Confused identity

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An emergence from tragedy

This is the first of my reviews of self-published or very small press fiction. In fact, it is not to be published for another few weeks, but I think you will want to put this on your wishlist.

I read Tracey Scott-Townsend’s first book, The Last Time I saw Marion, and was impressed by the quality of writing and unique storyline. When I received Another Rebecca I wondered if the quality would remain, but I wasn’t disappointed.

The title suggests that we are in for a retake at Manderley, but no. This is not a Du Maurier sequel. The other Rebecca is a reformation of her mother, who has the same name. She now calls herself Bex to differentiate from the girl she once was, and sadly, is no more.

The novel opens on a dreamy sequence that is a time slip. Rebecca flits from hospital into a fantastic and erotic adventure, but it doesn’t last long. When we return to the present time, it is clear why Rebecca needs (and deserves) to escape reality.

She lives in a miserable and increasingly crisis-laden home, abandoned by father, caring for an alcoholic mother.

There are three voices: the girl, Rebecca, her mother, Bex and Jack, her seemingly errant father. The language is similar for the two parents, whereas Rebecca has gained more education and maturity despite being a young person.

The alcoholic mother whinges her way to disaster, yet in the chapters in her voice we find the remains of what could have been a nice person. The disgusting state she has got herself into isn’t minimized but the background story, built up slowly, shows her jagged path to destruction.

This author is skilled at setting a conflict from which the story can flow. We soon learn that Jack is caught up in a no-win situation that was caused by his kindness, not his neglect. It is easy to sympathise with his position, torn between competing emotional forces.

Our identification is with the Rebecca whose future is before her. The mystery surrounds and is a part of her, interacting with the art that inspires and possesses her.

As the narrative progresses, it becomes more complex and the fantasy Rebecca began with permeates the theme in a new way. The significance of the title comes into its own. Finally, the tangled threads of these three characters’ story reach their conclusion, making for a thoroughly satisfying read.

This is a thoughtful, well-structured novel with good characterisation. The life-style and thought-processes of the alcoholic are credible, as is the good-heartedness, yet ineffectiveness of the husband. Scott-Townsend has not made the mistake of painting her characters black and white. The positives and weaknesses are carefully revealed.

There are some lyrical descriptions of scenes that add to the pleasure of reading this interesting story. It should please readers of fantasy as well as those who enjoy tales of family conflict.

 

Writing persistence

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Leonid Pasternak

 

I’ve never read any Stephen King novels because I don’t like the horror or dystopia genres, but now I shall, starting with The Stand, (the novel he rates as his best.)

Why?

I just finished his biographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft which reveals Stephen King as an avid reader, a no-nonsense advocate of writing skills, an honest, humorous, generous guide and a devoted husband of over thirty years to boot. Such a guide soon impresses with his engaging style and self-revelations. The first half of the book is less about writing than about Stephen King’s early life, hardships, and above all, persistent writing. He writes when he’s hungry, in a corner, on his lap, in a trailer, in a run-down apartment, after ten bit jobs and later a rough day’s teaching. He does everything to put food on the table for his wife and little one before the time when he can prioritise his writing. Then the wondrous telephone call comes and he makes his first big money. (Carrie is the novel).

‘This is such a nice guy,’ you find yourself thinking, ‘I want to know and celebrate his success and then take account of the how and why.’ That success is so immense, but above all, so appealingly hard-won, that you just can’t refuse to accept what he is saying. Essentially, what he says about writing comes in the second half. It is clear, uncluttered, simple and to the point.fountainpenpaper

Many, if not most writers read books about writing: plotting, planning, joining retreats, engaging in courses, identifying underlying themes and despair that their organisation and acquisition of techniques will never be sufficient.

King has no truck with much of this.  His recommendations come down to this: honest, always honest writing, getting the story down ‘as it comes’, ensuring that the action is or could be true of the characters, similarly that the dialogue rings true of them. He is not precious, and does not value pretensions.  His stories all stem from some initial experience and the personalities he has met. Add to this the imagination to latch on to a stunning ‘What If?’

He gets his first draft finished without recourse to beta readers, then puts it strictly away for six weeks. He works on other things.  In the second draft he fills out as well as corrects. At this point he may sit back and think what the novel is really about, what is important and consistent throughout the story.  This is when he might come up with an image or metaphor that enriches the writing. What is very apparent is that Stephen King is excited about what he writes and loves the activity. He is not identifying a genre where he can make money or intending to write blockbusters. He writes with an audience, an ‘Ideal Reader’ in mind.

This book cleared my mind and stopped the flow of words circling round and down the plug-hole.

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It’s not a new book and it will have been lauded and praised many times before this.

However, if there is any reader who has not read a book on Writing, they would do well to read On Writing.   It’s changed me from avoiding his novels to seeking them out.

 

 

 

Literary competitions

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Short Story competitions

COULD YOU BE A WINNER?

I think winning stories have to capture the heart as well as the attention of the judges. I’ve rarely read a winning story without feeling I know why it was chosen. Usually the setting is striking, the structure is very satisfying, the ending unexpected and the main character convincing. I’m saying nothing out of the ordinary, I know, but it’s as well to have these features of winning stories in the back of your mind as you start to write yours. Some writers give up competitions at the first or second failure to get on the shortlist.

However, some rehash their stories or even leave them as they are and keep submitting them to different competitions, on the basis that ‘liking’ a story and finding it surpasses other good entries is very subjective.  

I reviewed one winner, Anne Corlett, on a previous post (See Review: H.E.Bates winner)  Her story is well worth reading for that structure, setting, believable character (s), and unexpected ending, a thoroughly satisfying read. 

It is not always previous competition winners or successful journalists turning to fiction who win. There have been some notable first timers who have run the contestants out of the ground. The main thing is to have a go. The writing towards winning is good practice, and you can regard it as just that. Robert the Bruce would have been entering every competition until chosen, egged on by his spider. So, try, try, try again if you haven’t been successful so far.

These competitions have April deadlines.

APRIL

11 April — Litro magazine Theme: Augmented Reality Max. length: 3,000 words
26 April — Felixstowe Book Festival Short Story Competition Theme of Conflict 
30 April — 13th International Short Story Conference Story Contest fee: €10 (theme: The Braids of Identity) 
30 April — The Bristol prize   any subject. Max. length 4,000 words
30 April — E.M. Koeppel Short Fiction Contest 
30 April – Fiction Uncovered 2014 
30 April — Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest 
The more entrants, the more money to finance the next competition. Let me know if you are one of the short-listed or even better.

Affordable writers’ services

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I take reviewing seriously. A few months ago, a writer seeking my independent review will have been disappointed. I read it and commented, but didn’t publish any review.

My policy: if my rating would be 3 stars or less (Goodreads, Amazon) I don’t publish. I send the review privately to the author. I’ve never seen the value of a highly negative review. It’s not as if the general public are rushing out impulsively to buy a novel from which they must be protected. The prize for the best hatchet job leaves me cold, in the same way that putting an obese person naked in a crowd of jeerers would.

The point here is that the fore-mentioned author had not used an editor.  The novel was full of factual inaccuracies about the main dilemma, which made the plot unworkable. The first chapter alone would have caused any editor worth his/her salt to advise the author not to go further until the necessary research had been carried out. Furthermore, the minor character in Chapter 2 had a different personality when he sneaked in again in Chapter 11. Finally, there were two chapters in the middle that were not relevant, let alone essential, to the plot. They needed cutting. The writing itself was fine, so was the original story concept. Shame. I hope that writer took the advice.

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RULE: Never submit any novel until it has been edited.      

I always read and re-read and constantly correct my own work, yet a proof-reader will find several things per chapter that I need to tweak. It might be a lettr missed out, or a, comma misplaced or even word missed out.  Once spotted I can’t imagine how these errors escaped me.

RULE:   Always use a proof reader, even for a short story.

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When you decide to publish, you’ll need to convert your book into e-pub and e-mobi formats. This is not an impossible task, thanks to Calibre but it is time-consuming and fraught with potential error-making. You can land up with ?eft? #blb instead of the word you wrote. The headaches this formatting task may cause you, even if you overcome your fear and time problems, can be eradicated by using a conversion service.

RULE:  Even if your printed book is absolutely perfect, every page needs checking again in its e-versions.

Such services can stretch the writer’s budget unbearably but they are vital services. Without access to a known editor or proof-reader, it is safest to go to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders Directory of Editorial Services who will charge about £21-28 per hour according to the extent of textual work required (e.g. proof-reading alone would be at the lower end of this).

Of course, there are many tempting offers online but it’s a risk to take one up without knowledge of their quality. The dangers  have been outlined on other blogs I’m sure, so I won’t use space detailing these. What I can do is point readers to affordable and reputable writer/reviewers/editors. The following  people are all authors themselves and who offer proof-reading and editing. They charge about £4 per 1000 words for proof-reading, £5 per 1000 words for editing. A full structural edit is a long job so a 100,00 word novel will run you into the hundreds.

All the following people have different styles and strengths.

Firstly, there is multi-tasker Morgen Bailey, whose richly informative blog I have already mentioned in my post Towards a Superblog.  I can vouch for her outstanding speed and attentiveness and for the reasonable prices she charges for her editing and proof-reading.  She can rapidly spot where a story is going wrong as well as punctuation or continuity mistakes. Her work is worth every penny.  She will also offer a critique – a very helpful service for a writer wondering whether their piece is worth pursuing.morgenbailey

Morgen also constructs websites – a nightmare for many writers. See the one she did for the journalist and novelist Jane Wenham Jones whose articles you’ve probably read in Writing Magazine and elsewhere.

Secondly, there is novelist Karen Perkins (Thores Cross; The Valkyrie Series, etc). Go to her for inexpensive help for converting files to the required format for publishing as paper-back or e-book. Not only does she offer editing, conversion and other services but she has just published two really useful books: one on editing, one on formatting. If you want to be self-sufficient, these books certainly fill a very important gap in the market. I will be reviewing these books in the near future.

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Thirdly, there is Lucy Middlemass, YA author, with two books winners on the writers’ site Authonomy. Watch out for her lively character,  Jinger Barley, when her books are published.  She is a very good reviewer across genres. Her reviews are extremely thorough, helpful and fair, even when it’s clear she has not had a high opinion of a book. She manages a review thread for YA fiction where she encourages the same positive approach. Lucy similarly offers a thorough editing and critique of novels. It is clear that she has not only read thoroughly and made her line-by-line edit, but has thought out the writer’s intentions and can advise his best route forwards.  LucyMiddlemass

Finally,  Tony Foster offers full structural edits. Tony has a B.A. (1st class honours) in Creative Writing. He begins his Ph.D focusing on Writing Theory and Cognitive Poetics later this year. He writes across disciplines, including radio plays, screenplays and prose fiction. Tony’s edit includes a detailed critique and chapter-by-chapter analysis. He charges £10 per 1000 words, negotiable above 50,000 words, which also includes proof read, line edit and manuscript layout to publishing standard. He can be contacted here: blightersrock@gmail.com

DON’T FORGET:  You will need reviews for your book once it is fledged.

RULE: Never pay for one.

Not every reviewer writes to a high standard but you can look at their other reviews to estimate their quality. You can look at Amazon’s top 100 reviewers and hope to get a review. You can ask friends and family BUT have reviews that sing out what you have done.  The best reviews are those from readers who’ve read your book and constructed their own, independent opinion of it.

I may write a subsequent post detailing online reviews that have impressed me.

Novel Writers’ ten think points

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1. Write your target quota before entering any social media site

2.  Write from your instinct before reading writing advice

3.  Only seek feedback from other writers

4.  Only seek feedback when you have planned and written a substantial section

5.  Stop and decide where the plot is going one third of the way through

6.  Lie in bed and hear your characters’ voices clearly

7.   Highlight the sections you’re unhappy with in blue

8.   Beyond halfway read the first and last lines of every chapter

9.    Read a highly rated novel while you take a break

10.   Care about your characters and write their future…NOW

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Re-writing the novel: lightbulb moment

In a previous post (Reproducing macro events in micro terms) I wrote about my novel, A Relative Invasion. I wanted to convey that, although a child is the protagonist and the problem (rivalry) occurs in childhood, there is a parallel between the emotions here and those on a huge scale. This post is about another aspect of the novel – a technical problem for which I may now have a way forward

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Writers will know how you can come back and back to a novel until finally the problem becomes clear. Sometimes a solution to a problem unexpectedly clicks into place. In this particular case, I didn’t even know I was looking for a solution. I only knew I was seeking further improvement to the structure. After several rewritings and countless reworking, I am still dissatisfied. It’s no bad thing to recognise that something is not quite right and to persevere.

A few agents have rejected this book because it is written in the child’s voice. I could change this, but after thinking of alternatives, I have remained committed to it. It is very difficult to capture the thinking of a child as he grows from the age of five years to adulthood, getting the internal language and the mental focus right through middle childhood, teenage to young adulthood, especially when the third person is chosen as the means of telling the story. You are in the child’s mindset with the child’s focus. I do recognise that some readers wonder who the target reader is. Is it a child’s book? The pace suggests otherwise and there are constant implications about adult behaviour seen through the child’s eyes. Can it be for adults when chapter after chapter shows the experience of a child? (Does his world matter enough? Does his viewpoint count?)

In carrying out research involving human behaviour, it seemed to me healthy to make the initial approach with a child’s mind, open to possible questions, let alone answers. Therefore, I am sticking with a novel that has a child as a protagonist and a child who shows the reader a world from his perspective. The reader is adult, s/he can form different opinions/further understanding to the child’s fragmentary view.

However, something in the novel isn’t quite right. There is some basic lever or pin-hole missing.  I need a device for letting the reader look down (from adulthood) at least briefly but in a systematic form, as well as up (from childhood) throughout the plotline.

Have any of you experienced that lightbulb moment? Do comment below.

I ‘finished’ the novel three years ago. It has been undergoing rewritings ever since. But last week, in walking from one room to another, a propos of nothing it seemed, the device came to me. I could head each chapter with the news heading for that date. This will put the ‘adult concerns’ in the mind of the reader as s/he reads about the child’s. Now I have to get down to another rewrite that utilises this. When I have finished, I will report back. I may be gone some time . . .

Meantime, the marketing of a very different book, my collection of ironic short stories, is dominating time that should be spent in writing and reviewing. When I feel frustrated I remind myself that each activity refreshes the writing process in different ways. More of these in a later post.

Tea-breaks for mature women and curious men

http://fictionalcharacterswriting.blogspot.com

Poor structure. Paying the price.

In a previous post I wrote about A Relative Invasion, a novel set in the 1940s. I chose this period to make a parallel with the situation in Europe.  The central theme of the novel is rivalry. As with Germany, it is based on unexpressed envy and resentment.

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I wrote in the earlier post about two approaches to writing novels, the well-organised, planned approach and the unfolding approach – usually character-led. In my case the ‘method’ can be described as disorganized but I am sure that isn’t so for all writers whose work is character-led. My lack of planned structure is worth mentioning now because of the consequences for me.

Without proper planning my novel unfolded at too great a length and I’ve had to keep rewriting and rewriting to cut it down. Then the whole must be re-read to ensure that essential facts or events have not been omitted, otherwise there would be continuity problems. Some of the cuts have been rich detail, but were not essential to the plot. If I had plotted in the first place, this constant rewriting and rewriting, editing and rewriting again would have been avoided.

My idea was to lay down the origins of the key dramatic event by showing the development, environment, inter-relationships that all led to what happened. The careful sowing of the origins of both character and events seemed a good idea to me, but the structure of a novel militates against this happening in the first chapters. Readers don’t want to wait too long for an event. If sowing a seed means the plant develops as a poor deformed thing, better to start with a plug.

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I’ve cut out great swathes of the already much reduced novel. I’m sad to lose detail of setting, character history and internal dialogue but I recognise it’s necessary. Now I start with a drama instead of several seeds that will grow into one. Somehow I have to feed these in like compost around plants.

It’s worth sharing this self-inflicted problem if others can be saved from suffering in this way. I could have written two further novels in the time that I’ve needed for rewriting. At the last calculation, I found I’d spent far longer writing this, as yet, unpublished novel than I spent years ago on my Ph.D.  And I’m still rewriting (24th time?)  A salutary lesson.

(If you’re a beginner writer, you may find this article helpful – http://bit.ly/1bzAO9y)