Saturday, 22 October 2016

Me and Stephen King

Well, no. Not really me and the maestro of horror. In fact, not even remotely me and the King. But there’s a bit of a connection. I’m not a horror fan, nor a ghost story fan, though as a reader and writer of romantic suspense I do enjoy a tightening of the strings, an increase in the heartbeat as the inevitable events draw to a climax. And actually, me and Stephen…Stephen and me… well it appears that we do like an historic hotel.

On holiday in the States recently, I fetched up in one of America’s finest old hotels, the Stanley in Estes Park. It’s historic, no question (over 100 years old). And there’s definitely something paranormal about it. The first clue was in the packed lobby, full of people waiting to take a ghost tour. Then there was the sign for Madame Vera, the hotel’s resident psychic.

Resident psychic? I’ve heard of a writer in residence, but…

So, I decided to pass on Madame Vera’s services. Dodging round the ghost tour parked outside my room (“…and on this very spot a strange and unexpected explosion took place…”) I tried to settle down. But frankly, my dear, even if every piece of wood in the vicinity doesn’t creak in a non-existent wind, it’s hard to get comfortable when the guide is spinning tales to freak out people who don’t have to sleep in the place (“…where the actor Jim Carrey saw something so terrible that he’s never spoken of it, to this day…”).

Fortunately there was an alternative to this scenario (the tours came round every hour in the afternoons, which didn’t make for much relaxation). On a bitterly cold afternoon, with the snow blowing around outside, t was time to decamp. Pick up the notebook and pen, stop by the coffee bar for a very large cup of something stimulating and grab the comfy leather armchairs in front of the fire. 

And here, dear reader, Stephen King and I found something in common. Although I never heard whether he took advantage of the beautifully dark-panelled lobby-cum-lounge — or, indeed, whether he was driven out of his room by the ghost tours — I do know that somewhere in the Stanley he’s said to have been inspired to write. And so was I.

There the similarities begin and end. He wrote The Shining; I came away with the plot for a romance. Even so, there’s something about sitting where he sat (maybe) and writing. 

You can’t beat it.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Finding My Tribe

New friends! Image courtesy of John Jackson
All right, I confess. I sat in the car park at Lancaster University on Friday in a state of complete dread. I even contemplated turning the engine back on and driving away. No-one would have known. The organisers would have assumed I hadn’t turned up and hadn’t told them (which, of course, would have been true). And I’d have holed up in some little guest house in the Lakes and phoned home from noisiest part of the local pub, pretending I was surrounding by a chattering crowd of writers.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know anyone. I had many good friends-in-the-flesh among those on the list, and a host of other friends-in-the-ether whose full acquaintance I was dying to make. There really should not have been a problem. But here’s the thing. There were over 200 of them. That’s 200-plus writers. That’s lots and lots of people like me.

Now that’s scary.

I’m glad to say that my courage not only prevailed but was immediately vindicated. I queued to register next to a couple of old friends. Within minutes I’d found new ones.  And that was always going to happen.

Why? It’s because these — writers — are my tribe. Of course those two-hundred-odd can’t all be my very best buddies. Among them there will be those with whom I have profound differences over everything from politics and religion to whether to go out for a Chinese or an Indian or whether it’s okay to have characters in your novel swearing as much on the page as the might in real life.

In the end I did more than survive the weekend. I thrived on it. I discovered that, after just a moment or two of conversation, writers reach common ground. They get each other. I might share the same things with my non-writerly friends but somehow they don’t quite grasp what I mean when I talk about writer’s block; nor do they understand the irrational, gut-wrenching intensity of killing someone. (Not in real life, of course. Not in real life.)

Any group will be the same. I’ve heard complete strangers suddenly spring to life when one of them mentions cutting fabric across the grain; I’ve been at a very serious meeting when two people suddenly discovered the supported the same football team and suddenly found themselves locked into a heated debate about who “we” should have as the new manager.

Your tribe is the group of people who get you. You may disagree, fundamentally on a lot of things. But they understand you. Two hundred and twenty people who understand you, all in one room together, is a terrifying prospect. But if you can face it, the rewards are unbeatable.  

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Are You Ready For Chapter Two?

Chapter One was easy. Not so Chapter Two...
Well, hello Chapter Two. I’ve never met a beast like you before. Normally chapters are simple and planned, with two or three characters and a defining incident, ideally following on and explaining the inciting incident of chapter one. I understand them. I’m good at them (sort of). At the very least, I’m not afraid of them.

Not you. You’re a problem for me. I don’t hate you, but you puzzle and confuse me. And you are playing on me the kind of dirty tricks that no plot — let alone a chapter — should ever be allowed to play upon ann innocent author.

For a start, you have cursed me with a heroine who is in a confused state, suffering from hypothermia. She doesn’t know what’s going on. And as I am writing in the first person, you leave me with no opportunity to explain to my readers. She has fallen among strangers (who, thank God, are kind to her). But she has no idea who they are, what they’re doing or why they are doing it and, indeed, doesn’t either see or take in a whole lot of what’s going on. I know, but she doesn’t. And if she can’t tell the reader, then I can’t. Her brain is a crazed mess of feelings and images, suddenly-sharp, unconnected snapshots against a blurred and incomprehensible background. It’s a mess. To read, and to write.

Thanks a lot, Chapter Two.

That’s only the first of your dastardly tricks. There are a lot of strangers — six, in fact, every one of them a new character. She can’t even tell these people apart herself, in the half-light of a power outage and her own confused state. They throw their names at her and she fails to field a single one. So how will my readers know which one is which?

I might be able to handle that. Just. But no. To make matters worse, your co-conspirator, Chapter One, warned me off adding any backstory on his turf. Chapter One is all about action. My mate will deal with the backstory, he said, and set up the perfect opportunity. When our heroine falls among these kindly strangers, they want to know who she is, how she came to be there. You have put the poor girl in a frankly crazy position and she has to explain to these strangers how she came to be there and where she ought to be. (Oh, and some of the things which we’ve already seen happen to her in Chapter One). Further: she may not care, right at that moment, who they are but my readers do.

You’re a challenge to me, but not one I’ll back away from. I’m up for the fight. 

In the red corner, the author. In the blue corner, Chapter Two.

Seconds out…ding-ding!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

An Author in Search of a Plot...

I've been looking back through my photos and it reminded me that it was two years ago that I was in Iceland. This isn’t to brag about my extensive travelling, since virtually everybody I know also seems to have been to the land of ice and fire at some stage, and they all seem equally bowled over by the experience. But this two-year anniversary did get me thinking. 

Normally I’m strongly influenced by location. I know that when I go somewhere I’m going to come back with An Idea — or rather A Plot. There’s always something about the sun or the wine or the mountains that gets the creative juices flowing. Hence my two novels set in beautiful Majorca, not to mention the Lake Garda trilogy. And Looking For Charlotte trades heavily on its setting.

Yet Iceland defeated me. I never had an idea when I was there, though I was constantly haunted by the nagging feeling that I ought to. There were the colours, for a start — the basic black of newly-minted rock; the extraordinary green of mosses that have taken a thousand years to turn that rock into a primitive soil; the blue of an almost-Arctic midsummer sky; the foaming white of a dozen waterfalls. 

Then there were the patterns. The waterfalls that drop vertically over cliffs of banded black and grey ash. The shadows of the canyons carved back into the cliffs. The almost-perfectly-parallel inland cliffs which mark the trench where two continents are being forced apart. The braided channels of glacial rivers on a stony plain. The smoking hillsides as hot water rises to the cold surface and the occasional (every five years or so, on average) firework display as nature comes violently to life. 

And the people. The Icelanders are quirky, different, unafraid of what anyone might think of them. They have an offbeat sense of humour. Most of them believe in fairies (or elves) and will tell you so with a shrug, not caring what you think of them. They are closely tied into their land of sagas and film sets (think Game of Thrones).

There’s no excuse for not having a plot. Everyone else seems to. There’s a thriving Icelandic subgenera of Nordic noir, and the country’s dark and unforgiving interior reputedly inspired Tolkien to create the land of Mordor. But for some reason I can’t seem to find the heart of what I want to write about it. Is it a bleak story of pursuit and destruction? Is it a modern fairy tale of the secret folk who I almost believed in while I was there? Is it a cautionary tale of a writer in search of an elusive plot?

I’ve no idea. I know the story’s there. I’ll just have to go back there to find it…

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Parallel Lives: Branching Out Into Indie

This is what a learning curve really looks like
There’s too much going on. That’s always my problem. I’m too prolific. (I like that word — it makes me sound important, vital, somehow successful. No?) I write too much.

I’ve always done that. I’ve always had at least half a dozen stories in my head and several on the go at the same time. I’ve twittered on about this before on this blog, muttered on about the struggle of different books and how to promote them. But this is the official announcement of my leap into a parallel life. I’ll keep submitting books to my publisher (and hopefully they’ll keep accepting them) but I’m going to self-publish my next book.

I’m apprehensive, and not just because the indie author’s to do list reads like one of the more fiendish tasks from The Apprentice, though at least it comes with the saving grace that I won’t get called into the boardroom at the end of it to explain my abject failure to Lord Sugar. 

There are things on it I can do with relative ease (write the book is the obvious one) or slightly less ease (produce the blurb). There are things anybody can do but are extremely tedious (produce and contact a list of potential reviewers). There are things I’ve deemed to be beyond me and have contracted out to people I can trust to do them rather better than I can (editing and cover design). And there are the things I might contract out if I could afford them but which, in the interests of parsimony, I’ve decided to do for myself.

These things don’t give me nightmares. They are things that fall within my technical capabilities, but only at a stretch. Specifically, they are computer-related. Yes: formatting. Putting a book up on Amazon is not, in actual fact, that difficult. But there are other platforms. And uploading to Amazon doesn’t give you a file you can distribute to reviewers; nor does it give you a PDF file or an ePub version. If you want to reach readers beyond Amazon, you have to go beyond Amazon yourself.

Less necessary, and rather more daunting is the shift into movie production (please allow for exaggeration). I’ve decided to make a book trailer. I daresay you’ll hear more about this in posts to come, but suffice it to say…I’ve got a few more grey hairs after a couple of afternoons wrestling with iMovie. And I’ve produced a sort of something — twenty seconds of random pictures, a rambling voiceover above a clip of crowd noise. No script, of course. But hey…I can worry about that later.

There’s one thing about this self-publishing lark. I’m certainly learning new skills!

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Life Lessons From a Walk in the Countryside

Ten thousand saw I at a glance...
TI like a good walk; and I like a walk with substance — a purpose, if you like. So where better to go on a spring afternoon in April than the English Lake District? What better objective, on a day when every garden is bursting out in patches of daffodils brighter than spilt tins of sunshine yellow paint, than the place where William Wordsworth first saw the sight that inspired him to write his most famous poem?

That place is on the shores of Ullswater, easily accessible, so the guidebook tells us, from the road. A couple of miles up a valley, with spectacular views. What could be closer to perfection on a bright and breezy day? So that was what we did. And this is what I learned.

Writers Are Not Always Strictly Accurate

We knew that anyway. Didn’t we? Or did we really expect to see ten thousand daffodils tossing their heads in sprightly dance? Come to that, did we really expect to see a lonely cloud when anyone who’s ever set foot in the lakes knows that these are the feats of nature that appear ten thousand at a time?

Every Word Counts

Yes, every word. Every and and every but. One in particular counted on this particular day. ‘Keep walking with the wall on your left and you will eventually reach a gate.’ Guess which. 

Oh, and what you don’t say counts as well. There was one word missing from the description of the walk. That was the word muddy.

Read the Small Print

I freely admit that it was my fault that the so-called daffodil walk never produced more than a handful of daffodils in a farm garden. As twist in the wall after twist in the wall failed to make good the floral display, I stopped to read the directions in more detail. And discovered that it promised nothing more than ‘a view down to Ullswater where the poet was walking when he saw the famous daffodils’.


There’s Always a Silver Lining

It was a long upwards struggle on a day warmer than expected. But when we reached the top of our daffodil-light trek and turned to look down the valley, the many clouds showed their silver linings. The view back down towards Ullswater more than made up for a few flowers.

As it happens we did see the daffodils, on the drive back along the lake shore. They looked a bit sheepish, a few clumps of wild ones hiding among the trees and rather more than a few domestic ones (larger and brasher) marching along the grass verge on the other side of the road. Still not ten thousand; at least not at a glance.

It was a stupendous walk, though. And so to the last and the biggest life lesson to be plucked from our foray into Wordsworth country. Reader, he may have lied about the daffodils. And it really doesn’t matter.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Too Many Balls in the Air...

Different genres require different approaches...
Can you really work on two projects at a time?

Some may say I have a butterfly mind, an inability to concentrate on a single thing for too long. Or, in a mangled piece of management-speak, you might accuse me of not being a completer-finisher. I prefer to think of myself as a multi-tasker, someone who can cheerfully talk you through the chances of seeing (or not seeing) the aurora borealis while choosing a dinner menu and, as a bonus, taking note of your somewhat confused expression so that I can sneak you into my next book as a puzzled bystander.

Just now, I’m finding myself pulled both ways. Creativity is a terrible thing when it’s stifled (just think of writers’ block, if you dare) and a magnificent thing when it’s working well. Once you start you can’t stop. Barbara Cartland wrote 723 novels, 23 of them in a single year (that’s a world record, by the way) AND they were mostly historical so required at least a pretence at research. I know several authors who can turn out a book every couple of months — how those who take ten years to produce a first draft must envy them!

I fall somewhere in the middle. If I’m concentrating, I can produce three, possibly four, full length novels in a year. But the process is not a simple one. It isn’t a case of write, edit, publish, promote. From beginning to end the process might take a year (going via a publisher) and probably somewhat less (if I bite the bullet and self-publish some of the log jam that’s backing up). So, inevitably, I’m going to be working on more than one at once.

...are they clashing or complementary?
And then there’s the promotion. That’s the ball that always stays in the air, each novel, as a fellow novelist warned, another mouth to feed. When you finish one book and move on to the next you have to keep promoting the first. Now I have five active (so to speak) and have just finished the sixth. 

Number six is a different genre from the first five. It’s romance, sure enough, but it’s more heavily inclined to suspense and if the story continues into books two and three and more, it’ll end up as crime. That’s my headache. 

I can manage multiple plots and I can (just about) remember the names of my characters, which one’s the blonde and which the brunette. But I have to assume that some of my readers are more interested in romance than crime. Some, of course, might hate the romance and prefer the slightly grittier conflict of romantic suspense. Without creating a totally separate brand for myself as a writer, how can I satisfy them all?

Do I do a couple of weeks of promotion based on a sun drenched Mediterranean theme and then ditch it for a tranche of graphics of burning buildings? Or do I run them concurrently and confuse everyone as much as I’ve confused myself.
It’s an unanswered question right now; and I suspect the only way to find out is trial and error.