Category Archives: Writing

Pure Fiction

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Tomorrow, I will be reading excerpts from Fix Me Up at Pure Fiction. Tickets are £3 and you can pay on the door.

I’m very nervous about the reading but previous ones have gone alright so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this one is as successful.

Appearing alongside me is my old buddy, Rod Glenn, who will be reading new work too.

Hope to see you there!

Vic x

Getting to Know You: Douglas Skelton

Guest Post: Anne Coates on Writing a Sequel.

Having worked with Urbane Publications, I’m happy to host one of their authors – Anne Coates – on the blog today.

Anne’s here to discuss her process for writing a sequel. Thanks to Anne for taking the time out of her busy schedule to talk to us.

Vic x

Anne Coates

Writing the sequel to ‘Dancers in the Wind’.
By Anne Coates

The manuscript for my second book had to be with Urbane Publications on 1 October – thirteen days before the launch of ‘Dancers in the Wind. So as I was writing guest posts for my book blog tour, I was putting the finishing touches to ‘Death’s Silent Judgement, which continues Hannah Weybridge’s story a few months after the conclusion of book one.

dancers in the wind

Dancers in the Wind was conceived and written some twenty years ago – then left for dead. Last year, I completely rewrote it and found a published who was willing to take it on as part of a trilogy. I had written three chapters of book two all those years ago but it wasn’t really much to go on. I knew who had been murdered and where but not why.

The victim had been mentioned in ‘Dancers but had been working abroad. There were characters I had grown fond of in the first book that I wanted to keep but once in a while I came up with the problem of names. I have two characters named Sam in ‘Death’s Silent Judgement – one had a small but key role in the first book, to be developed in the second. The other was the name of a friend’s son who wanted to be a character in the book. So two very different men named Sam but in life there are often people of the same name in one’s office or social circle.

An added challenge was to ensure that characters were consistent so I had my blue book with descriptions of everyone from book one, which I added to as I wrote the sequel. There is a whole set of new characters in ‘Death’s Silent Judgement plus some from book one have come to the fore while others have taken a back seat. Some are gearing up to play more dominant roles in book three. I love the way characters take over, give me clues and nudge me along the way. One character, in particular, led me to a dramatic revelation which I’d had no idea of at the beginning.

One dominant factor which perforce must undergo changes, is that the Hannah of book one is fairly naive. By book two, almost everything she does is tempered by her earlier experiences, she has had to sharpen up. The events of the first book have left her feeling vulnerable and at risk. What she encounters in ‘Death’s Silent Judgement does nothing to alleviate this.

Dancers in the Wind has some of the action at King’s Cross and quite by chance, ‘Death’s Silent Judgement is centred in Waterloo, another London rail terminus. I’m not sure if railway stations will be a recurring theme in later books!

As I approach book three, the reviews I’ve had for ‘Dancers in the Wind have given me more confidence. Then I think, “What if I can’t pull it off again?” But I know I’ll keep on writing…

Guest Post: Helen Cadbury on Writers who Teach.

Helen Cadbury is one of the nicest writers in the business at the moment in my opinion. I love her wit and can’t wait to host her at Noir at the Bar NE in February. 

Helen is the author of the Sean Denton series of crime novels, To Catch A Rabbit and Bones in the Nest, with a third in the pipeline. To find out more about Helen, check out her website.

Helen is here today to talk to us about writers who teach which is a topic that is of particular interest to me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Helen.

Vic x

helen-cadbury

Writers who Teach
by Helen Cadbury

It is not a given that just because a person knows how to do a thing, that they can necessarily teach it. There are some extremely talented writers who are also brilliant and inspiring teachers, I have been lucky enough to be taught by at least two: the poet, Carole Bromley, and the novelist, Lesley Glaister. But there are also a set of esteemed authors and poets who are not great teachers, some of them are even terrible teachers, jealous perhaps of those coming after them, or simply lacking the enthusiasm or skills to enable others. There is also another set of writers who teach while at the very beginning of their careers, emerging writers whose enthusiasm is infectious to their students.

Bones in the Nest

So why do writers teach? Many writers I know claim to be introverts, so being in a group setting like a classroom or workshop space might seem like masochism. Is it for the money? Well that certainly helps. With average author earnings well below the Living Wage, and even beneath the annual full-time minimum wage, there are only a tiny minority of authors, and virtually no poets, who solely earn their living from selling their writing. But a word of caution: teaching creative writing is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s hard work and inevitably takes far longer than the hourly rate offered for a session of delivery. I estimate my preparation time to be 1.5 to 2 times the length of a one-off taught session. If it’s a course, then there will also be marking. Quoting the real cost of session to a perspective client can put them off, so sometimes we undersell ourselves, in order to get the work, regretting it later when we are committed to a group of learners, a long journey, and a novel at home waiting to be finished.

To Catch a Rabbit

There are easier ways of creating the income you need to sustain a writing career, but there is something that teaching gives a writer, which working a day job doesn’t, and that is the creative process of writing itself. When setting an exercise on structure, for example, the writer is also reflecting on their own use of structure. When teaching a class on character, new characters emerge for your own work. The character of Barry ‘Burger’ King, a detective in my debut, ‘To Catch a Rabbit‘, was created during an exercise in a class I was teaching at HMP Askham Grange. My learners added some very helpful characteristics to his sketch, as we all fed back on each other’s creations. I don’t always join in with the exercises, but when I do, it’s to show that I’m not asking my learners to do something I wouldn’t do myself. When I don’t, it enables me to pause a little, in that golden silence when they are writing, and be even more alert in listening to the work they read out.

I trained as a secondary school drama teacher, and I’ve also worked for many years as a trainer in the Youth Arts sector, so for me, bringing the skills and techniques of creative education to groups of writers – whether they be young people ambitious to be published, mature writers exploring their life stories, those writing for their own therapeutic release, or any combination of the above –  gives me a sense of completeness in bringing the different parts of my life experience together. It also takes me away from my own work, makes me think, and brings me back to my writing desk refreshed.

Guest Post: Jessica Fairfax on Writer’s Block

I met writer Jessica Fairfax earlier this year and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing some of her brilliant ideas. Jessica is a brilliant person, bursting with enthusiasm for writing and it was really kind of her to come along to the last Noir at the Bar NE.

Thanks to Jessica for coming to talk to us today about an all too common problem faced by writers: writer’s block. 

Vic x

Writer’s Block
By Jessica Fairfax

What exactly is this? Is it where a thousand ideas, or even just one or two, are swirling in your head and you just can’t get them onto paper? Is it where you stare blankly at a notepad, or computer screen, then clean the house from top to bottom, make endless cups of hot something and remain awake until the next day and do this all over again and again… and again? This doesn’t always just go on for hours, days, maybe weeks. No, no, this can go on for years! I know. When researching this topic, and having experienced this myself for two decades on and off, a valued accountant friend gave her opinion on the subject.

If you have writer’s block for ages, like years, are you not just a failed writer and maybe you should go and do something else for a hobby?

Hobby?

It is a condition I tell her.

Her eyebrows raised above her hairline.

It isn’t though, is it? She responded with a tone. She continued (unfortunately). It is a case of someone (someone being me!) having no ideas, or if they have, they just can’t do anything with them. I could say I have writer’s block.  I have ideas but have no idea how to make them into a viable piece of work constituting a novel, or such like, so I go and get a proper job like an accountant for instance and swim. I swim as a hobby. Just carry on with your day job and, I don’t know… come swimming with me, or go to Zumba twice a week, you’d love that, yeah, do that! Leave the writing to someone who doesn’t… get… get this block thing you have.  You know, the proper writer types that have nothing else going on in their lives.

Helpful?

I didn’t go into how even the most acclaimed writers have suffered with this affliction from time to time.

So, writer’s block, failed writer, or an underestimated psychological condition first described in 1947 by the psychologist Edmund Belger? Whatever it is, it is frustrating and debilitating in terms of being a type of creative brain freeze. At first, I tried writing lists, deadline setting, and discussions with fellow writers and even swimming – yes, I did go with her – and meditation to clear my mind to help me start afresh. Physically I felt pretty good but everything I tried to do to eradicate the writer’s block, ultimately resulted in an exceptionally clean house and a belly full of coffee! My creativity was stifled… suppressed by something I could do nothing about. Eventually, without really acknowledging when exactly, the notepad got left in the house in a drawer and the PC wasn’t even turned on. I tried less and less and eventually told people that other life events had taken priority over my aspirations to become a novelist.  I had a busy job anyway and a baby and Zumba.  I could get away with it with friends and family  but the reality was, I felt like a failure. The confidence went. Was I a failed writer? Was I a writer?

Years on, I am starting to write again.  It isn’t a whoosh of creativity, as others describe but more of a slow drip, drip, drip onto the page. Confidence is coming back.  I am enjoying writing and that is what it is all about for me.

How I came to suffer this condition, I don’t know.  How it went away again, I have no idea. I just know that writer’s block does not mean you aren’t a writer.  Perhaps my brain just needed time.

Guest Post: G.J. Brown on Crying Over Spilled Words.

I first met the lovely G.J. Brown in June this year when he took the time to appear at our first Noir at the Bar NE. Gordon is a fantastic writer and is one of the forces behind the massively popular Bloody Scotland.

I met Gordon again just a couple of weeks ago at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil while he was part of the Crime Factor panel. The discussion was truly fascinating and proved that Gordon is a font of knowledge when it comes to writing. 

Thanks to Gordon for taking the time to share his wisdom with us. 

Vic x

G.J. Brown

Never Cry Over Spilled Words
by G.J. Brown

The note from my editor, in returning the first draft of my next novel, read:

‘You’ll see I’ve taken a few sections out. Even so, there’s still a bit of flab.’

Three weeks later, after I’ve subjected my manuscript to a literary chainsaw, I send it back and my editor replies:

‘And this year’s winner of Author Who Culled The Largest Number Of Words From Their First Draft goes to…   40k less. Impressive.’

Hand on heart, I knew that my first draft was, at 117,000 + words, a tad too long. It’s the third in my Craig McIntyre series. The length was driven by an attempt to tie up some loose ends from books 1 and 2, while driving a trans America/Atlantic narrative. The novel ranges from mid-west America to Western Canada, it rolls through a road trip to Toronto, crosses the Atlantic to Scotland and then beyond – I was painting large on a large canvass.

Removing 40,000 words may seem a bit excessive, but I was once talking to the late, great William McIlvanney, over a dram, about editing. He was of the view that if you could remove a word from a sentence and the sentence was the better for it, then keep removing until the sentence sings. I just took Willie’s advice and put it on steroids.

I read and re-read the original. I thought about slicing and dicing, cutting and chopping. I played with tweaking and twisting and, after a few false starts, I realised that this was no minor outpatient operation. This was full on, brain surgery with a liver transplant thrown in for good measure, with a side order of a new heart.

The transit scene from the USA to Scotland was cut in its entirety – bang went 30,000 of those precious words. A chase by the local police, through Alberta, was given the shoulder – zap to 5,000 more. The rest was honing.

I’m waiting on the ‘Weight Watchers Winner for Best Book on a Diet’ coming back to me with the editor’s final comments. I’ve already decided I’m drawing a line in the sand and fighting for every one of the remaining 80,000 words. They deserve no less given the way they’ve survived to date.

Throughout the whole process there was one driver – does this make the book better?

Well, did it?

The simple, and somewhat unsurprising, answer, in my editors and my own humble opinion is, ‘hell yes’. Sharper, better written, flab gone – it’s now the Mo Farrah to the Big Daddy of the book world.

And the bonus is I’ve got at least three short stories sitting in the bowels of my Mac. A little work on the culled paragraphs and I can fill my website with a range of Craig McIntyre tales for a few months to come.

So for those authors that cry over spilled words. Don’t. They didn’t all give their lives in vain. Some will live on to grace different pages in the future and, for those that died, well, they did so for a better cause.

***

meltdown

Gordon lives in Scotland but splits his time between the UK, the U.S.A. and Spain. He’s married with two children. Gordon once quit his job in London to fly across the Atlantic to be with his future wife. He has also delivered pizzas in Toronto, sold non-alcoholic beer in the Middle East, launched a creativity training business called Brain Juice and floated a high tech company on the London Stock Exchange.

He almost had a toy launched by a major toy company, has an MBA, loves music, is a DJ on local radio, compered the main stage at a two-day music festival and was once booed by 49,000 people while on the pitch at a major football Cup Final.

Gordon also helped found Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival.

Gordon has been writing since his teens and has had four books published – his latest, ‘Meltdown‘, is published by Gallus Press and is out now.

Visit www.gordonjbrown.com or follow him on Twitter @GoJaBrown

Guest Post: David McCaffrey on Beat Sheets

I’ve already started arranging the next Noir at the Bar NE. It may not be until February but we have more than half of the performers booked. One of those readers is David McCaffrey who has been very complimentary about Noir at the Bar.

David has very kindly taken time out of his busy schedule to chat to us about beat sheets. My thanks go to David for sharing his wisdom – see you in February. 

Vic x

Guest Post: David McCaffrey on Beat Sheets

Christopher Vogler wrote a book called ‘The Writers Journey‘, a writing textbook that focuses on the theory that most stories can be boiled down to a series of narrative structures and character archetypes. Basically he says that every story told has been told before and that every fictional story consists of the same components.

I explored this once in my blog where I discussed the writing process, but the gist of it is this –

1.) The hero is introduced in his/her ORDINARY WORLD
2.) The CALL TO ADVENTURE.
3.) The hero is reluctant at first. (REFUSAL OF THE CALL.)
4.) The hero is encouraged by the Wise Old Man or Woman. (MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.)
5.) The hero passes the first threshold.  (CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.)
6.) The hero encounters tests and helpers. (TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES.)
7.)  The hero reaches the innermost cave.  (APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE.)
8.) The hero endures the supreme ORDEAL.
9.) The hero seizes the sword. (SEIZING THE SWORD, REWARD)
10.)  THE ROAD BACK.
11.) RESURRECTION.
12.)  RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR

Every story can be structured around the above, not always in the same order, not always every element, but they are there in one form or another.

In line with these components, it is important that you plug variables into your story before you start writing for one simple reason: so you don’t back yourself into a corner.

It’s really easy to begin writing a story off the top of your head or with the most basic of narratives and think that you can just string all the various plot points together.  And some authors can do this (the talented John Nicholson being one of them), but many need a structure, an outline of the aforementioned variables in order to understand where their story starts, begins and ends. This outline can prevent you ending up somewhere inescapable.

For me, writers block is not having the research in which to frame and support your story. I learnt right at the beginning that research is key, especially for the kinds of novels I write as they are mostly psychological thrillers that require an element of philosophy and detail to make them believable.

In line with this, you need something that is high concept, meaning it can be described in one or two words.

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” This tells you exactly what ‘Jaws 2 is about in one sentence.

“His crimes – unspeakable. His death – inevitable. His suffering – just beginning.”

My debut novel ‘Hellbound had the above tagline and in only a few words gives you an idea of what the book is about.

Once you have your idea and concept, it needs to be backed up by that most important of elements – research. You need to be steeped in your subject matter in order to sell your concept realistically. If your story outline is a skeleton, your research adds flesh to its bones. It fleshes out the whole idea so you begin to see what it will truly look like once complete.

Then we get to what I was taught is the most important element of writing, at least for me – having a beat sheet.

Once I have the above in place, I write a beat sheet that consists of bullet points with key elements of each chapter in a very simplified form acting as my map. Bestselling author Steve Alten once said that a beat sheet was like lining up dominoes, so that if you push over the first one it will travel right to the end meaning that if the beat sheet is tight then your story will have every element in place before you start putting one word on paper.

It’s better to get your beat sheet right before you start then begin writing and realise that you have a character who disappeared inexplicably halfway through the story or a massive plot hole you hadn’t considered.

Not having those dominoes lined up can result in you becoming frustrated and potentially lost in your own writing process.

Granted, a beat sheet can also be classed as an outline and many authors hate writing outlines because it requires all the underlying planning to have been done to answer all the difficult questions about your story. But with your research you would have the answers to those questions and the rest is a piece of cake.

Your beat sheet doesn’t have to be detailed. It can be one or two words – sex, Joseph dies, Maggie drives to work… as long as you know what it means, that’s enough.

The beat sheet stops you having to confront the most horrific of questions – what shall I write next?

Your research and a tight beat sheet can prevent this most awful of writing circumstances. With it, you will always know where you are in your story, what happens next, what will further the dramatic tension etc.

And because they are just bullet points, if something is moving too slow or there is too much action in a particular scene, you can simply move the bullet points around until you are happy and the beat sheet is tight again.

The beat sheet not only tells you what the scene is, it tells you why it’s there in the first place. And for me, the best thing of all is with a beat sheet you are simply going into those bullet points and just fleshing them out, adding narrative around them because the framework is already there.

You might veer off as you go as different story beats come to mind or naturally develop with the story. This is the beauty of using a beat sheet: they leave you free to explore and flesh out the narrative that drives the story forward. As long as you end you where you intended at the very beginning, it isn’t as important how you get there – the story will take care of itself.

Make the beat sheet clear and simple. Remember, this is your document. You’re not trying to sell the story to anyone else, you’re just trying to get your head around the story as a whole.

Besides, it’s always nice after you’ve written a three hundred page novel to look back and see that it just started out as a forty bullet point piece of A4. You would probably struggle in reverse if asked to summarise your story in forty bullet points, but it goes to show that as Christopher Vogler believed, every story can be boiled down to key elements.

And we thought we all had original ideas!!!