Monthly Archives: July 2014

This is The End*

Firstly, apologies for neglecting this blog yesterday. I know some of you were probably expecting a new short story, as I’ve been rather in the habit of promising a new tidbit of flash fiction every Wednesday for the past while, but I hope you’ll find it in your hearts to forgive me.

Photo Credit: butupa via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: butupa via Compfight cc

I wanted to blog yesterday. Honestly. I sat with prompt images for almost an hour, thinking. I almost had an idea, and then realised it was nonsense. My brain kept skidding towards my WiP like water draining down a plughole, you see, and I simply wasn’t able to drag my attention away long enough to focus on anything else.

So, eventually, I gave in. I dived into my book, and I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. I wrote for seven and a half hours, straight.

And I finished draft 1.

Now, it’s not perfect. Already, I’m thinking of things I need to fix. I want to rewrite most of the last chapter, for instance, and I can’t help but allow myself to get started into that today. It’s like an itch; unless I scratch it, I won’t have any peace. If I give it a go, I’ll be able to take my mind off it for long enough to start enjoying life again for a while. (That’s the theory, at least). It’s such a strange feeling, writing a chapter which you know you’ll have to re-do at the first available opportunity, but writing it anyway, half in a fever, because you simply must get to The End. The magic words which allow you to sit, staring at your blinking cursor and your word count, and realise that you’ve done it.

You’ve written a book.

No matter that it might never leave your computer hard drive. No matter that nobody else but you may ever read it. No matter that it might be rubbish, or that it needs extensive editing, or that it’s at least ten thousand words too long, or that the final chapter is a load of old horsefeathers. None of that matters when you’re looking at The End. Getting a story to that point is a cause for celebration; it’s an achievement, and should be recognised as such.

This is the fourth time I’ve managed to get to this point in a book (well, fifth, if you count the ‘first’ version of Tider, which I don’t tend to do); only one of these ends, so far, has rounded out a book which is good ‘enough’, or in other words good enough to get me an agent, and good enough to get my hopes up that it might actually make it to bookstore shelves one day. The others have been endings which are also beginnings – they’re ideas which have potential, but which haven’t been fully realised. They’re endings which need to be revisited, and now that I’ve managed to bring another idea to The End, I can think about going back and perfecting the others. Ideally, I’d love to be looking at four endings which I am happy with, which I feel close out a story world which is fully realised and expressed as well as I can express it, and looking forward to bringing more stories, loads more stories, to successful and satisfying conclusions. Maybe as I progress in this ol’ writing career of mine, I’ll get better at writing The End – I’ll start writing it in the calm realisation that I’ve just completed a good story, one which has a proper conclusion that isn’t a mere placeholder – but even if I keep having to muddle through, at least getting to The End is a good start.

Now. The End is in my metaphorical rearview mirror, and I’m off to see what happens next…

 

*Apologies for the over-drama. I couldn’t help myself.

 

 

Ghosts and Gods in the Machine

My brain is all a-scatter today.

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

Focus has been a real issue for me lately. This could be due to tiredness, or anxiety over whether my current book is any good, or stress over the fact that I’ll be receiving edits on ‘Emmeline’ from my agent during the month of August (which will be painful), or it could be due to none of those things, or all of them. All I know is, I sat down yesterday with the intention of finishing my WiP, and it didn’t happen. I struggled to write half a chapter and eventually – my forehead burning and my brain in a knot and my mind and body shattered with exhaustion – I had to give up in the hope that I’d do a better job the next time I tried.

Well, today is upon me now. The ‘next time’ is about to begin. And I feel about as capable of completing the work today as I did yesterday.

I think that finishing a book is difficult, in and of itself, but what makes it more difficult is the fact that, by the time you’re writing your last few chapters, you have to keep a lot of stuff in your head. You’re trying to keep your characters consistent and pick up on the little ‘hints’ you dropped all the way through your story and remember the imagery you’ve already used so you don’t use it again (on this point, I read a book recently which used the exact same metaphor for something twice within a hundred pages, and I found it unspeakably annoying) and you’re trying to bring your plot to a satisfactorily interesting, unique and surprising climax. Is it any wonder that my brain is baulking at the prospect? What adds to my difficulty in this case is the fact that I’m writing a ghost story, which in some ways is cool and in others is ridiculous, because I’ve never written about a ghost before and I haven’t read very many stories about them. Also, I can’t watch films which feature ghosts or spirits for fear of losing what remains of my sanity. So, it’s safe to say I don’t know the genre in any great depth. It was somewhat of a disaster, then, when this story suggested itself to me and having a ghost in it was absolutely vital to its existence.

Booo!! Photo Credit: Shain Erin via Compfight cc

Booo!!
Photo Credit: Shain Erin via Compfight cc

One thing writing this book has taught me, though, is the importance of rules when you’re creating a ‘world’ – and every story creates a world, whether you set it smack-bang in the middle of your own home town or on a far distant moon in the twenty-fifth century. Writing fantasy stories, of course, can involve more rules – the more elaborate and imaginative the world, the more rules you’ll have and the more important it will be not to break them – but even in a contemporary story (which my WiP is, to a large extent), you cannot break the rules once you’ve introduced them. Not if you don’t want your reader to rip your book in half, at least. Contemporary-set stories have to obey the rules of our world – people have bills and mortgages and jobs, and gravity works the way we expect, and people get sick, and accidents happen, and characters need to eat and sleep and go to the loo, and distances have to be crossed without recourse to teleportation or something which would make it any less difficult, and there’s time (which can be a major pain). Then, if the story has other elements – supernatural or magical, say – they have their own rules, which may interfere with the real world all they like, so long as they do it in a systematic, consistent and believable way. The upshot is you make the rules, whether in whole or in part; you’ve just got to remember what they are, and keep to them.

So. In relation to my story: I have a ghost in it. She has certain abilities, which revolve around water. She has a particular ‘realm’ in which she is almost all-powerful, and then there’s the ‘real’ world in which her abilities are limited (though she’s still scary). It’s very important for me to remember these limitations when it comes to writing the conclusion to the story. I’ve been relying on them all the way through the book, and so the worst possible thing at this stage of the tale would be to reverse that, or develop an ‘exception’, or something which is a blatant breach of the construction I’ve worked so hard on up to this point. Pulling the rug out from under your readers – if you’re a master of your craft – works well if you’ve foreshadowed it correctly through the book with just the right balance between blatant ‘Look! Look what is happening over here! My goodness but it is a Hint!’ and subtlety you’d need an electron microscope to spot; anything else just looks like the writer threw their hands up in despair and decided to go for broke. I’m not a fan of ‘deus ex machina‘ (‘God in the Machine’) type plot twists, unless they’re done with huge skill and intelligence – and if they bring something exceptional to a story, which often they don’t. In order to break my own narrative rules, I’d have to rewrite the whole book, which is something I’d really rather not do. There should be no need for drastic action like this if you’ve thought about your plot and characters and you know where you’re going with them.

Which, of course, I’ve done.

In any case, after I shut the computer off yesterday and went to do other stuff in a fit of temper, ideas as to how to bring the book to a conclusion began to trickle into my overheated brain. Some of them were useful, and most weren’t, but it proved once again that giving yourself a break once in a while can be the most useful thing you can do for your writing. Let’s hope that today’s effort flows more smoothly, and that the rules remain unbroken.

If not, I’ll write something like ‘And then a giant donkey fell out of the sky, braying as it came, and it crushed everyone flat until they were all dead and then they flew up into the sky holding hands and singing tralala and everyone was happy. The End.’

(Whatever I come up with, it can’t be worse than that – right?)

 

Use Your Words. Please.

It feels almost frivolous to write blog posts about my rarefied life in a world where people are being bombed out of existence and passenger jets are being shot out of the sky and genocides are quietly, systematically going on in various corners of the world and a virulent disease of horrific proportions is cutting a swathe through the people of West Africa. In fact, it doesn’t just feel frivolous: it sort of is.

But, as I so often have to ask myself, what else can I do?

Words, whether written or spoken, are among the most powerful weapons at our disposal. We can use them to rabble-rouse or to comfort; to propagandise or to tell the truth. We can use them calmly, or we can use them in the heat of anger. Sometimes, the same words can mean entirely different things, if said in two different tones of voice. Sometimes, too, writing words down can strip them of nuance and lead to misunderstanding. Two different people can have two entirely different, even contradictory, interpretations of the same written or spoken text, which means that words, our greatest treasure, can also be our biggest liability. Information is as vital a tool in our world as medicine or infrastructure or politics – nations and peoples can rise and fall depending on what words are in their holy books or on the lips of their leaders, and on how the people who hear or read these words understand what they are being told.

So, then, as a person who lives and breathes for words, perhaps I am not as helpless as I feel.

Of course, my sphere is very small, but I can choose what words to fill it with. The words I use go on to have a life without and beyond me, which means I must choose them carefully. My words are my only means of explaining myself to the world, and they will be my only legacy. I can hope that they will be understood as I intended them to be, but I know I have no control over that – once a word has left your pen, or your mouth, or your keyboard, and reached the eyes or ears of another, it is no longer yours. You are responsible for it, but it no longer belongs to you.

Photo Credit: Saint Huck via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Saint Huck via Compfight cc

I wish that world leaders could think about words this way. I wish those calling for war could consider that, in their need to ‘win’, they are throwing their own people on a pyre, and I wish they could be made to care that they are destroying lives and blighting the future. What good is it to stand triumphant over a smoking, blasted landscape? I wish those responsible for leading the world’s faithful could be more considered in the words they use, and the labels they choose to apply to others, and the interpretations they make of holy texts and scriptures. I wish people – those people with the loudest voices, and the largest platforms, and the greatest amount of words at their disposal – would use them more carefully, respecting their power, and being mindful of the consequences. Skewing the thinking of a people is not simply a game, or a way to win influence – it is dangerous, and something which can easily flare out of control, and it is wrong. It is also the easiest thing in the world to do, if one has the words and there are ears willing to hear.

I wish people would value doing right over being right. I wish they’d sacrifice the pleasure of shouting the loudest or the longest, or having the final word in an argument, or feeling like the one whose words are law, for the good of those who cannot speak.

This is why I am passionate about education and literacy. I believe people should be given the tools to distinguish between what they are being told, and the truth. I believe nobody should be forced to become reliant upon one source for the information they need to live their lives in peace. I believe people should be given the tools to make up their own minds, to come to balanced conclusions, to enter into rational discussion, and to understand that even though different peoples may speak different languages, the words are all the same.

All anyone wants is to live in peace, in relative prosperity, and to feel that they are safe. All anyone wants is to send their children out to play in the morning without fearing that they will never come home. All anyone wants is to have the dignity of a livelihood that is unthreatened by shells or tanks or rocket fire, or illness or militias or crushing rule. We have created a world where those who do not believe the same words that we do are ‘wrong’, whether those words relate to a god, or a political system, or an economic structure, or a history that may not have happened exactly as we have always been told. We have taken the greatest tool we have for bringing us together and turned it into the most efficient way of keeping us apart; if we’d had a blueprint for making everything wrong, we couldn’t have done a better job of it.

Words are powerful. My words, and yours. It is never too late to start using them.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Witch Child’

Image: celiarees.com

Image: celiarees.com

I seem to be having a ‘colonial New England’ sort of summer. First, I read (and enjoyed) Ghost Hawk, and then I noticed Witch Child sitting on a stall at a booksale, unloved, and I decided to bring it home. It’s not a new book – my edition bears the proud publication date of 2000 on its fly page – but it was well worth the purchase price.

This book tells the story of Mary Newbury, a mid-seventeenth century girl of about sixteen. It is framed within a clever narrative structure – the book purports to be an academic study, with a prologue and epilogue written in the voice of a woman who is doing research into Mary’s life, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. The entire novel (excepting this prologue and epilogue) takes the form of a diary, written by Mary, which has survived almost four centuries, and its first-hand, primary-source feeling pervades the story. From the outset, Mary tells us she is a witch, or that she is believed to be – which amounts to much the same thing. She lives with her grandmother, who is accused of witchcraft and executed at the novel’s opening; after this, she is taken in by a benefactor who arranges, hastily, for her to be sent to America on board an emigrant ship as part of a group of Puritans escaping religious persecution. She goes, both because she knows she has no choice, and because there is nothing for her to go home to. Her sense of loss is palpable, and her memories of her grandmother are poignant, catching her by surprise at points through her tale, just like grief is wont to do.

On board the ship she meets and becomes close to a middle-aged woman named Martha, who becomes a sister-mother figure to her, as well as an apothecary and his son whose fates become linked with hers. Others among the Puritans are not so friendly, but Mary tries to keep to herself, hiding her diary from prying eyes despite the fact that her literacy, and her ‘fair hand’, draw a lot of unwelcome attention. She is aware of the tinderbox nature of the living arrangements – not only are the passengers living on top of one another, but she understands that the merest sniff of any connection to witchcraft will spell her doom, and everyone seems to be hyper-aware of it; Mary therefore lives in fear of being ‘found out.’ She also becomes close to one of the young sailors on board, which is met with disapproval and questioning by some of her fellow emigrants, and this theme – that of the strictures of Mary’s life restricting her carefree nature – recurs throughout the novel. When the emigrants eventually arrive in New England, they do not find the rapturous welcome they expected, and they face into their first winter with no crops, no homes and the knowledge that they must make a long journey inland, during which they will be dependent on their Native guides for survival.

I really enjoyed so much about this book, including Mary as a character, of course, as well as Martha, and the realities of their lives in England, on board the ship and also in the New World. Celia Rees’ writing is rich and detailed, and Mary’s voice is wonderful. I felt the pain of her loss, the fear of her voyage and the bittersweet nature of her feelings for Jack, the young sailor, and when her ability to write brings her into the circle of the creepy Reverend, I felt my flesh crawl at the fate I felt sure was laid out for her. I also loved the secondary characters of the apothecary and his son, and how their plots intertwined with Mary’s. There is also a fascinating interplay between the young women of the colony, inspired by the real-life Salem witch trials of course, but which is also so much a part of any group of young women forced to live together in a highly pressured, unnatural environment where their only means of advancement lies in finding a husband. I thought this aspect of the novel was handled very well, and at several points I read with my breath held.

Where the book wasn’t as strong, for me, was in its depiction of its Native American characters. They are portrayed quite stereotypically, albeit extremely positively, but I felt the story skimmed over them as people rather simplistically, seeing them solely in terms of their ethnicity. As with Ghost Hawk, the horrors of the interactions between the settlers and the Native population, as well as the terrible treatment meted out by the Puritans on one another, is a strong (and strongly handled) theme here, one which I found wrenching and engaging to read. I loved the issues surrounding women and their agency, literacy, and power which the book raises, and I thought the means by which Mary’s journal is saved (through being stuffed inside a quilt) was fascinating due to the history of quilt-making as a ‘feminine art.’

I am interested in the history of witchcraft and witch-trials anyway, and this book definitely fed into those interests, but it’s also an excellent story, well told, which should appeal to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It’s not a ‘typical’ YA novel, so don’t let that put you off! If this book is new to you, I’d say give it a go – and don’t forget to let me know what you think.

Fictionful Friday

'Miranda - the Tempest', John William Waterhouse, 1916. Public Domain Image.  Sourced: flashfriday.wordpress.com

‘Miranda – the Tempest’, John William Waterhouse, 1916. Public Domain Image.
Sourced: flashfriday.wordpress.com

Ariel

Nothing frivolous, you said. Nothing over-complicated, or stimulating – Logic forbid, the thought of a daughter with ideas! – and nothing besides Newton’s own English. Nothing humorous.
With one exception.

Shakespeare was your most axiomatic of proofs, your only belief. My bio-screen scrolled his words twelve hours out of twenty-four; he was my cloven pine, and you my Sycorax.

I read nothing else, but it turned out to be enough, in the end.

Of course I attended the ceremony. Not to be present for my father’s return? Unthinkable. The flagship was magnificent as it came in to dock. The first flash, and then the soundwave, struck the crowd dumb, but the screaming started as the fireball grew and as it became clear that all were lost.

I wept, because I had to.

The engineer I had smiled into sabotage soon met a poisoned end. I rather think you should have been proud, father. You, in your way, gave me the universe entire.

**

Phew. This was a tough ‘un. A story of between 150 and 160 words, based around the picture prompt and including the concept of ‘freedom’? No easy task. As always, however, it was a great brain-stretcher and an excellent writing warmup. Yesterday, I managed to get my WiP to 68,800 words (ish), and I’m about to start writing chapter twenty-nine. I always had thirty chapters in mind as a good length for this story, so that means I’m almost at the finish line. The hardest part, for me, is yet to come – but wish me luck. Perhaps, as this week ends, so will draft 1 of this book. Wouldn’t that be something to celebrate?

Have wonderful weekends, all. Remember to cherish your freedom, and how lucky you are to have it.

That Familiar Feeling…

I’ve hit 65,000 words on the WiP, which is A Good Thing.

Image: lightintheboxblog.com

Image: lightintheboxblog.com

This is particularly good when I consider that, at about 50,000 words, I thought I’d written myself into an irretrievable mess and getting to the lofty wordcount I’m currently at seemed no more than a fever dream. So, I’m pleased.

Or, at least, I was pleased. Until I remembered that I really suck at writing endings.

You’d think I’d have improved by now, frankly. I’m on my fourth book, I’ve written loads of stories (some of which have even been published, so they can’t have been that bad), and I’ve bashed out about a million blog posts. I should know how to end things properly, but it still gives me the sweats. The strangest thing of all is, with this book, I know how I want it to end – I’m just not sure how to make it brilliant enough.

(By which I mean, of course, exciting and thrilling and spooky and scary and cool, all of which are vital when you’re writing a book about outsmarting a horrible and terrible ghoul-thingie bent on revenge, which is what I’m doing).

I keep trying to remind myself that I’m completing a first draft, and that all I need is a bare skeleton of story which can be given proper flesh and musculature later; getting it finished is the important thing. But I’m one of those complicated people for whom completing a job with anything less than perfection in mind is pretty much impossible. I’ve been editing as I wrote; half the book is technically a second draft, because I printed it out to bring it with me on a road trip, red pen in hand, when I was at that point in the writing process. I also don’t do what so many other writers do when they’re drafting, which is leave whole sections unwritten with a few notes to direct them when they revisit the draft, along the lines of ‘something needs to happen here’ – I leave no gap unbridged when I’m trying to bring a story to completion. I prefer to sweat over it now, rather than sweat over it later. So, I want to do a good job of the latter parts of this book, even if their true importance, for now, lies in their being the bit that comes before I get to type ‘The End.’

I read once, a long time ago, that in order to keep your writing fresh (and your mind fully engaged in your story) you should leave your character ‘stuck’ every day when you finish work – as in, hanging off the edge of a cliff with no visible means of rescue, or facing a firing squad without hope of survival. Then, the next morning when you dive back in, the stakes are high and the narrative blood is pumping before you so much as add your first word of the day, and you don’t leave yourself room for flabby storytelling or complacency. I think there’s something to be said for that approach. I’ve left my protagonist stuck at several points in the drafting of this story and I think it has helped me to get ‘unstuck’, and to keep her moving. There is, of course, always the risk that you leave things too stuck, and you have to unpick the stickiness and find another path – but I’ve done that at least three times with this book, too. It’s not unsurvivable, the whole ‘oo-er. I’ve made a bit of a mess of this’ thing. I know things don’t have to be set in stone the first time you write them at this stage of the game, and the beauty of drafting is that you get to change stuff that doesn’t work – it’s just hard to remember that when you’re in the thick of it.

Anyway, I’m fairly sure I can wrap this story up, though I have just written an unlikely scene wherein our heroine uses a life-jacket to escape from a perilous situation (and not in the way one would expect). I thought it was terribly clever at the time and now it seems a bit…

Image: fbpic-comments.blogspot.com

Image: fbpic-comments.blogspot.com

…so we’ll see whether it makes the final cut.

Another problem with writing first drafts which are over-concerned with being ‘right’ is, of course, that you risk struggling to edit and re-draft them. It’s harder to chuck away thousands of words you’ve really sweated over than it is paragraphs which go a bit like: ‘blah blah blah, protagonist eats dinner and has a fight with mum, do something here with an exploding bathtub or similar’; the more strongly-built the foundation, the harder it is to dig up. It’s not even a pride thing, or a ‘precious writer’ thing – it’s literally just harder to see another way forward when you’ve put down your first version of the story too strongly, like leaning too heavily with a pencil and leaving a track in the paper when you erase what you’ve drawn. I’m wondering now whether I should just write something like ‘ffffffffffffffffflllllllllllllppppp, stuff happens here for ten pages, you know what I’m talking about’ instead of a conclusion, and hope for the best when draft two kicks off.

But between you and me, it ain’t gonna go down like that. I know it, you know it, everybody knows it. So, I might as well just go with my natural style – panic, stress, perfectionism and eventual exhaustion. It’s worked out okay for me in the past, right?

Have a most excellent Thursday. I’m planning to be hot and bothered, but it’s all good. After all, it’s only drafting.

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Swarm’

Image: fusionmarketsite.com

Image: fusionmarketsite.com

Swarm

I watch you from the door. You’re working, in your own world as usual. Your head is your hive and your thoughts buzz about inside it, creating the honeyed memories of a life you may never live. As you bend and twist, plant and weed, ignoring me while appearing not to, I feel our baby move against my bladder. I want to wrench it loose, tell it to sit still, punish it with words and fists, and it is an effort not to scream.

All of this was your idea. The move. The animals. The beehives at the end of our long garden, and the henhouse by the kitchen door. We grew the land as we grew the house, and then you made me grow a child to tie me here.

At night, I trail down to the beehives through the long grass, my bulging belly hard and hot and heavy, and I whisper to the creatures inside. I tell them to swarm, to pick up their gold and leave, to darken the sky with the humming of their wings. I tell them not to look back. Sometimes I imagine them rippling over my skin like water, dusting me pollen-yellow, grappling with my bulk until they’ve lifted me into the air and borne me away like dust on the wind.

The bees might be the only thing here that can fly, but I know how many stings it takes to kill.