Guest Post: Chris Ord on ‘The First Novel?’

In my job as a copy editor, many manuscripts are sent to me for critical evaluation. Few have left me as impressed as ‘Becoming‘ by Chris Ord. Chris approached me earlier this year and I had the pleasure of reading his debut novel prior to its release. 

Becoming‘ is now available to download or buy in physical form and, although it’s a YA novel, it really is one that I’d happily recommend for adults too. Chris is here to talk to us about his experience as a first time novelist and share some of the lessons he’s learned. Thanks for taking the time to appear on the blog, Chris – I can’t wait to read your next novel.

Vic x

Becoming

The first novel?
By Chris Ord

 

On September 23rd 2016 I published my first novel ‘Becoming’. It feels strange, almost surreal typing that, as only a year ago my words were filled with nothing more than intent. Now they fizz with the excitement of achievement, the realisation of something I have wanted to do all my life. There are mixed emotions though. There is pride and satisfaction, but apprehension too. Now the book is out I appreciate I’m revealing my creation to others – friends, relatives, and strangers. I’m exposing a bit of my soul. Now is the time for judgement and thick skin. I loved writing ‘Becoming’ and if others love it too that is a bonus. I wanted to write a story that I would enjoy reading, one that engages and entertains, but also challenges and provokes. If I achieve any combination of these I’ll be happy.

Except I have a confession, ‘Becoming’ isn’t my first novel. It’s the first I have published. I have another buried in my hard drive, seen only by the handful that ever will. I took a long time to write that novel, about twenty five years. Twenty four and a half of those I was gathering thoughts and intention. I called it research and planning. In truth, I was dithering. I had lots of ideas, some I wrote down, most I didn’t and forgot. There was one that kept coming back, and I decided there must be a reason so it had to be the story.

Chris Ord

I reached the age of forty five and two family bereavements forced reflection and an existential crisis. Loss and grief made me realise I had to take chances before it was too late. So I gave up my full-time job in August 2015 to write. The years of planning were over. The moment was now. I was going to write that book. It was a risk, but I knew it was time to do what I love.

Most of the advice I read was to write what you know. This reassured me, as I needed all the structure and safety I could get. I was stepping into the unknown, trying to find an approach that would work, a method that would hold my hand. Writing from personal experience made perfect sense.

I developed my characters and my hero, someone whose story I had wanted to tell. I had a scenario. It was loose at first, but I was fine with that as I wanted the story to unfold and develop. I was looking to keep the process exciting and fresh, and I figured the more I made a storyboard before I began, the more barriers I was putting in my way. I know some writers like to plot their stories from the start, and I suspect with some types of novels it is essential. I don’t. Each to their own, as you have to find what works for you. I wanted to get the words down and see where they would take me.

I gave myself a minimum daily target of 1,000 words which I stuck to and often exceeded. The first draft flowed and the writing was fun. It was like a series of puzzles, and I love problem-solving. I had tough days, and scrapped a lot of words, but I kept going, spurred on by the growing sense of achievement. It was exciting and motivating to see the words mount and the story develop. I was disciplined, and above all else I would say that is the key quality you need to finish a novel. I suspect there are many great unfinished novels that would be completed with more structure and discipline. Page after page created my new world. Every day I would escape there and build, moulding and reshaping, bringing new characters to life, and getting rid of others. It was an exhilarating journey, and finally, the day came, I completed the first draft and was overcome with joy and relief. I had done it. I had written a novel, or at least a rough, unfinished first draft of a novel.

I asked myself – what do I do now? We all have someone who reads our work first. It has to be someone you trust, but who won’t sugarcoat the feedback. The early drafts are the beginning, but far from the end, and you need a first editor to tell you what does and doesn’t work and why. Eventually you will need a good copy-editor to look at a draft you’re happy with. External, professional input is vital, as no matter how good you think your work is it can be better and there are things you will miss. Before my draft ever got that far I wanted to give it to someone else for the first judgement.

I read somewhere you should never give your work to anyone you share Christmas dinner with. In my case we share a bed. Some would urge caution at giving your unfinished work to your wife. They may tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to. Thankfully, Julie doesn’t sweeten her feedback. She’s an English graduate, well-read, a teacher and, more importantly I trust and value her opinion. She’s honest, usually more than I would like. I used the term brutal to describe her comments, but she prefers honest and constructive.

I gave my wife a polished draft of my debut convinced she would love it. She was impressed, enjoyed it, and there were many things she admired about the novel. I was relieved. The quality of the writing was much higher than she’d expected, and I recall the phrase ‘it does read like a proper book’. My excitement was short-lived though. It was good, and there was a lot to build on, but it wasn’t there yet. It didn’t work. The characters and writing were strong, but the story was flimsy, too weak. This stung me, so I read it again, determined to convince myself she was wrong. She was right, as always. Her candour and constructive criticisms helped me realise where the faults lay in the book. I had followed the advice and written what I knew, but it was too personal, and though the characters were strong I had been so desperate to capture them that I had wrapped their relationship around a dull plot. It read more like a screenplay than a novel, and there was too much dialogue and not enough action. I had tried to use the characters as a vehicle for my ideas and it felt contrived. In sum, it was a valiant first attempt, but it wasn’t good enough, at least not yet. I could do better.

This realisation was a blow. I had put months of my life into this, and the excitement of completion had convinced me that this was the one. Yet time and reflection away from the draft, along with some objective feedback left me with a big decision. Did I persevere with the draft and make it better? Could I rewrite it, make it more literary and less cinematic? How could I improve the story-line and make it more dramatic and compelling? Failing all of that, should I put it to one side, learn from the experience, move on and write something else? I guess these are the questions writers ask all the time, or at least should.

This was a learning process and though I hadn’t succeeded with this novel, at least I knew where I had gone wrong. I had followed the advice and written what I knew, but for me this reassuring structure had been a constraint. For the ‘known’ I had drawn on the autobiographical too much, taken personal experiences and woven a shaky plot around them. Sometimes this works. In my case it didn’t. My desire was to bring particular characters to life, but in doing so I had overlooked a critical element of all good writing, the story. Of course, characters are important, but readers love a good narrative. More importantly, I hadn’t written a book I would want to read, I had written one I thought I should write. I had played safe and sometimes safe is dull.

I made a bold decision, set the manuscript to one side, buried it in a cyber vault. I decided to start again, write another, something different, based around a wild and imaginary scenario and setting. I focused on the story and let my imagination run free. This novel would not be about what I knew, but would be one that I would love to read. I kept my structure of determination and daily discipline, and allowed things to develop and unfold. This was the journey that led to ‘Becoming’, my second novel, but the first I am happy with, and have published. The failed first attempt was very important though. Without the failure and the lessons taken from it, ‘Becoming’ might never have been written.

What have I learned from my experience of writing my first novel? Discipline and humility are two of the most important qualities you need to be a writer. Being honest, even brutal, with yourself may be the next. Criticism of your writing will hurt, but being critical from draft one will save you more pain in the long term. Trust the opinion of someone who will be frank with you about your work. Don’t let ego or excitement overcome common sense and critical judgement. Give yourself plenty of time between edits, as it is good to look at something again with fresh eyes. At times it is important to admit to yourself that something doesn’t work. The first novel you complete may not be the first you should let the world see. Readers are often strangers who owe you nothing. If your first attempt makes the grade I applaud you, but there’s no shame in burying it. Keep it though, as it may come in useful in the future, and some of it will be good enough to steal. We learn from every writing experience, especially the ones that don’t turn out as we had hoped. We need the courage to move on and be better, but also to never give up.

Getting to Know You: Helen Victoria Anderson

Today on the blog, we get to know Helen Victoria Anderson.

I first met Helen when she attended one of my writing groups in September 2013. Helen had contacted me about the session and explained that she was looking for somewhere to write while her daughter Georgina was in the Royal Victoria Infirmary. Unfortunately, Georgina was seriously ill with liver cancer and passed away. 

Helen has since released ‘Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir‘ which is an honest, unflinching account of her daughter’s final months and the impact her death has had. 

I’m really honoured to have Helen on the blog today. Thank you for taking part, Helen.

Vic x

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Helen, your memoir ‘Piece by Piece is about your daughter Georgina’s diagnosis with an aggressive form of liver cancer. Although much of the book is transcripts from diaries written during this period, how did it feel going back and reliving those times?

As I typed up the entries from my diaries, I kept thinking “Wow – did that really happen to us?” Georgina’s illness progressed and became terminal so rapidly (just four months from her diagnosis to her death) that it almost seemed like a bad dream. Going back over my diaries from that time brought it home to me that our lives have actually been changed forever. That period was such a mad whirlwind, I am now very glad that I have a record of it.

I thought the book was a really honest portrayal of depression, too, have you found people have been receptive to that element of it?

A lot of people who have experienced depression themselves have picked up on my references to my own mental health. I didn’t want the book to be ‘about’ my past (and sometimes current) depression, but I’m not ashamed of it either, so I was determined not to gloss over its effect on me and our family. Georgina was very worried that I might go on a downward spiral after her death, so it was natural for me to write about my efforts to maintain my recovery.

What’s been the most surprising reaction you’ve had regarding your memoir?

I have had many moving messages from other bereaved parents, including a lady in the US who has become a ‘penfriend’. It’s obviously meant a lot to me to have helped other people in this situation, in some small way. Also, the comments I have had about Georgina’s bravery and her music have made this project worthwhile. But probably the most surprising reaction has been the surprise of readers themselves to find that, overall, ‘Piece by Piece’ is an uplifting – rather than depressing – read.

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You are very open regarding other familial relationships in your life, how have the subjects coped with that?

I was careful to ask everyone who is mentioned in the book for their permission to publish the relevant passages, because no book is worth falling out over. My husband was very happy for me to write about him – even if his perspective of events (such as our arguments) was not always the same as mine! Georgina’s brother understood that it was important for me to tell my story, but so far he prefers not to read the book (which I totally understand).  On a side note, Georgina’s consultant was generous enough to let me include some slightly less-than-complimentary entries about our experience of her treatment, and said that the book would be useful in training future doctors about the patient/carer perspective of cancer.

Do you see writing as a cathartic experience?

Definitely, there is that element of relief when ‘spilling’ onto the page, but writing also helps me with ordering thoughts and feelings – hopefully to form a meaningful piece for the people who might get to read it.

I see you were recently able to make a donation to the Make-a-Wish foundation. How did that feel?

I recently donated £800 – the profits of the sale of the book to date – to Make-A-Wish UK, and it felt excellent to be able to give something back. Lots of charities helped Georgina, and we have tried to ‘repay’ them in various ways. In the book, I describe how Georgina’s story and her music became known around the world: Make-A-Wish was instrumental in getting Georgina’s music heard (which was her ‘wish’) via her YouTube video and single ‘Two Thirds of A Piece’. So, donating the proceeds of my book to grant other seriously ill children’s wishes seemed like something Georgina would approve of.

Have you any advice for someone considering writing a memoir?

It’s important to make careful decisions about how honest you are going to be – to think how you will feel once you have opened up your heart to your parents/neighbours/people you don’t know. Also, you need to be mindful and acknowledge that your version of events is just that – rather than objective ‘fact’.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently writing my second full-length piece of fiction ‘All Hushed’, while hunting for an agent for my first novel, which I’d just completed before Georgina got ill. Both of these books began with autobiographical seeds, but are very much crafted and fictionalised stories. I also have my first chapbook of poetry coming out with the Black Light Engine Room Press early in 2017.

What’s the most useful piece of writing advice you’ve received? Who was it from?

I received a wealth of useful advice from my tutors on the MA Creative Writing course at Teesside University about reading widely, writing a lot, and being persistent. I also love Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’, in which he reminds writers that “stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it”. I often need to remind myself of that. But most of all, for me, writing is, as Stephen King also says, about “getting up, getting well and staying well. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

 

Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir’ (Slipway Press, 2015) is available from Amazon as an e-book (£1.99) and paperback (£7.99). It is also stocked by Saltburn Book Corner, Marske Post Office, Guisborough Book Shop, and Drake – The Book Shop, Stockton.

Helen blogs about writing at https://www.helenvictoriaanderson.co.uk

Follow Helen on www.facebook.com/helenvictoriaanderson

 To read more about Georgina Anderson’s story and legacy, see www.facebook.com/rememberinggeorgina

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Coming soon…

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Coming soon… 

Review: ‘The Confession of Stella Moon’ by Shelley Moon

Stella Moon

Shelley Day’s debut novel, The Confession of Stella Moon, pulls you in from the first page and doesn’t let you go, even after the final page has been turned.

Stella Moon confessed to killing her mother on her eighteenth birthday. Now she’s served her time and is determined to start over but some things need to be put to rest before Stella can begin to think about her future.

A sense of claustrophobia pervades this novel, cloying and at times unbearable. I rushed through this story, partly because I couldn’t bear the tension! Day conjures up a strong sense of Stella’s rattled state of mind. The juxtaposition between the beautiful scenery of Northumberland and the hideous acts that occur is very well developed.

I was completely immersed in the story which is no mean feat. No wonder The Confession of Stella Moon was on the longlist for Not the Man Booker prize. I can’t wait to read what Shelley Day produces next.

Vic x

Matching the Evidence Blog Tour: Graham Smith on the Creation of Characters.

Yesterday saw the release of Graham Smith’s short story Matching the Evidence. I feel very privileged to have Graham on the blog today to talk about the creation of characters. Following Graham’s post, you’ll get my review of his latest release. 

Graham has been massively pivotal in my life this year, encouraging me to set up the North East Noir at the Bar. In addition to that, his Crime and Publishment course setting me on the road to finally completing my novel. 

Congratulations on another job well done, Graham! 

Vic x

Matching the Evidence

Creation of Characters

Creating a character is about so much more than just picturing one face and writing about them. Sure every book has a lead character who more often than not is the narrator or focal point, but unless the book is Robinson Crusoe, you’ve got to think about the support characters. (Even Crusoe had a Man Friday)

These are the colleagues, the lovers, the criminals, the victims, the witnesses and a whole host of other people who are there to populate the story. To give the lead someone to interrogate. Or fall in love with. Or scheme against. Or pursue in a clichéd game of feline and rodent.

How our character interacts with these secondary characters is critical to the story’s success. A faithful sidekick can save the day. An over-bearing boss can haul the hero off the case. A long-suffering wife can walk out.

Every one of these relationships affects the story or character in one way or another, meaning us authors have to plot much more than just the plot. We have to consider each character in their own right and work out how the lead’s behaviour will affect them and their lives.

One of my favourite authors is Craig Russell and in his Lennox series he pulls off a marvellous trick of having cameo appearances from fantastic characters. He gives them no more than three of four pages of the story to themselves – in one case the character only got three lines – but they are scene stealers due to the way his lead Lennox  (as if it wasn’t obvious) reacts to and with them. I am such a fan of these “throwaway” (my word not his) characters that I have tried to emulate them in my own writing.

All of the characters in a novel have an agenda. All have hopes, fears and desires. This makes it imperative to never forget, “every character is the hero of their own story.”

Lots of famous leads have support characters who do more than just stand around doing nothing. Some of the best examples are

  • Sherlock Holmes had Dr Watson as a sidekick (explaining device) and Moriaty as a nemesis
  • Elvis Cole has Jo Pike as a friend who provides muscle as does Myron Bolitar in his friend Winn
  • Logan McRae has a co-dependent relationship with the incorrigible DI Roberta Steele
  • Bond has Blofeld as a nemesis
  • Jack Reacher has … (I’ll stop now before it becomes obvious I haven’t thought this through)

Whenever I introduce a new character; I have to spend a few minutes, or moments if I’m unusually lucky, working out what’s going through their heads. Are they afraid, or angry, or just plain bored? However they’re feeling, I have to depict them in a way that shows their emotions and allows my erstwhile lead DI Harry Evans continue to wreak his own brand of havoc.

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Review: ‘Matching the Evidence‘ by Graham Smith.

Although ‘Matching the Evidence‘ is the third in the DI Harry Evans and Major Crimes Team series, don’t worry if this is your first meeting with Harry – ‘Matching the Evidence’, published by Caffeine Nights, can be read as a standalone story.

On the surface, this may look like the Major Crimes Team being punished for their prior bad behaviour and put on crowd control for a football match between Carlisle United and Millwall. However, things aren’t quite as they seem…

As always with Graham Smith’s writing, ‘Matching the Evidence‘ is dark, gritty and packs plenty of punches. There’s a real tension that runs throughout this story and, due to its length, you will want to devour it in one sitting. Not only do you get this brilliant short story but you also get a sneak preview of ‘I Know Your Secret’ – Harry Evans’s next case.

The Harry Evans series tackles a range of modern issues with a real grit and it looks like this cop is one who will be around for years to come.

Vic x

Noir at the Bar: an event for readers and writers.

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I got an email a couple of weeks ago from a lady who had seen my posts about Noir at the Bar. Although the lady in question wasn’t a writer, she was interested in the event and wanted to know if it would suitable for ‘non-writers’ to attend.

It took me no time at all to respond to this question: it is more than suitable for people who don’t write! Noir at the Bar isn’t just about giving a forum to writers to read their work – it’s about introducing readers to writers they may not have encountered before.

For example, this Wednesday, you might come to listen to Jay Stringer or Russel D. McLean but you’ll hear work from writers you may not have heard of before and I guarantee you will leave with at least one new writer whose work you’ll want to track down.

There is no set order of speakers so we ask members of the audience to pick names out of a hat – if you pick a name, you’ll get a signed book from that author (or the promise of one in the future). Free book just for picking a name out of a hat – and the opportunity to read someone you either love now or will love in the future.

For me, one of the many brilliant aspects of Noir at the Bar is that you will hear from a range of writers, from big names to people who haven’t yet had work published. If you attend Wednesday night, you’ll be able to say that you saw LP Mennock and Jon Wigglesworth before they made it big!

The joy of Noir at the Bar is that not only do you get to listen to awesome writers, you also get to interact with them. It’s encouraged that, during the break or at the end of the evening, you tell someone if you enjoyed their reading. Chatting about books is absolutely encouraged at Noir at the Bar!

And if you do fancy having a go at reading something you’ve written, you could always put your name down for the wild card round.

Noir at the Bar is meant to encourage interaction between writers as a community but also readers so if you’re a member of a book club or a solo reader, pop along. Entry is free and, if this Noir at the Bar is half as fun as the last one, you’re in for a cracking night.

Vic x