26 December 2010

#SampleSunday 3: Torc of Moonlight SE - Chapter 1(part 1)

 If you are following #SampleSunday you'll know the drill. If this is your first time, writers are posting samples of their work each Sunday and Tweeting the new upload. If you like what you read, please leave a comment and ReTweet. Many thanks.

Thought I'd start this offering with a couple of review snippets. Read more at http://tinyurl.com/39jpmlf

…Fast-paced and thrilling, the novel captures the reader from start to finish. The language that Acaster uses is full of vivid imagery and rich descriptions that are sure to engage the reader; painting either a beautiful image of the various landscapes or of the chilling moments filled with tension.
HullFire, Feb 2010 issue Student Magazine, University of Hull (the main setting in the book)

The historical detail is immaculate, as is the authentic detail of modern student-life, the whole suffused with a rich pagan sexuality… Superbly gripping

After last week’s Prologue – read it first as it is pertinent – here’s part of the opening chapter. Be advised that it contains some swearing, normal to late teen blokes. Part 2 will be posted next Sunday. Enjoy!

Chapter 1 – Part 1

His lungs were on fire and his legs felt like lead. If he had not been able to see the wall looming towards him, Nick would have thrown in the towel and collapsed on the grass. But Murray was behind him, stomping on his heels with the power of a raging bull elephant, the same height as himself but twenty kilos heavier, and Nick knew that he should have burned him off the park, should have been standing at the finish with his usual quip about the beer growing warm and the girls all being taken. But he wasn’t. Was nowhere near it. Murray was gaining on him. Was going to catch him and pass him. And there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.
Summoning his last reserves, Nick willed himself another half metre. Too late he realised he had misjudged the distance to the wall. It had jumped forward to meet him, its stark geometric pattern filling his vision, offering no route of escape. He tried to lift his arms, to turn aside his head, but he had not left himself enough time, enough space. His shoulder connected with the rough red brick with such force that his feet left the ground and he was propelled through the air to land in a heap on the grass. Murray’s booming voice filtered through his daze.
‘Fuck me, Blaketon! I nearly had you!’
Nick tried to drag his sprawling limbs into some semblance of order, but the initial numbness was fast transforming into throbbing pain. At the very least he had dislocated his shoulder and broken his collarbone; at the very worst he was not long for this world.
‘Christ, look at you. This is what happens after a summer of licentious debauchery.’ Murray breathed hard, catching his wind. ‘I, on the other hand, am reaping the benefits of a temperate and soul-enriching sabbatical.’
The profanity was meant to convey all the emotions of a first fifteen battle song, but it left Nick’s lips a damp gasp. Murray guffawed. Nick couldn’t understand where his friend was drawing his energy from. He’d felt better after being dragged semi-conscious from beneath a collapsed rugby scrum.
Murray was on his feet again, pumping his arms and jogging on the spot. The ground beneath Nick reverberated with each footfall, sending an oddly undulating spasm down his spine and along his ribs. At first it felt curiously soothing, how he imagined riding a water bed, and then came the realisation that the sloshing was inside him, and a prickle of perspiration erupted over his body. He rolled himself over to watch the remains of his breakfast spread across the grass beneath his nose.
Strong hands raised him to his knees.
‘Any more where that came from?’
Nick thought about it and shook his head. His senses swam. He hoped Murray wasn’t going to let go of him. Without support he would end nose first in the lumpy slime seeping into the earth.
‘I’m going to sit you back. Ready?’
An arm slid round his ribs, and Nick felt as though he were floating in some dreamscape where actions were un-coordinated and strangely out of time. Was he passing out?
‘You look like shit.’
‘Feel it.’
Murray’s fingers gripped the back of his neck. ‘Drop your head between your knees.’
‘No!’ He had not meant to sound so panicked, but at least it stilled the insistent pressure of Murray’s hand.
‘Is he okay?’
The voice was unrecognised. Nick saw a pair of neatly creased denims move into his line of vision. That was all he needed: a spectator.
‘Will be soon,’ Murray was saying. ‘Do me a favour: watch him, will you, two minutes, while I grab our gear from the changing room?’
Murray stood and Nick started after him, to be forced back on to his haunches by a hand on his shoulder.
‘Don’t move or I’ll bounce you.’ Murray left, trotting along the side of the Sports Centre to its entrance.
The spectator didn’t say anything. Nick didn’t look up at him. The seconds ticked by. Two minutes came and went. The spectator moved his weight from one foot to the other. Not a sportsman, Nick concluded. He wished he would just leave.
‘A bit hard on the ale last night, were you?’
The voice was full of forced camaraderie bordering, Nick felt, on scorn. He let his gaze rise up the ironed denims until it reached a clutch of volumes carried uncomfortably by a thin-fingered hand. Although it was partly obscured, the silver print of the facing title screamed its worth at him. The spectator was a Sciences student. Nick had fallen foul of those supercilious bastards the previous semester when they had played an inter-faculty friendly.
His vision cleared. The world was moving in real time again, but when Nick looked up he squinted at the face of the spectator as if he were having trouble focusing.
‘Malaria,’ he said quietly. ‘Sometimes there just isn’t the warning.’ He watched the youth’s expression cloud. ‘Damned debilitating,’ he added.
‘Oh. Yes. Er, I can imagine.’
Nick dropped his head to chortle low in his throat, and chalked one up for the Arts.
The ensuing silence was broken by the return of Murray who threw down his sports bag and proceeded to wrap Nick’s tracksuit top round his shoulders. The spectator sidled away and Nick rose to his feet, waving aside Murray’s help.
‘Feeling better, are we?’
‘Good. For one awful moment I thought I was going to have to resort to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.’
‘Spare me.’
‘Just what I thought. That’s why I left you with him. If you were going to infect anybody it wasn’t going to be me.’
They grinned at each other, sharing the relief of the moment.
‘Feel strong enough to walk to the Med Centre?’
‘I’m not going to the Med Centre.’
Picking up his sports bag, Murray took a step towards him. He didn’t have the height to tower over most people, but his bulk could blot out the sun.
‘Read my lips, lover: you are going to the Med Centre.’
Nick shook his head and started walking towards the complex of buildings at the further side of the sports field. ‘Don’t do a number on me, Murray. I’ve had it all fucking summer.’
They fell into step.
‘I guessed things hadn’t run quite according to plan when I saw the suntan Louise is sporting. What did she tell you?’
The muscles in Nick’s neck began to tighten. ‘I haven’t seen her.’
He nipped across the access road in front of a group of cyclists. One swore at him, but he paid no attention. The paved walkway between Staff House and the Sciences block had seen none of the early October sun, and the breeze which had seemed almost summer-like on the playing field tunnelled between the buildings with an edge that spoke of frost. Murray was at his shoulder before he reached the square.
‘Well, you can certainly step it out now, but what about tonight? The posters are up, y’know. There’ll be a lot of young blood wanting to show off their talent. After last season Hodgson has a scent for glory, and he’ll want only the best. You put in a replay of that little stunt and he won’t just shunt you off to the Med Centre, he’ll call an ambulance.’
‘I feel fine now.’
‘All I’m saying is it might be an idea to put a word in his ear. Y’know, immune system fighting a virus, not able to put in a peak performance, going to dose yourself up and get an early night, etc, etc. Then if you do shit out your place is covered. And if you end up with ’flu you can go sneeze all over him to prove it.’
‘I told you, I’m fine.’
They made their way through the people funnelling beneath the arch of the main Science building. Most seemed to be coming in the opposite direction, and half of them were pushing bicycles. Murray exchanged greetings with students he knew, and back out in the sunshine he drew level with Nick.
‘I would have thought you would have hoped to go down with something like ’flu, just to put your mind at rest that it’s nothing more serious.’
‘I really worried you, didn’t I?’
‘Let’s just say that I had this thought of dropping Law and taking up Medicine.’
‘I’m fine. Honest.’
‘Yeah, sure. Do us both a favour, eh? Get a shower and climb into bed for the rest of the day.’
Nick shook his head. ‘I’ve a seminar at 11.15.’
‘Give it a miss.’
‘I missed too many last year.’
Murray kicked out at an empty crisp packet on the flagstones and didn’t answer. As they cornered the Chemistry building Nick glanced at his wristwatch.
‘Look, I’ve not got long. I’ll see you tonight.’
‘And if you start feeling weird again you’ll go to the Med Centre, right?’
‘What is this? Are you trying to imitate my mother?’
They laughed and parted company. Nick had only gone a few paces when a theatrically falsetto voice pierced the general hubbub.
‘And change your underclothes. They’re dis-gusting.’
Waving two fingers in the air, Nick kept walking.
Leaving the ivy-covered walls of the older buildings, he passed alongside the grey concrete rear of the Law block and on to the narrow path that wound through the thin scrub birch separating the campus proper from the first of the public roads.
When he’d come to Hull he’d been pleased that the original blood-red brick buildings, with their small-paned windows and incongruously peaked attic rooms, had made up such a small proportion of the university’s campus. A year on he was grateful for the trees, and for the forethought of those who had planted them in every conceivable nook and cranny. In spring the squares were ankle deep in pink and white blossoms. Now, on breezy days, leaves sang out their death rattle as they clung to swaying branches, or ran before him, crisp and golden, to be caught in a root and crushed underfoot. Concrete, no matter the style, was concrete, stark and uncompromising. Ivy would never grow up the walls of the Law block, but the birds sang in the trees below it, and the hedgehogs grubbed in their roots to scurry across to the gardens opposite as soon as the traffic quietened.
He was becoming sentimental, there was no denying it. Emotional even. Perhaps Murray was right, perhaps he was sickening for something. Or perhaps he was just wallowing in his own self-pity. No matter how he tried to keep his thoughts in check, Murray’s voice was in his head telling him of the tan Louise was sporting, and the memory of that never-changing, ever-cheerful voicemail message kept kicking into play, laughing at him.
The gate was stuck again. He released the latch and pushed at it with his thigh, managing only to reinforce the bruise he had been cultivating since taking up residence at the house. He freed the latch, this time lifting the gate clear of the sneck. It swung easily on freshly greased hinges.
‘Sodding thing,’ Nick muttered, and he pressed it back further, catching it securely in the rose bushes which separated the small front garden from its neighbour.
Gaining a house on Salmon Grove had been the finest coup of his entire first year. The hall of residence he had been allocated had been no dump, of course. With its park-like gardens and in-house entertainment committee it had been all he had imagined university life to be. The problem was that it was situated two miles from the main campus, and, as the year progressed, those two miles had lengthened into twenty and then into two hundred. At Salmon Grove he could fall out of bed straight into a lecture and be back before the sheets had cooled.
Closing the door behind him, he waited for his vision to become accustomed to the gloom. The only window in the hallway was above the solid front door, and the mature trees growing out of the pavement restricted the light as well as screening the concrete edifices across the road. Walking into the handlebars of Maureen’s bicycle had been an incident he did not wish to repeat, though why she insisted on having a bicycle when she was less than a stone’s throw from the campus was beyond him.
Her bike wasn’t there, only a bulging black dustbin liner which he purposely ignored. Both downstairs doors were closed, and there seemed to be no movement coming from above. Hopefully the other occupants were out and he had the house to himself. Separating his room key on the ring, he laid a hand on the banister and dragged himself up the stairs.
The door swung back revealing his front bedroom exactly as he had left it earlier that morning, hardly changed from the Saturday before when he’d double-parked the rental and heaved the contents of his life up the stairs. He would have to empty the boxes soon; he could hardly remember what was in them.
The unmade bed beneath the window looked inviting, and if he was going down with something it made sense to get it out of his system with as little hassle as possible. It also made sense not to rock the boat, especially after the one-to-one he’d endured at the end of the previous semester, and the lies he’d told back home.
‘So how did Murray do? Is he struggling, too?’
His parents had sat together on the sofa. He couldn’t remember them ever sitting together on the sofa before. The sofa had always been for him and his sisters.
‘Everybody has found it hard. It’s just so different. You think it’s simply going to be an extension of ‘A’ levels, but it’s not.’
His father had remained tight-lipped, his mother quietly understanding. He would have felt better if it had dissolved into a row. And then, of course, had come the bombshell.
‘You said that you hadn’t much studying to do over the summer. Your father’s managed to get you a job, holiday relief at the plant.’
All he’d said was, ‘Oh.’
What the hell could he have said? His mother had taken on extra hours to help with his student loan, and his sisters had made it perfectly plain that they held him responsible for their not having a holiday. To cap it all Louise had dropped him like a steaming turd and was now sporting a suntan that had made Murray’s eyes water.
Stripping off his running gear, he grabbed a still-damp towel and walked on to the landing and into the shower room.
It was good to have a shower with an uninterrupted flow of water. No one filling kettles or flushing toilets. No sudden spikes in the temperature, freezing one moment, scalding the next. He rested his forehead against the cool tiles, letting the water play directly on to his neck and shoulder. He had jarred them badly when he had collided with the wall, but had not realised how stiff the muscles had grown. The particles of red brick embedded in his skin were a surprise, too. He must have hit the wall with the power of an express.
Water poured on to his head, fanning his hair, running along his cheekbones and down his nose. He opened his mouth to breathe, and his breathing became slower as the warmth of the water lulled him. The building steam felt damp in his lungs, but soothing, the noise of the jet hypnotic in its unending hiss.
He snapped round the dial and the water shut off. How long had he been standing there? His fingertips looked like gnarled tree bark. He pushed his hair from his face and blinked. He was supposed to be at a seminar.
Towelling himself as he went, he dripped his way back across the landing to probe the discarded paper cups on his study table for his wristwatch. Five minutes. Shit.
The clothes he’d discarded the night before still lay at the foot of the bed and he dragged them on, regardless of how they looked. His socks were stiff, but he had no idea of where a clean pair was and no time to search one out. The orange wallet file shrieked at him from across the room like a well wound alarm clock. There wasn’t much in it: some paper and a pen, a few notices he’d picked up, a copy of his timetable, but it looked good, looked as if he’d got his act together. He laid a hand on it, grabbed his keys and slammed the door behind him.

‘So nice of you to join us, number 28. I hope we haven’t dragged you away from anything interesting.’
Nick stood in the doorway looking across the heads of the students to the lecturer, one hand on her hip, the other knuckles down on the table beside her. It didn’t seem like a good idea to answer, especially as he couldn’t remember her name. The door behind him opened with a groan of its spring and the lecturer’s gaze realigned on a point beyond his shoulder.
‘Number 29! Well, hello there.’
Jesus, was she really counting them in?
Thanks for reading. There'll be more next week. If you can't wait, right-click on the cover, or download a free sample from your chosen retailer.

19 December 2010

#SampleSunday 2: Torc of Moonlight SE - Prologue

Each Sunday, English-writing indie authors from around the world are posting samples of their work on their blogs and Tweeting when they're ready to view. This week I'm offering the Prologue from paranormal thriller ebk Torc of Moonlight : Special Edition, the first in a trilogy set in university cities pressing against the North York Moors.

How many believers does it take to keep an ancient religion alive?
Just one.
It is you, isn't it, who throws coins into wishing wells?


He could hear dogs, far off — big dogs, hunting dogs — and he knew he had to run because the hunting dogs were hunting him.
There was a Sanctuary. He kept the knowledge a beacon in his mind. He knew the path, had trod it years before, but it was overgrown now, so overgrown, and he had no flame to light the way. The Keeper was gone, but the Presence would be there, locked among the thorns. The Presence was all powerful. She would embrace him, surround him, protect him. He still had the gladius, the jewelled and flashing blade. She would take it in payment. She could not refuse. She would protect him, disarm his enemies, turn them to stone, to pillars of fire, to hares to be hunted by their own dogs.
He faltered. His chest was aflame, his legs close to collapse. There should be a path, another path. The sword was brought up, its hilt glinting in the night’s weak light, its blade a blur of shadow against the silhouetted trees as it swept through tangled briars. And he was running again, down an incline. The trees were thinning, the earth becoming softer underfoot, water and mud squelching as he ran, forcing between his toes, splashing up his legs, burning into his torn skin.
Ankle-deep now, he stood at the rim of the Pool, not a ripple stirring its surface. Trees crowded the edges as if they had backed away in deference, leaving a ring of sky so brightly starlit that he drew breath in wonder at the spectacle.
He spied a fallen tree, its roots lost in the darkness of the woodland, its leafless boughs reaching into the centre of the Pool. Splashing across, he heaved himself up. The trunk was covered with moss, and the water cascading from his legs turned the surface to slime, but his balance was good and he did not fall.
A single slapping of the water focused his attention and he brought up the sword two-handed against the leaping dog. Its dark shape grew to fill his vision, the starlight catching the bared fangs, coating the glistening tongue with frost. It did not yelp as the blade parted its ribcage. Blood spurted hot over his arms as he turned along the axis of the animal’s leap to heave the body from the blade. It flew by his shoulder as if still under its own momentum, landing on the jutting branches to be impaled there, dripping gore into the dark liquid below. The initial sacrifice.
He could hear his hunters crashing through the woodland, men as well as dogs, see yellow fire-torches flashing between the trees, but the Pool filled his senses: scents of rotting wood and peaty earth, of deer musk and boar dung. Most of all there was the Presence, waiting in her domain, waiting for him.
Anticipation made the hairs rise on his skin. It powered his blood and fired his sexual desire. He called with a voice deep and challenging. Again he called, and again, followed by an invocation fast and rhythmic. The gladius was taken in both hands, its blade pressed flat across his thigh. All his strength was applied, but it did not even bend. The dogs were close; he could hear them splashing at the edge of the Pool.
Lifting the weapon to shoulder height he sang out a second invocation, a third invocation — three by three by three — and the sword was tossed skywards to meet the twinkling stars. It turned as it rose, twisting along its length, the jewels set into its pommel blinking and winking against the darkness of the woods. Its thrust exhausted, it began to descend, out of the sky and the stars, down through the column of silhouetted trees, and into the yielding water with less sound than a pebble’s drop.
On tip-toe he stood on the narrow trunk, head back, arms outstretched, every muscle tensed for the moment, for the coming of the Presence.
There was splashing, much splashing. A spear flew by his arm. He gave a great whoop of indrawn breath, a gasp, his eyes widening to the brightness of the stars, to the silence of the Pool below his feet. He called afresh, a great shout filled with horror. The name again, fear gripping the tone. He howled the name, bellowed it, fists clenched in anger. He railed at the Presence, jabbing at the air in front of him as if it were a person, seething abuse at an unseen form which gave no answer.
He did not see the dog. He felt its weight, its claws at his back. When the great fangs burst through his shoulder the night turned red to his eyes and he screamed until his lungs had no more air to make the noise. He was falling, the weight of the dog bearing him down, twisting in the air as the sword had twisted, man and dog together. The cold waters of the Pool enveloped him, breathing fire into the wounds on his back. And still he railed at the Presence, cursing and swearing vengeance until the bubbles frothing from his lips sparkled no more in the starlight, and the chilling liquid poured into his lungs, water hissing over red hot stone.
There were no trees.
The sky was a clear tempering blue. Burnished by the noon sunlight, it was the exact shade of the enamelled decoration borne by the gladius. A glorious colour, it seemed suspended so close that he might have raked its surface with his fingers and watched it ripple like an Otherworld pool.
But there were no trees.
Without trees there were no birds, and no bird’s song to break the desperate keening of the wind across a land shaded from his sight. A desolate land, he reasoned, devoid of all living things except the sky above him and the water that bore him and refused his release.
He set aside anxiety. Had there ever been a time when none had sought to conspire against him: Senecio, his sword brother; Yslan, the Shrine Keeper; the Presence herself?
He spat his contempt in a string of phlegm. The Presence did not speak against him now, had never spoken but in the mind of the Keeper and through her twisted tongue. All those years wasted in trepidation of that which did not exist. The songs, the rituals, the very memory of her false existence—
How he hated her.
A sound caught him unawares, a cry as mournful as the wind. Focusing, he strained to hear it afresh, quartered the sky with his sight to catch a glimpse of beak or feather. A curlew! Its dagger-sharp wings set rigid against the air currents, it skimmed at the speed of an arrow to bank and return across his vision.
Oh, for such movement, such freedom...
It would be his. The summer was dying. The chill winds hugged the dusk and the dawn, dragging the mantle of winter behind them. There would be no mistake this time. The rite of passage would be fulfilled.
Drawing together an image of his sword-arm, he reached out to grasp the weapon’s jewelled hilt with its enamelled decoration of sky-riven blue. The lure never failed to draw them. Let the warmth of the sun kiss his form spread among the water droplets. Let it lift him to the bosom of the darkest cloud. Let the wind carry him to the chosen. This time nothing would conspire against him. He, Ognirius Licinius Vranaun, he would pass through.
Thanks for stopping by. If you've enjoyed this sample, please leave a comment and ReTweet. If you want to delve further right-click the bookcover. If you want to purchase, the novel is £2.18 / $2.99 available from Kindle UK  /  Kindle US / I-Pad, Nook, Sony. More next week. Have a good Christmas!

17 December 2010

Bah, Humbug!

So where did the week go to? Not in writing, that's for sure, unless I count Christmas cards and other associated accessories. It's amazing how the men in my life can calmly read a book, listen to England's dismal showing in the Third Test, or simply retort "I'm working!" when asked to help out. So what am I supposed to be doing?

And then, on tonight's television, did I really hear the phrase... the last work-day before Christmas... What?! Where do these people get these jobs that allow them a week off BEFORE Christmas? Doubtless to add to the week they'll have off BETWEEN Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

Bah, Humbug!

So let's hear it for all those working right through the Christmas period - our emergency services, our hospital staff, shop staff, and the army of carers who will battle through the elements to bring a smile and a hot meal to those trapped in their homes by infirmity or the weather. The backbone of the Great British Public! Yeah!

12 December 2010

#SampleSunday 1: A New Venture in Tweeting

Today is the start of a new venture, SampleSunday. Each Sunday, English-writing indie authors from around the world will be posting a sample of their work on their blog – be it from a published novel or a work-in-progress, a short story or a poem, non-fiction or drama. The thing is, it’ll be every week, on a Sunday.

Writers will Tweet when they’ve uploaded a sample. Readers can leave comments and ReTweet those comments to wave a flag when they’ve found a sample they believe is particularly good. And to see exactly what is available, search for #SampleSunday. You could find yourself amazed.

To kick off my stable of offerings, I’m posting the opening excerpt from the title story of the collection e-published this week. Don’t read if you are of a nervous disposition.

Contribution To Mankind (excerpt)
© Linda Acaster

Spaz passed across the wrap and I gave him the money.
    ‘Sure you only want one?’
    ‘No,’ I said. ‘I want six. Hell, let’s not quibble about numbers. I’ll have ten.’
    I hadn’t even given him The Look, and already his elbows were leaving the small bar table as he backed into his chair.
    ‘Okay, okay,’ he said. ‘Am I supposed to guess your finances?’
    I picked up my glass and dribbled the contents into my mouth. There wasn’t even enough to coat my tongue.
    He leaned back in a little. ‘If you’re looking for a source... Well, I might know of an off-licence, y’know, with an unguarded window.’
    ‘And what use would that be to me?’ I snapped. ‘Think I’m an alckie?’
    The little prat moved closer, sure of himself now.
    ‘That’s the beaut, isn’t it? Could be there’s an anxious buyer.’
    I slid my empty glass across the table towards him. He looked disconcerted, and it made me smile. ‘Buy me another and we’ll talk about it.’
    He didn’t even try to argue, but dragged back his chair and limped towards the bar. I eyed his roll and sneered. He believed he had a charmed life, did Spaz, believed the sharks ignored the little fish. Silly bastard. Twice in plaster and still he thought he could fish the waters.
    ‘Here he is! A round of applause for our hero!’
    I looked to the clamour near the doorway. It was Tony mouthing off as usual, this time to a group from the old days. Tony was another one who’d never recognise his own name being called. And then I saw who our hero was and felt the tendons stand rigid in my neck. This wasn’t his local any more; I’d driven the bastard out.
    ‘Very funny,’ Willans was saying. ‘If you want to show some appreciation of our contribution to mankind, get us in a beer.’
    ‘Shouldn’t it be weak tea?’
    ‘Been there, done that, let the nurse hold my hand.’
    Lascivious laughter rolled round the group and I knew there was no letting it pass.
    ‘Listen to the pillock,’ I called across. ‘Contribution to mankind. Be organising a fucking aid run to the Balkans next.’
    That killed it. Willans peered over shoulders to see who had spoken and I gave him The Look in return. He soon shifted his gaze.
    ‘It’s your ten up, isn’t it, Mike? Deserves one on the house, that.’
    I turned my beadies on Don behind the bar, but he was already looking my way with a very flat expression. I marked it for future reference.
    ‘Ten’s nothing,’ Willans said. ‘It’s the first that counts, and Jerry here has just passed the needle test.’
    It was like listening to dogs puke. Jerry Davidson had all the hallmarks of a good wheelman: seconds into a Gti, and nerves the Iceman would prize when a blue light was tailgating him. He’d only been caught once, too, and now Willans had sunk his claws in. How many more of the bleating sheep would follow? All of them, probably, just as they had into that poxy soccer team he’d started. All the makings of a regular crusade, it had, with Jesus Bloody Christ at its head, shining example to the world.
    When Spaz put a full glass in front of me I ignored him and took it to lean on the bar. Don gave me the warning eye, but I ignored him, too.
    ‘Well, Jerry, congratulations. You’ve taken the first step to ensure your place in heaven. Has he got you to sign the red pledge, too, eh? Are you going to have some money-grubbing surgeon ripping out your heart before it’s stopped beating? An eye here. A liver there. Sausage, mash and kidneys.’
   ‘Leave it out, Sinclair.’
    I turned my gaze on Willans, careful with The Look. I didn’t want to spook him too soon.
    ‘So, you’ve given ten, have you?’ I said. ‘Thought a body only carried eight. Shouldn’t you be dead? Like Rob.’
    ‘Give it up, Sinclair. That’s six years behind us. I’m not rising to the bait any more.’
    ‘Not rising?’ I said. ‘But you rose that night, didn’t you, rose from the fucking dead. What was it? Twenty-five pints they pumped into you? Sounds about right. Still paying off the mortgage, I see.’
    The others were behind him, not at his shoulder; leaderless, as ever. I bared my teeth and sneered to see what he’d do. He just stood there, the gutless wimp.
    ‘Enough of that,’ called Don.
    I never even glanced Don’s way. Don was all bluster. What was he going to do, call the Filth? The amount of gear they’d find carried in that place, they’d shut him down.
    ‘It should have been Rob they dragged from the wreck, not you,’ I said. ‘Rob they pumped all those gallons of blood into, not you. You were supposed to be the fucking driver, not Rob. You were supposed to be looking out for him.’
    I hadn’t realised how quiet it had become until Don slammed the baseball bat down onto the bar.
    ‘I said enough. If you put as much effort into raising money for charity as you do into your hate, your brother would have some sort of decent memorial. But no, you’d rather the likes of Jerry here follow him into an early grave. And doing what? Joy-riding. I don’t see how it’s brought much joy around here.’
    Don didn’t even recognise The Look when I shot it across, he was in such a flood. He’d remember it when it topped out, though, I’d see to that.
    But what was the point? The exchange was going nowhere. Willans wasn’t going to bite, not like in the old days when he’d sooner knock your teeth down your throat than look at you. Getting old, that was the problem, getting old and got his own personal brand of religion.
    I prodded a finger just the once in his chest. Every rib seemed to show through his T-shirt. The flab had deserted him, just like his balls.
    ‘You should take more care of yourself, Mikey. All this running’s wearing you out. What is it this time? Equipment for the Infirmary, or research into crippling diseases? Here...’ I tossed a coin across at him. It bounced off his bony chest and fell onto the floor between us. ‘Put me down for a slice. We can’t have Don, here, thinking I don’t support lost causes.’
    I downed the rest of the pint in one and smacked the glass on the bar. I’d hoped Willans might have given me reason to smash it into his face, but there was always tomorrow. I’d waited six years. I wasn’t in any hurry.

About a week later Spaz came across with the info on the off-licence deal. I did some quiet digging and it seemed clean enough. I wasn’t too worried about Spaz, anyway. Despite his lack between the ears he knew full well that his time in plaster would be nothing compared to what’d happen if he crossed me.
    The place was a small set-up in one of the closer villages. Working out of the city had its compensations. The Filth took longer to arrive, for one, and iron window grilles and concrete bollards set beyond the shop’s front were almost unheard of.
    I’d picked up a van – not to do the job, that was set for the following night – just to drive the route we were going to use. These things always look fine on paper, but it’s amazing how many times you can come across roadworks on these narrow lanes, or a pile of straw bales sticking out from the verge.
    Dusk was falling, not enough to hit the lights, but close enough so that I’d be travelling back with them on, as I’d intended. Anyway, I saw him – Willans – loping along what passed for the gutter in a skinny pair of tracksuit bottoms and a reflective yellow vest. I didn’t realise it was him until I was passing, and even then I was a good half mile ahead before it registered.
    Willans. Running on his ownsome in the middle of bloody nowhere. Willans. Running on the road in the dusk.
    I turned the van and headed back.
    I came upon him almost at once, and slowed the engine to a crawl, hanging back to watch his rhythmic action. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Almost like a heartbeat. My heartbeat as it rose in anticipation.
    Why didn’t he hear the engine? Then I realised: there was something attached to a belt around his waist. An iPod. I smiled. I couldn’t help it.
    ‘For you, Rob.’ And I gunned the engine.
    He heard me at the last moment. I saw the beginning of a turn of his head, but the edge of the bumper caught him, or the wing, and he disappeared from my view.
    I pulled up gently and looked through the mirrors. He was prone, for certain, but in the failing light I couldn’t see more. And I wanted to see more. I wanted to see what I’d seen on the slab in the morgue when I’d identified Rob.
    I reversed the van and opened the driver’s door.
    He was laid partly on the verge in the shadow of the hedge, his arms angled as if he were still running. The iPod was kicking out its tune as if nothing had happened. I could hear it as I approached. It threw me for a moment, made me think that I hadn’t hit him after all.
    There didn’t seem to be any blood. I didn’t believe that and got down on my haunches to peer closer. There wasn’t any blood, not even a graze that I could see. That wasn’t right, wasn’t fair on Rob.
    The music was getting on my nerves. There should have been blood and there wasn’t and the damned noise from that thing was driving me crazy. I put out a hand to switch it off and saw that there was a polythene cover over it. Inside the cover was a tenner and a credit card. Willans was running round the countryside with a note and a credit card strapped to his iPod. Had he been expecting some farmer to draw up and offer him a neat deal on hamburger?
    I realised my mistake as soon as I pulled them free. The card was the bastard’s red pledge, his organ donor card. Rob didn’t get any organs. Rob didn’t even get any blood.
    I was holding it, staring at it, when I heard the faint wisps of a groan. The bastard wasn’t dead. Then his eyes flickered open and he looked at me. I looked straight back at him.
    ‘Yeah, it’s Sinclair. How you feeling, Willans?’
    He blinked, and gave a faint stab at a frown. I’d dislodged something, that was certain.
    ‘Can you get up?’
    There was a second or two while his mouth tried to work.
    ‘You just lay there and listen to your music.’ I replaced the earphones and his limbs seemed to twitch at the sudden injection of sound. ‘Won’t be long,’ I said, but I don’t think he heard me.  
    Once in the driving seat I fired the engine, slipped it into gear and reversed over him. Like hitting a kerb, it was, with the nearside rear. The front jumped, too. For good measure I slid into first and pulled forward slowly. There wasn’t as much resistance the second time. Willans could donate all he owned, but who’d want a bucket of sludge?
    The red pledge was still in my fingers as I pulled away. I smiled at it and slipped it into my jacket with the tenner. It would make an interesting souvenir, a decent lever, too, I shouldn’t wonder, shown to someone who knew him and was getting out of line.

Thanks for reading this excerpt. Contribution To Mankind and other stories of the Dark is a collection of five short Horror/Supernatural stories launched this week in all formats for 99c/72p.
Drop by next Sunday for something completely different.

11 December 2010

Books Launch Promotion Timing

Two ebooks launched this past week - Torc of Moonlight : Special Edition and Contributions to Mankind and other stories of the Dark - just in time for Christmas buys. Not that it was supposed to happen like that, but life just got in the way, mine and a few other people's. I'd had promotions booked well in advance, an interview at Molly's Musings on 9th and this weekend promoting on Kindle Author, but in the end it was a close run thing to have the books available.

It reminded me of last year with the paperback of Torc of Moonlight which kept getting delayed at the printer (I was told by its publisher), so that finally I had to pull all the promotion I'd readied and by the time it was available it had missed the deadline to go into local shops for Christmas buyers. I hand-sold copies, but the flush passed me by. It was one of the reasons I decided to go indie. Despite this close call, it's a decision I've not regretted.

While I was being interviewed on Molly's Musings, also in the USA Publishers Weekly put out a piece stating ...e-book sales posted their slowest growth rates in 2010 in October. Still, sales jumped 112.4%, to $40.7 million...

And this is supposed to be bad?? It only covered 14 US publishers, not the industry as a whole, an industry that insists on windowing - a practice of putting out hardbacks, then paperbacks, then ebooks, often with months in between - or even worse, pricing ebooks higher than hardbacks - something ebook buyers have taken huge exception to, showing their discontent by slapping one star reviews on such ebooks regardless of contextual merit. Poor author, who wouldn't have had a say in any of it.

But what about indie sales in all this? Not mentioned. Indies are the elephant in the room. From initially eyeing indies with suspicion, readers are beginning to realise that, just as with print books, there are good and not so good, and the good outnumber the rest. For the price of a paperback they can read three indie ebooks. Not only are they doing so, but they are spreading their reading net outside their usual fishing zones, and liking what they find.

9 December 2010

My Writing is being featured today on Molly's Musings

Molly's Musings is featuring my writing today, and I give her a big thanks for interviewing me. If any reader has come across from MM on a link, I bid you welcome and do explore. Molly's Musings is the first to give my new books a push, so I'm feeling all bright and sparkly.

Mind you, it was almost 'bright & sparkly' of a different nature. I had to dash (that is a relative form of speed given our snow) through to the city today where I had to spend longer than anticipated. I arrived home as dusk was turning to night, but the roads were okay, just wet... until I turned into our cul de sac which rises up a slight but determined hill. At the top is our house, through gates which turn through a 75 degree angle. The packed snow going up the road was bad enough, but as soon as the headlights picked up our front drive I quietly freaked and took it slowly through the turn heading up a slight incline to the garage doors... And stalled the engine. And started sliding backwards to the gates even though I wasn't doing anything. I had to do a hard turn with the steering to halt the decline. And hit the horn for aid. Hubby & Son came out and Hubby promptly fell over. We got the car unloaded (imagine ballet dancers on points dragging free masses of shopping) and with masses of cardboard under the wheels the car was eventually coaxed into the safety of the garage.

Then the call went up: 'Where's the chips?'
Answer: 'In the garage freezer.'
No chips tonight  then.

8 December 2010


How do you like the revamp? So far so good, eh? There's still the header to change - yes, a picture! - and the wrapper to fiddle with, but most of it is in place.

The big change is going to be in the postings. My books are taking off in the electronic market and so I'm dedicating more time to those than mentoring other people through their scripts. It has been going that way for a while, and now is the time to refocus. Let me show you round...

The book covers link to information & on-line reading samples courtesy of a beta programme from kindleboards.com. It is still a beta programme because at the moment the reading sample is shown in odd line spacing, which it most definitely is not in the paid version. Simply right click and open in a new tab to view.

The exception is A Sackful of Shorts, the anthology from Hornsea Writers, the support group I've belonged to for many years. At the moment it's not available direct from Amazon, but a mobi version for the Kindle, and the other e-formats, is available from Smashwords. And yes, I've a story in it: Literary, not Horror or Romance. Doesn't that make a change?

The tabs offer book information, prices and review snippets, but with a cleaner, less cluttered look, and genres are grouped for ease of reading.

I've never been much for widgets - aren't they in beer cans? - but the wordcount meter from Writertopia caught my eye. If you want one they are free, and there's a link further down.

Finally there are the buying/contact links, top right. Instead of linking to each book I've grouped the links to my Author Page at Amazon UK, Amazon USA, and at Smashwords which distributes to the Sony ereader, I-Pad, Nook, and Diesel's ereader, and offers a mobi version for the Kindle. If you live in Europe and would prefer not to pay VAT on your e-books (print books in the UK are VAT-free, but not e-books) download from Smashwords.

And that's about it for now. The postings will be more regular and cover all sorts of writer-related issues, but there will still be the occasional how-to article slotted in there.

Thanks for reading, and come back soon.

3 December 2010

Creating Believable Characters - Part 3: Worlds Within Worlds

World-building is a prerequisite for readable fiction, but there is no single world which can be used to cover all eventualities within that fiction. Every one of us lives and works within our own smaller sphere. Daily life in Peru is not daily life in Iceland. Life in central Manchester is very different to life on a farm in rural Lincolnshire. Life for a UK family with a combined annual income of £10,000 is totally different to that of a family whose combined income is £100,000.

Each person lives in his/her own world within a larger accepted world. Worlds within worlds are at the very centre of creating believable characters moving within a believable existence.

As an example, consider Crime fiction. For the sake of putting across my point, let's view a police officer as an archetypal pillar of society. He or she might have a spouse, a mortgage, 2.4 children and a dog, a set of blood relatives, a set of in-laws, a group of friends, and then there are the neighbours. This is only one world this police officer inhabits.

There are also the worlds of work. There is the world within the police force, its hierarchy and expected behaviour, standing orders, interpretation of the law, the stresses of manpower shortages and equipment malfunction, dealing with close colleagues on the same shift, colleagues on adjacent shifts, and those in different departments, both officer and civilian. There is the world outside on the street, which might be broken down into three sub-worlds: that of the law-abiding public, the law-breaking public, and career criminals. This police officer will adopt a slightly different persona when interacting with others, depending on the world inhabited. This chosen persona will modify again depending on the officer’s mood or health at the time. He or she is, after all, only human.

People are heavily influenced by their surroundings and the mores of their society, and their smaller spheres of the society they inhabit. Their larger world has an underlying impact on how they think and act, and this can be carried over when they move worlds. Not everyone wishes, or is allowed, to assimilate, and conflict – the motor of any fiction - can result. Taking the UK as an example, consider Colonialism and the British Raj. Consider immigrants to the UK over the last 50 years. Consider modern asylum seekers. Consider affluent UK citizens purchasing ‘a place in the sun’ but refusing to learn the local language. Consider the knock-on effects to all and caused by all. Taking that set of circumstances consider a similar set in your own part of the world.

Closer to home, consider your neighbour. You and your immediate neighbour might share a joined semi-detached property and a fence down identical-sized gardens, but do you share the same worlds? Give some thought to the worlds you inhabit and list these, then consider your neighbour and see how many of your worlds your neighbour shares. There won’t be many, and it will give an indication of just how little you know of your neighbour.

Building worlds is an intrinsic part of creating believable fiction, and as much thought must go into it as into building characters to make the fiction credible and your reader return for more.

24 October 2010

Creating Believable Characters – Part 2: Making Individuals Out Of Mist

Do you know your neighbour? Do you know the person at the workstation next to yours?

You can tell me what they look like, sure. You can describe the colour of their hair, their penchant for mis-matched clothing, the sound of their laughter, but this is no more than outer signs. This isn’t knowing someone.

Characters who are brought to life from their outer signs alone are good for the length of a short story where readers see no more than a tiny slice of their on-going lives. But a novel is life in depth where characters interact on various levels, probably over an extended period. Characters drawn only to the depth of their visual skins will remain shallow, no matter the twists and turns in the storyline. Readers prepared to invest two or three days of their time on your novel are looking for something more satisfying, and it all begins in the planning.

Torc of Moonlight has three sets of two major characters, plus subsidiaries and walk-ons. The major characters have an A4 sheet dedicated to each, the subsidiaries half a page each, the walk-ons share a page grouped around a setting. Nowhere on any, at least to begin with, is there a physical description. Fitting character traits to appearance is a dangerous game. Fundamentally, a novelist is writing about how people think and act. Cartoons portray baddies with a hunched shoulder and a sneer. Which are you conjuring?

Via the background I’d researched, I knew I needed to tie the main narrator to the previous generation character and to the historical Celt – all male. What could possibly tie a Celt to a 21st century university student? What experiences could they share? A product of his time and upbringing, the Celt was born to protect his people and trained in hand-to-hand combat. Apart from those entering the armed services, what do normal, British, late teens know about hand-to-hand combat? Usually what they learn, or remember, after a mixture of testosterone and alcohol gets the better of them. On the other hand, what would a Celt see in the teen’s life that could relate to his own?

I came up with a group sport, rugby union, with its lack of personal protection, chance of individual glory, its rucks and mauls, and its tendency for brawling. The Celt might consider it poor battle training but the assumption that it was would be enough to tie them together. The question was, why was my student playing the game?

When creating characters why? is the most important question in the universe. Every consideration should be subjected to it so that the finished person lives and breathes as you or I.

From this opening question fanned hundreds of others, each answer producing more questions. Had my character played rugby at school – no – so why did he want to play at university? For a laugh? For the brawling? For the after match drinking? For the camaraderie? To belong? To attract the opposite sex? To prove to himself that he’s tougher than he thought, or feared?

A person’s perception of themselves, and the reasons the perception is held, is the key to unlocking the core of any human, and characters should be no different. We function the way we do because of the experiences we’ve borne during our lives. A slight here, an encouragement there, goes into the emotional bindings we wrap around ourselves. Each is gossamer thin, hardly noticeable on its own, but layer upon layer makes us the complex people we are, makes characters act and think like the human beings they are supposed to be. We know other people from the outside in, but writers should know their characters from the inside out.

The questions ranged far and wide, covering childhood influences and anxieties, hopes and fears, motivations and goals, even to the motivations and goals of parents and siblings. This interrogation was completed for each of the four contemporary main characters, and to a lesser degree for the historical, the answers being correlated with its partner to ensure no gaps, each set checked for links to the other two sets. The role of Nature, something modern people overlook, became a character in itself, and landscape – both city and rural – rose in prominence from a mere backdrop to a pertinent part of the whole. If I’d not subjected each character to such intensive questioning the latter would not have become apparent until well into the writing – and I would have had to decide whether to carry on with gaping holes or rewrite from scratch.

As the process gathered pace the characters took up their names, but even at the start of the writing the only physical description was of Alice, whose pale skin, almost colourless eyes and hair shading through russet and gold was needed for the storyline. Nick, I’d decided, played fly-half, which meant he was slimmer and smaller than most of the team. But the colour of his eyes, the shade of his hair, had no bearing on either the storyline or his thought processes, so why delineate them? Create enough anchors and readers produce mental pictures of their own, just as they do when listening to a radio play. Offer them the experience. Reading should not be a passive activity.

Did the characters change in the writing? Some subsidiaries exchanged roles with walk-ons. The main characters became more multi-faceted, each slight change noted on the character sheets so that the person who said they hated pasta wasn’t choosing it to eat fifty pages later.

Do yourself a favour. Take time to plan your characters thoroughly. The pay-off is in the writing.

1 October 2010

Creating Believable Characters – Part 1: Laying the Foundations

With most typescripts that cross my desk, the problems filter down to the fact that the main characters lack enough depth to carry their novel the required distance.

Consider that sentence again. Not the novel, but their novel. This, I find, is the biggest mistake beginner writers make, to believe, to act as if, the novel they are writing belongs to them. Like shoes, like an overcoat, the novel is treated as a possession, the characters mere appendages to enable the possession to function.

You are writing a Crime/Mystery, so you have a police officer who is a cynical loner with an overblown sense of moral standing. You are writing a contemporary Romance, so you have a sassy, nubile, twenty-something with a penchant for witty one-liners. What you have, in fact, are not characters but clichés, interchangeable clichés at that.

Most novelists start with a storyline premise which opens a door on a possible genre label, even if it is Mainstream or Literary. These two elements are guidelines, established to keep the writer in the same ballpark for the length of the novel. Within these guidelines the main characters are sought.

Within the premise for what became Torc of Moonlight I was conjuring with contemporary people witnessing, and being embraced by, the resurrection of a Celtic water goddess.  I’d been reading about Romano-British Celtic belief systems, and the inspiration for the novel had sprung from there. Liberally seeding what if…? had borne fruit. I knew the novel would be a Thriller, but the term covers a wide range of sub-genres and guidelines are meant to be flexible.

It was at this idea-illuminating stage that I returned to the research, both casting wider my research net and re-reading with an eye for different criteria, searching for pointers to possible characters. What sort of people – as in gender, education, age-group, up-bringing – would be liable to find themselves on the periphery of such an event?

A water goddess was/is, among other things, a fertility goddess, so it followed that I needed a matching female and male lead. In Britain, the belief in water deities stretches back beyond the mists of the Celtic period and forward to modern day where, in Derbyshire and Staffordshire in particular, wells, springs and watercourses are decked out annually with elaborate pictures of Christian teachings made from flower petals pressed into wet clay. So as to reflect this continuing belief system I decided on two sets of male-female characters separated by a generation, thus immediately delineating the age groups.

Simultaneously, I was researching possible settings, again with an eye to the historical and the modern, again for the characters each might produce. For readers to accept the possibility of a water deity’s existence, I felt I had to show it in an historical context, preferably at a point of crisis for its adherents. It became fairly obvious that a crisis point readers could readily grasp would be during the Romano-British period when not only were the native Celts having to adjust to overseas political domination but their belief system was being suppressed in favour of a pantheon of new deities. Who, in terms of characters, might support this, especially with inducements, and who might resist it, perhaps with all to lose? In determining this – a third male-female character set – it helped confine my setting to the north of England as well as flagging the importance of the triple in the Celtic belief system which I determined would need to be echoed in the novel.

A trip to my local university inadvertently coalesced the modern setting – one of those happy co-incidences – and a few days poring over Ordnance Survey maps highlighted not only possible historical settings but future modern settings for what will eventually become a trilogy, further emphasising the iconic Celtic three-fold.

The point is… have you lost interest yet? In your own writing, do you follow a planning route akin to this, or are you hit by a storyline, grab at the first available characters and write in the white heat of creativity? This is the reason the majority of typescripts that cross my desk have problems, problems that once the characters have been reconsidered and realigned nearly always requires a rewrite of the novel.

My weighing information against possibilities was not undertaken one wet weekend but was spread over some weeks. I not only knew, but understood, the novel’s landscapes, and had a broad-stroke view of my main character sets, which had expanded from two to six and, if you’ve been following closely, had shifted from female-male to male-female, thus re-aligning a possible narrative voice. It was time, I felt, to take them individually.

Next post: join me to see not what these characters look like, but how they became individuals in their own novel.

17 September 2010

New Mexico calling!

I am on holiday, travelling in New Mexico & Arizona, USA, hence no posts on writing techniques. I'm back later this month.

The current stop is Santa Rosa, NM, where there is a park named for local author Rudolfo Anaya, whose 1972 novel "Bless Me, Ultima" is required reading in the High School. There is a  bronze statue of him sitting writing, while 'pages' of his work-in-progress are embedded around a pool in which a magic goldfish from the novel glistens in the morning sunshine. This gentleman, who has written detective novels as well as literary works, is still living.

Now there's a novel idea for city fathers in the UK to consider. I won't be holding my breath, either for writers or for introducing youngsters to local authors.     

20 August 2010

To Name is to Imbue with Life

Do you want rent rooms at Burtonleigh House or Bleak House? Take a picnic to Springfield Crest or Danklow Pits? Drive there in a beat-up Honda or a beat-up Ferrari?
     Knowing why we, as people, make instant choices helps us, as writers, choose with care. Of course, our choices only seem instant to us. Our brains have been taking information, collating it, comparing elements of it to previous experience, before giving us… a reasonable guess.
     Readers of our writing are doing this all the time, so quickly they hardly notice, taking from the page a word or phrase or entire paragraph and comparing it to their experiences so as to help build pictures in their minds. But coming across a name adds importance, it adds associations:

          ‘Do you want to go for a picnic today?’
          ‘Don’t mind. Not bothered.’
          ‘We could go to Danklow Pits.’
          ‘Oh, wow! Yeah! Last time we went…’

     Perhaps that made you blink, perhaps it didn’t. It depends how you felt about Danklow Pits when you first came across it as a bare name at the top of this post, your own associations, your emotional baggage. The fictional speaker’s emotional baggage is positive based on previous experiences there, but are you, as a reader, convinced? Do you remain wary of picnicking at Danklow Pits? Are you willing to go along to see if your first impression, based on a feeling, a hunch due to its name alone, was justified?
     This sort of juxtapositioning of characters’ and readers’ experiences is used a lot in the Horror genre, used in Thrillers and some Crime, depending on the sub-genre, and used sparingly and with subtlety in most other genres. Carried along by the pace, readers hardly notice, but the writers have made specific choices with a pay-off in mind, not set such in the text on a whim. They are fuelling atmosphere and readers’ anticipation, setting it down as a fine layer to be added to later, often via choices in description.
      In genres such as Romance, the naming of places and things is chosen to reinforce readers’ expectations of the sub-genre they have selected, but atmosphere and anticipation remain the writer’s goal. Danklow would ring alarms on a subliminal level no matter what it was used in conjunction with, because D-k are sharp sounding consonants, and the way a word ripples across the tongue, or across the reader’s mind, is always taken into consideration.
     Naming does imbue with life, so when making a choice decide first what pay-off you, the writer, want in return.

Also read post: Description: Signposts in the Text

13 August 2010

Describing Main Characters

When it comes to describing characters, the most common question ignored by writers is ‘Do readers need the description?’
    We’ve all read passages where the main character either stands in front of the bathroom mirror, or looks in a shop’s plate-glass window and catches sight of themselves… and then gives an inch-by-inch internalisation of their features and clothing. So, you do this, do you, every time you find yourself in front of a reflective surface? No, of course you don’t. It’s a contrivance, one that makes readers roll their eyes and find something else to read.
There are various ways to give readers an indication of what your main character looks like, but some of them aren’t any better:

    Jeremy Bowden hovered in the doorway. He was six-feet-five tall, and from crew-necked sweater to patent leather shoes was dressed in black. The only concession to colour was the buckle on the belt that hugged his slim waist, handcraft silver with an inner setting of turquoise to match his dancing blue eyes.

    Take a moment to think about the words used. How high is this doorway if a six-feet-five man can hover in it? What sort of propulsion system does he have installed in the soles of those patent leather shoes? Those blue eyes – line dancing or two-step? And imagine that sort of description repeated for every character making an entrance; readers would grow old waiting for the story to get on track.
    Radio is said to have the best descriptions because listeners supply their own, and the same applies to printed fiction. All the writer needs to do is offer broad outlines and a few highlighting touches. That way the story won’t find itself peopled with women who are all beautiful and green-eyed, possessing long raven / blonde / auburn hair that feels like silk, and wearing thigh-length cashmere sweaters.
    Description of characters, as with description of places, should never be set in a block, but should be integrated among other elements to support the forward momentum of the story.

    Hesitating in the open doorway, Jeremy Bowden checked the dress of the other guests. Informal to a man, just as the invitation had specified. Despite his deep and regular breathing, a familiar rush of heat began to moisten his skin and he pulled at the neckline of his sweater to give himself some air. If he lost it here he’d end up buried in the grounds.
    The waiting apartment he’d expected; it was his due, the arrival of the bank statement a welcome bonus. He’d been given time to breathe, to stretch his limbs and replenish his tan before the courting had started. He should have made his situation plain then, but Jeremy Bowden was a name, and a name couldn’t be seen to be tarnished. Besides, he’d persuaded himself he could handle it. And then the invitation had arrived, and the limousine.
    He glanced over the antique dining table, its silver and crystal set for ten. Ten was too many, too big a job, and he recognised no one by the window, strangers every one, until Oscar Wallace turned to smile at him.
    ‘Good of you to make it, Jerry.’ Wallace paused at the laden dresser to pick up a glass to match his own. ‘Here, have some spiced wine to warm you through and I’ll introduce you around. People want to meet you.’
    People always wanted to meet him, to see the man that went with the name, but there’d been no handshake, Jeremy noted, only an offered glass hot enough to burn his fingers and scald his tongue. And he couldn’t say no, could he? It was too late to say no.

    Description, action, introspection, reminiscence, dialogue, atmosphere… each given a highlight within this partial scene.
    Description is a supporting, not a headline act, and should be used hand-in-hand with other elements. Readers don’t need Jeremy’s past life explaining in detail any more than they require to know the colour of his belt buckle. By his thoughts, his choice of action, they can read between the lines and build him, layer upon layer, into a person with a past, a person with failings, a person with a future; in short, a human being. Encouraged by the writer's guiding hand, they can attribute size, colouring and mode of dress to their individually desired level. Readers can often supply the better pictures, so let them.

Next: Naming is to Imbue with Life

30 July 2010

Description is... a personal view

It is often stated that description can be brought to life by utilizing the five senses. Try this:

    Furniture was sparse, but elegant. A laden dresser stood in solitary splendour against one wall. Opposite was a stone-clad hearth, its nest of crackling logs spitting iridescent sparks everywhere but up the sooted chimney. In the centre of the narrow room was a rectangular dining table of polished walnut, its surface sheen more dazzling to the eye than the gleaming silver and crystal it supported. The unmistakable scent of roses wafted gently from an artistic arrangement surrounding the base of a candelabra waiting to be lit.

Sight, sound, smell. Three out of five isn’t a bad tally, but does it do anything for you? Note the two senses not mentioned – touch and taste – the most personal of the senses, and therein lies the clue.

Many new writers forget that description should be filtered through a character, and instead portray the vision they are carrying in their mind, the vision they would see if they were watching it materialise on a screen in front of them.

To describe a place or an object divorced from the person who is supposedly viewing it, is to insert a distance between the action on the page and the reader’s experience of it. It is to insert the Author and have the Author filtering all the action to the reader. To put it another way, it’s the difference between participating in a sport and being a spectator; if badly executed it can be the difference between participating and reading a newspaper report. Author, get off the page.

Let’s return to that block of description and consider it again. What person, what character, could be viewing that room? No domestic cleaner would describe it in such terms, no owner of the house used to its setting, no burglar with his mind only on what is worth stealing – each would have a different priority and so wouldn’t ‘see’ this particular description. We are all distracted by our own life’s events; they colour our perceptions, and personal perceptions colour what we see, how we interact with our surroundings.

So when you want to describe a space, or an object, consider first whose eyes are viewing it, then consider how they feel emotionally. It can make a big difference in the words the writer chooses, a big difference in the tone of the description.

Next: describing characters, and then we’ll marry a character to this room.

29 July 2010

Normal Service Will Be Resumed

The La Scala short story competition critiques are ready for posting (prize-giving 31 July) and I am beginning to see my desk beneath the welter of other work, so my postings on fiction writing techniques will be resumed shortly. Regards, and thanks for being patient.

29 April 2010

Description: Signposts in the Text

19th century novels were heavy on description - very heavy on description - as authors conveyed mental pictures of places and things most readers would never see during their entire lives.

In contrast 21st century readers are force-fed information from around the globe 24 hours a day, much of it visually. We know what a coral reef looks like; we in Europe certainly know what an erupting volcano looks like.

Straight description no longer holds the fascination for readers it once did simply because so much visual stimulation is already filed in our minds. But this is to be embraced by writers of fiction. It makes our work so much easier. We need only to set signposts in the text and readers will do our work for us, calling up images that fit.

What mental images are conjured by these single words?


Water, okay? But what sort of water: size, colour, speed of flow? Because they were single word signposts, as a reader you will have automatically "filled in the blanks". Perhaps stream brought an image of a narrow stretch of water - and grassy banks, or reeds, or leaves being carried on its surface. Perhaps river brought an image of a wider, deeper, stretch of water, perhaps with a faster flow - and a small boat, water fowl, a bridge. Perhaps estuary... you get the idea.

However, there are drawbacks to doing this. The images I've given came from a British landscape because that's the landscape I live in; I interact with it every day. If you are reading this in Malaysia, or Canada, or Argentina, your images will be different because without supporting signposts readers' minds automatically default to their own normality. So do bear this in mind.

Over the next few posts I'll be discussing Description in more detail, including using supporting signposts, and how to use description to create atmosphere and tone.

Description is a necessary part of building a world experience for readers, but it should not swamp them. Pick the right descriptive word and an entire retinue of images follows on behind.

2 April 2010

Finding Your Voice

It’s a question I am asked by earnest, if not worried, fiction writers: how do I find my voice?

My answer usually floors them: You don’t. You keep your own voice well out of it.

First, a bit of explanation. The belief that the work of a good writer (note the term) has an individual ‘voice’ dates from when writers were artists who starved alone in garrets while pontificating to the world about the human condition. This was at a time when ‘literary’ and ‘fiction’ were synonymous, and those who wrote genre fiction were looked upon as polluting the authorial waters with ‘trash’, if not actually ‘prostituting one’s art’, a term that was flung – yes, flung – into my face complete with spittle when I first started writing. Hilarious now, but the odour still wafts through occasionally.

Does this mean that no writer should have an individual voice? Not at all. If you are writing, for instance, a personal memoir, then something of your own personality has to come across in the writing to help enthral readers. If you are relating a trip through the Indonesian rain forest, or your family’s trials and tribulations setting up a sheep farm in the Lake District, and it is conveyed in a grammar-correct monotone, you’ll have few readers. But if your writing is breathless or witty or lyrical then it is far more liable to carry along readers in the wake of your sheer exuberance.

But even then, it has to be focused. Personal writing is akin to writing a blog. You are reading this blog, lurking in fact (yes, you are), with no intention of leaving a comment but just dropping by in case I’m posting on a subject that interests you. That’s fine, feel free. But would you drop by for that same information if you had to wade through posts about my mother, the antics of her cats, or the fact that the local sparrowhawk nabbed one of our cooing doves yesterday and the garden is covered in silver-grey feathers? Let’s face it, you are backing away already.

Trivia, personal or otherwise, isn’t what you are here for; pertinent information is what you are here for, and it is my belief that you’d prefer it delivered in a straightforward, accessible manner, not in a grammar-correct monotone. Is this, therefore, my voice, or is it the tone I choose when writing this blog? Good question.

Voice and tone are elements closely related to the target market. If I were writing this article for a writers’ journal, or to be included in a non-fiction how-to book, my personal voice – my chatty style - would need to be subdued and the tone I am using would be tailored to fit the requirements of the editor, who has already assessed the best method of conveying the information to the targeted readership of the magazine or book series. If you are reading a paper by an academic you’ll expect footnotes, not jokes; if you are reading a technical manual you’ll expect diagrams; the voice and the tone of the writing will be different, distinct to their target readership. The only series of non-fiction books I can think of which has successfully, very successfully, crossed the voice/tone threshold is ‘The Idiot’s Guide to…’ and you don’t need me to explain the reason – it’s all in accessing the targeted readership.

Having established that voice, or lack of it, plays an important part in writing non-fiction, what about its role in writing fiction? Here the side-show turns into a three-ringed circus, and I assert my belief that writers should keep their own voice well out of their work.

Fiction is not about the writer, it is about the characters. Even – especially – when writing in first person viewpoint, the voice on the page belongs to the character, not the person behind the keyboard. You’ve been reading this post for a while so your ear is attuned to its/my delivery. Now try this:
Spaz passed across the wrap and I gave him the money.
   "Sure you only want one?"
   "No," I said, "I want six. Hell, let's not quibble about numbers. I'll have ten."
   I hadn't even given him The Look, and already his elbows were leaving the small bar table as he backed into his chair.
   "Okay, okay," he said. "Do you think I know the state of your finances?"
   I picked up my glass and dribbled the contents into my mouth. There wasn't even enough to coat my tongue.
   "If you're looking for a source... Well, I might know of an off-licence, y'know, with an unguarded window…?"
   "And what use would that be to me?" I snapped. "Think I'm an alckie?"
   The little prat moved closer, sure of himself now.
   "That's the beaut, isn't it? Could be there's an anxious buyer."
   I slid my empty glass across the table towards him. He looked disconcerted, and it made me smile. "Buy me another and we'll talk about it."
   He didn't even try to argue, but dragged back his chair and limped towards the bar. I eyed his roll and sneered. He believed he had a charmed life, did Spaz, believed the sharks ignored the little fish. Silly bastard. Twice in plaster and still he thought he could fish the waters.

It’s the opening to A Contribution to Mankind, a short story I wrote some years ago which will be reissued shortly in an ebook collection. Read it again. Is this me talking and thinking, or have I taken on a narrative persona – the first person character’s persona?

Now think about this: the voice used is what I shall term as ‘working class English’. Would the words, the syntax, the delivery be the same if this short scene were between two men from non-English cultural backgrounds, West Indian, or Pakistani, or Polish? Would it be different if it were between two women?

Much of this relates to the Show versus Tell technique, and is where many beginner writers fall foul. They decide to write in first person because it is regarded as easier, but all they are doing is dressing themselves in fancy clothes and carrying props. The thinking is theirs, the morals are theirs, and soon the speech becomes theirs, too. The authenticity of the fiction stutters as their personal wish-fulfilment takes over.

Does this mean that I display no distinct ‘Linda Acaster’ voice across the breadth of my fiction? I hope so. What I’ll admit to is a personal style. No matter the genre or type of story I write, I aim for authenticity of character persona, clarity and depth.

So don’t confuse your style with your voice. Writers develop a style over time and keep their personal voices well out of it. Good writers ensure that style doesn’t become a rut.