29 November 2014

#BlackFriday or Colourful Weekend? Book Sale!

This weekend - 29th & 30th November - are the final days to grab my Native American historical at 99p / 99c (or equivalents) at Amazon Kindle stores worldwide. And, yes, I'd forgotten about Black Friday when this was scheduled. But why fight over a TV when you can download colour and excitement at the mere touch of a button?

This multi 5* reviewed novel came from a passion, held from childhood, for the everyday life of the northern plains peoples. My mother used to regale acquaintances with tales of cutting a warbonnet from folded newspaper when I was four years old. None of this needing actual feathers, you'll notice. Obviously my imagination held reign even then. 

The old game of "cowboys and indians" was popular when I was a little older, fired by the Westerns prominent on television. No guessing who made herself a bow and arrow quiver.  This obsession became so well known that books picked up by neighbours at church bazaars were dropped at our house. I would pore over them, inspecting the photographs with a magnifying glass, reading every word. 

Those good people, who would smile somewhat knowingly and shake their heads at my shrugging mother, would have no idea that those precious books, which I still own, would become the basis for a minor research library. Good on them, I say! 

And to you, dear reader, I say encourage a passion in a child, don't deter it, no matter how bizarre it seems at the time. You never know where it might lead in later life.

Beneath The Shining Mountains can be downloaded for Kindle USA or UK.

26 November 2014

#Editing Tip 4: Reading A Writer's Mind

This is the last in the mid-week series running concurrent with #NaNoWriMo, though there are more editing tips in Reading A Writer's Mind. Many writers work hard polishing speech in their fiction, but...

Are you making the most of dialogue tags?

Dialogue tags are important. Keep them simple and do not augment them with adverbs. Said becomes opaque in the run of a conversation, especially when it becomes necessary to delineate who is speaking in an exchange of more than two people.

A dialogue tag also acts as a pause in a string of speech, so take care where it is sited. Replace with action for weight, keeping it short so as not to detract from the spoken words. Readers will take the inference not just from the one line of speech, but in partnership with the narrative that surrounds it. Subtlety in pacing is the key.

‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘No,’ said Jerry, ‘I don’t think so.’
‘No,’ said Jerry, lifting his gaze to stare at me. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘No,’ said Jerry. He lifted his gaze to stare at me. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘No.’ Jerry lifted his gaze to stare at me. ‘I don’t think so.’

22 November 2014

#NaNoWriMo Alternatives: Retreating to a Retreat 2

In Retreating to a Retreat 1 Jex Collyer and Alan Wilkinson shared their reasons for escaping their normal writing spaces. In this concluding part they explain what they get from the experience.


Yes, it really is that simple.

Writing has been Alan Wilkinson’s day job for the past 20 years, and when he’s writing fiction he schedules for 1,000 words a day five days a week. ‘That way I know how long a project will take me to draft.’

We both know novelists who can complete that in an hour, and some days he’s not far behind. Other days... ‘I may be at my desk by 7am and reach lunch with only the first sentence down, then I know it’s going to be a graft day.’ Graft days can sprawl across sixteen hours, but he’s philosophical. ‘Regardless of whether it is by 10am or midnight, those 1,000 words get written. It’s my job and my partner accepts it.’

Jex Collyer has been writing consistently since 2008 and her schedule is more akin to the normal life of most people. She has a full-time job, a partner and “a healthy social life”. She uses the walk to her day job to ponder plot points, and emails these to herself from her phone so she can work on them during evening stints at her keyboard. She also believes in having a pad handy to scribble notes while she's cooking, but accepts that the bitty aspect of fitting writing around other work is not ideal.

‘It would be easy to decide I didn’t have time to write, which is the very reason I book myself into a retreat, so I have dedicated time to concentrate on my drafts.’  Being disciplined about distractions is the key.

'Even if I'm only in a cafe for a morning or afternoon's stint, the wifi is switched off and the phone set to silent. I'll check for calls when it suits the writing, not stop the writing to take the call.' And other people's noise? 'I always write to music. At home it's on surround sound, everywhere else it's on headphones.'

It's the same routine when she stays in a retreat, be it a residential library or a small hotel, with the addition that there's no sweating the small stuff, like do I need to buy potatoes? or knowing the washing-up is waiting; meals come all-in. 'Retreats are ideal for full immersion into your fictional world. It's one of my favourite sorts of holiday.'

Alan relishes his breaks when he's on a residency in America as driving into a small mid-west town, or calling into a diner for a meal, can throw up some wonderful copy. 'I'm usually there to concentrate on a specific work, but I'm also very aware that the act of being in unusual surroundings can stimulate new ideas, or provoke responses to the place that no amount of previous book or internet research can provide.' And don't get him started on the people he meets. 'They'd only be believed in the sort of travel-writing I do; never in a fictional novel.'

What Alan and Jex completely agree on is the need to focus. 'Just do it. This is your work, your career, your calling. Demand that it be taken seriously, by others as well as yourself.' 

And if you need to separate your writing time from your home-life time, even if it's just to prove a point to yourself, what better way than to find your own writing retreat. 

I thank my guests for their input over these two posts. Do leave a comment if you've found them useful, or add in how and where you found your personal bolt-hole.

For how Alan and Jex choose a retreat to suit their different needs go to Retreating to a Retreat 1.

Alan Wilkinson has just completed Chasing Black Gold (The History Press, July 2015). His account of a six-month retreat on a western cattle ranch, The Red House on the Niobrara, is available as an extensively illustrated e-book, or paperback. Toad's Road-Kill Cafe, his sharply observed trip up the 100th meridian from Mexico to Canada, is available as an ebook.
Visit his website or catch his ruminating blog

J.S. Collyer is a Science Fiction novelist from Lancaster, England. She likes narratives that are larger than life. Her first book Zero: An Orbit Novel (Dagda Publishing) is now available internationally in paperback and for Kindle, and she's working on a sequel.  
Follow her on Twitter: @JexShinigami
'Like' her on Facebook or drop into her writing blog 

19 November 2014

#Editing Tip 3: Reading A Writer's Mind

Continuing the series running concurrent with #NaNoWriMo, here is another question a writer should ask of a short story or section of a novel:

Does your story stay with the chosen viewpoint and distance?

Third person or first person viewpoint makes little difference. Almost everything that is seen or occurs should be filtered through the viewpoint character’s thoughts or senses. Omniscient viewpoint is a trap marked “Authorial”, and it is all too easy to cross the dividing line. Is this story about your characters or how you feel about your characters? Get off the page and let them do their own thing. 

If readers start a story close in to the third person viewpoint character, sharing his every thought, keep to that distance, don’t push readers to arm’s length during action sequences. If you have difficulty keeping so close in, return to the opening and match the distance to that used later in the story. The flow should be smooth, part of a single whole. Nothing irritates readers more than working their way through a text to discover near the end that the viewpoint character has been hiding a pivotal nugget of information when all else has been shared with the reader.

Check out other posts in this November series:
#Editing Tip 1: Does your story start in the right place?
#Editing Tip 2: Is your story overloaded with description?

15 November 2014

#NaNoWriMo Alternatives – Retreating to a Retreat 1

Like most writers, I started with a pad and pen on the kitchen table after my toddler was in bed and my spouse on his shift. From there it escalated to a grocery box into which reference books, portable typewriter, paper, etc, could be stored when we were eating. A house move allowed me a small desk in the corner of a bedroom to site a desktop computer. Our current house allows me an entire room, and my “office” has grown accordingly. What hasn’t grown in tandem is my writing output. Should I retreat to a Retreat?

I first came across Writing Sheds while tutoring a course at one of the UK Arvon Foundation’s centres. Dotted in the extensive grounds, they were 6x4ft with a window and the bare minimum of folding chair and writing shelf. A few novelists I know now have larger, more plush versions in their gardens ...where the household jobs aren’t glaring at me. I can certainly see the advantage of that, but do I want to cross a muddy lawn in the pouring rain to a cold shed?

Jex Collyer writes speculative fiction and her debut novel, Zero, was launched this summer. ‘In my experience, a novel demands a lot from you. To keep all the threads of your plot together, to get all the events down, to build a proper pace and keep your characters and style consistent, you need to dedicate a large amount of time to work and in big chunks when you can.’

Too often she caught herself trying to slot writing around domestic and employment responsibilities which was when she first decided to look into using residential libraries and study centres. It worked; the words flowed.

‘I find these offer the best environment as usually they provide an inspirational place to work as well as accommodation.’ And these can prove surprisingly inexpensive. ‘One of the libraries I go to is only £60 a night and this includes breakfast and dinner.’ Country retreats offered by religious foundations such as the Quakers, also prove excellent value.

Alan Wilkinson, a ghost-writer and long-time writer of fiction and non-fiction, needed a creative retreat when he had to complete a book in seven days. ‘It was a lovely old house, and there was a painter and a musician staying, too. Food was all in, and all responsibility of domesticity was removed.’ Even better, it was situated in his original home town, not visited for years. ‘Once the words were flowing I could take time to walk down memory lane. For me, the retreat has to be an adventure in itself.’ 

And these adventures have taken him to the USA. ‘One was in Florida and related to a writer whose work had long fascinated me – being the former home of Jack Kerouac. A second was in Nebraska, close by the home-place of a writer, Mari Sandoz, whose work was the subject of my writing at the time. This winter I’m taking one in northern New Mexico, a place I have lived in, enjoy, and am fascinated by.’

With his writing credentials, Alan has often been able to apply for bursaries, even if they don’t always come his way. ‘This started one dire day when the words wouldn’t come. As displacement I searched “writer’s residencies” and kept following links. It’s amazing the opportunities out there if you are willing to hunt them down.’

Bursaries – financial help towards fees and/or travelling expenses – aren’t just for those writers with an extensive back-list. Check the small print of your chosen centre to see if your circumstances fall within its guidelines.

For Jex Collyer it isn’t the wider surroundings that’s the priority. One of her most productive stints was undertaken in a B&B half an hour’s train journey from home. ‘I’m not a fan of writing where I sleep so I look for somewhere either with a residents’ lounge or a library within walking distance.’ And whereas Alan takes residencies infrequently, for Jex little and often works best. ‘Even if I have a month when I simply can’t afford to go away, I spend a day in a local cafe, library or bar – just so I’m in my own mental space separated from the jobs that are always waiting at home.’

Convinced? I think I might be. To learn how Jex and Alan utilise their time away, join us next Saturday for Retreating to a Retreat 2. This NaNoWriMo series started with #NaNoWriMo is Live - But is it for You?

J.S. Collyer is a Science Fiction novelist from Lancaster, England. She likes narratives that are larger than life. Her first book Zero: An Orbit Novel (Dagda Publishing) is now available internationally in paperback and for Kindle.  
Follow her on Twitter: @JexShinigami
'Like' her on Facebook or drop into her writing blog 

Alan Wilkinson has just completed Chasing Black Gold (The History Press, July 2015). His account of a six-month retreat on a western cattle ranch, The Red House on the Niobrara, is available as an extensively illustrated e-book, or paperback
Visit his website or catch his ruminating blog

12 November 2014

#Editing Tip 2: Reading A Writer's Mind

Following on with editing tips from my writers' guide, here's the second in the series:

Is your story overloaded with description?

Do readers need to be aware of the different types of vegetation growing in every crack on the pavement, or the amount of rust on a beer can in the gutter? Or, indeed, that a character’s eyes are …a striking cornflower-blue… or …matched the rich cerulean of the Tasman Sea an hour before nightfall...? Which character is thinking in these descriptive terms? Often it isn’t a character at all, but the writer supposedly being… writerly. Description should enhance the story, not be the story. Deft touches filtered through a character’s viewpoint are what are needed, just enough for readers to gain an approximation and so allow them to mentally dress the scene from their life experiences.
For instance, if it is necessary in the story for characters to be delineated by their height don’t fall back on bald measurements. Have them step up onto a box to reach something that would be handy to most of us, or duck as they enter a room; have them be self-conscious or pragmatic about their height, just don’t state “the facts” as if it were written on a police report - or in your character notes.

Other editing tips in this November series:
Editing Tip 1: Does your story start in the right place?
Editing Tip 3: Does your story stay within the chosen viewpoint and distance?

11 November 2014

Lest We Forget

It is 100 years since the start of the Great War, and among the annual Remembrance for the Fallen in all conflicts since, particular attention is being given to those involved in WW1. The ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London is one such act.

I am concentrating on something smaller, something closer to home, but no less poignant. Across Hull and the East Riding displays make us stop, and think. This one is at the Ferens Art Gallery. Tap the image for a closer view. 

The central portion is made up of the poppies worn by many up and down the country, produced by the British Legion which sells them to raise funds for the benefit of our maimed armed forces. The outer poppies were all hand-made by primary school children from the city. The white flecks are parcel tags, each tied to a poppy and bearing the name of a young man who never returned to his family from World War 1.

There were those who did, of course, perhaps injured but grateful to be back in Blighty. 

One such man was my grandfather, Joseph Kammerer, a rully-man who worked for the local railway company - a reserved occupation - before being given special dispensation to join up in 1916.

While in France he was involved in an incident marked on official paperwork as an "own shell explosion". This eventually sent him back to Hull to be cared for in Reckitt's Hospital. And there he died, on 5th November 1918 - of the influenza pandemic that killed so many more than the guns of WW1.

                                                        RIP - every one

8 November 2014

#Editing Tip 1: Reading A Writer's Mind

When I was first published, my fiction edited professionally, it was a revelation, and I still have my old copy typescripts painstakingly marked in red to match the published versions. It became my goal, a point of professional honour, to submit a typescript that would match the published version. I wanted my name to be linked to fiction that would require no editing. Time is money, and editors are busy. If they know from experience that a submission from a certain writer needs minimal work on their part, not only does the submission rise to the top of the reading pile, but it will also be chosen over a better story that needs a lot of editing. Why? Because this is the real world.

When I became a writing tutor, then a fiction consultant, those same initial mistakes I’d made began to pass before my eyes, and it is those mistakes that I included in Reading A Writer's Mind... when I dedicated a chapter to self-editing. A few of these will be added to the blog over the rest of the month. Sign up for my Newsletter to get a free full chapter.

#1 Does your story start in the right place?

There is a lot of preamble in a writer’s thought processes when conjuring an embryo story, not least in considering a character’s past life so as to be able to portray that character true-to-life on the page. You might need to know that your character spent four years in the army, but if this information is not pertinent to the storyline, or pertinent to the character’s emotional responses in this story, then to readers it is superfluous information.

The same applies to the ongoing story. Do readers need to follow that character through a broken night’s sleep due to gorging on cheese and pickles, through the morning’s toilet and breakfast routine, through the trip to work, through saying hello to the receptionist… if the nub of the story is physically centred round the office water cooler?

Beginning at a moment of change, of decision, of minor crisis, helps hook the reader into the fiction. In your drafted story, if the moment of change, of decision, of crisis, does not erupt until a third, or halfway, through the typescript, you need to ask it why, and what can be cut. Readers, especially editors, will not hang around until the story gets into gear.

Other posts in this November series include:
Editing Tip 2: Is your story overloaded with description?
Editing Tip 3: Does your story stay within the chosen viewpoint and distance?

5 November 2014

#NaNoWriMo is live - But is it for You?

It's November so it must be (Inter)National Novel Writing Month, when hardly souls sign up to undertake cracking 50,000 words in 30 days. 

If you have, then you certainly won't be reading this post. It equates to 1,700 words per consecutive day, 7 days a week, or 2,500 words per day, 5 days a week if you wish to remain on speaking terms with your nearest and dearest during December.

A straw poll from close writer friends found that half wouldn't even attempt it because to write at the required speed over such a period would produce "...substandard crap, riddled with plot-holes and trillions of adverbs..."

This brings to the fore my misgivings from last year [read here]: most participants expect to produce a typescript near enough there bar the polishing, when in truth what they are more likely to have is a very dirty draft. And chances are that participants will be so emotionally exhausted they won't be able to tell the difference.

Not everyone I contacted thinks this way. Two who accepted the challenge in previous years found there were pros and cons. Tiredness was certainly a factor, both mental and physical, and after putting in so much work the fear of missing the target, no matter self-imposed, crept in when the cascade of words turned to a dribble. On the other hand, procrastination was eliminated, and hitting the deadline gave a real lift to the senses. As one put it "...I felt energised and renewed...".

If your immediate domestic circle isn't on board to support and gate-keep for you, it won't happen.
Being normally disciplined in your writing is a great help.
Pre-planning is a must: characters, outline, research...
Never look back; keep ploughing forward.
Remember that what you have at the finish is a draft.

So, if you are reading this, were you tempted but didn't sign? Why not?

It is always good to push back the boundaries; we never know what we can accomplish if we don't try. But there are other ways, and I'll be covering these in later posts during the month. In the meantime let's consider quality rather than quantity. If you have a finished script, or a work in progress, this could be useful.

For a short period I'm offering a complete chapter of Reading A Writer's Mind... to anyone who signs on to my occasional Newsletter - see top of the page - and subsequent posts will carry a tip from the editing chapter of the book.

In the meantime, do leave a comment on the blog. I'd be interested to hear if you've undertaken NaNoWriMo in past years, or what you undertake as an alternative.