Monday, 20 October 2008

Coalville Library Crime Fiction Festival

I'm talking at Coalville Library Crime Fiction Festival on Saturday November 15th from 2pm. You can hear wise words from me (eek - better write some) about my life as an author and also find out lots about my books. You can buy them, too (hint hint) and I will deface them for you with my signature.

Writing festivals are good things. It means us authors have something to look forward to. During that particular week, you can attend a murder mystery evening, vote for a selection of authors, or listen to an Agatha Christie talk by John Martin, a chap who certainly knows his stuff.

Would love to see you there. Coalville is in Leicestershire, btw, so no excuses now you know where it is.


Monday, 13 October 2008

D is for Deadlines

The clue's in the word, right. Deadlines.

As an author, there's no escaping them. Before I was published, in those carefree days before contracts, all I wanted was a deadline. Please someone make me finish this book by Easter. Couldn't you pressure me just a little bit? Proper writers had deadlines, and I wanted one too.

'Ooh, no. Sorry. Won't be able to make that lunch date. I have an urgent deadline.' It was up there with 'Speak to my agent' in terms of feeling 'proper'. It was a badge of honour. I was certain it would gain me entry to some kind of exclusive authorial club; make me exude special literary pheromones; have everyone believe I was a real writer. All it did was make me rush out and buy more dye to hide the extra grey hairs.

So everything's set out in black and white. The contract states that in, let's say, twelve months your publisher not unreasonably would like delivery of a clean, readable manuscript. That it has to be a well-edited, polished, exciting, flawless guaranteed bestseller doesn't add that much extra pressure does it?

How then, does twelve months - a whole year - suddenly seem like a couple of days? How does spring become August, and summer transform in the blink of an eye into Autumn? Damn those Christmas cards and tinsel! How dare they be put out in the shops before I've finished my book.

The wise thing to do would be to plan ahead. Set a certain number of words to write each month, week, day - whatever gets you towards your deadline in a steady, unflappy way. Trouble is, life happens. Kids need taking to the dentist or have days off school with tummy ache. People 'pop' in thinking, ah, she only works from home. She'll be glad of the company. Then there's the business side of things, accounts, phone calls, emails, and checking proofs of the previous book, maybe attending the odd event or two, speaking at libraries etc. All this eats away at time allocated to write. Not to mention actually having a day or so off at the weekend or spending time with the family. Working from home is fantastic for 'fitting things in' (however much I may grumble about distractions) but also it can lead to novel-exhaustion because work is always there. There's nothing like a couple of days off (or a bar of chocolate) to get the creative juices flowing again. But that's hard to achieve when there's a screaming deadline looming.

Anyway, the upshot is... my latest deadline for my new novel is January 09. At the time of writing this post, I have written exactly 92530 words out of around 120000 words. So I'm not doing too bad. There's no panic yet. By the end of October, I will have finished the first draft, leaving me three months for revisions and editing, although the school holidays sit like the Grand Canyon in my work schedule.

I'm pretty disciplined about my writing most days. I don't feel good if progress is slow. And I also don't feel good about writing if the house is a mess or there's no food in the fridge. However, seeing as this is usually the case and my family are pretty resourceful, this deadline-induced state of mayhem is tolerated. And when the book's done, it's always time for a spring-clean, whatever the time of year. I like to thoroughly muck out my office. Get sorted. Scrunch up all those chocolate wrappers and gather up all the dirty coffee cups. It's a cleansing ritual. Make way for the new idea.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of meeting a deadline (except I had to get an extension last time!) apart from meeting a deadline with a novel that your editor loves and believes readers will love too. That, I guess, is what keeps me chugging forward. What keeps me wanting to write - and I would, deadline or not.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Desperately Seeking

Most unusual search string that brought someone to my blog this month?

Suzi Quatro's local gym.

It raises a number of questions...

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

No Right Turn

At one end of my street, you can't turn right. You also can't turn right when coming into my road either. This is for two reasons. 1) To stop my street being used as a rat-run. It's pleasant and has trees and children and cats. We don't want lots of cars down here. 2) The other reason is that, if you turn right out of my street onto the busy road, you hold up everyone behind you because, during rush hour, it's impossible to turn right. Going left, circling the roundabout, coming back again, keeps everything flowing.

So WHY does the woman in the four wheel drive - think huge, black, shiny and with a silly private plate that probably spells her name if you squint, stand on your head, and pronounce it with a French accent - WHY does she always insist on holding me up in the morning by bloody turning right out of MY street?

Today I managed to squeeze up on her left. I wound down my window. I shook my fist at her. I yelled 'Can't you read? It's no right turn.'

She could see right over the top of my little red diesel Fiesta that costs me £35 a year to tax, peanuts to insure, and does 65 miles to the gallon. So there she sat, staring over my roof, watching all the traffic go by, as I struggled to see over her rhinoceros-sized bonnet. Then she laughed at me. Then she wound down her window. She told me I should get a bigger car then I'd be able to see.

She is so going in a book. So going to drive a Del Boy-style three-wheeler. (Maybe I should re-read my previous post.)

Thursday, 2 October 2008

C is for Character

Everyone has one, don't they? A character, that is. It's what makes us human. It's what makes us react to situations. It's what makes others either like or dislike us. It is, ultimately, responsible for our decision making and therefore rather vital to have in a novel. If anything's going to actually happen, that is.

Years ago, when I wasn't very experienced... (and I know, compared to some authors, I still have a long way to go - although I'm nearly done writing my sixth published novel) ... I weighted my characters with layer upon layer of traits, attributes, reactions, ways of thinking, emotion, how they looked, navel-gazing, so that there simply wasn't any room for a story. Or if there was, no one noticed it because it was buried beneath all these over-zealous characters. It was a drag to read. No one in real life has that much 'character' - not all at once, anyway, and not so contrived.

It was an interesting and slow process, how I learnt about characterisation. People would politely ask 'What is your book about?'. (I'd written several complete novels before anything actually got published). My answer was usually something along the lines of 'A feisty woman who is angry, opinionated, and has a passion for XYZ. Then there's a man who's bereft, sad, lonely... A daughter who's rebellious, crazy, annoying...' I couldn't tell them what the book was actually about - er, because it wasn't really about anything. Apart from a bunch of overwrought characters.

After a while, because of all the comments/feedback I'd been getting from various sources, I began to tone down the larger-than-life players who broke into my work. They became more subtle, more realistic, and of course ultimately more believable. If something doesn't ring true with a reader, if you give them reason to shout out Yeah right enough times, then bit by bit you'll lose their attention. So this left me with a cast of characters who, OK, might have been a bit too bland in many ways, but at least they weren't all stereotypes and overreacting to, er, nothing.

The thing was, I was left with these characters, but there was no story as such. No plot. No momentum. Nothing to bring out their true worth. That's where story comes in (see future post). Without a story to tell, there's no way for your readers to get to know your characters. Without characters, there's no way to tell your story. They are chained together. It was at that time, surprisingly late on in my many failed attempts at publication, that I finally realised this simple fact. Had I not flunked out on my MA in Creative Writing, I would have learnt this a lot sooner.

It was a dawn breaking over my keyboard. An epiphany. And it was incredibly hard work at first, having to think of this whole 'story' thing. But it didn't half give the characters I'd been struggling with a sense of purpose, a real sense of place and belonging in my work. This may sound rather simplistic - and indeed it is. The crafting of an entire novel is far more intricate, dependent on so many other factors (not least a good editor). I doubt I'm qualified yet to even hazard a guess at what it is that makes a novel 'work'. But what I do know - from my own experiences only of course - is that character and story are intrinsically linked. It's even hard to write this post about characters without going on about story.

So now, when my feisty, angry, opinionated woman with a passion for German accents, sports cars, and train spotting strides onto the pages, or a bloke with an eating disorder, a divorce and a body odour problem, just won't go away, I'll throw a good dose of story at them. Watch them curl up and die.