At Last!

Well, that’s it. I’ve done it. It’s finished. Somewhere around mid-morning yesterday, probably just before eleven o’clock. And in the end it wasn’t too difficult; not too painful, anyway. I thought I was going to have more problems than I did, actually. Fortunately, though, it all went quite smoothly in the end. In fact, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.

Oh, I do beg your pardon. I was quite forgetting.

I’m referring to the book I’ve been working on for the last three or four years: A Good Place. Having thought I’d finished it around a year ago, I ended up binning the last third of the book and re-writing it. And although I’ve ended up with what I feel is a stronger narrative, and with more believable characters, there was one chapter towards the end that was just refusing to play ball.

Until yesterday.

So hopefully, I’ve now completed the final draft. I’ve sent it to my beta reader to go through, and as long as she thinks the story works I’ll put it to one side for six months and then begin what I hope will be the final edit. And if I’m still happy with it then, I’ll look to pass it to three more beta readers for their comments. If they think it worthwhile, I might then have a go at interesting a publisher in it.

Although I’ll probably just think Oh, to hell with it all and self-publish it, anyway.

And if she thinks it’s no good, I’ll hide it somewhere and sulk.

What’s it about? It is set in an Indian hill station in 1988. An English visitor arrives, bringing with him a mystery concerning his childhood, the key to which he suspects may lie with the remaining English inhabitants of the town. And like many expatriate communities around the world, these inhabitants have a complicated and, at times, difficult relationship with the other members of their community. As the visitor gets drawn further into the life of this community, he finds his own relationships with them becoming unexpectedly complicated and difficult, with tragic and unanticipated consequences for several of them.

Anyway, after all that palaver, I decided to go for a walk in the woods nearby. Up until that point, it had been a dry, if overcast, day. But as soon as I reached the woods, the rain began pelting down.

It was dark and gloomy beneath the trees, and the rain was soon drawing out the peculiarly woodland scents of autumn. There was a rich, thick, puddingy smell, as rich and thick as the deep and increasingly wet humus soil I was walking on. Soon my feet were squishing and squelching through the mud and dead leaves, the fungi and conker husks, the rotting wood and the mildewed berries.

The rain burst through the branches and leaves of the trees, hammering on my head and shoulders, running into my pockets, and down my legs. Although it was mid-afternoon, the light had the quality of a premature dusk, and the few other people I saw seemed to slip between the trees like unhappy ghosts.

It was a bloody good walk, I must say.

A Busy Time in West Bengal

For the last couple of months, during Lockdown and its easing, I have spent an awful lot of time up in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal.

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Okay, that’s not strictly true, but for most of that time I have spent my working day revising, re-writing, and editing A Good Place, my novel set in a fictitious hill station there. I have some new characters to weave in, some old ones to remove, and the story line to alter in several major ways, including a different ending.

I finished the first draft some nine months ago, but there were parts I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with then, and my beta reader unerringly picked those out for major revision. I then spent a while thinking about the story line and took out nearly all the final third of the book and chucked it.

That left me with a lot to rewrite.

Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that after I published Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in an Indian village with peopled with all Indian characters, I wanted to write a novel dealing with the British who remained behind in India after partition. A kind of balance to my writing. That was all well and good, but I began writing the novel before I was completely satisfied with the story line, and the more I wrote of it the less I liked it. So I kept changing the story line as I wrote rather than doing what I really should have done, which was delete the whole thing and go away and write something completely different, waiting until I knew what I really wanted to write. But I’m now content that I have the story I want to tell, rather than Just A Story.

Consequently, I have been virtually living in West Bengal during these days, inevitably leading to yearnings to be there in person. Which does nothing to ease the feelings of frustration at enduring the travel restrictions of Lockdown.

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However, one of the advantages of having several projects on the go at once, which I always have, is that I can switch to another for a while when I need to. Last week, then, I spent one day giving a final edit to a short story which gave me the opportunity to spend the day (in my head!) in rural Sussex, which was very welcome. Especially as that is somewhere we can get to now, with a minimum of hassle.

And A Good Place? I’m glad you asked. I think I’m close to finishing the second draft, which will be a blessed relief.

Just so long as my beta reader doesn’t throw her hands up in horror when she reads it…

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…

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.

Welcome to my Crisis!

I’ve been hiding from the internet.

No, I didn’t go away, unfortunately, although a holiday was what I both have been and am still craving. I made a rash promise some weeks ago to put up a Facebook Author page, to do a minor relaunch of my novel, and to serialise a bawdy Elizabethan detective story. Really, I should know myself better than that.

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I think it was the short story that finally broke me.

Writing, for me, is a pleasure, comparable to painting. It is all about crafting the finished product, taking my time and eventually producing the best I can. When all goes well, the process is immensely satisfying from beginning to end.

Within that process, of course, there are times of writer’s block, false starts and finishes, wrong turnings, and many other things to go wrong. And the editing can be an infuriating process. But overall, there needs to be a flow.

Making Friends with the Crocodile worked for me at the length it was (45,000 words), since I wrote it almost as a stream of consciousness as the story unfolded in my mind. It came out in a rush partly because of its importance to me, and partly because I found I could visualise the characters, the story and the setting clearly. Once I had reached the end, I knew that was the end.

Obviously, many stories take a lot more coaxing to get down on paper. I’ve struggled with ones that need to be forced, certainly in places, partly because at that point they are not ‘me’ at the heart of them; I have lost that flow. But sometimes because of the length.

One reason I stopped entering short story competitions is I write a lot of long short stories. I am perfectly aware of the dictum that whatever you write can be edited down to the required length and that, indeed, they should be edited down.

But I also strongly believe that when a story presents itself to be written, that story has an internal length that needs to be respected, even after editing. Some require a few hundred words, some a lot more. But to attempt to turn Making Friends with the Crocodile into a 120,000 word novel or a 5.000 word short story, I am sure would have meant a lesser read. It would have been padded out for the sake of it, or stripped down to bare bones that would have meant that the characters could not have been drawn as strongly as I wanted them to be, and therefore encouraged less empathy from the reader.

Where is all this leading?

I began the short story / serial. It was working quite well, and I had a good few chuckles to myself as I was writing it and then, suddenly, it was almost 10,000 words long and nowhere near finished.

Oh dear.

So I attempted to cram and trim and edit and get it down to a suitable length for serialisation, but I was not happy with the result. Oh no. And I had one of my minor panic-I-can’t-cope-stress attacks and decided the only way to deal with it was to hide.

So, I’m not going to serialise it after all. I will finish it, but the attempt to condense it into a few instalments simply wasn’t working, and what I ended up with felt completely wrong. I will return to it at some point in the future, and finish it as the novella that it clearly is.

There is another strand to all this:

I made the Facebook Author page. That was the easy bit, and I’ll show you where it is next time. And I put together the re-launch promotion piece by the simple expedient of gathering together extracts from lots of the kind reviews the book has had.

But I am in a state of recurring panic, once again, over this huge need to self-promote to sell books. Of course, we all want to, but we are forever urged to use this or that platform, accept this or that offer, etc. Now, we are told that we ‘must’ have a YouTube channel. Really? And a presence on all sorts of social media. Are we not ‘serious’ writers if we are not prepared to move heaven and earth to sell a couple of extra books? That we should ‘invest’ a hundred or five hundred dollars here and there to advertise ourselves?

I have sold a few, and what is really important to me is the tremendous feedback that I’ve had.

Blowing my own trumpet is anathema to me, as I have written in the past. I just can’t do the selling and marketing the way that seems to be presented as essential. It’s an aspect of life that I hate, and a reason I have never gone into ‘business’. Everything around the promotion and marketing just seems relentless and is something that I cannot cope with.

Fortunately, I am not interested in fame. The idea frightens me.

And I really struggle with social media. I have had two goes at being on Facebook, and cope with it at the moment by not going on it very much. I spent ages trying to see the use of Linkedin, and have solved that one by closing my account last week. I really see no use for it.

And I am not doing Twatter.

So here I am back on WordPress, which is a platform I do enjoy. I’ll dip in and out of it a bit over the next few weeks or months, I suspect, since I still feel a bit panicky, but I will be there.

Thank you for your patience!

I have some news!

I have some news.

I’m sure some of you (especially the writers) will remember that I reported here a week or two back the disturbing news that fictitious characters now have the legal right to sue their creators for defamation of character, or any other hurt (real or perceived) caused through those said creators’ thoughtless and heartless actions.

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In case you want to have a look, the link is below.

https://mickcanning.co/2016/10/22/sue-me-and-ill-have-you-killed/

Well, news reaches me this morning of a new grouping of characters, namely sidekicks in detective stories, who have come together under the name of Sidekicks Of Detectives (or ‘Sods’) to challenge their positions as The Most Stupid Person In A Detective Story.

Initially, the group was to have been organised by Captain Hastings, sidekick to the famous Poirot, but after some heated discussion it was agreed that, actually, he couldn’t organise his way out of his own front door without help, and the task was then delegated to Doctor Watson, who arranged a meeting at a coffee shop, one of a well-known chain, in Central London. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention either which branch it was, or the time of the meeting, and so there has only been limited progress on that front, so far.

But, further cases have already come to court.

A number of characters from ‘Three men in a boat’, by Jerome K Jerome, Bertie Wooster and others created by P G Wodehouse, and various characters from books by Spike Milligan began a collective case, but were laughed out of court.

Dan Brown is being sued by every single character he invented.

And there is some confusion in America, where Donald Trump has apparently filed a case against himself on the grounds that he has irreversibly blackened his own character.

I’m told he is confident of winning the case, since the stories he has spread about himself are scarcely believable, and that it is generally held that he must be a fictitious character, since the majority of observers and commentators say they ‘can’t believe this guy is for real!’

The trouble is, all this is symptomatic of our legislative culture. It was the retrospective case brought by Big Ears and Mr Plod against the estate of Enid Blyton that, I think, I found most distressing. By all accounts, they cooked it up over an evening of heavy drinking, after being taunted by the Tubby Bear family, and it is strongly suspected (although it cannot be proved) that much of the impetus came from a third character – possibly one of the Fluffy Cats, since they are known to be bad through and through (it’s okay, I can say that. It was proved in a recent court case of character assassination that the Fluffy Cats brought, and lost, against the estate).

But Big Ears and Mr Plod did win their case, and now not only is it a legal requirement that in future they both be referred to as intelligent, but Big Ears must henceforth be renamed as ‘Graham’. And his ears are officially ‘of normal dimensions’. Or else.

Which brings me to my own characters.

I have decided that I am not going to be dictated to, or browbeaten by, some miserable little…hang on, there’s someone at the door. I’d better just get that. Hello? What? A writ? about what? Oh…

I’m sorry, I have to stop there.

Sue me and I’ll have you killed!

…slowly, he inched his way along the ledge, his heart in his mouth. It was too late to even contemplate turning back now. The sun was sinking rapidly in the pale sky in front of him, dropping towards the distant plains that were almost hidden in the desert haze. It would be completely dark within the hour. For the first time, he knew real fear. He could never survive a night on this thin, narrow ledge – God knows, there was barely enough room to stand and almost nothing to hold on to. It was inevitable that he would slip off at some point. Even now, there was a thin skin of ice on much of the surface, and the terrible cold would descend as soon as the sun disappeared.

Gritting his teeth, he edged towards what looked like a slightly better foothold, and cried out in sudden terror as his foot slid into space, the momentum taking him over the edge and falling…

Hell, I can’t do that! Stop! Phew, that was close.

As writers, we have to be so careful, because nowadays even our characters have rights, did you know that? And we can’t just be doing this and that to them, just as we please. Only the other day, a lawyer claiming to be acting for a character in a well-known children’s series attempted to take the author to court and sue her for, literally, defamation of character.

This character claimed that the author had totally misrepresented his actions, and applied motives to them that could only be described as evil.

And she said he had no nose, which was just spiteful.

He has claimed damages running into millions of dollars.

If this character is successful, then it is difficult to know where we will see this ending.

The fact that the author has created said character is no defence in law. Really, they are like our children. And whereas a few hundred years or more ago, parents had absolute authority over their children, and, short of killing them, could do whatever they so willed with them, nowadays they have more rights than their parents. And I’m afraid that it may come to that with our characters, too.

‘Why should I be killed off?’ They cry. ‘What right have you…?’ And so they will challenge it.

It has even been mooted in some quarters that these characters should perhaps be able to resort to the legal process appropriate for the time and world that they have been created for. Thus, a dragon in a tale set in ancient times, peeved because the author claimed it ate virgins and had bad breath (not sure if the two are connected…) might very well demand that it meet the author in Trial by Combat, a trial that the author would probably be rather ill-prepared to face.

Upset a Tudor monarch or a Viking chieftain, and I wouldn’t give much for your chances.

And any authors writing tales set in the future, who had unwisely failed to specify what sort of legal process was in existence at this time, might find the lawyers, or even their characters, being given the right to specify this. And that might get very nasty indeed.

But there may still be one remedy open to us. If our characters hold the threat of litigation over us, we might, just might, be able to retaliate by threatening to make their next incarnation even more horrible than the one that they are prosecuting us over. Threaten to sue me for creating you with a flatulence problem? Go ahead, and see what problems you have in my next novel! Don’t forget I’m writing a series! You had quite a decent time in the last one, it’ll be the torture chamber for you next!

It might work, but I’m still nervous about it.

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So what am I going to do? I’m just going to write nice stories about pussy cats, from now on, that’s what.

Authors, you have been warned!

Time to dust down the parchment and take up my quill, again.

Oh, that was nice.

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I just had to get some time away – from the computer, from people, from work and noise and just about everything else that makes up my complicated twenty first century life.

I promised myself a few days away to work on my book, uninterrupted by anything else, and that then turned into a short holiday for the two of us, in a small quiet town in Shropshire, close to the Welsh Borders, in a small self-catering apartment. It was perfect. We went for a few walks together, and at other times I wrote and thought over parts of the book, whilst my wife went off and walked and mooched on her own.

From a writing point of view, it was a most successful trip; I developed a few of the main characters in a satisfactory way, I developed my primary and secondary plot lines, and I wrote a goodly amount of pieces to work together at various points in the book. The ideal, naturally, would have been a trip to the Indian Himalaya, since that is the location of the story, but failing that, then a hilly location with a lot of wooded parts and old houses and a feel of times past, is certainly the next best thing.

And it was a great break for us both. Just to have a break from day to day life, of course, is priceless, but in a quiet, peaceful small town is even better.

Naturally, back to normal life means dealing with stuff that wasn’t dealt with over the last week, amongst other things. So, online to sort out a bill payment, and…I notice by looking in my diary that I have passwords for forty seven separate sites. Is this unusual? Probably not. But, conventional wisdom says you should never write down passwords. So, who could possibly remember forty seven of the wretched things? And even I know that using the same password for different sites is foolishness beyond forgiveness.

More ruddy hassle. All of this is meant to make life easier, isn’t it? Yet my idea of making life easier is to make it simpler and less complicated. This just doesn’t seem to happen, though.

Ah, this is a bit of a diversion that I hadn’t planned for this post to take. It reminds me, though, that I must write a post on anxiety, at some time.

What I was intending to write, was that I now have plenty of material for the book, and so, as time permits, it’s Full Steam Ahead!

Now, then, back to these tasks…

Writer’s something or other

I began work on a new story, but it hit the buffers very quickly. I suspect that there were several reasons for this, but probably the primary reason is that it was the wrong story at the wrong time. Having published ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ and feeling a little flat afterwards, I took the conventional advice to get stuck into writing again immediately and, thinking that I knew exactly which story I wanted to write (out of my lists of ideas, notes and vague drafts), and exactly how the opening chapters of said story should go, just jumped straight in and started writing.

Thud.

After the first, long, chapter I read it back and just thought ‘Oh good grief, this is so turgid!’

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I didn’t feel like re-writing it, though. And I certainly didn’t feel like ploughing on and editing an even longer clump of turgidity later. It just wasn’t working for me.

It simply wasn’t the story that I wanted to tell at the moment. It wasn’t the setting that I wanted to use, and I didn’t feel any empathy with the protagonist. Not a good start, really.

So I kicked the cat* and drank a few beers and went for a long walk.

As a result of doing all of that and clearing my head somewhat,  I am now trying out something that is almost alien for me, and that is planning a novel.

I have a setting that I have been meaning to use in a novel, and which I have used occasionally in short stories, which I enjoy writing about. I have characters with whom I can empathise. I even have a plot that I’m rather pleased with. All in all, it feels a lot more hopeful.

And something else that is rather fun: in ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ I had to create a fictitious town and village, but because of the story line I did not need to concern myself too much with the geography of either. For the new Work In Progress, I need much more. I need careful and elaborate maps of a fictitious town in the foothills of northern India (yup, India again!), which is all part of the plan. I need to map its roads and houses, shops and hotels. I need to decide where to put the forests and rivers and lakes and fields.

I’ve even started a brand new notebook for this!

It will probably be difficult for me to resist the temptation to just start writing, but at the moment I intend to wait until I have a finished plan that I think covers everything.

Naturally, I’ll let you know how it goes.

*Not actually true. No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog post.

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