People pleasing Writer? Me?

Context is important so let me paint you a picture…I don’t keep a copy of my book by my bedside, in fact it’s in a cupboard. I don’t generally tell people I’ve written Hummingbird’s Tear (sorry Calumet marketers), am writing the second, have drafted the 3rd, or that I wrote a short story that was selected for the Boundaries Without anthology. I don’t go to writer meet-ups, I don’t bring it up in conversation, and I certainly never go out of my way to see what people think of my book.  Why?  I don’t know, lot’s of reasons, every reason and no reason I suppose, I don’t tend to dwell. So…

This took a ton of work

About two months ago I was roaming around Amazon looking at nothing in particular – virtual window shopping, we’ve all done it. I was bored, running out of things to search for and so unusually for me – I never do this – I decided to go see if anyone had left a review of Hummingbird’s Tear.  There were a handful, mostly nice. Which makes me feel nice. And we all want to feel nice, right.  And then, staring at me, was one that was not like the others.

The reality of creating any form of art – and writing most certainly is just that – is that on that spectrum of personal experience and opinion, it’s either going to be liked, or disliked and no one who creates anything is should be foolish enough to think their work will be universally liked. Also, that people voice their opinion and have every right to do so, and that as an author, you have to be prepared for it. And that is what this review was. I read it and immediately blew it out of proportion so much that I never digested what was actually written. All I took away from it was a feeling of being punched in the gut because someone voiced an opinion disliking something I had spent literally years creating. So I did what I usually do when I’m feeling anything negative about my work or my books or writing in general, I told one of my best friends about it. She immediately went and read it and came back pointing out a few bits I had missed in my emotional read of it all.

That the reviewer pointed out the use of a wrong word – and that yes, that’s a mistake but I missed it, so did editorial and that’s easily fixed with a revised edition and it’s ONE word so ‘move on’.  I mentioned it to the publisher and it’ll be fixed. Thanks reviewer, you helped make my book better, by a tiny amount, but it’s still an improvement. I’ll get to why this hurt so much, why one word is important to me.

Secondly she pointed out the reviewer mentioned they hadn’t actually read the book, just the free first few pages, so what they referenced, actually wasn’t true, because they didn’t read the book and didn’t follow through how the story actually twists and changes. And immediately I was thinking, that’s sloppy reviewing. I’m not sure I’d be brazen or self-opinionated enough to make assumptions about how a book plays out,

It isn’t all keyboard

without actually reading the book.  But that’s just me.

The rest of the points she made are irrelevant because by this stage I’m feeling better. But much more important than the plaster for my bruised star-flower ego, is the fact that by this stage, I’m actually making notes about what the reviewer said. I’m taking notes and I’m making them into the prompts I go through when I’m reviewing my work. And that’s when it hit me. I felt bad because the reviewer wasn’t pleased with what I had produced. I let out a moan, OH GOD! I’m a people pleaser… And I’m okay with that. Because I think that’s what drives the effort I put into the books.

Let’s ‘talk’ for a second about choosing words – believe me picking the right word for the effect a writer is building is not easy. It isn’t finished yet but I’m going to use book 2, Giant’s Echo as an example. I want to build up a picture of a character in the reader’s mind without ever saying ‘he’s like a snake’ because it’s a cliche (although the snake image works so well for me in book 2), and because that’s lazy and readers deserve more.

First things first, there are three things to do.
1 – make actual notes because you’ll forget otherwise, of what your character is like and then be very sure you can be consistent with the personality because if you want to show a change you have to have a strong base. I have all my characters mapped, literally drawn, mannerisms written down, and charts showing how they compare to the primary characters they mostly interact with.
2 – be prepared for the long haul, you don’t build up subliminal imagery and atmosphere in a paragraph and it does take skill so prepare to challenge yourself and have your editor and publisher come back with some critique.
3 – think of all the senses. When I’m writing dialogue I try to choose words that have a cadence – I don’t just mean picking lots of words that start with the same letter, that’s crap. I have people react to the character in a way that mimics how they would react to an actual snake, you want people to feel something, so give those feelings to other people. Create environments for your character to be in that feel like where you’d find the change you’re implying. My guy doesn’t walk straight, he meanders and constantly moves his head looking at everything around him.  A lot of his scenes take place in dark rooms, in cool conditions he’s a lot calmer and steadier, when it’s hot he acts sluggish and lashes out in anger when confronted. I write about what he can smell, how he reacts to foods, what he notices.

This is a very specific example of effort I suppose, the personal effort of producing something that very well may be disliked by more people than liked – although I sincerely hope not. And why I was so annoyed when one word was wrong. What I am really trying to illustrate is that writing isn’t just someone sitting down writing a stream of consciousness that becomes a finished manuscript. It’s actual work that becomes months and sometimes years of concerted creative focus and attention. I’ve produced hundreds of pages of backstory for my characters over the years. A whole creation mythology body of work. One does not simply ‘write a book’.

 

Can you imagine maintaining concentration on the same thing for years?

So take the bad reviews and the negative opinions people offer at you, use what you think is a useful insight that can improve your craft, and just get back to it. Shrug it off, grow a thicker skin -whatever cliche works for you – and get back to writing.

 

Sorting out when your book exists

I haven’t written a blog entry in quite a few weeks. It’s more like months actually but like everyone else (except the lucky few) I have a full time job to do in between novels so day-jobbing can take up more of my time than I’d like and  things slip. Blogging slipped. Because the blog – and many other things – slipped, the writing didn’t.

I’ve been very busy with a specific element for Giant’s Echo, book 2 following Hummingbird’s Tear, which have very little to do with plot or characters but everything to do with the reader experience  which is – to me – number three of the ‘good book’ rule of 3.

I’ve been going through the manuscript looking for time-stamping words. There’s probably a more professional or sector way of describing the process but in essence what I am doing is looking for text where I’ve described something that gives a time frame for where and when my books are taking place. This is important because fantasy stories need a lot of realism if the reader is going to connect with the story and invest in it and it helps make the magic and fantasy elements more vivid and easier to imagine if you can place it in something a reader is familiar with when you have it during the narrative. And some things in your book very firmly place your story in a time period in history. Pick a century, it’s important.

So, the words. For example, Castle. Castles conjure up a certain visual, they’re imposing, built for war and the planing of war.  Conquest. Empire building. A certain type of King or Queen. They sit on hilltops and are surrounded by moats or a forest graveyard of cut trees to provide sight lines. There will be stables nearby with war horses and walls so high that you’d die if you fell from them.  Castles are familiar and almost ageless for many of us. Castles have been around for over a thousand years in some form or other and are very firmly embedded in the mind’s eye. So that’s a safe word to use and readers will quickly build up their own  image in their mind probably broadly in line with yours if you add in a few  halls, strong walls and a portcullis. Throw in a throne room with some tapestry, winding stair cases, decide how you want the kitchen and how the castle sounds at night and have some staff moving quietly through the halls and voila. It such a strong image you only need a bit here and there. A word of advice on castles, don’t forget the gardens, half the majesty and myth of castles is where they are placed. Are there medicinal gardens, if there are then it implies healers and medics and gives an air of compassion and caring. Unless the medicinal gardens are in ruin, then your King or Queen doesn’t care at all and immediately you leap to unhappy citizens, which is great for the reader to see.  Are the gardens full of whimsy and fancy? Did your ruler not care about the kingdom and just want to indulge their own importance and capriciousness. Imagine what loyal subjects would think about that. Want to ramp up the action, show opposing view points, bring in allegory, chaos and order, metaphor, then add to the garden around the castle. Add elements, water, flowers, secret paths for lovers. All this from a word that can be moved up and down the timer of history.

Throw in glass windows in your castle though and it’s a whole new issue. Two things about glass. 1 – most people don’t actively think about it when they imagine scenes with it but people assume it. So in your castle, do you have stained glass windows? I do. And that makes it a very different castle. It adds color to grey stone walls at the very least and implies a certain amount of technological advancement about the civilization in your story.  2 – thinking it through, if you have glass you have furnaces to heat it so you probably have a smith and forge both of which are common in fantasy and history so we’re good with that. But you also need clay moulding facilities (image below).

Do you know what the places you’re talking about look like? You need to know what your reader will assume is in a place where a scene is taking place

Think about the purpose of some of these places you’re conjuring because they may be fantastic opportunities for some scenes later on. Once you’ve created the castle, leave it there in the reader’s mind, and take the action outside the castle into those places. Now we’re talking small industry. Now we’re getting an idea of size and scope of the castle if you want these things conceptually made there, and what about the people making them? You need masters, you need apprentices, who are these people, what do they look like, what about the place where they are from? You might never mention a blacksmith or a glass blower and the reader might never make the conscious link and ask themselves that question but every word on every page is weaving that visual and it has to make sense and feel well place so it all becomes real. When you broaden the window concept and make them large, make them stained glass windows, floor to ceiling, arched, wide or narrow, you’re giving the castle a personality. Small random windows in a big castle makes me think of circa 12th century buildings and I’m picturing narrow slits in enormous ugly walls only used for archers. But when it’s large, ornate and people talk near them or notice them in the narrative I’m starting to lighten the color of the stone in my mind toward lighter sand tones away from grey. My mind is throwing in some stone carvings and intricate designs here and there and I’m moving away from a place that is military and starting to wander into a ceremonial place that is a little more palace and I’m also filling it with more people.

A word that enables the reader to build up a vision of living in a place is half the work done for you. And what about the seasons? Add glass and you have colder winters, so are there curtains, how heavy are they, are they open or closed, are they embroidered, what with, and now we’re building up a scene in a room. And let’s play with a character. You want to say something about a person in a scene without directly describing them, use their room. Are they smart? Fill the room with bookshelves and a deep set armchair near a window in direct sunlight behind heavy velvet curtains, somewhere a book worm could sit during cold winters days when the sun is out but there’s snow on the ground outside the castle walls.

Actually, glass, what else is glass for,what else do you think of when you read that single word. My mind does this:

Glass. Color. Mirrors. People Weapons. Knives.  Sharp. Murder. Gifts. Beauty. Wealth. Smudge. Dirty. Poor. Hungry. Cold. Draught. Window. Glass.

That’s an example of what I have spent a lot of time doing, looking at words that are like a breadcrumb path that lead the reader up a visual path that isn’t something I’ve explicitly written but something that they are creating for themselves out of words I’m choosing.  Plus, since it’s a sequel, it has to follow on from what I built in Hummingbird’s Tear. Continuity counts!

 

 

 

Writing after watching the news, aka London

Last Wednesday – 2nd March 2017 – Westminster was in the news. I’m not going to say more than that.  There is a lot being written about it by men and women with far more insightful views that my own and who are more eloquent in the their words and thoughts have a great understanding of what is happening in the world right now. I don’t watch a lot of news, I don’t spend much time on politics and global current affairs are not something I keep track of daily.  But as a child growing up in South Africa I did holiday to London a few times, and then I moved to London when I was 17, so what happened on Wednesday affected me deeply.

I watched the news for about four hours.  How do you process something like that in your living room?

It’s taking place somewhere that you know so well, have walked past and driven past and helped who knows how many tourists with their directions. But what you are seeing is wrong and feels alien. By the time I went to bed I felt flooded with the imagery of eye witness reports and the scenes that had be replayed to fill the airtime of continuous coverage. London had been reduced from a massive vibrant exciting ageless city to just a few hundred meters of blood and wreckage and twisted steel.

On Thursday – the day after – I sat working on a chapter that I’d been struggling with for some time. I just wanted to add a bit of scene setting to a harbor – so that is what I intended to do. I cracked my knuckles and was going to add a few sounds of some boards on the quay, some brine on the wind and a few whores hanging about. What actually happened was I started thinking about where I used to work in the docklands in London. A hundred years ago it was a working dock with a customs house – now it’s swanky offices and the Emirates cable car. I kept thinking of that custom house and the stories I knew of the East End of London. And I added a custom house to the chapter. Then I added a bit more and, well, you know how that cliche works. By the end of it I’d rewritten the whole chapter and changed the course of one of the sub-plots. And all done without me realizing it was how I was processing what I had seen and what was still the only news on the TV and radio. I had drawn a part of my London – not that London – but the London I know and worked it into my book.

I went and opened up some of my picture folders and started rooting through them looking for pictures from my many days out in the city over the years. A few struck a chord, and looking at them I saw something different and had a new idea for the book that I hadn’t thought of before.

This one. It’s obvious when you look at it. This is London across it’s ages with all it’s cultural influences that are as much the history of the place as is the present and it’s future. And I think it captures the city perfectly – it is the city of every man woman and child who ever walked or took a buggy, hailed a black cab or took the tube. When I see it I see a map of how to tell stories set in a city and how to use those stories to build the story of the city. Layers within layers (I’m loving my cliches tonight). In Hummingbird I needed to do a lot of character development in a very short space of time and I did this by setting my ‘people’ in the city and giving them a short sub-story. I put Orren and An’eris in the sewer to establish their love-story. I made Calem burn a man alive to accelerate his development and counterpoint his actions with Brennan so in growing Calem I gave the reader Brennan on the side.  I killed a king in a castle in the city to show Homen’s grip on power and balance this with how deeply he felt the death of his friend – it also set up half the plot but I was prouder of the character growth. And last but not least, Orren the prince, Orren the lover, Orren the diplomat, Orren the nihilist, Orren the realist, Orren the man confronts an honorable nomad who is cradling his days old infant daughter, and suggests she has to die because of the nomad’s own traditions. A tense scene set at the castle gates which are in the center of the city. The modernity of the city as a backdrop to two worlds colliding, two different beliefs with different customs and opposing ways of life. Orren resolves the situation with words, swords are drawn but no more than that. Hummingbird is about the characters, and the plot and everything else. And it’s about Kraner and that city having a life of its own as all great cities do.

 This is one of my favorite photos because it shows how many things in London are a little bit ridiculous. It’s all about perspective. You see London is over 1000 years old – it was settled about 45 AD, so in fact it’s closer to 2000 years old than a thousand. It has a lot of history and the most interesting history of the monarchy is only a few hundred which is actually rather recent.  The new-old as I think of it is quirky, quaint, and usually in the way – wonderfully demonstrated by a practical modern fence and gate set as an escape route leading straight to a locked older fence and gate. Why is the older one there? Because it’s old damnit, and attached to an important place, and in London, we keep the old even if it’s silly and in the way and makes to sense to anyone else. As a writer I love this. To me it’s what happens when tradition, majesty, empire and modernity all crash into each other and you had something physically curious and  impractical that serves as a reminder of something grand that is out of reach to nearly everyone on the planet but also so close. This is on the Mall, the road that leads to Buckingham Palace, and it is going to pop up in Kraner the main city in The Hummingbird’s Tear.

Last but not least. This next one is what happens when you have an idea but not enough time and a lot of concrete left over from a previous job. This building is not far from the BFI and is hideous – like a gargoyle I often think. Among the buildings in the area – some of which are mmodern glass edifices and others a few hundred years of pomp and fancy – sits this bland homage to cement. In all its glory it is a psychical epiphany of function over form, beauty be damned. I see a citadel in a dessert. A place of wandering ghosts, where the wind shrieks whether it’s a zephyr or a gale and people walk for miles to avoid passing under the shadow thrown from the turrets that I always imagine should be there. Although very descriptively different to the citadel I am writing in the Giant’s Echo, Hummingbird’s sequel – this picture is what I look at when I need to remember how I felt and how I want the reader to feel.

I’m writing Giant’s Echo and rereading Hummingbird and I’m understanding more about myself as a writer. Where my inspiration comes from, how I see objects and places and how I see deeper into them and morph these images into stories.  I am so lucky to live in a place with so much inspiration.  Long live London

 

You ask I say

As soon as people find out you’ve written a book, in my case The Hummingbird’s Tear, I get questions. Usually it’s “how many have you sold” or “where do you find the time”.  To be honest those are really boring questions.  Every now and again though I get a few good ones so I thought I’d put a little collection of them  together.

Do you ever hit a brick wall with inspiration?

No. My problem isn’t a lack of inspiration, it’s too much inspiration. I write fantasy novels, mostly. And not just one at a time. When I was writing Hummingbird I was also writing the sequel, and notes for the third. Then I started a story about a chemist that I am still dabbling with. I also have 4 stories that I dip into that are a mix of drama, horror and sci-fi. Those 4 are my indulgences. They are filled with cliches, stereotypical characters, lots of angst and really cheesy characters.

basically my equivalent of indulging in Rick Astely when you are trying to compose a symphony

I am constantly coming up with ideas for stories and plan on jotting down a few ideas, and then a week later I’ve got 7 chapters done and I’m in love with a new character. My brick wall is focus. Luckily I have amazing support and prodding from Calumet to keep me on track and working on The Giant’s Echo which is the Hummingbird’s sequel due – at least planned – for late  summer 2017. While editing I have to admit I’ve started a series of short stories about growing up in a remote farming town in South Africa. I can’t help it, the idea and inspiration came along, who am I to tell it to wait it’s turn.

If my favorite functional character lived in our universe, what job would they have?

Good question, and not as hard as you might think. My favourite character is Sioned (pronounces Sh-ned, it’s welsh) from Meanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series. Sioned is a Sunrunner, a type of magic user that weaves the magic of sunlight and moonlight. When I first read the series in my teens I was captivated by this strong woman who basically goes through hell pretty much through the whole series but has incredible fortitude and perseverance and a strength of character that you can relate to. She finds ways to overcome every situation and establishes herself as the pivotal character in a time of epic wars, conspiracy, battle and a nation’s rise,and her own downfall, redemption and personal revolution. She’s magically very powerful but vulnerable in the same human ways as you and me and I felt a very real connection to this character. Because of this – can you respect and be in awe of a fictional character? – I picture her in a leadership role, commanding and inspiring, but more likely to be a rebellion than something in the establishment. Probably an activist for human rights, women’s rights, something like that.

Which book that you’ve read do you wish you had written yourself?

This one took a little while. Probably all 5 of the books of the Belgariad, but if I had to pick one of them it would be Magician’s Gambit. Why those? Because I love those stories. I  worked some of it into my family, my nephew is named Darian, a name I suggested based on Garion (his parents wanted a name with a D). Those five stories for me have everything. You can read them for what they are – a sword and sorcery tale, or you can look as deeply as you like and see the nuancing of politics, human behaviour, social injustice, rebellion and social commentary. The characters are good fun and you get to know them intimately. The language doesn’t try to be too clever and there is a lot of action that keeps the story telling fast, fresh and interesting. Overall, I’d say these books because they’re timeless, accessible to everyone and provide genuine enjoyment.

 

Is it a love of writing, or  of story telling that drives you to write?

Predominantly writing. I have stories I want to tell, but I’m not overly confident around people and a bit of an introvert so for me writing is how I am able to connect and give people the stories that I want to tell.

 

Do you read books and ever rewrite them in your head as you’re reading them?

I never used to. Now I do. As I’m being mentored through the editing and publishing process of my own work and becoming better at the craft and skill of putting together the story for the reader I’m noticing things in other works that I read. Repetition, I spot it now and never used to. An idea that gets overused and the plot becomes predictable – I end up asking myself if the writer is lazy or it’s intentional and it detracts from the story. In those cases I don’t rewrite I mostly lose interest and put the book down.

Sometimes I pick up a book that has taken over the world and I’m so excited to read it.  I want the experience that everyone is talking about – I love being moved and astounded by an amazing story and riveting writing, I crave that experience from a book. And sometimes those global phenomena leave me utterly disappointed. Life of Pi was one of those. I thought it was boring and repetitive. As I was reading that, I did find myself starting to reorder events and rewrite elements of it. I made it more classically magical and mythological instead of what I felt was bad allegory. Fundamentally, I just didn’t like it, it wasn’t my type of book. I would add, for a while I felt like I had missed something from Life of Pi – how could all these thousands of review be so positive and moving (some reviews were better than the book) so I reread it looking for what I had missed. But no, just not my thing.  And that’s the trick sometimes, recognizing the difference between a story not well put together, versus something that just isn’t to your own taste. Big lesson for me as I try and write for everyone, but aware that some are going to feel about my work how I feel about that book. So you write the best book you can and tell the story you are able to, and hope someone likes it and thinks you did a good job.

That’s it, thanks for the questions. Now back to editing, and the short stories, and the next novel. Honestly, even I don’t know how I focused long enough to get Hummingbird out!

One of my favourite books – The Spitting Image

20170209_094230

There are a few things I own which are very precious to me. Both of them are books, and both are the only books I chose out of over 100 to pack into my small suitcase when I left South Africa in 1997 after finishing high school. Both books have survived three different continents more than 11 house moves in these last 20 years. One of those two is a book by Kathleen Hersom, The Spitting Image.

I’ll say right from the start that it is a children’s book but I urge everyone regardless of their age to read it. Like most things aimed at children (think Disney) there is so much in the storytelling that an adult would pick up and enjoy that to me, makes this story ageless.

It starts with a fantastic black and white illustration of a stone gargoyle’s face on a man’s body. The story opens at night in a churchyard and sets a creepy scene using a weathervane, squeaking bats and snuffling hedgehogs. I was 9 when I first read this, and was captivated. My imagination immediately added tombstones covered in lichen and bare sycamore trees standing like sentinels to keep the dead in their slumber. We’re introduced to Jacob who we learn straight away is a gargoyle and the first things we learn about him is he hates his creator for carving him so roughly and giving him such ugly features – wide stumpy teeth, one eye forever closed and a mouth that was permanently scowling.   The story continues and we find out there were two mason who didn’t get on. One had as ugly a spirit as he did a face and so the other more skillful mason carved the gargoyle in his likeness and gave it the same name.

What I read as a child was wonderful and vivid. All I read at first was a tale of how a gargoyle was carved for a church tower and was intended to be ugly and frightful to scare the devil to make him stay away. That the gargoyle was20170209_105722 alive and in perpetual torment. Jacob hates the mason and so hates everyone that has come down the mason’s line for the last 5 centuries. He hates how he is the target for the choir boys who sing so beautifully in the church then throw rocks at him afterwards. He hates his draughty corner of the church tower and he hates the other statues carved around him. In fact, it seems the only thing Jacob loves is how much he hates.

The book carries on. Each chapter is a story about something unusual and exciting happening in the town told from Jacob’s vantage point above everyone else. In each chapter there is a small group of children who to the churchyard for all sorts of reasons – choir practice, a shortcut through the village, playing in summer, or just to sit on the church-wall and talk. The children talk about, as children do, about everything that they have seen and heard and give their own explanation for the goings on. The young children attribute things they don’t understand to magic and fairies, the old children think things are tricks and of course the older children don’t have time for the things the younger children talk about. They bicker and the argue. One family is always at odds with the other and you quickly discover it’s the families of the two original masons. In each chapter Jacob watches and listens and hates that he can’t join in. He hates that ‘his family’ is always losing out to the other mason’s family and at about halfway you get the feeling the gargoyle’s animosity and desire for revenge may be fueling the family’s rivalry.

One of the threads that runs through each chapter is the telling and guessing of riddles. There are different riddlers but it is always the children and poor old Jacob who are the ones trying to puzzle out the answers. The children learn the answers much faster than he does; they are living their lives, growing older and learning through experience whereas he is stuck on his church tower, living through everyone else. There is one riddle that no one guesses, one so hard, it stumps the village for centuries and even a stone gargoyle who’s life span is so much longer than the flesh and blood people he watches being born, grow up, and end up in the ground in the churchyard he watches over – even he cannot puzzle out the answer.

The stories move through time. They start in the very distant past with travelling hunchback friars and men on horseback until they come into the present day – well, the 720170209_1102080s or thereabouts. The stories in the chapters are fantastic and I love the frustration that runs through each story as no one can solve the greatest riddle ever told in the town. I won’t spoil the ending but I will say that justice is served up at the end and the final revelation of the answer to the riddle gives Jacob the centuries old stone gargoyle a moment of happiness that whether you think he deserves or not, you can’t take away from him.

Hersom creates scenes with the children that everyone will identify with because we’ve all done the things they have. We’ve all say on a wall at some point bickering and arguing. We’ve all walked aimlessly on summer days kicking clods of dirt, picking flowers and pulling the petals off while we looked for something to do. It’s the type of cliched nostalgia that works perfectly and effectively from an adult perspective because one thing we all have in common is that we’ve all been children.

As a child I laughed at images of the gargoyle with pigeons on his head that he couldn’t shoo away. I was more intrigued with the riddle that ran through the stories and wondered how ‘alive’ the gargoyle really was. As an adult now when I read – and reread – this amazing book I see how cleverly characters are created in each short chapter and the skill in the writer to advance the themes and concepts of the book through simple plot devices. I’ve tried to use similar skill when writing The Hummingbird’s Tear.

On the one hand it is a lovely story to read and enjoy. On the other hand, it’s a masterclass in story telling.

It won’t take more than 90 minutes to read. The illustrations at the start of each chapter are excellent and whether you take away a colorful and engaging tale spanning life in a small town over a few hundred years; or treat it as a tutorial for writing clever engaging stories. It’s worth it.

 

 

Arthur and Merlin talk language in the pub

About a month ago Calumet’s very own Ian Leask was in London and we arranged to meet at a pretentious pub. Why pretentious? Cue low ceilings, five strategically placed fireplaces (think aesthetics not warmth), uninspiring beers on tap and a menu filled with words like puree instead of mash and jus instead of gravy.  All the patrons looked bejeweled. The women wore their shiniest gems and there were rather a lot of dapper grey suede dinner jackets with plaid elbow patches (tan loafers offset the colors so the effort wasn’t too obvious). Little girls felt like princesses in dinner dresses and the boys did their best not to scratch their necks at the odd sensation of a tie that’s not elasticated. The atmosphere was genuinely happy with pre-Christmas dinners and small-group parties, family get togethers and a few groups of friends knocking around for an impromptu after work drink. Laughter, glasses clinking, cheers and a roaring punchline every now and again ensured the background noise was at that perfect pitch that two people need for a serious discussion in a casual place. I got there dead-on time, Ian was already there. We shared a long-overdue and welcome embrace and then settled into cavernous well stuffed chairs at a small round table; like Arthur and Merlin in our own world straight away.

Our quest for the night was straightforward: discuss the Giant’s Echo manuscript. Or, book 2 as I usually reference it. It’s been over a year since The Hummingbird’s Tear came out and it’s time that I got moving on that damn sequel. Ian had recently finished reading the draft of the Giant’s  manuscript (emphasis on the draft being rough, like railway sleepers against your cheek rough). I knew we were going to ‘talk about it’ and I admit I was apprehensive to hear his feedback (early days author-ego issues).

We launched immediately into what had worked really well in book 2 – character development, dialogue, the development of the overall plot and scene setting for the major events of the book. It was a relief to hear that the sections I had worked particularity hard on to really bring them to life and world build around them had come across strongly on the page for the reader. World building was the perfect segue into what areas needed improving. Some scenes needed enrichment, some plot devices weren’t complete, some characters – the new ones mainly – needed a bit more ‘do’ and less ‘tell’ from the reader perspective.

The crux of a lot of our conversation was that the story was there, all the events and action was spot on, but I needed to use the craft-skills to bring it alive for the reader and make it easier to read. Easier to read – a conversation I have had with Ian before on Hummingbird’s Tear.

We had finished our meal and were sitting back when we got round to the pesky topic of what I can only call ‘the peculiar way I write’.  Most people are taught their primary language and those lessons are made up of grammar and literature. Literature lessons are reading books, poetry, plays and so on, and understanding all the devices used and how they are artfully constructed and the skills in the prose to convey what the author intended. Got it? Easy stuff. Grammar lessons on the other hand, are exactly that. Nouns, adjectives, metaphor, simile, double negative, punctuation, possessive verbs, tenses (there are 16 in English by the way), indefinite this, intransitive that, conjunctions. Complex stuff on its own yes? Now bear in mind, I was an absolutely outstanding English student, it’s my first language and I speak correctly and I logically know how to construct correct sentences. So the question from Ian was, why, when I’m writing, are my sentences put together in such a peculiar way and my word bundles strangely grouped?

Because of the other languages I speak. Am I English? Yes. But I also grew up speaking Afrikaans. And Zulu. And for 6 years at school I studied French. So when I am ‘in the zone’ and I’m beating at the keys as fast as I can to keep up with the idea tsunami coming from my brain, sometimes I don’t even realise I’m switching into a different way of writing because of what I’m writing.

What do I man by this? Let me set the scene. People say French is the language of love, the old cliché that sweet nothings sound sweeter when whispered in the words associated with the city of love?  Well, let me tell you, when you are having an argument with someone, and you really want them to know how pissed off you are, how angry you feel, there is nothing like yelling guttural aggressive Afrikaans slurs at the top of your voice when you are right in someone’s face. That person knows in no uncertain terms things are going to get physical any minutes (same thing with some words in French, but that’s a different type of physical). Throw in Zulu, which is – for me – the most amazing of all four because of the variety of sounds it uses. Take the word qhuqha which means shiver, the only English sound in that word you or I know is a. ‘ooo’ and an ‘uh’, the consonants are clicks you make using the tongue pulled down sharply off the roof of the mouth. Zulu also isn’t naturally a written language it’s an oral one so the syntaxing, yeah, good luck with that.

So that was four languages, speaking and living them day to day – English as a first language, Afrikaans exams and with friends, Zulu with friends, exams and at home, French with some friends, exams; all four requiring talking, writing, reading, memorizing, exams, fluency takes enormous effort and, concentration.

Words and sentences structure, what can I say except I write like I think, and I don’t always think in English. Hell, I don’t even always dream in English.

I had a bad test day once, English, Afrikaans and French tests all in one day – and I remember in each one this overwhelming sinking sensation as I sat in the quiet classroom, that goddamn clock on the wall ticking away the test time, trying and forgetting which language I was sitting and trying to sort out the words in my head. I remember once sentence in particular about a plate that was blue, and I couldn’t figure out how to spell such an easy word, I had language blindness. Blou. Blue. Bleu – goddamn it.

4 language punctuation rules? The comma? A rule too far I’m afraid.

Interesting – my first few drafts of Hummingbird are littered with words in Afrikaans and Zulu, Giant’s Echo draft has more Afrikaans sentence structuring, but more French word mistakes.

So there you have it. To everyone who reads anything I write – this blog will have the same issues as my books – sorry. As I said, I write as I think, and it is an enormous effort (and I suspect a thankless and ultimately unnecessary one) to correct every little idiosyncrasy to my writing. I suppose it’s the personality of my writing, and this explains it – picture me sitting down to write at my keyboard, and in my brain a man with a striped vest and hat steps up behind my eyes and yells at me to ‘pick a language, any language’ before putting his hand on a board and pulling it to set it spinning. Which language will the clacker stop on, it’s anyone’s guess, even I never know!

A reader asked about Barclan

Over the course of this week a twitter follower and fan of The Hummingbird’s Tear sent me some interview questions.  I’ve answered them here.

What pins would your characters have?

Firstly, I love pinterest, great opening question.  Let’s go with Orren. I think he would have a ‘places of interest board’, with maps pinned, particularly of the areas where the legends say the gems where hidden. He’d also have imagery of some of the areas of the kingdom he hasn’t visited particularly often.  I can picture him sitting alone in the council chambers late at night, a single candle guttering in an ornate pewter candlestick casting erratic shadows behind him. He be quiet, thinking of the images of all those places he feels duty bound to visit, to protect; that he knows he’s neglected because all his energy is thrown into finding a way to thwart the prophecy.  He’d look over the images again and again, the visuals began as a mantra, as he memorized the routes between towns and pathways through the mountains. Now, the comfort from the mental planning is his obsession, and he can’t stop looking at the images that don’t bring him that solace like they once did

Are any other characters inspired by people you know?

Yes. Cotta is based one of my best friends who has read ever short story and random novel idea that I have had for the last 15 years, and who read ever iteration of Hummingbird from the very first few chapters through to the Calumet published edition. She has literally read every single thing I have ever written, gives me the best feedback and is my reliable unending support.  And I wanted to honor that by putting her into my book and making my strongest female character a nod to her. I’ve based Cotta’s psychical appearance on her, and more importantly she’s a very strong female character who goes toe to toe with the strong male characters. While I was writing I was very aware the character gender balance was skew, but what I lack in numbers I make up for in the depth of character. With Cotta, Hummingbird was her introduction. In Giant’ Echo there are two distinct stories being told, one is Orren and the quest he is on, the other is Cotta and Brennan and their efforts to save the kingdom from Kraner. Cotta she moves from ‘best supporting actress’ in Hummingbird to lead character in the struggles in Kraner.

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If you did a cosplay for your characters who would you choose?

Love this. As a fan of cosplay and just about every opportunity for a themed fancy dress, I’d jump at the chance to dress up as a gender swap with Bode from the end of the book, when he is decked out in the finery of a Knight. I picture a mix of shining new armor with old rusty chain mail peeking through at the throat and a broadsword across my back.

What music do you listen to when you write?

Depends on my mood and how much I need to concentrate. When a new idea seizes me and I almost throw myself onto my keyboard, I usually go familiar favorites where the words are in some way associated with what I’m writing such as Sting’s ‘why should I cry for you’ is a great one for writing scenes where characters are starting a journey, the words are spot on. When I’m writing dialogue I switch to orchestral or classical. A lot of the Hummingbird dialogue was finessed to  Gareth Stevenson’s album Flying, and I’ve had some classical Beethoven on repeat for a desert scene in book 2 – The Giant’s Echo – that I just finished writing and which is currently at the edit stage. I’ve started the third book in the series, and at the moment I’m listening to a lot of Jose Gonzalez’s Veneer album.

Is there music you associate with each character?

Not really, more scenes than characters. In Hummingbird, the key scene with Calem and Isaac on the raft under the castle in Kraner was written to a playlist that I’ve heard played during kundalini yoga sessions. That scene for me was about the inherent fear we all have when we’re pressed to acknowledge the truth of our own character, when we fundamentally answer to ourselves, ‘who am I?’ And I do a lot of yoga and that is something that you are encouraged to consider in your practice, so for me it was all one long experience wrapped together. The music, the yoga, the writing, the exploration. I think  in that scene I was really asking myself who I was, that scene is what helped me feel like a writer, so it really stands out for me.

If each of the main characters had one of their traits enhanced what would you make it and what would they do?

I would let Brennan’s inner conman out; that guy would make a killing on a hedge-fund!

Is the land which you create based on places you have been to or seen?

I’ve never thought much about it actually. When I started writing, all I could imagine was Penrose and gradually as the story grew so did the Kingdom of Barclan. By the time I was half way through the Hummingbird I knew I had to put the keyboard away and draw out the map and place the other kingdoms and start mapping the features of the land. I thought more about what sort of features would make for interesting challenges for the journey and the story telling; what did a scene need to add majesty and grandeur, what sort of a place do I need to describe I want to invoke fear and a sense of poverty, that sort of thing.

 

Making Human Characters

I had a wonderful experience today. I met new family that until a month ago, I never knew I had—if it sounds like something out of a reality TV show about long lost family reuniting, you’re not wrong.  The meeting had been planned a few weeks ago and I never gave it too much thought until yesterday, when it dawned on me that it would be a slightly awkward experience because in effect, a group of strangers—adults and children—were going to meet up, shake hands, and be family.  And it was awkward, for about a minute, because that’s all the time it takes to realize how excited everyone is at the prospect of new cousins, and when you have that excitement in common, how can it go wrong. As much as I was absorbed in these new people—what do you do, where did you grow up, what sport do you watch, are you a Mac or PC kind of person—there was a little bit of me observing myself, storing away my reactions for analysis later. That’s the writer in me, always watching myself and how I’m going through life experiencing things, so I can use that in my book.

My stories deal strongly with family relationships—those we are born with and those we develop as family grows. In The Hummingbird’s Tear, my fantasy novel, Brennan and Calem are the focal point in my books but I don’t waste any time in using the plot device of brothers growing apart to draw attention to how other more fulfilling, or damaging relationships in my characters lives and how they own their interactions and feelings and how those in turn dictate and shape their actions. And today for me was almost an out-of-body study on how people interact so that I could think about that and use it to enrich my stories and my characters.  So, how is my event going to make it onto the page?

1—if it works, build in a little expectation before the scene where characters meet. I have druids and sorcerers in my story, but I won’t write about them pacing practicing spells to pass the time or filling an hour before an important personal event using magic to make flowers bloom – not because that isn’t vivid, but because the reader can’t related.  You can add a huge amount of depth to a character without stating anything directly about that person. For example if you want to show some anxiety, one of your characters could be doing their hair before the meeting. Describe how they do their hair, look over it, see a slight imperfection, then do it again, and maybe drop the brush because their hands are a bit sweaty. Your character wants to look as good as they can, and they’re fussy and stalling, as the reader you get a sense that they’re nervous, and the actions are ones we’ve all done ourselves so we can relate to it.

2—make dialogue natural. We’ve all met someone for the first time, we’ve all wondered for a micro-second is our handshake to limp or firm, is it one kiss on the cheek or two.  That is exactly what I’ve done in my books, but more subtly. If one of the characters is a little unsure, instead of the usual limp handshake, you can be a bit creative by making them try to pull their hand away too soon and accidentally tug at the other person who wasn’t ready to let go. Add an awkward silence after that, and as a reader, you can practically taste the sweat that would be on the nervous characters brow.

3—use what is around the characters to build the scene – you can say a huge amount about a character without mentioning them. In Hummingbird there’s a scene where a woman goes into labour on the streets. No one rushes up to help, in fact, people look away on purpose and pretend not to notice. The woman in labour doesn’t expect anything less. She’s dressed differently, and doesn’t speak their language, and the people of the town are afraid more for themselves if they help than for this poor woman crying out in pain on a cobble street. That tells the reader about attitudes, a hint at cultures, and a lot about the dynamics of the people in the city that the scene is set in. It then makes the efforts of Brennan and Calem, who do help her, that much more heroic and important to the story.

Everything you do, everything you think, will make your characters and your stories richer, it’s about letting the reader come to know your characters without describing them though. Much like meeting new people, they don’t come up to you and tell them about yourselves, they laugh at jokes, or they join in at certain points or go quiet at others. It’s fascinating how people behave, and the best character in a book is one we want to know. Reading about them feels like we’re getting to know a person who’s come into our lives, shaken our hand, and asked us to go on an adventure with them.

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The Oil smudge Soul

I have a lot of opportunity to indulge in one of my passions which is spending time at the National Gallery in London.  When I was a child in South Africa – before I ever visited London, I would read as much as I could about artists and the Masters and kept postcard reprints of some of the most famous paintings, always stunned by how beautiful they are.  I’ve been to many galleries, museums, collections and exhibitions in many places around the world but the National is my favourite. I always go by tube, get off at Leicester Square Station, walk down the road and come at it through the main entrance off Trafalgar.  I never walk straight in – sunshine, rain, wind, snow – I always take a second to look across at Nelson standing tall and proud above us all, peer at the tourists seeing it all for the first time and take a deep breath preparing myself, steadying my nerves and tempering my excitement for how I know I’m going to feel once I’m in those quiet halls.

As I start walking up those stone steps I tell myself which hall I’m going to head for. It’s always the same conversation with myself, do I want to see the Leonardo again, or the Monet, can I remember the last time I saw the Holbein – is it the bottom left or right? It doesn’t matter what I think I want to see, by the time I’m in the first hall my plans have scattered like confetti in hundred hurricanes and I’m just feeling what I’m seeing. For a writer, there are no words for me when I’m there and usually it is a welcome decompression. The visit last week though was different. I’ve had a lot going on lately and I’m overwhelmed, tired, having a hard time keeping focused and my mind keeps derailing but I feel like I have to keep going and I can’t complain because I’ve brought it on myself. As I walked up those steps, for the first time my footfalls were heavy and my head was down.  But, creature of habit, again I had a plan, I wanted to go again to the Leonardo as I always do and then find the Turner – it just felt like that kind of day.

And then I saw the old man.

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The angle doesn’t do it justice but I didn’t want to move in front of the people who were looking at it with their headphones on doing the audio tour of the gallery. In fact, I didn’t want to take a step closer to anyone just to get a better picture. I didn’t want to be near anyone, I just wanted to be alone with the old man. You can’t see the expression well, but trust me when I say after 505 years, he is as alive today as he was the day it was painted. I felt like this was painted for me. It spoke to me like no painting ever has before. I stood still and the murmurous mutterings and feet shuffling around me melted into mist.  Staring at the Pope on his modest seat I felt the ghost of Raphael behind me telling me that it’s alright to feel tired, that weariness comes to everyone and is not reserved just for the old.  I imagined the painter behind me, with bitten fingernails and hair falling in his eyes, as weary in his pursuit of perfection as I was at that moment. Weary. I couldn’t get past that word, the feeling of it. Everything about the painting overwhelmed me and I had to sit down. I found the old man’s eyes and my mind raced to my old dad and then skipped to how my eyes are like my dad’s, and again, weary. I thought of everything I have to do, and for a second I thought instead of the lace in his hand the old man has a to-do list in his grasp. I had to drop my head at the point and decided to walk away.

Sometimes I see something in the gallery and it hurts too much to keep seeing it 

I felt bereft as I turned around which in itself was a powerful emotion to experience just from the simple act of looking away.  I wandered into the other halls and enjoyed the other paintings, exquisite in their beauty but none speaking to me and I felt the energy leaving my body like air leaking out of a tyre. I kept telling myself ‘go find the Leonardo, you’ll feel better’. But I got lost. For the first time ever, in more that 20 or so visits, I got lost. And then, as always happens, eventually I wandered my way in Hall 37, and had to turn around and rush for an exit.

There is nothing particular about Hall 37, except that it has a lot of art on the walls. And maybe it is the way that art I stop to expose myself to seems to strip me of every defence I have, because by the time I reach that hall, I’m raw, I’m out of breath, I’m collapsing under what I’m seeing and I can’t tell one painting from the other. The soft footfalls are building like a slow march across a wooden bridge and my ears are starting to itch from the inside.  The pressure gets to me – what I’m seeing is too much for weary mortal eyes. The genius of the painters is ageless and if ever there was something that could make me believe in the Divine, it’s not the images themselves but of how strongly I feel connected to the painters when I see their work.

I rushed out of Hall 37 and snaked my way around until I saw the old man again, the Pope. I stopped and looked at him again, and thought maybe I could give him some of my weariness. He’s locked in that painting, the canvas will never truly dry and never be complete, maybe it’s the true gift of Raphael – not just something so beautiful that it has the power to quiet the mind and banish the inner narrative. Perhaps what Raphael really gave us, gave me, is something more mystical, an object that can absorb a little of how I feel – maybe the Pope is telling me to bring him my heavy head and my heavy heart, to lay my weary soul on his lap so he can take my weariness from me for a while so I can walk again among the beauty of man, leave a little of myself in each of them, and make a space for the words to come back to me again.

Making a Writer out of a writer

I’ve always defined myself in roughly this order – this awful order that until I wrote it down, never saw it for what it was.

Family
Work
Writing

That’s the wrong order. How do I move #3 to #2 when I spend all my time with #2 and whatever I have left for #1.

For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a writer (note it’s at the bottom of my list at the start), and I would go so far as to say I needed to be doing it to be whole; but probably like the majority with the same dream I didn’t actively pursue it and instead ended up with a career.  For me, it was the glamours (kidding) world of ICT and Programme & Project Management that beckoned and I enjoyed it. I did interesting work, worked with interesting people and I would say that I was successful at it. And I did write a huge amount in my job; I wrote reviews, papers, policies, plans, business cases, reports, appraisals – I was still writing and so I got something from that, but it wasn’t like writing fantasy. I could tell myself all day long that part of enjoying my job was because I was writing, but that’s like saying drinking paint is as refreshing as water. It’s a lie and not giving yourself what you need will eventually harm you.  And I defined myself by my career, I thought I should feel successful because I had a good job and everyone wants to be successful. Don’t they? But I wanted to be a Writer. Even after the contract and The Hummingbird’s Tear was published, I still never thought of myself as a Writer. When I would meet people and they asked what I do I wanted to say, I’m a writer, but I never did, I would just answer ‘I work at a desk’. And it started to really upset me that I couldn’t’ change that mindset even when I had achieved the dream. I asked myself, if I am now a writer, but don’t feel like a writer, and can’t even tell people I’m a writer, well what the hell is that about.

I kept working. Every morning I put on my ‘serious’ clothes and went to work. Me and hundred of thousand of other people on the London underground tube network. Sitting if we’re lucky, standing more often than not – shivering in winter, sweating and stinking in summer. Each day fervently checking the update boards hoping that nothing happened to our tube line and that today the journey will be uneventful. I used to get very irritated when I saw boards that would say there were no reported delays and the tube was running a good service. No, to me, that is a normal and expected service, I pay an extortionate amount to ride in discomfort to work and the trains running without delay is what I expect; trains running without delay shouldn’t be so out of the ordinary that it’s classed as good.  Every day that ‘good service’ sign made me frown and every day that frown chipped away at the eternal optimism that I make a priority to protect.

As I journeyed to work, I went out of my way to forget I was going to work.

My usual trick was music (loud), eyes (closed), head (down), and imagination at max. I would listen to the same song on repeat every day – the longest streak was for about three years – because I didn’t want to listen, I wanted to zone out. And familiarity is how I do that. And like years of meditation, wow, it works. The Hummingbird’s Tear was written in my mind as I avoided the reality of going to work, year after year, after year. The scene on the raft in the lake – I remember the winter I wrote that, I remember the train breaking down and being stuck on a platform at Canning Town, the wind so cold I couldn’t feel my face, fantasising about hot coffee warm hands and being able to conjure fire instead of feeling ice in my veins.

And then I got it in my head that – well I don’t really know – but suddenly the good job and the hobby of writing and the time pressures of working very long hours (and some weekends), and being a wife and mother, and being a governor, and and and everything else – there was less and less time to be a writer. And really, that’s what I want in life, that’s my passion, that’s what I love doing. I remember the trip to work where I thought to myself, what the fuck am I doing on this train working so hard for someone else, with less and less time to write.

So I put out some feelers, did a list of pros and cons, weighed my risk – always be sensible – and worked out that with a little but of guts, a little bit of harder work at the start and a lot of conviction – I could change my life. And I quit my job and set out to work in a different way that gives me more control and more me than I’ve ever been before.

And it has given me more control. Control over my time, control over my days, control over my perceptions of myself and how that is influenced by the work I do and the people and place I work with. It’s also given me stress, anxiety and nightmares, but I was prepared for that, and actually, some of the nightmares are not bad ideas for later in the books.  So, my aim is to get that list of three in the right order, just by shifting two of them around.  I’m the type of person who makes big moves, big decisions, and strikes out. Hence the ‘I quit my job’. Because instead of moving #2 and #3, just get rid of Work.

And for me, it has worked although not as I suspected. I didn’t suddenly get 5 days a week to write, I mean, I still have to work and make folding money to pay bills. No, the surprise for me was the fact that not having to zone out to go into that place where the ideas and the words live – that’s been the healthiest thing. Until now I didn’t know that what I was doing was going into my Barclan world to hide away and coming away from it with the stories lingering so I could write them down and stay in that world. Now when I go into it, it’s with so much less weight on me, it’s not an escape that I need and want, it’s a place I can bring closer to my ‘everyday all the time’ because I don’t have to be in work more for 10 hours a day I can be in writer mode.

I wouldn’t advocate anyone doing anything like I did, don’t quit your job. But I did two months ago, and I’m now waiting for the contract for Giant’s Echo to reach me, and Barclan is closer and more real than ever, and I don’t need a travel card to get there. For me, making that chance that I thought was just about more hours was actually about changing my mindset and putting myself first as a Writer and defining myself by my passion, not my day job and I feel so content now.