Saturday, 30 April 2011

Writing query letters

Having written a lot of query letters for short stories and poetry, I am now faced with having to write one for our course. An agent from the distant fantasy land of actual publishing is visiting Winchester, and will discuss our efforts to get an agent's attention. It turns out, I'm terrible at it! Having spend 2 whole days working on this, the best I can come up with something which is concise, factually accurate and completely dull. I wouldn't want to read my book, and I actually like the characters. I ended up highly entertained by QueryShark, a blog written by an agent who dissects query letters for fun. Hilarious, although it was a reminder that mine was even worse than some of the offerings on show. 

One exercise I've been playing with is having a go at writing query letters for my previous novels, and realising the reason I gave up on them was that they were too convoluted and confused to summarise. I'm going to have a go at the children's book later, see if I can come up with something there. As my tutor said, months ago, what's your book about? I think this has got to help.

However, as I've said before, reducing my rambling manuscript to a few concise, appealing lines, is actually helping me rewrite said MS. One of my lecturers recommends putting a sentence summary of your book, what it's actually about, on a post-it where you can see it as you write. How small a post-it, she doesn't say, something about A3 would do it... Seriously, I am starting to clarify for myself what the book is about and that's really helpful. Now I just need to divorce myself from the idea that the original 87 000 words must have something worth keeping in them, and get one with a proper rewrite. 

The reason I embarked on this writing course lark in the first place was to work on pace. Finally, I'm starting to make sense of my writing style, realising that the balance between action and reaction is way off. Readers need a reason to keep reading, their time is precious, if they get bored or confused they won't bother to keep reading. In the first draft I have an action scene, then four static, reaction scenes where people sit down and talk about the action in scene one. Then four action scenes, one after the other, too much to take in at once. Silly me. I was too worried about swapping POV (point of view) but have accepted that this book needs different POV which will collide into Jack's at the end. I just need to establish Jack as the main character whenever possible. Now the three assignments looming up can take centre stage...   

Meanwhile, I'm packing up to go back to Winchester and a different pace of life.

Dodger working his way through a pile of paperwork

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Ouch. Anniversaries again.

Every year it catches me out: my no. 2 daughter's birthday is on the 22nd, my eldest daughter (who died) is on the 28th, my wedding anniversary is on the 30th. So, sandwiched between two lovely events is one I will never forget but was horribly stressful. Giving birth to a baby with a condition that will almost certainly kill them is the most bittersweet of experiences. On the one hand, the baby's here, alive and (relatively) well (hooray!); on the other hand she will need massive, life saving surgery twice in her first week before starting eight years of medical interventions and ill health (ouch). So I'm melancholy, and poetry is easier to write when your emotions are engaged. Even the sad ones make you remember the good things too. But this year I think the sad is outweighed by the good because I have to go back to Winchester for one last month. It's been much harder to get organised to go, although I'm looking forward to seeing fellow students and the lecturers. The assignment dates are racing up at incredible speed as well - terrifying!

Today I followed the advice in the Big Blue Book and the assessment booklet about writing the commentary. I roughed out 750 words before realising I needed to go back and actually put into practice some of the things I have laboriously learned and written about. Wow. What a difference! Each scene makes more sense, links to the other scenes and draws the reader in (hopefully).  

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Writing commentaries/rationales

Having come to the conclusion that these are basically the same thing, I'm halfway through the one for the end-of-module assessment for A363. So, what have I learned since getting the Big Blue Book last summer? Well, one thing is that some of the MA students don't seem to have - absolute security about the nuts and bolts of writing for publication like grammar and spelling. The course, and A215, does punish you severely for inconsistent use of English, for example, and sloppy formatting.

That aside, I have looked at how a story's scenes work, each having its own beginning, middle and end, and how active scenes affect the story compared to reactive, static scenes. I, it seems, am learning the basics of pace and drama, despite not having given the course 100% of my attention. Like a lot of students, I wouldn't have done the course this year except it's part of a dying diploma course. From next year, students have to do more courses, which with hindsight, I think I'd prefer anyway. But what this course has also done, which I need, is apply deadlines.
On my whiteboard at the moment is a long list of deadlines, which are a mixture of assignments and opportunities like the 'Undiscovered Voices' anthology competition. Working on the MA has made me look at what stalls me, what stops me writing?

One thing that distracts me is television, so the Sky subscription is out of the window (and we don't have any sort of signal here for any channels!) when I get back. The only thing the kids will miss is Dr Who, but perhaps BBC iPlayer will step in!

Another thing was insecurity that I was 'good enough'. I've met a lot of good writers in the last year, some of them better than me, but I still have something original to say and I love writing so I'm leaving the doubts further behind with each year. To think four years ago I wouldn't put pen to paper at all in case it was complete crap. Sometimes, it is complete crap, and that's OK, I just won't show it to lots of other people! I'm starting to tell the difference between crap and good writing (and can now put the words 'good' and 'writing in the same paragraph).

Finally, I'm becoming secure enough to know I won't be a great literary writer, even if I work at it, because I don't read enough literary work. Commercial writing, a dirty word with some people, is my stated aim, my goal. I'm still going to work at being a better poet though, which I think helps the writing. Now, back to the commentary!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

No chickens

Amidst all the ups and downs of the last weeks of my MA looming and the last weeks of A363 screaming at me to tackle the commentary, my last chicken expired. Well, we had to take her to the vet and expedite the process. I know it sounds silly, but I'm the kind of person  who keeps chickens, grows herbs and makes bread from scratch. Some of the time. I feel a bit strange without at least a couple of clucks in the yard at the back of the house. Not to mention, being personally attached to the hens which we've had for the last 4 years. 

So, I'm writing slightly melancholy poetry about my sister, for an assignment, and it has just a hint of no-chicken-blues creeping in. I look forward to restocking the henhouse when I get back although the posse of men I live with - did I mention I am now outnumbered by three sons, one prospective son-in-law and a husband - have taken down said henhouse. The yard now looks - rather nice, backed by the slate cliff hung with ivy and maybe it would be nice to put a few chairs and a barbecue out there.

I just have to find something else to do with the scraps... and buy eggs. Maybe not. Rosie and I fancy hatching a few eggs out next spring... Meanwhile, word count on the children's book has reached 8k (first draft) and the adult book about 17k (second draft). Slow going.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Putting it all together

Having written many, many scenes, I'm attempting a cut and paste manouever...manouvre...manoeuvre (got it) to make one complete narrative. At this point I wish that I hadn't got lazy when I saved drafts and let the first line be the file name. Now I have three scenes with very similar names and one with the mysterious name 'the scrape of a door opening and a length of', very catchy. I wonder what that's all about? None of which mattered when I had three scenes but is very inconvenient once you get to eighty odd. 
Organising drafts and different versions into some sort of order has become more and more of an issue. Since I started writing again, I have managed to write (and collected research) that adds up to 4GB, I even had to buy a much bigger memory stick and save it to DVD instead of CD when I remember about backups. 'Backup?' I hear a few of you say, the few of you who haven't had a catastrophic hard drive meltdown. Just do it, save the whole lot and keep it elsewhere. I have my (now 8GB) memory stick on my car keys, that way if the whole house burns down at least I'm not starting from scratch. 
But how to organise files? I started a poem called 'Mermaids' for a course I did, A215. It's in the A215 folder, then a later draft is in the sub-folder A215/poetry drafts, the final version is in A215/assignments and subsequent versions are scattered throughout my folders like lost lambs. My favourite short story has eight locations, each version slightly different and I can't remember where the best one is. So I've decided this can't wait for the autumn when the deadlines relax, I need to make some sense of it now and at least round up all the drafts (in the four folders in which I've put drafts of the novel) of scenes and chapters from the book. 
Here are just a few of my folders, all bulging with...something!
Today's distraction/deflection from actually writing involves counting the number of folders (110) and multiplying by the average number of files inside (160) which makes (mumbling over fingers and old envelope) 17600 files. One folder has twenty eight sub-folders in it and over 1000 files. I've written and collected seventeen thousand drafts of poems, short stories, scenes and chapters of books and essays. No wonder I'm having problems finding anything. I realise this is the result of saving drafts with the suffix 'a', 'b' etc. after them, so a piece of work might end up with ten drafts, but I do go back and look at early drafts. And who could resist saving an article on plastic surgery for ugly dogs? Surely a whole story in there somewhere. 
It's a good job I don't print it all out, that's all I'm saying. There's a weekend I'm not going to get back, organising all that....   

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Being edited

Ouch! But...useful. I've sent off a short story for our class anthology and the editor suggested a few minor edits. I must say, workshopping someone else's work is very 'well, here's my idea, use it or not, it's up to you and I'll never know anyway'. Obviously, the editor in this case will know, as I have sent back the edited version. Most of the suggestions were spot on, and I'm very glad to put them in. How is it, that you can write something and read it a dozen times and not see the glaring error/impossibility/bollocks right in the middle? Then someone else comes in, and like a mean finger presses straight on the bruise you didn't know was there. So thank you Ms Editor, that has really helped.

I've been working on my novel plan and it's starting to come together. I'm itching to write more though, so today I'm going to start writing 1000 words again, even though I'm still pushing through the early part of my book. there are some scenes I just know have to be in there somewhere so I can at least get on with those! I need to be writing the beginning of the book (again) because it's going in the EMA for A363. This time I have a clearer idea of who all the characters are and how they connect. I'm working on seeing why they do things - it's all very well saying: 'well, Felix helps' but why does he? Why are the bad guys after my lead characters? Apart from that I'm listening to my seedlings gently nagging from the conservatory to put them out in the garden. they obviously don't know we're going to grow them on then eat them.   

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Getting to know my characters

One thing that's a pain about writing a splurge first draft instead of planning, is that you get to know your characters as you go along. You also develop and change the characters - I know my lead character was fairly unlikeable when I first wrote her. She became more interesting and warm as I wrote the middle chapters. My second chararcter grew from a whiny brat into a grown up during the process, which probably does reflect the experiences she had, so that was helpful. But my bad guy, he started out as a he and became a she, gained about four hundred years and lost a hundred pounds. Not to mention her personality becoming more charming psychopath and less ravening monster. So I'm writing character sketches. One technique that I have found useful in short stories is to interview my characters about related (or unrelated) things. I once had a long conversation with a murdering nut case about conservation but it did reveal why women trusted him. I realise to some people that makes me crazy, talking to my imaginary friends, but it did make him easier to write! Presently I'm working on the smaller characters, making them more well rounded. One of the criticisms I had about a previous novel was that the minor characters were more fun than the main ones, and I realise I'm in danger of doing the same.  

I've been recommended a book, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall, and I'm at least trying to work from the early chapters. I don't think I'll ever write each scene in meticulous detail, but it starts with choosing a genre, coming up with a story idea (and being able to put it into words) and developing your characters. That's what we're trying to do in the preparation for our dissertations, so it makes sense to be able to say this is what my novel is about. One of our tutors recommends we put that on a post-it and stick it to the computer screen. So it's pen and paper, character sketches this morning, then looking forward to interweaving story lines. Excellent. Almost sounds like I know what I'm doing.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Keeping my head above water (just)

When I got home last week, I wrote a list of things I had to do before the 7th of June. It was a salutary list, and when I added it up it came to 31 thousand finely crafted words. After my head hit the desk a few times in despair, I got on with the first few bits and worked out a schedule. My initial plan (write 500 words...panic...write two hundred more words...panic...) proved unhelpful but taking out all the panics and rescheduling them for 7th June made it seem slightly more manageable. So far I've written and posted TMA06, sent a short story to the course anthology Litmus, sent a short story to the university creative writing magazine, Vortex, and written 1,500 words of the dissertation proposal thingy. TMA06 came back at 87% giving me a good chance of a distinction, which was more than I expected, so all I have to do now is write a fabulous EMA. The hardest task is proving to be 'write a couple of sentences about your plan for your dissertation', which we are supposed to email to our tutor. If I could condense a novel to two sentences I don't think it would be a novel. Filling in the form for the proposal first is helping, as did TMA06 which was about the novel too..

On a brighter note, I went down with the family to Woolacombe for a walk, as it was the first day I could stand upright in a week. The weather was stunning and the walk was lovely, even though I'm on heat pads and painkillers now. The beach was busy as usual, well, it is the Easter holidays.

I'm now slightly worried about the 7th of June, when I have to catch up on all the panics...   

Monday, 4 April 2011

What's the book about, anyway?

I've had a number of people ask me what the book is about. Answering, so far, has involved twenty minutes, a white board and a list of background reading. Now I have to get my book down to one idea, partly for TMA06 and partly for my dissertation. So I've had a few goes.

'It's a supernatural thriller about the struggle for survival at any cost, set in present day Devon and Eastern Europe of 1576.' Snappy, isn't it? Just rolls off the tongue. Would anyone even want to read more?   OR

'In 1576, occultist John Dee travelled, in secret, to King Istvan, King of Poland, Lithuania and Transylvania, to create a monster that is still killing teenage girls in present day Devon.' Better? I'm not too sure.

'It's a muddle of characters and plot on many, many little white cards with random scenes and very poor grammar. It may one day become a story.' This, at least, has the virtue of being the truth, but I'm a fiction writer, the truth is negotiable.

In the meantime, I'm sat at home in glorious Devon totally distracted by spending time with my lovely girls and surrounded by wildlife. Well, actually, we're inundated by rats again, the chickens will have to move into the ark so they don't get bitten, and the path in front of the house appears to be being undermined. I have four cats that we clearly are overfeeding. Here are two of them working on the rat problem.

Nice going, guys.