Sunday, 31 January 2016

Losing the plot

I’ve set myself the challenge of reading a book a week for a year. I didn't expect it to be easy, but nor did I expect to stumble quite so quickly. And over a short book, too; a meagre 83 pages of a modern classic. 

I thought I would get through A Month in the Country in no time, because the blurb suggested it was going to be just my sort of book. And let’s be honest — there’s a lot to be said for it. It’s beautifully written, it has an evocative setting. I could rip through that in a couple of days.

How wrong can you be? This slender volume, with all its plaudits (‘tender and elegant,’) took me a good two weeks of effort to read. The reason? Nothing happened. 

I can outline the content of a book without a spoiler, because there’s nothing to spoil. In the aftermath of the First World War a traumatised ex-soldier goes to a Yorkshire village to uncover a medieval painting. He meets another ex-soldier, searching for a missing grave. He feels more at home with the Chapel folk than with those of the Church. He falls in love with the local vicar’s wife but never speaks of his feelings. We get a glimpse of the breakdown of his marriage. 

But nothing happens. There is no plot.

As a writer, I sometimes struggle with plot. I spend too long setting things up, creating atmosphere, introducing my character. I’m often told that my stories start slowly but are worth persevering with (I take that as a compliment). There are endless pieces of advice on offer to writers new and old, and many of them focus on pace. If a scene doesn’t take the plot forward, we’re told, then lose it. If a character has a point of view then they must have a story. The protagonist(s) must be in a different place at the end of the story (in character development terms) to where they were at the beginning. And so on and so on.

Maybe as a society we’re getting impatient, but A Month in the Country reinforced the view that something needs to happen. It isn’t enough to write beautiful prose because even readers like me, who don’t feel they need a dead body every chapter and who actually enjoy a few pages of beautifully-written description to vary the pace of a story, feel cheated if they get to the end of the book and nothing has happened.

In the end I think I enjoyed A Month in the Country. I think I’d even recommend it. But not without a health warning: here is a book in which nothing happens. Or maybe I’m missing something…

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

It's all about memes

You can buy this one from Tirgearr Publishing 
Oh dear. Oh, dear, dear. I’ve found a new way of procrastinating. And, best of all, I can pretend it’s marketing.

One of my my (many) recurrent New Year resolutions was to increase my marketing activity. Four books out, another on the way…every one, as a wise writer once remarked, is another mouth to feed. There’s only so much mileage in posting a link to the book on the publisher’s page, or Amazon, and you run the risk of being tagged as a spammer and slammed in Facebook jail for a couple of weeks. No posts in any groups. No online promotion. 

People tell me that changing your photo to something original improves its Facebook reach, and my own experience confirms that. So I decided to make my own memes and use them to promote my book. First find a package (after taking advice I’ve landed up with Canva, though there are others), and off you go. 

You can use the book cover, with a quote from it or (even better, if you can) a snippet from a five-star review. Or you can use a suitable picture to create a teaser for it., which is ideal for something that isn’t yet published. It works on other social media as well as FB. And believe me, you can spend hours doing it. 

Not yet available!
I’m no designer, but I’m enjoying creating my own images. Some of them are better than others but the whole process is fun. I’m going to have a standard layout for each book (cover on one side, quote or review or something on the other) and then, when I’m feeling creative, something a little different for a teaser. When the weather improves I’ll go out and take my own photographs, just to make it a little more personal.

The problem isn’t the time it’s going to take up for my published book. It isn’t even the temptation to use my new-found skills for non-marketing purposes. (Don’t worry, I’ll resist being witty on social media.) It’s that I’m having such fun that I’m starting to make promotional memes for books which aren’t published — aren’t even submitted. And I’ve just had a brilliant idea for one for a book which I haven’t even written.

Time for a dose of self-discipline. But maybe I’ll have just one more go on Canva first…

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Most Woeful Time of the Year...

Let’s be honest: it’s a pretty rotten day. The papers would have you believe that the third Monday in January is the worst day of the whole year. I expect that’ll be because it’s grim and grey and all your New Year resolutions will have failed by now and so you just head for the choccie biccies and any hope you ever had of becoming that new you is gone, gone, gone…

I might add to my woes the fact that the temperature is hovering around freezing and I’m stuck in the house waiting for someone to come and mend my central heating. I’m walking around with a hot water bottle tied round my waist and, when I sit down to work, another one nestling in my lap like an ominously silent cat. (The real cat, by the way, is in front of the fire in the only warm room in the house when she could most usefully be playing the part of one of the hot water bottles.)

None of this is of any use when it comes to work. Oh, I can type on a laptop sitting by the fire. Yes. I can do that for at least fifteen minutes before I have to get up and stretch for five minutes or so. Or I can sit up in my room, nestled into that den of hot water bottles, but I can only manage that for another fifteen minutes before I have to go and make yet another cup of tea in an attempt to get the circulation back into my fingers.

To get over the frustration I attempted a weird middle way. It wasn’t exactly work, but if I stretched out in front of the fire with something mindful I might at least get a plot problem sorted out (and I have plenty of those). So I went for something new-fangled and reached for a packet of felt pens and a colouring book.

Adult colouring’s on the way back in, and in a big way. Maybe fine felt-tips aren’t the best tool for the job, or maybe I need new glasses, because there’s quite a lot of white on the few bits I managed to colour before having to get up and jump about a bit. Hmm.

I think I may have solved the plot problem, though, through the simple revelation that it wasn’t a plot problem after all but a structural one. I may have made zero progress on the edits from my next book and I may not have done the research I promised myself I’d do, but at least Ive learned that adult colouring books can be the author’s friend on a cold day when you can’t work at your desk. Even if I’m rubbish at the colouring in.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Book Chat: Versatility in Genre

Frank Parker, I salute you. You’re an extraordinarily versatile writer.

I’ve just finished reading Frank’s Transgression, which I suppose is best described as a political thriller with a twist. It’s a story set in some fictional suburban English town, in the very modern era of politics with past misdeeds becoming uncovered by time and exposed through the media. Sound familiar?

There was much I liked about it. Very much. I liked the pacing of it, which may sound odd because it’s not a rip-roaring read. But the (only slightly) gentle pace did justice to a complicated story and also suited the character of the main protagonist — Roger Jones, a journalist in his sixties, with much in life to reflect on and the keeper of many secrets. 

It’s a complicated plot and Frank handles it with immense technical skill. The action zips around at different points from the 1940s to the present day. As a writer I avoid flashbacks wherever I can, because I’m simply incapable of dealing with them without confusing either myself or the reader. The plot of Transgression requires flashbacks to work — and I’m impressed.

If I had a problem with it, it was that there was perhaps a little too much back story. One character’s back story, interesting in itself, isn’t sufficiently crucial to the plot to justify as much focus as it gets and that’s the only point at which my attention wandered.

It’s the second of Frank’s books I’ve tackled. The first was Strongbow’s Wife, his historical novel set in twelfth-century Ireland and the Welsh Marches. There’s politics here, too, but much more brutal than the modern day (though you might argues that its victims don’t suffer any less). Aoife is the wife of Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (the Strongbow of the title) caught up in the power struggle that followed the Norman Conquest.

The pace is the same, too, and again I enjoyed being able to read a less-than-frenetic story, so that Frank’s thoughtful phrasing and descriptions aren’t lost. There’s plenty of action — but he succeeds in not sacrificing plot to pace or vice versa.

Of the two I’m bound to say I enjoyed Strongbow’s Wife the more, if only because the plot hung together rather more coherently. Some readers may not enjoy the politics of Transgression and  others may shy away from historical novels. But readers with wide-ranging tastes and an appreciation of subtle will surely enjoy either — or both.

Monday, 4 January 2016

A Book a Week for a Year

Okay, so I may be being overambitious with my New Year resolution, but I might as well be bold. In 2016 I’m going to read a book a week ... every week.

I’ve done it before, twice, but there were advantageous circumstances. I was on maternity leave for part of both years, and had a wonderful start from those few weeks when there was nothing to do but wait. The second one wasn’t so easy, of course (baby AND toddler, hmmm) but there were always those moments when one was napping and the other snoozing on my lap.

The second thing I did was set the rules to suit me. I allowed myself to read books I’d read before, which I think I would now consider cheating. I did, though, insist that at least half of the books had to be new to me — and some of the ones I’d read were books I hadn’t read for so long that I’d completely forgotten them. Maybe that’s a reason not to read them again, mind you. And I also insisted that at least 26 had to be fiction and at least 26 non-fiction. (Yes, I comfortably exceeded my targets on both occasions).

This year I’m going to try and keep it simple. Just one rule. At least fifty-two books, none of which I have previously read, by the end of 2016. I might try and read some more challenging books to go with the lighter ones, but that’s not in the rules. 

The good thing about this is that it’s a resolution that brings pleasure, not pain (gym, anyone?). It’ll make me more widely read. It’ll improve my intelligence. It’ll expose me (I hope) to genres I don’t usually read. And it’ll help me tackle that enormous to-be-read pile of all the books I’ve bought with good intentions and not yet got round to opening.

Taking advantage of the New Year bank holidays, I’m off to a flier. One book down already, a cosy crime novel from the 1930s. That’s a genre and period which is making a long-overdue comeback and one for which I have several books in the queue. And I’ll be reading books by my friends, too.

I ought, of course, to commit to reviewing every book to prove I’ve read them, but I don’t think I’m quite ready to do that, partly because I don’t review books I don’t like and that means if I don’t review a book for whatever reason — laziness, probably — then people might get the wrong idea about whether I enjoyed the book or not. But I will continue to discuss the on my blog.

It’s the kind of challenge I think I could really enjoy. Roll on book number two!