Tag Archives: feedback

Mind-Full Monday

Good moaning.

Image: warrelics.eu

Image: warrelics.eu

It’s Monday again, and my skull is creaking at the seams.

The things on my mind this morning, in no particular order, are:

1. The frustrations of being misunderstood;
2. The difficulty of keeping a load of closing dates for competitions and submissions in mind for long enough to write them down, whereupon you lose the piece of paper you wrote the dates down on and forget them all anyway;
3. The need to come up with stuff to write for these competitions and/or submissions;
4. The sheer absolute awesomeness of this:

5. The horror of constantly checking your email inbox, just in case there’s a message in it which will change the course of your future. Or, you know, not.
6. The fact that I watched ‘The Happening’ at the weekend, despite my brother’s warning years ago that it was utter, irredeemable nonsense. I should have listened to my brother.

But the main thing on my mind today is the fact that what I am going to be doing for the foreseeable future is rewriting one of my own books, in line with Very Knowledgeable Advice – the sort of advice it would be foolish to ignore, in other words. So, I am being very clever indeed by not ignoring it.

The book is ‘Eldritch.’ I don’t blame you for forgetting all about it. I nearly had, too.

So, I had originally imagined ‘Eldritch’ as the first part of a trilogy. In my innocence, I had thought the story needed three whole books to tell it: I had imagined my funny little hero, Jeff Smith (who wishes he had a cooler name so that he could have better luck with girls), and his brave and clever friend Joe Araujo (who would rather be at home eating curry than on an adventure), would enjoy being flung through time and space not once, but three times in order to bring their story to a conclusion. I thought I had crafted good, strong characters, including a compelling baddie (I so hadn’t); I thought, in short, that the story was strong enough to sustain a series.

But – *cue dramatic flourish* – I was wrong.

I was wrong, and I didn’t see it until it was pointed out to me. I didn’t see that my baddie was a mishmash of clichés, and that my story was a reasonably good one, but that it certainly didn’t need three books to tell it. I didn’t see that, while my writing was reasonable and the dialogue between my leads was memorable, so much of what I’d written was so-so and forgettable.

I’m not trying to pretend this wasn’t hard to hear. But if you want to know the truth about it – I took this feedback, and I digested it, and after only a few moments (a few stomach-plunging moments, admittedly) I began to see how much sense it made. Taking this feedback was a lot easier than I’d expected, and a lot less painful than I’d imagined.

Image: 8track.com

Image: 8track.com

Not long after this, I began to re-plot the book in my head. It was tough to disassemble the scaffolding of ‘trilogy’ which had previously existed around these characters and this story; it was hard to even imagine the book as a self-contained unit, instead of a series. It meant a total rethink of the plot, the characters, the motivation, and particularly the ‘baddie’ – he needed to be stronger, scarier, more interesting. In short, he needed to be mine, not a mixture of all the baddies I’d ever read about. I hadn’t realised this was what I’d managed to do, until I re-read him. In short, the bits of the book which didn’t feature him were much stronger than the bits that did.

And that’s not good.

Your baddie is supposed to be your most compelling character. Even more so than your protagonist, your antagonist (to give him his ‘Official Title’) should be unique, and marvellously evil, and logically motivated, and in possession of a Dastardly Plan that makes sense and is workable. He or she should be layered and complex and full of secrets. If not, then you don’t have any proper drama or tension in your story. Your heroes have nothing to fight against or overcome. The danger in your tale is neutralised.

My baddie was a pantomime villain. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t spot it myself. But that’s why it’s important to have other eyes read your work, of course.

It also leads me to realise that the most important part of writing is the ability to rewrite, up to and including taking your own work, completely breaking it down, and building it back up again from scratch. A mere edit wouldn’t have saved ‘Eldritch’, but I am only human, and I did investigate whether there were any shortcuts to the process. I wondered if there was a way to salvage most of it, and just change the bits that needed changing. I wondered if there was any chance I could keep some of the features that, I thought, made the book unique – but I’ve learned that only what’s good for the story, not what’s good for the writer, should make it into a final draft.

You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make the story as good as it can be. If this involves starting again from first principles, then that’s what you have to do.

The only rule is: never give up trying to make your work as excellent as it can be, and always ask for (and heed!) good advice.

All right, so that’s sort of two rules. But you know what I mean.

Image: commitnesstofitness.com

Image: commitnesstofitness.com

I hope a week of wonder awaits you – and that there will be plenty of words in it.

Getting There

Sometimes it can be hard to remember that life’s about the journey, not just the destination.

Particularly, of course, when stuff like *this* is going on... Image: theguardian.com

Particularly, of course, when stuff like *this* is going on…
Image: theguardian.com

Trying to forge a career in writing can be exhausting. It’s certainly long-haul, and trying to perfect your craft sucks down the hours of your life so fast that you don’t even notice them whizzing by. It can be hard to keep going sometimes when it feels like all you’re doing is (as my mother would say) ‘throwing biscuits to a bear’ – no matter what you do, nothing seems to change. You keep submitting, you keep writing, you keep trying, and nothing comes back in return.

But we keep going anyway. Why? Because we love the act of writing, of creating a piece of work from nothing, of watching an idea that previously existed only in skeletal form somewhere inside our minds taking shape on a page and turning into a full-blooded Story. Or, at least, we should.

Writing in order to become rich in a speedy manner is simply foolish, yet – from what I hear – many people still believe that writing a book is a fast-track, one way ticket to wealth and fame. I follow a lot of blogs and Twitter feeds where I pick up advice not only on the art of writing, but also on the art of creating a career as a writer, and something I read last week which has stuck with me is the following (highly redacted, and heavily summarised) story:

Once, there was a writer. They lived in an ordinary house, with two or three cute but ultimately ordinary dogs. They may have had up to four (beautiful and dearly loved) children. They got to a certain age and thought: ‘Hey. Instead of just reading all these books, why don’t I write some? There’s got to be a buck or two to be made in that game. Right?’ So, they bought one of these:

Image: site.xavier.edu

Image: site.xavier.edu

They sat down at their brand-new writin’ machine, and they started to bash out a story. Night after night they laboured, until at some point up to a month later they had a story, approximately 178,000 words long, which they thought was wonderful. Their hairdresser read the first chapter and wept (with amazement? Envy? Who knows); their friends all told the writer how brilliant they were to have done something as fabulous as write a book. ‘It was so easy!’ the writer said. ‘You should all do it!’

So, the writer bundled up their manuscript, penned a floral and extravagant introductory letter describing their book as ‘Barbara Cartland meets Catherine Cookson meets Stephenie Meyer,’ and ‘a work of genius,’ doused it in perfume, and sent copies to every major publisher and agent in their country – whether or not they accepted unsolicited submissions, and whether or not they represented the sort of work this undaunted writer had produced.

Then, our writer friend sat back and waited for the big bucks to roll in.

They may also have thought, rather smugly, ‘Not everyone would be intelligent enough to take the easy way out, like me. Suckers.’

Image: fstop57,com

Image: fstop57,com

But, sadly, the writer never heard back from the majority of the places to which they’d submitted their laboriously created novel. From others, they heard stock rejections. From yet others, they received letters thanking them for their effort, and making suggestions as to how they could improve and resubmit.

The writer took this as a blind and idiotic refusal to accept the towering magnitude of their genius, and wrote excoriating letters to each and every publisher and agent to whom they’d previously submitted, lambasting them for not spotting said genius. ‘You’ll be sorry when I’m a multi-millionaire,’ they wrote, in red pen. ‘Just watch!’

And so, they self-published their magnum opus.

And nobody – besides their friends, their mother and the lady who worked behind the counter at their local cake shop – bought it. Nobody read the whole thing. The writer didn’t even have the joy of discussing their work with anyone else, because the book was unreadable.

This writer didn’t write for love of words. They weren’t interested in crafting a story until it’s as good as it can be. They didn’t want to hear constructive criticism, and they didn’t want to be told that there were ways in which to improve. Their first draft was the only draft, in their eyes. Why tamper with perfection?

This person is not a writer, in my opinion. They are what we term in Ireland ‘a chancer,’ out to chase a quick payday without having put in any effort.

But their biggest mistake?

Not listening to the agents who wrote back with constructive feedback and tips on how to make their book work.

Agents are busy people. They don’t typically take time out to help writers if they don’t see something – even something tiny – which is worth nourishing. They’re also interested in a writer’s career, not just helping them bring forth one blockbusting, moneymaking book which will see them both retiring to the Bahamas. Agents do their job because they love finding the right book for the right publishing deal, and because they love discovering something new. If our writer had managed to see beyond their own ego and had listened to the agents’ advice, things could have been very different.

Image: fanaru.com

Image: fanaru.com

The point of all this is: I have received another ‘rejection’ from an agent, but I use the word ‘rejection’ lightly, as the agent is interested in helping me to live up to my own potential.

An agent thinks I have potential.

I haven’t reached my destination yet, but it’s good enough, for now.

**

I just wanted to say a quick ‘thank you’ to everyone who took the time to sympathise with me after yesterday’s post. I had many messages, most of them on Facebook, expressing sorrow for the loss of my friend, and I am profoundly grateful for each one. Please keep his parents, his brothers and his fiancée in your thoughts, particularly on February 23rd which is the date his memorial service will be held. Thank you all for your kindness.

Emmeline and the Ice-God, Chapter 15

I know, I know. NaNoWriMo is over, and so I shouldn’t really post any more extracts from my novel up here – but hey. That’s the beauty of being the Proprietor, isn’t it? You can sort of do what you like. By the way, I still haven’t come up with a better name for the book, so if anyone has any suggestions, you know where to fling ’em. Think ‘ice’, ‘creature’, ‘conspiracy’, ‘ancient’ – that sort of thing.

This week, we pick up shortly after Emmeline and Thing were spotted as they attempted to hide from the men who meant them harm…

Image: ebay.com

Image: ebay.com

Emmeline and the Ice-God

15

Whoop! It – whoop! – was so fast! I – whoop! – I couldn’t –‘

‘Yes, yes – that’s fine! Just calm down, please, won’t you?’

‘But we can’t – whoop! – just calm down! They’ve taken her! Or don’t you – whoop! – understand what kidnapping actually means?

‘Look, Thing – is Thing your name? – you’re not going to be able to help Emmeline if you suffocate to death. All right? Now, calm down. I mean it. Get your breath, and then tell us everything you remember.’ Thing nodded, trying to get his thoughts in order. He was still clutching Emmeline’s satchel to himself, and had refused to let go of it for any reason. The severed straps, hanging like broken arms at either side of the satchel itself, reminded him how important it was to get Emmeline back and return her most treasured possession, as soon as possible.

‘Right. Well – whoop – we were climbin’, right, up to the crow’s nest, like you said, when some fellas – whoop – lots of ‘em, just sort of appeared, yeah, and they turned this big light thing on, and they used it to – whoop – find us.’

‘A light? What sort of light?’ Edgar’s voice was calm, despite the fact that his left arm was a slab of agony. He’d been shot, and the White Flower didn’t have the time or expertise to patch him up properly. He’d been bandaged, and a wad of cotton placed tightly over his wound, and that would have to do for the time being. He glanced over at Sasha, whose face was white as a bone. Her every muscle was tensed, listening to Thing.

‘Dunno – a searchlight, I s’pose. Big round thing. Swivelled.’ Thing demonstrated swivelling with his free hand, just in case they hadn’t got the picture.

‘Okay, that’s fine. So, then what happened? In your own time.’ Sasha’s words were quiet and calm, but Edgar had known her too long to be fooled by that. Her eyes flashed, and her lips were drawn thin.

‘The blokes kept the light on Ems, yeah, and then they flung up some sort of – whoop – net, or somethin’, and they, like, dragged her off the ladder.’ Thing made a sucking sound with his mouth as he showed them, with a hand movement, exactly how Emmeline had fallen. ‘They caught her, and then they tied ‘er up, and they took this away from ‘er –‘ he gestured toward the satchel. ‘Then, they carried ‘er to the edge and just chucked ‘er off.’

‘Chuck – chucked her off?’ repeated Sasha. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Sure as I am that you’re all a bunch of – whoop – idiots who can’t understand plain English,’ muttered Thing.

‘Did she scream? Cry out? Anything?’

‘Nah. Tough as nails, is Ems.’ Thing blinked hard, trying to focus on the battered leather satchel. A few loose threads were fraying around one of its corners and he toyed with them until he was pretty sure his eyes weren’t going to leak, and he could look up again.

‘They must have had her in a harness, or something,’ said Sasha to Edgar, her voice low. ‘Surely? They wouldn’t risk – they couldn’t risk – actually losing her…’

‘I’m sure you’re right,’ murmured Edgar in reply. He placed his uninjured hand over Sasha’s and gently gripped her fingers, which were cold and stiff. He tried to rub some life into them.

‘So – what’s the story with all this?’ asked Thing. He looked first at Edgar, and then at Sasha. ‘I mean, why’s everyone after Emmeline? What’s she done? Only a kid, isn’t she?’

‘It’s not really something – well. It’s not something we can share, let’s put it like that,’ said Edgar, in a low dark voice. ‘She – or, rather, her parents – are involved in something big. The men who took Emmeline probably intend to hold her for ransom, or have been paid to bring her somewhere.’ Edgar was hit by a wave of agony and his words hissed to a halt. He clenched his teeth and grunted, his good hand flying up to the wound on his shoulder.

‘You all right?’ asked Thing, his eyes wide.

‘I’ll live. Now, can you tell us anything you remember about the men? What they looked like, sounded like, how many there were, anything like that?’ Edgar spoke quickly, his voice sharp with the pain he was doing his best to suppress.

‘Right – yes,’ said Thing, slowly. He closed his eyes and did his best to remember. A dim and indistinct picture started to form in his mind – men with bald heads, men with hats, stout and skinny men, all shouting. ‘There were a lot of ‘em. I can’t say how many. It was hard to see from where I was perched, you know? With the light, an’ all?’

‘Of course,’ soothed Sasha. ‘But please – you must try.’ Thing closed his eyes and screwed his brain into a knot.

‘There was one guy,’ he said, a memory coming to the surface like a rising bubble. ‘Tall, skinny fella with skin so pale it looked dead, you know the sort. He was either wearin’ dark glasses or he had the oddest eyes I’ve ever seen. Looked straight up at me at one stage, an’ I nearly lost my grip on the ladder.’

‘Why was that?’ Edgar was afraid to look down at his bandage, convinced he’d see blood seeping through. He focused on Thing, and tried to block out the pain. The cabin all around them was full of White Flower members, working to get their operation back on track, removing the dead and treating the wounded, and he let his suffering soak away into the hustle and bustle. Focus, he told himself. There’ll be time for self-pity later.

‘Dunno, really,’ Thing was saying. ‘It was like he was readin’ my mind, or somethin’, or gettin’ inside my head, more like. I felt, when he was lookin’ at me, that I was a lump of rock buried in the earth, cold and alone and forgotten, and that no matter what I did I’d never be able to change it.’ Thing stopped talking, his throat dry suddenly. He realised his heart was thudding inside his chest, like it used to do in the old days, before his family had… but he couldn’t let himself think about any of that. He shoved his thoughts away, putting them carefully in a box in the cellar of his mind, before locking the cellar door.

‘No,’ whispered Sasha. Thing was vaguely aware of her putting her hands to her face.

‘What is it?’ he asked, trying to clear his mind of memories.

‘It’s the worst we could’ve expected,’ said Edgar.

 **

                Emmeline had never been so cold, or so cramped, in her life. As well as that, she was dealing with the most severe seasickness she’d ever felt – which wasn’t saying much, really, as until the day before, she’d never set foot on a boat – and her stomach churned inside her, both with queasiness and a deep, bone-grinding hunger. If she’d eaten anything, she would have thrown it all back up again, but the men didn’t offer her any food. She thought, longingly, of the ice-cream that Thing had brought to her window. It seemed like ten million years since she’d seen him, but in reality it could only have been a few hours.

I hope you’re all right, she told him, inside her mind. I hope you found help, and that you’ve gone to the captain and explained everything, and that he immediately turned the ship around to follow me… Hot tears bubbled up under her closed lids as she realised that, whatever Thing had managed to do, it most certainly did not involve convincing the captain of the cruise ship to pursue her. For a start, how would he know where to go? The ocean was vast, and the ship Emmeline was now being held captive in was tiny by comparison. It was dark, and hard to see, and the weather was beginning to turn. It would be like looking for a teardrop in a lake.

‘Well, well!’ A voice burst into Emmeline’s mind, and a trapdoor into her tiny, frozen prison was lifted. Outside, she could see cold, sparkling stars and wind-blown spume, and the sound of raucous laughter trickled in through the gap. ‘Everythin’ all right in here with you, your ladyship?’

‘I – please! I need –‘ but the man was already gone. The trapdoor clacked back into place, muffling his laughter as he replaced the padlock. They had been doing this at regular intervals, Emmeline realised – looking in to check whether she was alive, and conscious, but not actually giving her anything or finding out if there was anything she needed. She was desperately thirsty and in terrible pain from being tied up. As well as that she really had to go to the loo again, but the thought of using it on a ship full of men like this made her shudder.

She tried to settle into a corner, doing her best to keep herself warm. Think of fires, and sunshine, and hot soup, she told herself. Think yourself warm! After a few minutes of this, however, she had to give up. Thinking about warm things was only making her feel colder – and she was starting to see her breath in the air like a tiny cloud, so she knew she wasn’t imagining it. Inside her prison, she was freezing.

Where are we going? she thought, fearfully, just before exhaustion took her under.

Self-Criticism: The Good, and the Bad

Inspired by this blog post from the ever-lovely Kate Curtis, this morning I would like to muse, briefly, on the challenge of keeping a muzzle on the mouth of your inner critic.

Image: thefailedstate.blogspot.com

Image: thefailedstate.blogspot.com

Writing is tough – there’s no doubt about that. Writing is even tougher when you can’t stop telling yourself to put your pen down and step away from the words. ‘Give it up while you still can.’ ‘Quit while you’re ahead!’ ‘What a pile of rubbish – as if anyone would want to read this drivel.’ ‘Do you really think this is the best you can do?’

It’s vital to have a quality control process, of course. Just as you can’t win NaNoWriMo by bashing out the word ‘the’ fifty thousand times, it’s important always to do your best when you sit down to write. You should bring your strongest self and your most alert brain and your most alive imaginings. You should do yourself, and your urge to write, justice.

But – as Kate herself asks in her original post – how do you keep going? How do you nurture your ideas? How do you stop yourself, and your inner critic, savaging your work so badly as you go that you never manage to bring anything to completion?

Image: ci.desoto.tx.us

Image: ci.desoto.tx.us

Editing, for me, is something I like to do mainly when I’ve finished a long piece. I like to read something in its entirety before I tackle it for a second draft – it’s hard to edit effectively if you’re only working with a percentage of the full picture, I think. Sometimes, however, I find myself re-reading the previous day’s work and picking out little bits here and little bits there, seeing errors and mistakes and typos and plot holes and all the rest of it, and I understand how easy it is to allow yourself to slide down into the pit of Neverending Edits, from which it can be very hard to return. It is really easy to convince yourself that you’ve made so many mistakes in just one day’s worth of writing that how on earth you think you’re going to produce a story or – don’t make me laugh! – a novel, well – you may as well give up now. Go on, give up before you put too much time and effort into it. In case anyone finds out about it and laughs at you. Just put it away and forget about it, and that’ll be that. (Sound familiar?)

So how do you get that voice – the bad inner critic, the one who isn’t interested in helping you to improve your work – to shut up? Well, I think the first thing you need to do is work out whether you’re listening to your ‘good’ inner critic, or your ‘bad’ one.

A good inner critic will look at your work. A good inner critic sounds like: ‘Oh, okay, so you’ve made a bit of a plot blooper there, but that’s no problem. We can fix that. You’ve made a spelling error in the fourth paragraph, but that’s no problem. We can fix that. Lucky we caught all these things before we moved forward too much, right? It would be so much harder to deal with all this further down the line!’ A bad inner critic looks at you. A bad inner critic sounds like: ‘Who do you think you are, trying to write a novel? What sort of fool sets out on a task like this anyway, without any of the necessary qualifications or whatever it is you need? Look at all these errors – you’re useless! There are far too many to fix. Come on now, just leave it. You’re not able for this.’

How many great ideas, and how many wonderful writers, have fallen at this hurdle?

Everyone needs a critic, just like everyone needs an editor. No writer is good enough to do without feedback, and nobody’s first draft – I firmly believe! – is good enough to be their final draft. However, it’s really important to know when your inner voice is criticising you, or your work; whether it’s attempting to sabotage you completing a piece of writing because, if you do, you’ll prove it wrong; whether your inner critic is tearing apart what you’ve written because it’s terrified that you’ll succeed, and not because your work is no good. If your inner critical voice is making you feel like a failure before you’ve even begun, then it’s time to take action against it.

Starting out small by entering competitions, putting some of your work into the public domain and allowing other eyes to see it, is a great way of doing two things simultaneously: bringing on a panic attack, and shutting up your bad inner critic. Once you get through the panic, the benefits are more than worth it. If other people read your work and like it, even a little, it’s a vindication for your good inner critic. If other people ‘get’ what you’re trying to say, it’s a score for your good inner critic. Your bad inner critic has no response to other people’s approval besides to try to convince you: ‘they’re only saying those nice things to be kind! They don’t really believe all that about you!’ That, however, is rubbish. If other people read your work and give you ideas on how to improve it, that’s one in the eye for your bad inner critic. If someone cares enough about your work to try to help you with it, then – logically – your work has value.

So. Letting other eyes in, and letting other minds digest what you’ve written, is step one in taking control of your inner critic. Step two: write, without reviewing, until you’re done – jotting down a summary of your work as you go, to which you can refer as you sit down to start a new day’s writing, can help with this. Step three: leave your work aside and let it mature. Step four: read and review your own work as though it wasn’t ‘yours’ (time away from it helps with this.) Step five: seek more feedback, and take it in the spirit in which it’s given – which is, more often than not, a spirit of helpfulness. Over all these things, though, one golden rule remains: Continue writing for as long as you want to write, and let no voice tell you to stop.

It also helps to have a support team, whether it’s virtual or real, to pick you up whenever the bad inner critic goes off on a rant. Having an inner critic is an inescapable part of doing anything which involves creativity and vulnerability – the key is to make sure whether your inner critic is, at its heart, for you or against you. The good thing is: a bad inner critic can be silenced, and a good one can be nurtured.

Now: write!

Image: crafting.squidoo.com

Image: crafting.squidoo.com

 

NaNo, NaNo, NaNo, NaNo, Batman!*

So, in honour of it being Friday, here’s the first chapter of my NaNo project. It’s labouring under the title ‘Emmeline and the Ice-God’ right now, but make no mistake: that cannot last. It is a mere placeholder for a title so brilliant it will turn the brains of all who read it into lumps of solid gold – but that title has yet to reveal itself to me, alas.

Also, I beg your indulgence. This is a first draft, and it’s an idea which I haven’t fully plotted out yet, and so bubbles – like those in freshly hung wallpaper – are inevitable. Be kind.

 *Batman not included

Image: agefotostock.com

Image: agefotostock.com

Emmeline and the Ice-God

1

From an early age, Emmeline Widget had been certain her parents were trying to kill her. Oh, they weren’t blatant about it, of course – there was none of this ‘surprise! Here’s a dagger in your breakfast!’ carry-on – but the signs were there, all the same. For a start, they insisted on living in a crumbly old house with a multitude of staircases – hidden and otherwise – all of which had at least one trick step which led, pretty quickly and rather painfully, to the cold stone basement floors and floors below. As well as that, there were an indeterminate number of rooms, and sometimes Emmeline even felt sure extra ones appeared out of thin air merely to be troublesome. She’d lost count of the amount of times she’d dodged falling picture frames, each of them heavy enough to crush her flat, or hopped out of the path of toppling suits of armour big enough to fit a giant. Because of all this, she never went anywhere inside her house – not even to the bathroom, not even for a pee – without a flashlight, a ball of twine and a short, stout stick.

Outside wasn’t much better. The garden was overgrown to the point that entire buildings – the summerhouse, the boat house, and the greenhouse – were lost forever amid the foliage, and a roaring river ran right at the end of their garden, sweeping past with all the imperiousness of a diamond-encrusted duchess. Emmeline lived in fear of falling in, so much so that she never ventured outside without a long-bladed knife (for taming the trees), a flare-gun and an inflatable life preserver (really a large hot water bottle, but let’s not nit-pick.)

Because of all this, Emmeline spent a lot of time in her room, reading. Wouldn’t you? I know I would. She had a lot of reading to do, too – her parents had never bothered to engage a governess for her, you see, and so she’d never been to school. She’d reminded them once, when she was about six, that she was entirely lacking in the education department, and they’d promised her the best teachers money could buy, but Emmeline was still waiting. So, she read whatever she pleased. She’d devoured H.P. Lovecraft and H.G. Wells by her third birthday, and had moved on to digest Dickens and Hawthorne and Austen and all the Brontes by four; by five, she’d decided she needed a rest from all the heavy stuff and had read nothing but books about sparkly-hooved unicorn princesses for an entire year, despite the fact that they bored her silly. Now, at nine and two-thirds, she was coming to realise that the only way to read the book she most wanted to read would be to write it herself, which meant that wherever she ventured – Outside or In – she carried her journal with her, too. Thick and bound in leather, with a gold lock, Emmeline would rather have gone without socks than to be separated from it.

All of these necessities, of course, meant that she was never without her large and rather bulky satchel, either, but she never let that stand in her way.

And it probably hasn’t escaped your attention – for you’re one of those readers who never misses a trick, I can tell already – that Emmeline didn’t have very many friends. There was the household staff, including Watt (the butler) and Mrs Mitchell the cook, but of course they didn’t really count, because they were always telling her what to do and where to go and not to put her dirty feet on that clean floor, thank you very much. Her parents were forever at work, or away, or off at conferences, or entertaining – which Emmeline hated, because sometimes she’d be called upon to wear an actual dress and smile and pretend to be something her mother called ‘light-hearted’, which she could never understand – and so she spent a lot of time on her own. This suited her fine.

One day, then, when Emmeline came down to breakfast and found that her parents weren’t there, she didn’t even blink an eye. She hauled her satchel up onto the chair next to her and rummaged through it for her book, glad to have a few moments of quiet reading time before her mother started finding fault with her again.

She was so engrossed in the story that she didn’t even look up when Watt slunk into the room bearing a small silver platter in his neatly gloved hands, upon which a small white envelope was sitting. He bent at the waist, also neatly (because when you’re a butler, everything you do is neat) and left it down in front of Emmeline, who finished reading right to the end of the chapter before she looked up and noticed that she had received a piece of Very Important Correspondence.

‘What on earth is this?’ she asked the now-empty room. All the answer she got was the gentle pock-pock-pock of the clock as it ticked away the seconds.

She fished around in her satchel for her bookmark, and carefully placed it between the leaves of her book. Carefully, she closed the book and slid it gently into the satchel again, where it glared up at her reproachfully until she flipped the satchel closed.

‘I promise I’ll be back to finish you later,’ she reassured it. ‘Once I figure out who could possibly want to write to me.’ She frowned at the small white envelope, still lying on its silver platter, which was very clearly addressed to Miss Emmeline Widget. Private and Confidential, it added, for good measure.

Just because it happened to be addressed to her, though, didn’t mean she should be so silly as to actually open it.

But, said another little voice in her head, it’s the first time in all my life that anything has ever been delivered, just for me…

In the silence of the large, empty room, Emmeline flipped open her satchel again. From its depths, she produced a tiny, stoppered bottle, within which a viciously blue liquid was just about contained. She carefully tipped the bottle until one solitary drop hung on its lip, and then – very very carefully – she let the drop fall onto the envelope.

‘Hmm,’ she said, raising an eyebrow. ‘That’s odd.’

The liquid didn’t smoke, or fizz, or explode in a cloud of sparkle, or indeed do anything at all. It just sat there, like a splodge of ink, partially obscuring her name. Now, the letter appeared to be addressed to someone named Emme Idget, which, Emmeline felt, wasn’t a much better name than her own.

‘If you’re not poisoned,’ reasoned Emmeline, quickly putting away the bottle (for its fumes could cause dizziness in enclosed spaces, like breakfast rooms), ‘then what are you?’

In the side pocket of her satchel, Emmeline always carried a pair of thick gloves. She put these on, and then she picked up – with some difficulty, it has to be pointed out – her small butterknife. With this knife, she carefully slit the letter open, keeping it at all times away from her face.

A thick sheet of creamy paper slid out of the envelope and onto the silver platter, followed by a stiff piece of card bearing gold embossed writing. Emmeline, who’d been holding her breath in case the act of opening the envelope had released some sort of brain-shredding gas, spluttered as the first line of the letter caught her eye.  As quickly as she could, given that she was wearing gloves more suited to cutting down brambles than reading letters, she put aside the piece of card and grabbed the letter, trying to be sure her eyes hadn’t been adversely affected by any sort of poison or concoction, and she’d read what she thought she’d read.

She had.

Here is what the first line of the letter said:

Dearest Emmeline, it began.  If you are reading this note, then in all likelihood, you are now an orphan.

 

*cloak flourish* To Be Continued…


To Beta, or Not to Beta?

I follow a lot of writing blogs, as is to be expected from a person in my position. I regularly find nuggets of wisdom on these blogs, ranging from tips and tricks to make my writing better to book recommendations, support for the writing process, encouragement and hints on how to best present work to agents, and so on. One of the things I come across most often is the idea that every author, everywhere, needs a team of CPs (Crit Partners) or, as they’re sometimes called, ‘Beta Readers’.

Frighteningly enough, I don’t really have these.

Nope. Not even in here. Image: drbristol.wordpress.com

Nope. Not even in here.
Image: drbristol.wordpress.com

Very kind people have offered to read bits of things I’m working on (or, have agreed to read these bits after I’ve asked them to), but nobody has ever read a whole manuscript of mine. Is this a bad thing? Well, I don’t know.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of beta readers over the past few days, and about how such a system would work. Clearly, it’s no good asking someone who is not a writer to be your beta reader, because then the system of favours would only benefit one person – you. A beta reader relationship, like all relationships, needs reciprocity, equality and generosity – so, there’s no point in asking your best friend (who works as a hairdresser/architect/toothbrush inspector) to read your book for you. Well, that is unless you have expertise in the fields of tonsuring, house design or dental hygiene, and can offer your services to your friend in exchange. I’m also wondering about how it works when you write a draft of a book, have your beta reader expend energy and time critiquing it for you, and then redraft your book – do you expect your beta reader to spend more of his or her time on the same book, reading and critiquing this next draft?

I don’t think I could ask anyone to do all this for me. It sounds like a massively time-consuming thing, and I don’t know if it’s altogether fair.

The benefits of having beta readers are clear, however. Having another pair of eyes look over your work can only be a good thing; a second reader can see mistakes, inconsistencies, flubbed phrasing, wrongly placed dialogue tags, and more. If they fall asleep as they read or start skimming through certain sections, it’s a reasonable indication that you’ve wandered off the point a bit too much and your work needs tightening up. They can also tell you what’s good – what works, what grabbed their attention, what brought the tears to their eyes, what made them care. Then, hopefully, you can revisit your work and dial down the boring bits while turning up the volume on the interesting parts. But what happens if you and your beta partner disagree? What if you feel your digression about man-eating Venus flytraps in the middle third of your Great Novel about uranium mining on a distant planet against a backdrop of inter-stellar war is not only beautiful, but necessary, and that your beta reader’s assessment of it as being ‘flabby, pointless and snore-inducing’ is overly harsh?

What do you mean, you don't see the point of the last four hundred pages? It's *art*, dammit! That's the point! Our friendship is over! Image: nitratediva.wordpress.com

What do you mean, you don’t see the point of the last four hundred pages? It’s *art*, dammit! That’s the point!
Image: nitratediva.wordpress.com

You might think, then, that engaging the services of several beta readers is the way to go. If they all come back with the same report – ‘kill the man-eating Venus flytraps’ – then perhaps it’s a clear indication that the world is not quite ready for your vision. But what do you do, then, if they don’t agree? What if they all come back with different reports? Perhaps one will love your opening scene – a huge explosion cruelly disfiguring your brave and noble hero – and another will think it’s a clichéd mess. Maybe one reader will adore your conclusion, thinking your decision to have the inter-stellar war end on a note of universal harmony as the spaceships, once mortal enemies, fly off together into the sunset, is a work of genius; another reader may (probably rightfully) hate it. What, in a case like that, can you do?

It can be difficult to take criticism of something you’ve created; I know this. It’s a common failing among anyone who writes, or paints, or spends their time making things. I’m sure it makes it even more difficult when a person whose opinion you trust and who knows their stuff tells you, as gently as they can, that the work you’ve done isn’t very good. Not only that, but they can tell you exactly where you’ve gone wrong, and why. This is immensely helpful, but also immensely hard. I’m sure, too, that there’s nothing a beta reader hates more than having to tell a friend they don’t like something they’ve created. The last thing anyone wants is to cause pain, but that is an inevitability.

So, one must weigh up the benefit of having another (very kind, and very generous) person read their work before they do something crazy with it, like submit it to an agent or a competition. Is it worth the pressure put on your relationship with this other person? Is it worth the suffering? Is it easier to receive criticism from a person you do not know?

In a funny twist of fate, yesterday a friend of mine offered to read some chapters of ‘Tider’ in exchange for my reading of some of her work. I was already planning this blog post when her offer came through, and it made me smile. If I was the kind of person who believed in the numinous nature of all things and the benevolent interconnectedness of the universe, perhaps I could’ve taken it as an indication that I am desperately in need of a beta reader; perhaps I should just take it as an example of good timing, and the kindness of a friend.

So. If you write, do you also beta? Is it a good system? How do you get it to work for you? Let me know. I’m taking notes.

Image: kids.usa.gov

Image: kids.usa.gov

 

As the World Falls Down…

I woke this morning and noticed something strange about the light. Through the slats of our Venetian blind, the world seemed brighter than it should be. The reason for that was, of course…

...this had happened.Image: rte.ie

…this had happened.
Image: rte.ie

We’re not talking the Arctic wastes here or anything – in fact, the snow isn’t even deep enough to cover the grass in our garden. Nevertheless, there have been accidents on the roads, it’s a headline news story, and myself and my husband have instantly turned into two old worrywarts. ‘I wonder will it stay?’ ‘Sure, how do I know?’ ‘Will we look up the weather forecast and see?’ ‘Those lads don’t have a clue. No point in asking them!’ ‘Right so. You know better than the weatherman, of course.’ ‘I hope it doesn’t stick, the whole country will grind to a halt.’ ‘Do you think I don’t know that?’ (I’ll leave it up to your imagination which speaker is which in this not-entirely-fictionalised exchange!)

Luckily, my husband has a day off from work today, so he doesn’t have to go anywhere. Tomorrow, however, he’s facing a long journey. So, I sincerely hope the snow doesn’t stay. It looks pretty and all, but after the winters we had here a few years ago I feel somewhat allergic to the sight of whiteness coating the world. I feel like those terrible, heart-freezing winters of 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 took away all my childlike joy when it comes to snow. It wasn’t fun to be stuck on a bus trying to get home from work while watching the snow fall outside so thickly that nobody – including the driver – could see more than two feet ahead; it wasn’t fun trying to skid my way to the train station on treacherous streets made entirely of ice.

I’m looking out at our garden now and the sunlight is pouring into it, making everything look absolutely beautiful. But I’m not fooled. Avast, white stuff!

In other news, I had a busy – but rewarding – weekend. I did a lot of writing and rewriting, playing around with four stories that I’m tweaking for submission. Some of them are quite dark – we’re talking murder and totalitarian states and abusive families here – but some have touches of black comedy at their heart. It’s a tough balancing act at times, writing the sort of stories you want to write while also remembering that you need to place them with a magazine or journal willing to publish them. As well as being your best work, they sometimes need to fit a certain ‘ethos’, too. Sometimes, of course, writing with a particular focus in mind can help you to create. As I’m learning, putting parameters on your work can sometimes bring fantastic results. It almost seems counter-intuitive, but so far it has worked very well for me. Restricted word-counts, restricted themes, using prompts – they’re all worth a try.

Sometimes, though, the problem I have is not finding a starting point – it’s finding a finishing point.

On Saturday evening I was quite tired, and trying to work out the ending of a story. I’d got it to a certain point, and then I hit a wall. I really liked the story idea, and the character’s voice, and I knew I wanted to finish it, but I’d written myself into a dead-end. I was bleary eyed. I could barely see the laptop. Eventually, I had to close the computer down, but there was no rest for my brain. For the rest of the night – even into my dreams – potential endings for this story popped, with metronomic regularity, into my frazzled mind. Some of them were patently ridiculous, and others were clichéd or just, somehow, inauthentic. Finally, I came up with an ending I liked, one I could ‘see’ in my mind’s eye. (Of course, I was supposed to be sleeping peacefully at the time. But that’s just details, right? Right.) My poor husband had been attempting all evening to get me to see sense and stop working, and I did try. Just not successfully. As a result, I woke up even more tired the following day. And, the story is still not finished.

I have learned two things from this. ‘Exhaustion kills inspiration’, and ‘listen to your husband.’

In an attempt to give my brain a rest, I also started to read a biography of Mrs. Beeton, the most famous homemaker/cookery writer (arguably) in the world. I had a notion that she lived to a great age and was the matriarch of a huge, bustling family; you’d need to be an imposing figure to achieve the sort of reputation she has, wouldn’t you? In fact, though, I’ve learned she died in childbirth at the age of 28, and her reputation was largely concocted by her husband and publishers. I sort of lost a bit of my faith in the world when I found this out. However, the book is excellent – impeccably researched and really interesting, particularly if you’re a fan of Victorian era-Britain. It’s so rich with detail and atmosphere that you feel like you’re walking the streets along with the people being described.

Image: books.google.com

Image: books.google.com

I recommend it, despite the fact I’m not finished it yet. It’s a large tome, so I’m only about one-third of the way through it at the moment.

And, as well as all that, something wonderful happened. Are you ready? Here we go, then.

I am going to have a story published in a literary magazine.

I’m not saying which one yet, because the editor isn’t sure when the story will be published, but as soon as I have the details, I’ll be shouting about it here. Needless to say, I am a very happy person.

I hope all your weekends were fun, relaxing and full of good things, and I hope your Monday looks bright.