The First Draft

It’s November. And I’ve set myself the target of finishing the first draft of ‘A Good Place‘ by the end of the month.

What is a first draft? No one seems to agree with anyone else on this one. And my use of the term here is a little different to most of the definitions I have come across.

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A hill station in Northern India photographed by my father during WWII. How is this relevant? read on…

Ideas of what constitutes a first draft seem to vary from, at one end, a sketch of the story arc with most of the characters written in, a mixture of great and awful writing, plot holes and loads of inconsistencies to, at the other end, the story pretty much as the author imagines it, but with minor inconsistencies to iron out, prose to polish and some information dump to delete.

I imagine that any single writer’s idea of a first draft will depend upon what type of writer they are. Being a pantser myself, i.e. NOT beginning with a carefully planned storyline and characters, but making it up as I go along, I think the first draft has to be closer to the finished article than if I were a plotter. This is because it is a little harder to see when I have reached that destination.

So my personal idea of a first draft is the book written from beginning to end, no obvious plot holes, no gaps, and nothing I think is glaringly wrong.

When I come back to revise, plot holes will reveal themselves, and I’ll deal with them then. What I shouldn’t be doing is coming back to a work with a huge gap where I found it too bothersome to write the dialogue in the first place.

So it’s mainly dialogue I’ll be working on. There are two scenes which need a lot of work on them still, and quite a lot of smaller gaps in the final third of the book. The draft currently weighs in at about 85,000 words, which is almost twice the length of Making Friends with the Crocodile, and feels to me to be the right length for the story.

It’s taken quite a while to get here. I know it’s generally accepted that the second novel usually has a far more difficult birth than the first, but the storyline has changed tremendously over the couple of years I have been working on it, and has become something I had not foreseen at all.

I’m not quite there yet, though.

And what is A Good Place about?

I’m so glad you asked.

It is 1988, and an Englishman arrives at a small hill station in Northern India. At first he appears to be no more than just another tourist, but gradually we learn he lived in the town as a child, during the time of Partition. A couple of years later his family moved back to England in a hurry, and he suspects it might have been due to some dark or ignoble reason and has decided to do a little research.

The human landscape of the story is the mixture of characters living there, the good and the bad, the well-off and the poor, the weird and the apparently normal, especially the English left behind after Partition.  It also happens to be the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the town by the English, and amidst the planned celebrations there are predictable feelings and tensions over this.

And the main character’s private life is a bit of a mess…

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Five o’clock

I’ve been away from the computer for most of the last week, but now I’m back with a slightly longer poem than I usually write.

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At five o’clock the fire is lit.

Around the table we all sit,

With buttered bread and eggs and ham,

With cups of tea and cake and jam.

The idle talk is of the day,

The work now done, the latest play,

And ‘Anything to watch tonight?’

Or in the warmth and soft lamplight,

Perhaps we’ll read and play a hand,

Of whist, or bridge, you understand.

And ‘Don’t forget, at half past nine,

The radio – it’s music time.’

Then bank the fire, put out the lights,

The household settles for the night.

 

The heat blasts out in every room,

And lights and games and TVs soon

Take over so completely that

It’s pointless even trying to chat.

The sounds of gunfire, screaming cars,

Exploding buildings, and on Mars

The aliens armed with laser beams,

Are killed on several different screens

In different rooms by different boys,

With highly deadly killing toys.

The evening mealtime’s such a treat,

With pizza, chocolate, crisps and sweets.

Although it seems they all are eating

Different things at different sittings.

 

‘A cup of cocoa? I don’t think

That that will do, an energy drink

Is what I need, the evening’s young,

And there’s still much that’s to be done.

And if I cannot concentrate,

Upon this game, it’ll be too late,

The zombies will have won and then

I’ll go back down to level ten.’

It’s one o’clock, they still can’t sleep.

There’s not much point in counting sheep,

‘cause they’re all battery-powered toys,

Just so much electronic noise

And moving parts all running round,

And round and round and round and round.

 

I’m standing now beneath night skies,

Pale silver light from fresh moonrise.

I’ve walked for almost half a day,

It takes that long to get away

now, searching for a quiet place

Where I can pause and have some space.

I’m thinking how it used to be,

At five o’clock, the time for tea.

It seems to me that what we’ve gained,

Is not worth any of the pain.

And even more what we have lost,

We should have saved at any cost.

But anyway, now it’s just me

I have my flask, I’ll pour my tea.

 

Keep Watch at the Window

It’s October.

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That must mean it’s autumn. It certainly feels like it, now. So here’s a little poem for when the days are drawing in and it’s becoming colder and darker outside.

Keep watch at the window in the Westering light,

On the distant hill in the approaching night,

Under darkling clouds, over dew-touched heath,

Where the flowers of summer are now touched by death,

I’ll be coming home in the fading light.

 

Keep watch at the window in the fading light,

You’ll see me walking when the moon is bright,

My shadow before me coming down the hill,

My breath opaque in the air now chill,

I’ll be coming home in the last of the light.

 

Keep watch at the window in the last of the light,

When I’m weary you’ll see me come into sight,

Drawn by the firelight and the thought of wine,

By the thought of you; so glad you’re mine!

I’m home now, let’s shut out the night.

 

From Genesis to Tribulation (and Beyond!)

Making Friends with the Crocodile was born early one morning – around 4 a.m. – in a Stream of Consciousness that demanded I get up out of bed and write page after page of notes on scenes and characters and the plot development.

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The whole novel was written in much the same way. Generally, I write as a pantser rather than a plotter – I’m terrible at planning out my writing, preferring instead to dive in and see where it takes me. But Making Friends with the Crocodile was written linearly, and other than the grammar and general tidying up, very little was changed in edit.

The book I’m working on now, though, had a far more troubled genesis. Maybe everyone has this problem with the second novel, unless it’s the second one of a planned series. I knew I wanted to write another novel that ‘said’ something, and that I wanted to set this one in India, too, but after that I went blank. I had decided to write about the English in India, or at least one of them, but had no plot.

We went on holiday, and for much of the week we were away I took a few hours out each day to work on the plot, filling my notebook with ideas and characters and working up a central theme, and once we were home again I started work on the novel.

But as I wrote, I found I was dissatisfied with the central plot. It seemed rather unlikely and, frankly, not that interesting. I didn’t even like my working title (I wonder how important that can be, psychologically?) I changed a few bits around, and turned the sub-plot into the main theme, and carried on. Eventually, I realised that I had lost interest in the whole project, despite the thirty thousand-odd words I’d written, and returned to an earlier, shelved project.

I worked on that for a while, but every now and again had ideas for the one I’d just abandoned, duly noted them down, and carried on. About three months later, I spent an afternoon going through notes and suddenly had an idea for two new sub-plots and a couple of new characters. These I liked Very Much Indeed.

I returned to the Abandoned Novel With the Uninteresting Working Title and got stuck in. I even had a new working title: A Good Place. It now stands at around seventy five thousand words, and the first draft is almost complete. There are a few gaps to fill in, but otherwise it is almost ready to put aside for a few months ready to edit.

So exciting!

Self Publishing – a Blessing or a Curse?

That depends on who you talk to, of course.

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The self publishing boom has given rise to the publication of millions of new books, the majority of which would never have been published traditionally because they would be either deemed to be of insufficient interest to return a profit to the publishers or because they were, frankly, just too terrible to see the light of day.

How good a book is can be very subjective in many ways, but certain rules must apply.

If you buy a traditionally published book, you may be reasonably certain that it has been edited and proof-read to a high standard, the printing and layout of the book is of good quality, and the actual contents – plot, dialogue, character development et al – are sufficiently well written as to repay your reading time.

There are no such guarantees with a self published book.

As a member of several Goodreads groups, I receive regular emails which consist largely of other members promoting their books. These promotions frequently consist of a synopsis of the book, extracts, and links. All well and good, but the number of extracts that are poorly written, unedited (it would seem), with poor print layout, and the number of synopses that are equally poor, is very high indeed. Probably the majority, unfortunately. And should I follow the link to the ebook sales site and read a longer extract, frequently this, too, is filled with more of the same errors.

As far as the plot and dialogue and all that goes with that is concerned, I admit that may be partly down to taste. I have no doubt that some poorly written and poorly plotted books still give great pleasure to many readers, and good luck to them. There are certainly examples of the same amongst traditionally published books. And styles go in and out of fashion, anyway.

What I do take issue with, though, is poor, sloppy editing.

Most people cannot afford to pay for professional editing – I certainly can’t. I understand that. It means doing the job yourself, but taking infinite time and care over it. Check it over and over again until it is the best you can do. The odd mistake will slip through, but that happens even in a professionally edited work. Persuade others to act as beta readers for you. They may not be professionals, but they will spot things you don’t. You are too close to the work, anyway.

If you can’t do that, don’t publish the book.

Let’s take layout first. It only takes a careful look at half a dozen professionally published books to get a good idea of what that layout should look like. And you can buy books that supply more detail. If you are serious about your book, you should do that.

Spellcheck is a useful tool, but only if it is used properly. It recognises a correctly spelled word in its database, but has nothing to say about the suitability of its use. I do find it particularly irritating to come across passages where the completely wrong word has been used, no doubt because Spellcheck flagged it up as the correct spelling. Common examples are groyne / groin, sheer / shear, alter / altar etc. etc. etc.

Grammar is the biggest minefield, though. We all get that wrong at times, even the best of us. But at least avoid the biggest howlers – the so-called grocer’s apostrophe, for example. Put the manuscript through a program such as Grammarly, which is free to download, to pick up the majority of the errors.

Another phenomenon I have seen recently is a 4,000 word story published on Amazon as a ‘Novella’. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with selling a story that length, but anything that comes in at 4,000 words is a short story. And quite a short one at that. To describe it as a novella, no matter what price it is being sold at is, quite frankly, a bit of a bloody cheek.

Please don’t do that.

And I’m sure many other readers have their own pet peeves.

 

Back Again

Well, I am back.

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I never seriously contemplated abandoning my blog, although I admit there were times I felt tempted. And although I regularly visited my Facebook account, I didn’t post anything to my author page and only really visited to stay in contact with some people.

My sharp-eyed viewer will notice a couple of new pages on this blog. There is now a page with links to all the short stories I have published, to make it easier to locate them should you wish to read or re-read them.

There is also a page of links to all the poems published on here – I had no idea there were so many!

You’re welcome.

There was a lot going on in my life and I needed a lot of space to just try and sort some of it out. Some of it is still on-going, but I think I’m in a position to come back and give a reasonable amount of time to blogging.

But, as well as doing life, I have been busy writing. Probably the main thing I have managed to do is take my stop-start novel set in a fictitious hill station in Northern India from around 35,000 words up to the point where it is an almost completed first draft of just over 70,000 words. And I have a working title for it: A Good Place.

I’ve half-written a few blog posts, although I had intended to prepare lots more. Oh well. For the moment I will go back to posting roughly twice a week and see how that goes.

And I’ve faffed around a bit with a short story. All in all, other than the novel, not a lot. But I am pleased with the novel so far. I sorted out the sub-plots and brought in a number of new characters. And it is finally at the point where I can allow myself to think ‘Yes, almost there!’

And I don’t think until now I’d really understood how absolutely driven it was possible to be when writing; how the Work In Progress can come to utterly dominate your waking life – incessantly thinking about it and tweaking and refining the plots and characters, almost to the exclusion of all else.

Clearly, I need to get it finished.

A (Temporary) Farewell

I have decided to absent myself from WordPress World for a while.

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I frequently need to take a large step back from the world and give myself some time and space to re-charge my batteries, and also to think deeply about the importance I attach to whatever is going on in my life at the moment.

Those things that cause stress tend to assume a greater importance than they probably deserve to, while the things I do for my own pleasure tend to make me feel unreasonably guilty about giving them the time that others might want.

While there is so much going on, and so little time, I seem able to devote less and less of it to either writing blogs or following others. I have noticed I am leaving far fewer comments, and tending to skim read far more than I used to.

Clearly, I need a break.

But while I am doing that, I mean to write a number of blog posts without feeling under pressure to finish them by some sort of deadline, so that when I reappear I might have something to post that is worth reading.

Hopefully, I will be able to make progress on my book, short stories and poems.

And the odd painting or two.

See you later.

Bilbo In The Breeze

This is another standalone poem from my linked series, a work in progress, poems written around the theme of the weather.

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Please don’t ask me when the whole thing might be completed!

Bilbo in the Breeze

 

Tonight, there is no moon,

But I hear dry leaves,

Swirling and clattering on the path.

Fingers brushing my cheek,

Cold breath on my face.

 

Leaves, dry leaves,

Flung into the air and a voice,

A spiteful, hissing voice,

Whispering in my ear:

‘What has it got in its pocketses?’

 

There are nasty, cold fingers

Poking and prying around my pocket.

I feel a tug at my jacket,

A sudden push in my back.

 

I jam my hands in my pockets

To warm them and keep the nasty fingers out.

 

My fingers touch…

Something dry…

It crackles…

What have I got in my pocket?

Writing Update

When I started this blog almost three years ago, it was with the intention of both writing about writing, and building a bit of an audience for my own writing.

It has altered rather a lot in that time, but I try not to completely lose sight of those aims. One of those aims is to every now and again blow my own trumpet a little bit, as well as bring you up to date with what I’m writing at the moment.

And, today’s that day again, as since the last time I posted about my book I seem to have gained a lot of new followers (well, quite a few – see 1000 Up), including a good number from India, where the story takes place.

Making Friends with the Crocodile cover

About the book…

This is a story concerning both the way that women are seen and how they are treated in traditional Indian society. I am extremely fortunate in that I have received many kind reviews for the book, and would like to quote part of one of these:

This beautifully written story, set in a village in Bihar, draws you in from its first page. We see the household through the eyes of Siddiqa, wife of Maajid, mother of two school-age girls and her son Tariq, who is married to Naira. We are drawn into the rivalry between Siddiqa and Naira, in a society where the men are the only wage earners and the women’s lives must, by tradition, revolve around their wishes. Small incidents pile up, one after another, as the underlying harmony of the household is fractured by the resentment and self-loathing of Naira. The family is Moslem, the village is a mix of Moslem and Hindu, and one incident threatens the uneasy cohabitation of the two communities. The police, seen as a hostile force in the village, get involved with an unpredictable outcome to the novel.

And it can be bought by clicking on this link: Making Friends With The Crocodile

And what am I up to at the moment?

Goodness me, much too much, as usual.

Some of you may remember I have been working on a novel with the working title of The Assassin’s Garden for quite a while, in an on and off sort of way. It had grown into what threatened to become a trilogy, but I recently decided that much of the plot line no longer worked for me.

With that in mind, I began reworking the first part into what I thought would simply become a novella or novelette (I can never remember which is which), but with a new thread and suddenly a new set of ideas linking them, it looks as though the trilogy is still very much on.

So the new first book is some 30,000 words in length at the moment, and looking good!

I am also working on a short story in response to one written by a friend, a rather tongue-in-cheek Sherlock Holmes mystery. I may post it later this year on the blog.

I’ve several other short stories put aside for the present, as is the other novel I’m working on sporadically.

Speaking of short stories, though, I decided against publishing the collection of short stories I had planned for last winter. I felt they didn’t really work as a collection – I felt I’d rather have a more coherent theme (such as ghost stories, or Indian stories or what have you). One of them has now been published in a collection by my writing group (Stories From Anywhere), and I have submitted another for the follow-up book which will be out later this year, hopefully. I’m sure the others will see the light of day in some form or another at some point!

Every now and again I churn out another poem, although I see these largely as a bit of an educational exercise. I’d love to write good poetry, but…

With luck, I’ll get some of them finished this year!