Monday, 30 May 2011

It’s a question of morality, innit?

I don’t ever say much about things connected with morality in these scribblings. That’s partly because I assume my point of view is that of most normal people – try not to hurt others, don’t steal stuff or kill people, deal with folk the way you’d like them to deal with you. It’s also because, since I don’t want Jehovah’s Witnesses et al lecturing me about how to live my life, I know that they’d feel the same about me if I knocked on their door and advocated fornication, adultery, excessive consumption of alcohol, and various unspecified activities relating to small animals, pieces of latex and a bowl of fruit.

So, the Google alert I got yesterday giving me a link to a Chinese site where I could download The Figurehead by Bill Kirton completely free posed a problem. How should I react to it? Should I be flattered that I’m such an important figure in world literature that pirates are taking the trouble to rip off my wisdom and make it accessible to a larger audience? Should I be upset at the knowledge that, if it weren’t for these pirates, I’d be earning even more than the millions of pounds I already receive for my books? Should I forward the link to people I don’t like in the hope that they will try to download the book and, when it arrives, it will bring with it viruses, Trojans and all those other things which will turn their computers into dire reminders of the retribution that results from acts of gross immorality?

In the end, the answer was – none of the above. I have no idea how great or grave a problem the practice is. I’d prefer it not to be happening – not just to me but to all writers or other artists or any holders of intellectual properties – but I can’t, in all honesty, start pontificating about it, because it’s what people do. If you’ve never copied a track from a friend’s CD or borrowed another friend’s book or photocopied a useful (copyrighted) article or watched a DVD hired by a friend or downloaded music from a freebie site … well, you get my gist. I’m not advocating or excusing any of that, but it happens. And just because it’s now happened to me it would be hypocritical of me to demand a change in the law.

It’s how capitalism works – or is that too simplistic? (Answers on a postcard to anywhere but here please.) Oh, and if you haven’t already done so, you can do your bit to uphold decent human values and beat piracy by buying The Figurehead. You don’t have to read it but the act itself will make you feel incredibly righteous.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Be careful what you write

I’ve just finished reading the galley proofs for the Pfoxchase edition of The Figurehead (and I love the excuse to post yet another picture of the gorgeous cover which Sessha Batto designed for it). I’ve been busy with other books, so I haven’t looked at this one for a while and it’s interesting to read it almost as an objective outsider. Of course, I remembered the characters, the main events, the lovers, its overall shape and whodunit, but not the details, especially those which reveal things about the writer.

That may sound strange, since I wrote it, but it simply confirms what I’ve always said about books, plays and poems – we put much more of ourselves into them than we realise. As well as its focus on murder, romance and history, The Figurehead has attitudes to commerce and passion, the rich-poor divide and the importance of community which I wrote about in my last posting. But then, I was being autobiographical and referring specifically to my beliefs and intuitions; when I was writing about people in the Aberdeen of 1840, I wasn’t aware of how much those same beliefs were influencing my choices. It’s only when you get some distance between yourself and a work that you can appreciate just how intricately your inner self is bound into the fiction you’re creating.

Fashions in literary criticism (no, I’m not claiming I write ‘literature’) always keep changing and, quite often, the tension is between whether you need to know anything about a writer’s life to understand his/her works or whether the works are independent items, with enough of their own, internal coherence and referential information to make the writer irrelevant. I’m inclined to accept both approaches. If you’re swept along by a narrative, made to think, laugh, cry, or believe its characters are more real than those around you as you read, it’s served its purpose and it could have been written by a monkey with a typewriter. On the other hand, if you then discover biographical details about the author which ‘explain’ why he/she made certain choices, there are other resonances of the work which open new perspectives.

So, whether we like it or not, our writing reveals us in ways of which we’re unaware at the time. And, to take that a step further, I know that we only see some of the secrets we’re betraying and that reviewers may see things which we may not want to know about ourselves, things we deny. I may have said this before but it’s worth repeating in this context. Victor Hugo (out of favour now but by any standards a truly great writer), wrote that, when he saw a new play of his performed before an audience for the first time, it was as if his soul had climbed onto the stage and lifted its skirts for all to see.

Having said that, though, if anyone were to set The Figurehead alongside The Sparrow Conundrum to see what my soul looks like, they’d immediately be on the phone to a psychiatric unit.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Is education good for you?

OK, I’ve run out of guest bloggers for the moment so I suppose I’d better write something from me for a change. Luckily, a journalist friend, who’s going to do a piece on me to help plug The Sparrow Conundrum, sent me some questions to answer and the subject of the first one was education and other influences. It made we wonder, not for the first time, whether getting an education helps or hinders a writer. Obviously, we need to learn to read and write, to find out about things, other cultures, people; we need to know the value of researching things, understanding them and being able to apply them in different contexts, but do we lose anything in the process of acquiring those skills?

I taught at a university and wrote academic articles (not because I wanted to but because that’s what you had to do). I loved the teaching bit, which consisted of sitting around with young, intelligent, interested people talking about books, poems, thinking, creativity – and I learned at least as much from that as the students did. Astonishingly, I also got paid for it. But, given that my dad was a labourer on a building site and worked from 7 am to 6 pm (and often later than that) for 5½ or 6 days a week, I never found it easy to think of what I was doing as ‘work’. And it’s that apparent (or real) gap between academia and reality that’s the problem.

I came from a background and a part of town where ‘university’ was what happened to other people. Nobody resented that or even gave it any thought, and far more important was the fact that my upbringing was full of real people, in a community which cared – individuals who, for all their lack of formal education, were wise, compassionate, philosophically astute (without the terminology), and REAL. I know it’s a clich√© but their wisdom and their education came from life.

So, when you put the education I got in that context, it’s obvious that, yes, it gave me a wider vocabulary, a new set of cultural references, and literary models I might not otherwise have come across, but it also introduced an artificiality, the notion that life was full of sub-texts, the feeling that I was talking with a different voice. Somehow, it seemed pretentious. I still think of the fishermen and others who were around me when I was growing up as being more ‘real’ than the middle classes amongst whom I’ve moved ever since graduation. That’s not me denigrating my excellent friends, real and virtual, but I do get a genuine sense of there being a gap between the spontaneous, instinctive life I led then and the more measured, considered way I am today. The very fact that I’m choosing these words with relative care is somehow ‘foreign’.

So how has it affected my writing? Well, education constrains us, tells us the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of doing and saying things, tends to suppress the sort of individuality which doesn’t suit current fashions. Students today think in terms of vocation, outcomes, objectives and all those other perfectly good words that have had their meanings usurped by the purveyors of business jargon. Maybe if I’d by-passed all that, I’d have had a more natural, less mannered voice, and its more limited vocabulary would have been compensated for by its directness, its lack of artifice.

I love words and their combinations but my writing is driven by people, the compromises they make, the hopes they have (in the face of utter hopelessness at times), the complexity of their conditions. Rather than reveal them, elaborate word pictures can spin veils which hide them, which focus on speculative stuff rather than on who they actually are.

I offer no answers – I’m just asking. And, since I try not to take anything too seriously, I’ll hop quickly to my friend’s second question ‘How important to you is humour in your writing?’ It’s an excuse to pass on to you some comments from a list the same friend (coincidentally) sent to our writers’ group. They’re all extracts from letters sent to local councils in the UK.

There are some which seem to relate to an educational deficiency:
“50% of the walls are damp, 50% have crumbling plaster, and 50% are just plain filthy.”
“Our lavatory seat is broken in half and now is in three pieces.”

The scatological ones:
(a complaint about the neighbours) “Their 18 year old son is continually banging his balls against my fence.”
“It's the dog mess that I find hard to swallow.”

And the ever-welcome surreal ones:
“Will you please send someone to mend the garden path. My wife tripped and fell on it yesterday and now she is pregnant.”
“My lavatory seat is cracked, where do I stand?”

Ah, those life-defining questions.

Oh, and while I remember it, there's a collection of flash fiction stories from Rammenas to which some of you have contributed. A selection of the best is available as a wee ebook  including examples from Scary, Anneke, Diane, Beth, Donnie, Ron and me. It's called In These Hands, it's dirt cheap and all the proceeds go to a charity called War Child Holland.

You can get it from:
Amazon US -
Amazon UK -
Smashwords -

Monday, 9 May 2011

Guest blogger Jean Henry Mead on Pacing a Novel’s Suspense

I’m lucky in my friends. The guest bloggers I’ve had have all had interesting things to say about writing and their experiences in the industry. (Not to mention brother Ron’s insights and apercus into the meaning of life.) Here’s another with some telling observations about the all-important topic of narrative pace. It’s from Jean Henry Mead.

I once read an article by mystery novelist Phyllis Whitney concerning pacing and suspense. She said the best advice she received was from the editor of Weird Tales Magazine, a highly respected pulp magazine published before she began writing novels. The editor said she shouldn't try to keep her stories at constant high pitch, that readers grow as bored with continuous excitement as they do with nothing happening at all.

Pacing suspense is important because a reader needs time to relax between action scenes. Another important aspect of writing suspense novels, she said, is that your reader will find endless defeat and discouragement too unpleasant to read. Writers are, first and foremost, entertainers. And main characters’ lives should never be easy although small victories have to be paced strategically along the way to keep the plot interesting.

Much like mystery novelist Marlys Millhiser, Whitney started her novels with a setting. She said she wanted a place that gave her fresh and interesting material, even though it may be in her own backyard. In her first mystery novel, Red is for Murder, she went to Chicago’s loop to get behind-the-scenes background on the window decorating business. Because the book only sold 3,000 copies, she returned to writing for children, but years later, the book was reprinted in a number of paperback editions as The Red Carnelian.

Once she had her setting, Whitney searched for a protagonist driven to solve a life and death situation. The more serious and threatening the problem, the higher the reader’s interest. Whitney stressed that a writer needs to think about this powerful drive during the novel’s planning stages because it’s easier to build the plot around the problem in an action story than something much quieter. However, inner turmoil can be just as suspenseful as the threat of bodily harm if the writer remains aware of the character’s desperate need to reach a certain goal. Action doesn’t necessarily have to be violent.

The protagonist doesn’t know from the beginning of the story how to solve her problem, but sooner or later, she decides something needs to be done. That’s when the story actually begins. The character may make the wrong decision but he needs to do something rather than just drift along through several chapters.

Give your character(s) purpose and a goal to reach by the end of the book. If your protagonist is unable to reach her goal or solve her problem, bring in another character who can help. This new character may have ulterior motives or a different goal, and therein lies suspense.

An eccentric character can also provide suspense by doing the unexpected, thus making the situation worse. Whitney advised against more than one strange character per novel because it suspends belief. But any character doing the unexpected can build suspense. If the reader knows what’s going to happen next, she soon becomes bored and may lay the book aside. So to prevent that from happening, surprise your reader with something unusual although logical. Whitney had one of her characters making her way down a long, dark, narrow passageway when she suddenly touches a human face. That’s not only unexpected, it's suspenseful.

In my own mystery/suspense novels, the Logan & Cafferty series, I try to balance the action with humorous dialogue. That, in my opinion, prevents the characters from becoming cardboard cutouts and endears them to my readers. In my latest novel, Murder on the Interstate, my two protagonists, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty, are delivering humorous lines in the midst of a flash flood when they’re in danger of drowning. And Sarah does some crying in order to prevent suspension of belief. She also confesses that she irrigated her underwear.

Marlys Millhiser once showed me her suspense chart with separate lines for pacing action, storyline, subplots and exposition, chapter by chapter. She said it helps her to prevent melodrama.

Not a bad idea.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The big fat London Book Fair (by Helen Ducal).

I said in my piece on the London Book Fair that it wasn’t the place to say to someone, ‘I’ve written this great book, want to publish it?’ My guest blogger this week, Helen Ducal, with whom I had a very pleasant lunch there, proves that I was wrong. Here, in her own words, is what happened to her.

If there is one expression that has stood me in good stead over the years it has to be; You can’t just...
To which, my silent (usually) reply has been; Says who?
So when I saw there was to be a London Book Fair, I thought, I have a book or six, I’ll go. A published friend asked me if I had made appointments. Oh no, I replied, I am much harder to ignore in person.

As it turned out, getting there was far more nerve wracking than anything Earl’s Court could offer.

The Book Fair took place over three days.

Day 1. Set forth in borrowed car from Birmingham to London. Simples. So much more relaxing than the train...I spent the first sixty miles trying to tune in the bloody radio. Living in France, I miss only two things, Radio 4 and Neighbours. Sad but true. I stop at a service station. Starbucks coffee? Never. Strolling back to the car I spy, no aerial. Hence no radio. CD? Don’t be daft. This vintage vehicle has a cassette player but no cassettes.

Another twenty miles along the motorway and an orange warning light comes on, on the dashboard. I know enough about cars to know it isn’t oil, temperature or brakes. The shape outlined in orange is disturbingly shaped like a hand grenade! What to do? I am not going to stop on the hard shoulder; lots of nasty things happen there. I decide that as the car is still, a) moving, b) slows down when I brake and c) not overheating, I will continue. If the light starts flashing, I will stop and cry.

I have driven this route to Chiswick many times. It is very straightforward. So why am I...where is the...? Flaming hell, I am in London. With no radio to distract me in a good way I have been distracted by an unexploded orange object and missed the turning to Chiswick. So what’s with the red tarmac? Ye gods, I am in a bus lane. I am on dual carriageway with railings between the road and the pavement. What? I can’t get off. Beam me up Scotty. I normally have low pressure.

Do you want to hear the real irony? I see a sign for Earl’s Court. I also see a sign with the letter c in the middle. Uh-oh. Congestion charge. Where does that start? Where were the signs? Get OFF this road or you will be charged £60. Yep, the fine arrived four days later, on my birthday.

I stopped the car as soon as I could turn left. A traffic warden was on me like a shot.
You can’t park...
he stopped as I emerged from the car, shaking, with a crumpled map and a look so forlorn I could have beaten Bambi in a homeless contest. He pointed out where I could turn right, back towards Chiswick. That would be the traffic lights that clearly state, no right turn.

I eventually reached my destination. I never wanted to go out ever again.

Day 2. Got the train to Earl’s Court. Became mesmerized by the scale of the place. Met my cyber-writer-friends. Had a very nice pub lunch. Still no plan. Unless you count business cards and A4 prints of my book covers. Wandered round, wondering what on earth I was going to do, to make this trip worthwhile. I got the train back to Chiswick. I glared at the parked car.

Day 3. Mantra: I cannot waste this opportunity. Think positive, think retro. Paper not iPad. Independent Publishers Group. Sounds about right. Small, perfectly formed and proactive.

Hi, I am looking for a publisher...
Hi, I have written...
Hi, are you taking submissions...?

Tried all of the above and all I got was. Here’s our email address, and Get your agent to contact us. I even tried the ‘big boys’. Sorry, no one available to speak to you. Boo hoo. Then I spot a lady eating a sandwich. The French part of me cannot interrupt her impromptu lunch. I circle the stand...three times.

Last crumb, in for the kill.

Hi, you have an interesting cross section of books. I meant it. She glanced at my Blue Peter version of my book cover and my portfolio. She pointed at the chair opposite. She gave me her card. Send me your manuscript, she said.

I drove back to Birmingham in a soundless car with the occasional orange ‘malfunction indicator’ rearing its ugly head. It was malfunctioning all right. It had the power of a demented sewing machine.

Skip ahead two weeks. I post my manuscript to the nice lady in Brighton at 3pm and by 4.30pm the next day, I get an email that says. At first glance this looks very interesting indeed. GULP.

So, yes, going to the London Book Fair was worth it. And even if this meeting doesn’t change my life, it did reinforce what I already knew. You have to believe in yourself before anyone else can.

Watch this space.

Helen’s book is All Expenses Paid – her pitch for it is just ‘Granny sitting in the South of France for six months. What could be simpler?’ I’ve asked her to let us know how things develop.

You can read more of her musings on her own blog here.