30 August, 2012

World Book Night

Tomorrow is the last day you can nominate books for next year's World Book Night. This annual event is a fabulous celebration of books and the joy they bring.

The idea behind WBN is simple - it aims to get people to share the books they love with people they know and with "harder to reach readers" in care homes, prisons, shelters and hospitals.

WBN is celebrated in the UK, USA, Germany and Ireland on the 23rd April every year - Shakespeare's birthday and deathday. 25 books are chosen and special editions printed. People can then apply to be a giver of a particular book and promise to give away copies of that book for free. Each book given away has an identifying number which can then be tracked through the website as the book gets passed from person to person.

I think I'm going to apply to be a giver for 2013. If you're interested you can read all about it on the World Book Night website. You can also visit the website to nominate books to be included on the WBN 2013 list - but you'll have to be quick! You can nominate any work of fiction, in any genre, so long as it's not too lengthy (it can be pretty long, just not War and Peace length!) and has been published as a paperback in the UK... oh, and for a chance to make the final list, it has to be a good book (all those people who nominated Fifty Shades of Grey take note)! It doesn't have to be your favourite, just one that you think would captivate somebody. I've nominated We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

Once the nominations are in, an editorial committee will look through the top 100 and create a list of books from both the nominated ones and others they think would help to create a balanced list across all genres and styles. Here is last year's list of the 25 books given away by 20 000 volunteers. How many have you read? Any favourites or un-favourites?

  1. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen  (read and loved)
  2.  The Player of Games - Iain M Banks
  3. Sleepyhead - Mark Billingham
  4. Notes from a Small Island - Bill Bryson  (read and loved)
  5. The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho  (read and found a bit too weird)
  6. The Take - Martine Cole
  7. Harelquin - Bernard Cornwell
  8. Someone Like You - Roald Dahl 
  9. A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens  (read and absolutely loved)
  10. Room - Emma Donoghue 
  11. Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier  (read and liked)
  12. The Remains of the Day - Kazuio Ishiguru 
  13. Misery - Stephen King  (read and quite liked, but nowhere near his best)
  14. The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic - Sophie Kinsella
  15. Small Island - Andrea Levy 
  16. Let the Right One In - John Ajvide Lindqvist 
  17. The Road - Cormac McCarthy 
  18. The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
  19. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell 
  20. The Damned United - David Pearce 
  21. Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman  (read and liked)
  22. How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff
  23. Touching the Void - Joe Simpson
  24. I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith  (read and loved)
  25. The Book Thief - Markus Zusa

So I've read only eight of these, but it includes some of my favourites. Of them all A Tale of Two Cities  is probably my top one, though I love Bill Bryson and Jane Austen too. I'd really like to read Room and The Book Thief.

I had a peek at the current top 100 by number of votes last week. I was pleased to see that We Need to Talk About Kevin was in there, along with many other brilliant books. But I've only read 41 of them, listened to the audio book of three and seen the stage play of one, so I feel like I've got a lot of catching up to do!

28 August, 2012

What do you write about?

When you tell people that you're a writer, they will ask questions. It's not like being an accountant. In social situations, if you answer the question, 'What do you do?' with, 'I'm a writer', people want to know more. I find telling them more is quite hard, but although I dread the questions, I am flattered that people at least take me seriously enough to ask in the first place. However, there's one question I dread more than any other...

What sort of stuff do you write about?

I'm never quite sure what somebody means when they ask this. Perhaps if I wrote in a specific genre, the answer would be easier - "I write science fiction/ crime/ books about heroic talking animals". But I'm not a genre writer, I just write "fiction". So if I didn't get flustered so easily, I suppose I would give an answer like this:

"I write about the things that matter to the small people of the world. I write about how it feels to lose your wife through dementia, or to find the lover you lost five decades earlier. I tell tales of people who are on the edge or in the midst; crazily normal or just normally mad. I capture the moment when somebody's life becomes less ordinary and the moment when they realise that no life is ordinary after all. I write about the everyday battles of everyday life and the courage it takes to fight them without losing yourself. I write about the songs that punctuate the relationship between lovers, and the dying thoughts of adulterers. I tell stories of mothers and daughters, teenagers and housewives; people who believe they can rule the world and people who can't even look in the mirror. I write about the mundane chaos of this astonishing world and the fierce frailty of the people who live in it."

But I don't say any of that. Instead, I usually say:

"Oh, you know. All sorts of stuff really."

21 August, 2012

Over or under?

Bad writing is something I often think about. I think about it because I love it, and I've learned to love it because I do an awful lot of it. Please don't be offended if I say that, if you're a writer, I bet you do too.

Bad writing is what happens between the blank paper and the not-bad writing. And, with a bit of luck, the not-bad writing is what happens before the good writing. Bad writing is a start.

Bad writing comes in all sorts of forms, but two categories we can divide it into are overwriting and underwriting.You can tell which you are when you edit your work - if you have to add to it, then you're an underwriter; if you have to cut out a lot, then you're an overwriter. I must be lucky, because I'm both.

Are you an overwriter or an underwriter?

When I read back through a first draft, I often find it's rushed and garbled. I've left the reader no time to appreciate one situation before moving on to the next. So I have to add depth and details to give some breathing room and to move from bad writing to not-bad.

Once I'm trying to move from not-bad to good however, I'm an overwriter. I don't mind that.When you put in too much, you have stuff to cut out. However, overwriting is the most glaring sign of an amateur. At school we were taught to use as many different words as possible and to describe everything in painstaking detail. Fine. But we're not at school now. We don't need to show off our vocabulary; we need to write prose that flows and enchants and never, never makes the reader work harder than the writer did.

I've been really enjoying a fabulous series of posts on Suzi's blog, The Literary Engineer, where she shines a light on the words she overuses. A recent post of hers reminded me of my own chief flaw - what I like to call the 'Double-Action Overwrite'.

The DAO is when a character does something simple, but I've used two verbs to describe it. I first noticed this in my children's novel. I was editing it and came across the line,

"Rowan reached out and picked up the sword." 

It occurred to me that reaching was unnecessary. If Rowan picked up the sword, we can assume he reached for it. Something clicked in that moment that I've tried to carry with me into all my editing since then. Rowan now picks up the sword, he doesn't reach for it - or if he does, he keeps quiet about it.

There will be plenty of occasions when two verbs are acceptable and even necessary, but plenty more when they're not. Does your main character need to 'appear to be thinking'? Can he not just be 'thinking'? Do you need to say he puts the bag down before picking up the plate? Is it not obvious?

At the risk of making this post ridiculously long, I'll share with you my least favourite sentence in literature. It comes from a series of books that I really like (if you ignore the awful sex scenes). Earth's Children by Jean M. Auel are great for anthropology geeks like me. But you have to love the story because the writing is so over the top. This sentence nearly had me throwing the books across the room:

"She beamed a grin at him."

Really, Jean? Did she? Could she not have beamed at him? Or grinned at him? Or, if we're going to be radical here, could she not just have sodding smiled at him? My opinion is irrelevant as the books have sold in their millions, but then so has Fifty Shades of Grey... Oh, and don't get me started on Raymond E. Feist and his constant use of phrases like, "he had little wish to..." and "she had scant need for...".

I'd like to say this post is too long and therefore overwritten in an ironic sense. Alas, it would be a lie. Instead, its just another example of bad writing!

What words or phrases do you overuse? Are you guilty of the Double-Action Overwrite?

16 August, 2012

Back To Me Again

Last September I wrote a post about how nothing very interesting was likely to happen for a while in my world of writing. I didn't expect it to be so long! Over the last year I've offered you a few updates or snatches of news from my bubble, but there hasn't been much to say, so I've tried not to say it! I've left a lot of the interesting stuff to you.

We've had some fun on this blog (well, I've had fun anyway) discussing poor grammar, great characterisation, rejections, first draft blues, flash fiction, opening lines, morality and Charles Dickens, among other things. But I haven't been leaving all the work to you. Allow me to take a one-post break from the festivities, to explain what I've been doing while all this has been going on...


More writing.


Writing some more.


It's been a bit of a slog, but an enjoyable one. Having used NaNoWriMo to create the outline to a plot for my work-in-progress, Thousand-Word Things, I've been spending most of the last 9 months trying to turn it into a real novel. I had to do a lot of research into medical conditions and abstract art before I started, and that was the easy bit! The optimist in me decided it would be a great idea to change the thing from simple third-person to multiple first-person viewpoints. That turned out to be hard. At the end of the first draft I decided to give up on it. I didn't want to waste any more time. The story was there, but the writing was terrible. I felt like I could never be a good enough writer to make it work. And yet...

I began to tinker - what would happen if I cut the scene in the pizza place? How would the reader react differently if Ben told that part of the story instead of Jenny? What if I used a different tense when Rosemary's in the hospice? Before I knew it, I was planning a second draft, which I finished writing at the beginning of June. I won't say that I was proud of this second attempt, but I wasn't ashamed of it anymore, so out it went to my faithful "volunteer" readers.

I had a lot of fun in June and July doing all sorts of different things. I wrote one short story and three pieces of flash fiction from scratch, and adapted one old piece of flash fiction into a full short story. I also completed the next assignment on my non-fiction course, created a website for myself and started researching freelance work.  After a year with only a handful of bits of feedback across the whole 12 months - much of that in the form of rejections - it was a breath of fresh air to be noticeably productive.

I could now write a huge long post about how isolating it can be to write a novel. Months without feedback, no guarantee that anybody will ever read what you've written, insecurity about your own abilities... But, despite all that being true, it's a brilliant way to spend your time and I love it and I'm very blessed to be able to do it!

At the end of the second draft I truly didn't know whether I'd just written the worst attempt at literature since Bulwer-Lytton noted that it was a dark and stormy night, or something resembling a good book. Thanks to the helpful feedback from my readers, I'm hopeful that I'm at least going in the direction of the latter. (Don't tell anyone, but I'm beginning to think it's showing some promise. I might even quite like it.).

I'm now doing the final edit, in two parts. First, editing each character individually to get each voice unique and continuous throughout the novel. Second, a quick run-through of everything in the right order, to check for continuity errors and story coherence. With a bit of luck, I'll be done by the end of September. And with a little more, I'll have something I feel that is worth at least trying to get an agent for. We'll see.

Here's to the next year! May it be filled with a bit more feedback, a little less insecurity, more scintillating comments and posts by you, and lots more writing!

What have you been up to while I've been novelling? What are your highlights of the last nine months?

06 August, 2012

Do I Need to Become a Twit?

Image: alexbruda at sxc.hu
I've been thinking about Twitter. I've never seen the need for it in my personal life - I don't wish to know what celebrities had for breakfast, I find out what's going on in the world through the BBC and what's going on with my friends and family through the real world and Facebook. However, I am beginning to wonder whether I need to engage with Twitter professionally.

It seems to me as if Twitter is the place to be for the latest news in the world of books, writing and publishing. Editors and agents that seem remote and scary people when your only contact with them is the submission-rejection cycle, must (I imagine) seem more approachable via their Twitter account. I am sure that it's becoming a place where connections are made and, as with all industries, who you know can make all the difference.

My only brushes with Twitter so far are the excited e-mails from the editor of an online magazine telling me that I'd been "re-tweeted" several times in the first hour after my first article was published (sounded lethal to me, but I felt fine), and through my friend Joe. Joe was the first person I knew with a Twitter account, so I looked at it a few times to see what the fuss was about. Due to the idiosyncracies of Firefox auto-complete, that meant I could reach his twitter account by typing 'Twit' into the address bar and hitting return. It amused me. Not sure about Joe.

I know Twitter can't be purely professional. By which I mean, I couldn't use it just to promote my own work, I'd need to actually talk to people and build relationships - although those relationships can of course be professional! But, do you think Twitter is a valuable tool for new writers - ones who haven't got a writing career already sorted and an address book full of contacts? Or is it just another distraction? I'm a firm believer that the two most important things for a writer to spend their time on are writing and reading! The rest needs to be prioritised accordingly.

I'm not desperate to get on Twitter, but I am aware that the way the writing world worked 50, 20, or even five years ago was very different in some ways to how it works now. And I don't want to be left behind. People tell me that they got on just fine without Twitter in their youth, but that's pretty much irrelevant now. It's not a matter of what I'd like the world to be like (stuck somewhere in the 1930s, if you're interested), but what it actually is like. The thought of joining Twitter with it's long-establisehd etiquette and completely new vocabulary scares me, but do I need to get over that? If I'm going to do it, I need to do it properly - therefore, any advice you have to offer (whether you are a Twit... OK... Tweeter, or not) would be gratefully received!

01 August, 2012

A Rambling Writer

After the rip-roaring (almost certainly a real word) success of Martyn Beardsley's post about mastering several genres within one career, Martyn has cajoled, threatened and blackmailed me into writing a post about flash fiction for his blog.  Martyn's blog Rambles of a Writer is worth a visit anyway, as he is currently entertaining us with a history of some of our famous phrases, such as 'hoodwinked', 'taken aback' and 'under the thumb'.