most days I try to write, with ‘try’ being the operative word. Some days the words just won’t come, and if they do they stumble across the page, tired and listless. On other days I might be happy with what I’ve produced and feel motivated to do more the next day, which is good.

Then I might read another author’s work and feel demoralised, ready to throw the pen (or laptop) into the bin along with everything I’ve ever written. Largely this doesn’t happen because being published isn’t necessarily a measure of quality, only a measure of financial viability – a perfectly valid reason but we have to admit that the latest premier league footballer ‘autobiography’ may not be great literature. However, occasionally, something magnificent comes into my reading orbit and I’ll be blown away by the prose.

For Christmas I was given a copy of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which has staggered me by its economy and descriptiveness. At first I thought it may be because these Cold War scenes are so familiar to us through films from The Third Man through to Bridge of Spies but then I realised it was much more than that. Le Carré’s description of Leamas, for example, includes the phrase “He looked like a man who could make trouble, a man who looked after his money, a man who was not quite a gentleman”. How I wish I’d written that. Rhythm, clarity, cynicism and humour tied up in simple words painting an accurate picture of the character we’re dealing with.

Thankfully, I’ve avoided the ‘I’m going to give up this writing lark’ response this time. I’m going to read and learn. Then attack my next completed draft with a different eye.

 

So November is gone – Is NaNoWriMo worthwhile?

My hope that trumpeting of committing myself to NaNoWriMo this year would force me to show the dedication required to put down 50,000 words in a month proved to be in vain. It’s a punishing schedule and one thing I have learnt is that it probably isn’t for me at this time in my life.

Try as I might, I can’t make myself slam words on the page and worry about the editing later, which seems to be a core method for achieving the goal. I spot a missing comma from fifty paces and I have to fix it. Typos distract me, as do apostrophes sprouting where they shouldn’t. And surely I could say that a little more effectively – it’ll only take a few seconds.

It isn’t the quantity of words that is the problem, I’ve written two 80,000 word novels and am a third of the way through a third, it’s the time frame and my inability to stop from editing as I go along.

On the plus side, and it’s a very big plus, NaNoWriMo made me spend part of October completing my synopsis, research and other planning, and spend November putting down about 22k words, to join the 10k I’d written over the previous 6 months. A considerable improvement in work rate.

So, all in all, I think it’s been worthwhile. I’d be interested in hearing other writers’ experiences (by the way, is that apostrophe misplaced?)

Did you kiss the dead body? – Situation development

I recently came upon a poem Death by Harold Pinter which apart from being brilliant in its own own right is also, in my opinion, an excellent framework for developing plot. Just the sort of questions we should be asking about any character or situation in our writing, not just the dead body of Pinter’s work. For example:

Who was the dead body?

Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?

Check it out – I’d like to quote the whole poem here but it appears to be covered, quite rightly, by copyright but you can see it at http://www.haroldpinter.org/poetry/poetry_inart.shtml

I love the line ‘Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey’.

So much talent

Last weekend I had the enjoyable experience of attending a number of sessions at the Allingham Festival, a now-annual event in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, honouring William Allingham. On Saturday, a literary lunch, with poetry for dessert, was followed by a discussion between local writers and the Irish Writers Centre.

We then moved on to the keynote session with Anne Enright in discussion with RTE’s Sinéad Gleeson, providing useful insights into the life and writing processes of Ireland’s Laureate for Fiction. Flash fiction and poetry awards, and the launch of Monica Courish’s new collection A Dying Language, rounded off my time – others, more robust than I, continued with a concert and late right revels in various bars.

On Sunday, Ann and I read extracts of Wild Atlantic Words at a staggeringly good event in The Thatch Bar. allingham1

A beautiful setting and around 20 people giving readings, recitations, poems and songs.

I’ll certainly be going again, hopefully for the whole weekend next time.

NaNoWriMo – Let battle commence!

So I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo. Actually I signed up a couple of years ago but this time I’m actually writing something. Honest.

I’ve been working on a new novel all year, but had to take a break to redraft material for Wild Atlantic Words, a collection of short stories which is being launched next week. So I was around 15k words in and 70k words to go, thinking how I was going to tackle it, then NaNoWriMo appeared on the radar in mid-October. 50k words in a month? No problem. Ha! At least it would give me a deadline.

I spent the remaining time in October developing the synopsis for each scene and finalising the structure. I’d already drafted the structure and produced headline notes for each scene in Scrivener so expanding it wasn’t too difficult.

November 1st came along and I was at the keyboard for 6.30am, mug of tea on the shelf and the cat warming herself on my knee underneath the laptop – not the most comfortable of working conditions but she seems to be happy there. By breakfast I’d knocked out 350 words and filled in some research gaps. The daily target is 1,677 and I think the most I’ve ever written in a day before is less than that. Needless to say, I missed the first day’s target but I was pleased with the 1,250 I’d done, especially as it was a difficult section.

Day two, I managed over 1,900 words. More than the target and not far below what I needed to get back to my daily average. Today, day three, is going less well. A trip to the coffee shop and this blog have emerged as diversions!

Still, it’s raining so I won’t be going out any more today and have the afternoon’s writing mapped out in my head – coffee does that to you sometimes.

And I’ve written three and a half thousand words this week that I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for NaNoWriMo – so I’m feeling good.

They were friends after all

So, after only five months from starting our project on putting together a collection of stories from our writers’ group, MEAS Writers, the book and ebook are now out. Wild Atlantic Words hit the shelves this weekend and we’re very proud of it.

We went down the path of self-publishing through Ingram Spark and found it relatively painless. They require files to be submitted in pdf waw-3d-cover-3smallformat and images need to be quite high quality so it can be fairly stressful at the point of pressing the ‘send’ button. However, there is an online checking service to make sure they’re technically correct then it is good practice to order a proof copy before splashing out on a few hundred copies. The proof copy service was very good and we actually had it in our hands three days after I placed the order. Admittedly, we paid (only) a few euro more for the rush printing service but it was definitely worth it on the single copy.

We’re now starting to work on the official launch and on finding reading spots. What fun.

If you’re wondering why ‘MEAS Writers’ – meas is Irish for respect and although it is the name of the community group which spawned our writing efforts, it also sums up the way we treat each other’s work when we read and critique. We’re a group of authors based in Donegal along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Have you self-published? Who did you use and what was the experience like?

Old friends or foes – next steps

In my last post I referred to a short story collection I was working on with six other writers and was looking forward, with some trepidation, to digging out and polishing some old stories as my contribution. I’m now surfacing from that exercise and we’re hoping to begin the publishing process of Wild Atlantic Words in the next week or so. It’s been an interesting exercise, not least being navigating the tricky waters of editing and proofreading as a collective endeavor. Lessons have been learned and generally the process of working with others has been fun.

Would I recommend it? On balance, I think so, but I’d do it differently if I went that way again. It is one thing to meet regularly to share writing but quite another to pick up a complex task with a deadline when the participants are all good writers but may have different skills and preferences when it comes to design (e.g. which font to use? how far to indent?), competency in some of the murkier corners of Word (e.g. paragraph styles), and what a book cover should look like. We should, I think, have spent more time at the beginning working out some of the practicalities and thinking through a timeline to meet the crazy deadline we set ourselves – out for Christmas market!

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who’s been down this path.

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!