Thursday, 18 January 2018

A portent of parental problems

Today I’ve been incapable of writing the word ‘parents’ (even had to go back and correct that one). Every time, my fingers spell out p-a-r-t-e-n-t-s, autocorrect helpfully (not) makes it into portents.

Being away from home and with the wireless keyboard doesn’t help. I type happily then spot that nothing is happening on screen. Is it just being slow; will several lines of prose (matchless, natch) suddenly spill out, or has it lost concentration and attached its focus elsewhere?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my wireless keyboard, so does my back. I can sit properly and not have to hunch over the keyboard attached to the tablet, but it has its downsides. When I first turned it on and began to type, my phone sprang to life. The keyboard adores the phone and will connect to it in favour of any other device.

But despite some issues along the way, it has been a godsend. It must be at least a decade old. It’s an Apple one, but very sociable; it’ll speak to any device in range. Took me ages to figure it out when its love affair with my phone first began. ‘I can’t type anything,’ I cried in despair. ‘I can’t text. What’s the matter with this phone?’ It was the keyboard, inside its case, inside the laptop bag, in the cupboard at the other side of the room, murmuring sweet nothings and giving the phone full access to all it’s characters.

Some of those characters have themselves begun to show their age. They can stick. If I want to write the letter A three times in a row – aaagh! and the like – I must be gentle, or I’ll get a whole page and a far longer scream of anguish than I originally needed before I can persuade it to stop. The real devastation comes from the backspace delete key. Make the mistake of holding it down to get rid of a dozen or so words and it’ll fly through the entire manuscript like a demented reverse Pacman eating everything in its path. That’s not a mistake I’ll make twice.

And now on with the chapter containing all the p-a-r-e-n-t-s.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The art and craft of thinking

Part of my day job is to introduce large numbers of students to the world of higher education via a short series of workshops that runs across a single term. The ‘visible’ part of this is guiding new students around the physical and administrative complex that is a university, but by far the more important part; that part that will (I hope) stay with them forever is to challenge their views on how they think.
My end game here is for the students to develop habits of thinking critically and objectively, of putting aside their own prejudices and preconceptions and assessing evidence for what it really is, and not for what they might be expecting to find.
The following is adapted from a taster that I present to the students at the start of their course: a means to start them off on a critical journey. Take a look at the following cartoon:

·         Which one of them is right?
·         Are they both right?
·         What if one of them says to the other, "Just because you are right, that doesn't mean that I am wrong," - is that valid?
·         Are they both equally right and wrong?
In fact, one of them is probably wrong.
Someone might have painted that number on the ground from a particular orientation for a particular purpose. It might signify important information - a distance or a weight limit. It's possible that interpreting it the wrong way would lead to catastrophe.
At this point, neither us as readers nor the cartoon characters themselves have enough information to know who is right.
How would they find out? First they should stop their pointless argument, because they do not have the facts and will get nowhere. They could then back away; they could orientate themselves with surrounding buildings or a nearby wall, look for other numbers to line up with this one; or they could ask someone who knows more about this than they do.
This process of finding out more is research. It’s the process by which we progress; it’s the reason people no longer die from smallpox; the reason we can travel vast distances in hours; the reason we can communicate with people on the other side of the world in real time; the reason we know so much about our own history. 

Research is a skill that everyone should learn. And hand-in-hand with this is something else to learn: Research is something you do before you decide you know the answer.
Along with learning how to research, is learning how to avoid this "6 or 9" situation. You do it by questioning, by not taking things at face value, by stepping back and taking an objective view. Question what you hear and what you read. Is this true just because it 'seems obvious'? Is there another way to look at it? What is the aim of the person who is saying this? Do they have credible evidence to back it up? Are there other people who have investigated it and who have more in-depth information?
Look beyond the soundbite!
Why is this important? In declaring six or nine, the characters in the cartoon are each stating an uninformed opinion about something they have not investigated or thought about. They each proclaim that they are right and consider their opinion to be valid. But without evidence and facts to back it up, an uninformed opinion is not valid and can be very dangerous. 

Think about this the next time you watch a discussion programme. Are people stating opinions without backing them up? Are they providing evidence? Is the discussion's moderator doing a good job about highlighting evidence or the lack of it or is s/he giving equal weight to facts and uninformed opinion? 
Uninformed opinions can be dangerous.
Suppose an aircraft is grounded for a serious mechanical fault.
·         Engineers: This plane is not safe. It cannot take off.
·         Airline management: We can't afford to lose the money. It will be fine.
·         Engineers: Here are the results that show that this component is likely to fail with catastrophic effect.
·         Airline management: Here are the statistics to show that there has never been a plane crash on this route. Can you say with 100% certainty that there will be a problem?
·         Engineers: No, because these things are never predictable with 100% certainty, but we can say that the chances of the plane crashing are high.
-- the discussion continues -- Should the plane take off without repairs? And if it does, would you want to be on it?

In essence this was the argument that took place behind the scenes before the catastrophic failure of the Challenger space shuttle. The engineers expected it to leak fuel and blow up on the launch pad. In fact, the leak happened but the freezing conditions plugged it for just over a minute and the craft exploded soon after take-off with the loss of everyone on board.
As a result of the investigation and subsequent report, procedures were changed so that a management decision could never again overrule a safety issue. 
Thinking about your opinions is important. Why do you believe one thing over another? Are you basing your views on evidence or on something else, maybe your like or dislike of the person who is saying it? It is an interesting exercise to stop and think about the way you form your opinions.
It is often said that 'everyone is entitled to an opinion'? I say, not so! I say that you can hold the opinion that a certain breakfast cereal is the best because you enjoy it the most, but if you want to hold the opinion that your favourite breakfast cereal is a more healthy option than any other cereal, that is only valid if you can back it up with credible facts.
The journalist Jef Rouner has more to say about this in his article, No, it's not your opinion. You're just wrong.
Food for thought. What do you think?

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Book review: Ours: poetry collection including Maureen Duffy

OursOurs by Maureen Duffy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love Maureen Duffy's poetry - it's down to earth, solid, and is about real people and real things. There is only one of her poems in Ours because this is mainly a book of the winners and shortlisted entries to a competition that she judged. The fact that she was the judge ensures the quality of the end product, and there are a handful of other poets who were invited to contribute to the final collection. The book contains two other names that I know, Robert Jaggs-Fowler and Sue Knight - neither of whom are a well known as poets as they should be but maybe that will change with time.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Writing successful commercial fiction

This book, How to be a Fantastic Writer, is the expanded 2nd edition of The Writers' Toolkit. It is the recommended text (by the editors at Fantastic Books) for writers of commercial fiction.

Targeted specifically at authors of commercial fiction, this book lifts the lid and shows you the component pieces of compelling prose and how they fit together. It debunks popular myths – you’ve heard the adage ‘show, don’t tell’; did you know that ‘tell, don’t show’ has an equally vital role to play in vibrant fiction? The trick is knowing which to use and when. This book will tell you. It strips away the mystery and shows the practical steps involved in when and how to build dramatic effect; how to make your characters come alive on the page; how to employ powerful 21st century techniques (don’t let the film-makers have all the best tools).

How to be a Fantastic Writer leads you step by step from beginning to end. If you’re just starting out and want a solid framework to give you confidence, or if you are a seasoned novelist who wants practical advice on how to inject tension into a scene that inexplicably seems to drag, then this is the book for you.

“Specifically addresses the vast majority of the problems we encounter when assessing authors’ manuscripts. The whole team was delighted when the authors agreed to write an expanded second edition.” Mae, senior editor, Fantastic Books Publishing

                From Amazon reviews of the first edition

“You can literally see what needs to happen, where the sticking points are and how to resolve them. For me it was like a light turning on in my head.”

“Gets straight to the heart of what makes fiction commercial but also eminently readable.”
“It has given me considerable inspiration.”

 “It has clarified what my next steps are and how much work I still have to do. For that alone, it is worth the money.”

“The instructions for preparing a two-sentence pitch were alone worth the cost of the book.”

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Looking forward ... looking back ...

This has been a series of seven blogs exploring a variety of corners of fiction writing. I’ve looked at some of the genres that don’t always (or ever) get prominent billing in the book stores, plus some that are always centre stage. Each was seen through the lens of a different writer.

Elaine Hemingway: Out of Africa? The Midrashim

Danuta Reah: With Criminal Intent

Thursday, 23 November 2017

International best-sellerdom via an unconventional route

My interviewee, Susan Alison, is an artist and author whose first novel, White Lies and Custard Creams shot to the top of the best-seller lists in 2011 and stayed there for weeks. Amazon used a picture of it in their online charts in a promotion to sell Kindles.

I’m especially intrigued by Susan’s decision to self-publish when she could have gone the traditional route. ‘I've always been a self-employed-type-person,’ she says, ‘and this was just an extension of that. It suits me to do it all myself and not have to rely on other people.’

Once she’d gone that route, did she have any regrets? ‘None. I was working to my own timetables rather than waiting for other people. After I'd done it, I wondered why I hadn't done it years before.’

Prior to publishing her novel, Susan was a prolific short story writer having appeared in a variety of women’s magazines. Since that first novel, she has published three more standalone romantic comedies; two in an urban fantasy series; and a collection of her previously published short stories in an illustrated anthology.

In addition to these, she has published six colouring books and two books of illustrated doggerel.
It feels like a disparate collection. It there a common thread?

‘What they all have in common is dogs. There are dogs in all of them somewhere. Oh, except for the cat colouring book - no dogs in there. Just cats... I like dogs. They are straightforward creatures. I like that.’

It’s true. Dogs figure large in Susan’s writing. They bound through the pages of her novels. One of her illustrated doggerel books is about the Corgi Olympics; the other, from the pen of CorgiScribe, is about being a writer. Her colouring books feature corgis, border collies, whippets and greyhounds; and yes there is that one anomalous one about cats.

And does she target specific markets or audiences when she writes?

‘I'm always going to write what I enjoy writing,’ she tells me, ‘rather than what I think is going to sell. Partly because it's difficult to tell what is going to sell and partly because if you're in it for the long haul you need to be able to have some enthusiasm about tying yourself to the desk and keyboard rather than a major reluctance to get on with it.’

How does the art impact the writing and vice versa?

‘The art and the writing are all on the same spectrum except that when I'm an artist I have films showing on the other monitor, but when I'm a writer I have to have complete silence. I do the art in a relaxed fashion, but am running on adrenaline when writing a first draft. I love doing the first draft but dislike editing.’

Currently Susan is halfway through 'Staking out the Goat' which is a sequel to 'White Lies and Custard Creams'; she’s also halfway through book three of her Hounds Abroad urban fantasy trilogy; and halfway through an illustrated doggerel book about a magical corgi.

It sounds to me like she needs a lot of complete silence to keep ahead of all that adrenalin. Time to tiptoe out of this interview.

Follow these links to find out more about Susan, her writing, and her art.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

With Criminal Intent

My interviewee today is Danuta Reah with whom I co-authored The Writers’ Toolkit several years ago. I mention that just so I can flag that Fantastic Books’ editors took it up as their recommended text, badgered us into an expanded second edition called How to be a Fantastic Writer and that new edition is just out.

Danuta is a crime novelist. She was Chair of the Crime Writers Association a few years ago. However, her specific expertise is in English Language and linguistics, and this adds a particular weight to her views. As well as being a novelist, she’s a book reviewer; the sort with a growing following. She pulls no punches but to be reviewed by her can give a book a real boost.

What came first, the academic writing or the novels?

She tells me, ‘I started out writing academic stuff - a general book about text analysis, a book about the language of newspapers. I learned a lot about writing in general that way - learning how to structure a long piece of work and, of course, with text analysis, you learn a lot about the writer's craft from studying the way other writers do it. I used a lot of what I gained from that in The Writers' Toolkit and later in How to be a Fantastic Writer.’

In what ways does her academic writing impact on her novels?

‘I know some people get a bit nervous that my novels are going to be very “literary” (whatever that means) and that they won't enjoy them - and then they are surprised to find that they're tense, suspenseful, scary - not the same as an academic text book at all.’

‘I do use my academic background. I have written three novels that make use of my work in forensic linguistics - the analysis of language in the context of crime - identifying the writer or speaker, identifying forgeries, voice recognition, that kind of thing. I used it a bit in Silent Playgrounds, and even more Night Angels.’

The books above, Only Darkness, Silent Playgrounds and Night Angels are three of Danuta’s Yorkshire quartet. The fourth in the series is BleakWater.

The mystery in her most recently published novel, The Last Room, centres entirely round the forensic investigation of language.

In this series of interviews, I have spoken to some people who write in genres I’ve never heard of. Danuta writes fiction in one of the most popular genres. Does being part of a big all-embracing genre cause any problems?

‘There's a tendency to get lost in the crowd. I know when I go into a book shop and look at the crime section, I'm overwhelmed by the choice and let myself become too influenced by the table displays and book shop recommendations. My reviewing has led me to authors I've thoroughly enjoyed, but probably would have missed on the shelf. I shouldn't say this as a writer, but there are too many crime novels out there and I suspect we are close to “peak crime”.

‘Another big problem is fashion and “the next big thing”. The problem is, editors want more of what sells, forgetting that quite often, the next big thing comes from a publisher who was prepared to move away from what everyone else is publishing at the moment. People forget sometimes that Stieg Larsson's books, which were very much the next big thing a few years ago are really structured as very traditional crime novels, but they seemed very new because no one was publishing that kind of thing at the time - and of course, Larsson did it very well. Right now, it's all psychology, unreliable narrators and final plot twists - great fun when handled by a good writer, but frustrating when a writer gets it wrong, and you suspect the book was written that way because the writer was pushed into it by the publisher rather than made that choice themselves. I don't want any more unreliable narrators, and I certainly don't want any more final “twists” that I can see coming from a mile away.’

Danuta has been published by a variety of publishers from the huge conglomerates to the small independents. I ask if she has any words of wisdom for other authors supposing they were in a position to choose?

‘It's horses for courses really. Small publishers are a lot more loyal to their authors and will work harder to help you publicise your books. The downside is a lot of them don't really have the clout with the bookshops, which makes it tough. You have to get out there and sell the book yourself. Amazon may be seen as the death of book shops, but it's also a lifeline for small publishers and for mid-list authors to get their books out there. Big publishers are pretty ruthless. If you don't increase your sales book on book by a certain amount, you're out, and there's a Catch-22 in this in that less than satisfactory sales means you get far less sales input.’

I ask if Danuta has ever self-published. When she says no, I ask why?

‘I don't know why. I know a few writers who got fed up with traditional publishers and went for it - but you have to be a very good self-publicist and be able to put in a lot more time than you do with a traditional publisher. If you're self-publishing ebooks it can be very profitable as once you've paid off your initial costs, you can just keep on selling. Self-publishing hard copy is very tough. It's expensive, you have to get your books into bookshops, in front of reviewers and in front of your audience. That's very hard and I would only consider that if I already had a massive market.’

Danuta’s next novel is called Life Ruins, and it turns out it has had expressions of interest from both a small publisher and one of the big 5. Which will she go with?

‘Until a contract’s signed, my lips are sealed.’

Find out more about Danuta and her writing on her website.