Seven things about opening sentences

Opening sentences to stories, I can just re-write, re-write and re-write the goddamn things until I go mad. And while I do, I can’t help imagining publishers flicking their eyes over my painfully wrought-out first sentence, it not immediately grabbing them for whatever reason, and then dropping the whole manuscript, written with blood, sweat and tears, onto the reject pile. And the thousands of other sentences after that first sentence remaining unread. Sigh. Opening sentences, they are such goddamn important things.

It’s a little like the plight of the pop song in today’s world. On Spotify, the first 30 seconds are critical. Payment doesn’t kick in until after that. Some call this the shit’n’click surfing habit: deciding something is shit within the first few seconds and clicking on to the next song … and the next… and the next…

Opening sentences are hard to write because so much is expected from them. Here are my seven things an opening sentence has to try to do.

  1. The first sentence has to indicate what’s to come in the story. That is, set up all kinds of expectations and raise questions in the reader’s mind, compelling them to want to reader on. What’s this all about? I think I’ll sit down and read on to find out.
  2. The first sentence should suggest the genre of the book.
  3. As it’s written in the first person, the first sentence ought to evoke the character of the protagonist (particularly if the story is entirely written from that point of view).
  4. It should suggest setting.
  5. It should suggest themes. Growing up, death, life, survival against all odds… Or in the case of Jane Austen, romance, then more romance, then yet more romance… (She really writes about so much more.)
  6. And more than anything else, an opening sentence should be captivating enough to grab your attention.

These are just off the top of my head, based on stuff I’ve read in the past. I’m sure there are plenty of other things.

Onto to something nicer. Ten opening sentences I like. I’ll let you decide if they’re doing any or all of the things I’ve listed above…

  1. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (Catcher in the Rye, JD Sallinger.)
  2. Then there was the bad weather. (Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway.)
  3. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984, George Orwell.)
  4. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.)
  5. When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. (The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.)
  6. Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. (Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler.)
  7. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis.)
  8. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. (The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley.)
  9. Today I woke from a thousand-year-old dream and found I was still a boy of 12 going on 13. (Do e-Mice Dream of Electric Running Wheels? This isn’t really one. I just made it up right this second. Sorry! But I kind of like it. Maybe I’ll write the rest of it one day.)
  10. Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville. The most famous opening line of all. Three words.)

As always, I want to leave you with some photos. I had also hoped to share with you my cut-up reworking of Queens’ Bohemian Rhapsody, but I’m still working on that. Perhaps I’ll share that with you some other time. Meanwhile, I have seven shots I took of local art while out and about in my local neighbourhood.

What Is Social Work Fiction?

Social Work Fiction

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on how my past social work experiences have had an influence on my story writing and I’ve begun to use the term ‘social work fiction’. I quite like it, enough to even include it at the top of my website.

It’s hardly an established genre, obviously nothing like crime fiction, science fiction or literary fiction, but a quick scout around the internet does reveal that the phrase is being used. Well, it’s being used a tiny bit. At any rate, it’s working for me. I think it has a nice easy flow to it. Social work fiction. It almost sounds like an established genre.

So what kind of writing might one expect when referring to something as social work fiction? What fictional ideas or images does the term summon up for potential readers?

A few rather overused social worker images spring to mind. Such as the well-meaning ‘do-gooder’ (I hate that expression, by the way, how did there come to be a derogatory term for people who do good?). She is a woman, probably blonde, young and attractive, and she works at a downtown (read New York) charity of some kind, and she ultimately needs rescuing by a worldly-wise, gritty man. I seem to recall a few 70s films with romantic subplots like this. Probably all starring Clint Eastwood.

And then there’s the other kind of social worker image found in fiction, probably even more common. An older, middle-class woman in a dowdy outfit (perhaps a twin-set outfit, pearls and glasses). She’s a ‘busy body’ – well-meaning (again) but misguided. And she raps on the door of a troubled family’s home only to worsen their plight by attempting to remove the children and place them into the black hole of government foster care.

And I can think of a third kind. A woman again (well, it is a female dominated profession) and she sits silently in a windowless room, watching while two policemen interview a wayward child or teenager.

Cobra Bubbles: not the regular-looking social worker. (C) Walt Disney

Lilo with Cobra Bubbles (right). I think you’ll agree, he’s not the regular-looking social worker.

Beyond the cliches, there are also some quite oddball representations. Lilo and Stitch is one film that immediately jumps to mind. The social worker is a man for starters (hooray for me), he’s ex-CIA and he goes under the name Cobra Bubbles. But of course, he still wants to place Lilo into foster care. At least he’s a little different to look at.

A social work fiction story with a marvelous difference is the horror flick from 1971, The Baby. This film is bizarre. A social worker investigates the ‘Wadsworth family’ – a mother, two daughters, and an adult son who behaves like a baby. Literally like a baby. ‘Trapped by three women with no way out,’ goes the pitch. The trailer is well worth checking out. It’s on IMDB here.

A social work home visit to the Wadsworths.

A social worker ‘homevisits’ the Wadsworths.

Happily, recently I’ve witnessed more respectful and inventive portrayals of social worker characters in fiction: competent care workers conducting supportive interventions to create positive change and secure social justice for their clients. But then of course, as drama demands, there’s an upheaval of some kind – a gruesome murder, perhaps – which upturns things and gets the story rolling.

While mostly documentaries, the blog site A Small Good Thing provides an interesting list of 23 powerful films ‘that shed light on social work, social workers, and the important themes and issues that social workers devote themselves to every day’.

Putting all of this to one side, for me, use of the term social work fiction is a personal thing. It’s a way for me to describe what I am writing and something I can fit alongside the more recognisable genre I might be writing in. For example, young adult fantasy. Social work fiction, for me, is a mindset. It’s a part of my writing voice.

So ultimately, that’s what I mean by social work fiction. It’s the lens through which I’m looking at the world I’m creating. For me, social work fiction stories are not just stories that happen to include a social worker in some way.

My play-around image for Christopher Reuben and the Curious World beneath His Garden

Some play around imagery for Christopher Reuben and the Curious World beneath His Garden.

For example, my latest completed draft novel, Christopher Reuben and the Curious World beneath His Garden, is about a 14-year-old boy with a strange new illness who escapes into an extraordinary world beneath his garden – a world that is under attack by a deadly weed, just as his own body is under attack by a deadly virus. Besides fantasy stories such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (Gaiman’s take on Kipling’s The Jungle Book), Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz, to write the story I drew on the humbling experiences working as a social worker in HIV/AIDS and now cancer.

My traditionally-published book.

My traditionally-published sci-fi about a dangerous and highly addictive virtual video game.

In my first, traditionally published book, EleMental, I explore addiction. Set in 2050, a group of kids play a virtual game deliberately designed to be highly addictive (it’s meant for asteroid miners, to prevent them from wanting to go on leave back to Earth). As they play the deadly game, their perceptions of when they are in a game and when they are in the real world because hopelessly blurred until they find themselves trapped in the game world. While writing the story, I draw on my time working with those recovering from alcohol and drug addictions. It’s quite a complex book for a young adult novel.

The latest project I’m still busily working on does happen to feature a social worker. He is the main character, and it’s a novel for adults for a change. Set in the eighties, it’s about a group of social workers (and one in particular) struggling to be effective within the turmoil of a busy infectious diseases hospital that’s caught in the grip of the AIDS epidemic.

My social work identity makes up an important part of my writing voice, no matter what kind of story I end up writing. Sci-fi, fantasy, reality… It’s not deliberate, it’s just a part of me, as your experiences are an important part of you.

***

In recent times I have come to enjoy finishing my posts with some recent photos.

A palm tree that once lived near me…

A palm tree down the street is moving out. Off to a cafe on the other side of town.

A palm tree off to a new residence – outside a cafe on the other side of town.

An orchid in my back garden is still going strong. It was a gift to my wife 15 years or more ago…

A cool orchid in my back garden. 15 years old?

I water it when I think to. It does the rest.

Lastly, two pics of Robert De Niro’s T-shirt from the fabulous New York, New York film.

Robert De Niro's shirt.

Robert De Niro’s T-shirt. (From a Martin Scorsese exhibition I went to recently.)

Here it is, in the film…

Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro. Such a great shot.

Robert De Niro’s T-shirt in context. (With Liza Minnelli.)

So long for now. 🙂

Novels as fireworks – Structuring my story

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It’s always nice to spruce up a blog post with some pictures. Unlike novels, where you have plenty of space for ‘showing’ through words. So above is a shot I took on New Year’s Eve in Melbourne, Australia. A picture of fireworks may not have a lot to do with the topic of story structuring, but read on — I do have a go, as you’ll see — five pics, no less, interpreted as novel structures. And, what-hey, it’s the new year. Fireworks time! Happy New Year.

I’ve been busy structuring a plot outline. That’s a new approach to writing a novel for me. For my first three — EleMental, MonuMental and Beneath the Surface — I began with an idea, some notions around that idea, and then wrote away, seeing where the idea would take me. Roughly 90,000 words later, I’d stop, revise, edit and restructure until I felt I had a completed story in novel form.

This time around, I’m attempting beforehand to lay out as much of the plot as I can, scene by scene, from the novel’s start to its climactic finish and resolution. There’s a risk in this, I know. This kind of intense pre-planning could lead to a predictability. Something I most certainly want to avoid.

When writing ‘organically’ (or to put it more technically, making it up as I go), I’ve less idea where the story is heading. While I may have to cut a fair few things later, it’s a great way to keep the plot twisting and turning in the most unexpected ways.

On the upside, laying the plot out in detail before I begin to write should give me strong, clean lines in the plot. There’s likely to be less risk of confusing the reader. Also, I feel I’ll be able to concentrate on character development. That’s my big hope. In the past, I have striven for balance of plot and character. This time, I want to lay the plot’s tracks down, and then really push the character development as I write. Here’s hoping it works out that way.

I’m keen to get the first draft completed by the end of February. That’s two months of writing. The plot structuring took me a lot longer than I expected — a few weeks instead of a few days. So, given that, heaven knows if I can meet this new goal.

I kicked off this post with a pic of some fireworks, and, for a bit of fun, I’ll close with a few more. (All pics taken with my humble phone camera on New Year’s Eve, 2015.)

So here we go, meeting my promise: five novel plot structures as fireworks (‘novels as fireworks’, I like that notion)…
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Above: a highly colourful, scattergun approach to laying down a story, with some pretty unexpected stuff happening towards the end…

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Above: a single point of view, character-driven story, underpinned with an emphasis on an interesting setting.

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Above: a collection of connected short stories woven into one overall plot through a theme of reaching out for unknown things: other worlds, other times, other people. (Phew.)

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Above: an explosive romance with multiple points of view —  two powerful characters inevitably drawn together, but to what end?

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Above: now this is the kind of story I strive for. A strong theme at its heart, a veritable shower of exciting situations, and some extra-big challenges towards the end (in this case, four) — will they survive!

How we write

York

York

I’m currently in York (‘Old York’), having just come from Stratford-upon-Avon, and I’m working my way up to the Scottish Highlands where I will participate in one last writing event — a writers’ retreat just outside of Inverness.

Where I met up with the 'London Literary Cafe'.

Where I met up with the ‘London Literary Cafe’.

I’ve been pondering on the differences and similarities in how we all write as I’ve travelled about. Some of us, like me, try to write everyday, lest our rhythm and energy slip. Many, like me again, like to write to music — whether this is to simply cut off distractions from the world or perhaps even draw on the mood of the music as you try to effectively turn ideas into written words.

As I attend groups and retreats (only one of the latter, so far, but another coming), I am struck by how many of us still write from pen to paper, transcribing to computer at a later date. This is something I rarely do. For me, writing from pen to paper just adds hard labour to the task. I avoid it where I can. I much prefer to use all of the devices available to me to aid my writing. For me, this is a part of the fun. I practically surround myself with devices. But at the writers’ retreat in Shropshire I was especially aware that those with a laptop were in a distinct minority. Interestingly, London was different, with many writing with the aid of bot laptops and iPads.

Where I met up with 'Write Together', London.

Where I met up with ‘Write Together’, London.

I often think about rhythm in my writing, which for me is an intuitive thing, the sense of my words and sentences flowing together in a way that supports the images I am trying to convey. I think this is the same for most writers, but one writer I met talked to me about the melody in his writing, and how this was different to the rhythm of his words. Something I’ll need to give some more thought to.

The same goes for the writing spaces we choose. I write wherever I can (I’m writing this sitting up in bed). For others it must be a desk. And perhaps even one specific desk. Many writers also love a good view before them. Of course I like a terrific view as much as anybody, but for writing? I would find it distracting. I would just want to gaze into it. But we’re all different.

Dunstable Downs. Close to where I grew up in the UK.

An incredible view! Dunstable Downs, close to where I grew up in the UK.

I’ll leave you now with a few more travel snaps, and let you know more about the final writers’ retreat soon.

In Shakespeare’s old house, in Stratford-upon-Avon, you can buy the complete set of Shakespearean Star Wars books. Here’s two…

The Phantom of Menace

The Phantom of Menace

There's a complete set of Shakespeare Star Wars books.

The Clone Army Attacketh.

And a Dr Who…

Shakespeare Dr Who.

Dr Who? That is the question.

A literary construction site in Stratford-upon-Avon.

A literary construction site.

And finally, ending a serious note, the house where Shakespeare grew up…

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At a writers’ retreat in Shropshire

long shot of Hurst

My post about the writers’ retreat in Shropshire has had to wait until I finally got over a nasty chest infection (well, almost over) — a hearty thanks to the UK’s National Health Service for their support in this.

So what, in a single sentence, did I get out of my near-week long retreat in a remote part of Shropshire? Easy. Two answers. I spent a week rebooting the writer in me (something I’ve come to realise I needed). And I made a whole host of brand new writer friends.

Pat

Sharing our work

There were sixteen of us — emerging writers — staying in the Georgian Manor pictured above. Plus, the two established authors, Mavis Cheek and Stephen May, who looked after our writerly interests for the week. Then of course there was also the onsite staff, including a poet laureate who helped with lunch meals in the day. Some like me brought their works in progress, others were there to kickstart new projects. There was so much diverse and energetic writing talent in one place, it was wonderful to be a part of it — hearing first hand about each other’s projects, and listening in as they shared their work. 

A typical day for me began with getting in some quick writing (with the aid of a plunger of coffee) before grabbing a small breakfast and gathering in the main tutorial room. In these morning sessions, all of us fresh and ready for the day, we would look closely at any number of aspects of writing, from enriching dialogue, to the eight-point structure, creating good place and setting, and research. While I was already familiar with many of these topics — as were others too — they came very candidly from the personal perspectives of the two established authors and so felt new and engaging.

garden group

Spending some time in the afternoon sun.

The afternoons were given over to our own writing time, informal chats about writing, walks about the grounds and on-on-one sessions.

In the evenings we had the cooking groups. This was my only stress of the week. Recipes were there to help us, and staff were on hand where possible. Yet it was still an ordeal given the number of us and the variety of dietary preferences. In the end, I was proud of the chocolate pudding I somehow created (I kept the recipe but I’m not sure I could ever manage it a second time), but I felt for my fellow writers Pat and Anne who took on most of the lasagne cooking tasks. Imagine making vegetarian lasagne for that many people — plus two smaller ones for other dietary requirements. I helped them where I could.

The evenings after dinner were devoted to presenting written works. We heard from the author tutors, a guest writer  Selma Dabbagh (who was very generous with sharing her personal writing experiences) and, of course, ourselves. 

Readings on the last night (the guitar came later)

Readings on the last night (the guitar came later, as did much jolly abandon)

Happily, much of the feedback for my draft of Beneath the Surface was of a fine tuning nature — or ‘grace notes’, as Mavis Cheek liked to call them. Significantly, however, I was compelled to revisit my opening lines. The opening lines of a novel are critical. No matter how exciting the rest of your story may be, if you have not engaged the reader’s interest from the start, they will not stick around to marvel at those gems waiting later in your book. It was good feedback which I have gladly taken.

So, enough chat, onto some more pictures….

First up, a shelfie. This is a shelf from one of the bookcases I noticed when I first wrote about this retreat some months ago (back in Australia). It now has a new home next to the author tutors’ rooms (and mine – clearly I’d been the first to book in).

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Here’s John Osborne’s (playwright and former owner of the estate) favourite view. I’m standing just beyond the back of the house…

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I had the room directly above me in this photo…

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A walkabout, one afternoon, as I was reflecting on exciting writing ideas, perhaps…

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Finally, I leave you with a short piece I wrote during one of the morning sessions. It’s about my visit back to the old house where I grew up. I’ve not reworked it since the session, besides fixing a typo.

The wide avenue of my memory

Last week I visited my childhood home for the first time in over 40 years. The road up was bendy and thin. Not the wide avenue of my memory.

The first thing I noticed was the red sold sign attached to the hedging. So the people here don’t want to be here anymore? I thought. What a silly thought. What did it matter?

The house, two-storey, semi-detached, leaned to one side and seemed the worst kept in the street. Its sad eyes looked out and passed me.

It was as if I was visiting something I’d once read about in a book.

I peered up at the upper bedroom window, knowing that was where I and my two brothers once slept.

How did a family of seven live in this place for so many years?

I wasn’t going to, but I tried the door knocker. A dog barked. No one was home. But I remembered the sound of the door knocker well. Deep, warm and woody. Want a funny, unexpected thing to remember.

When I walked on to top of the hill, the way I used to go to school as a child, I turned around and looked down. I saw a view I did not recall. I did not know was there. I saw the town stretch away across the valley. I saw where it ended, and there were open fields rising into hills. I saw jets in the distance, landing and taking off.

Happy Xmas!

Wishing you a big, happy Christmas and an excellent 2013.

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Okay, okay, this picture is rather mean-looking for Christmas. But I still love it.

His name is Gilbert and he’s a dragonbot. This is from my new book, MonuMental, and is the artist’s first go at a cover. It’s wonderful to see ideas coming to life in other ways!

Best wishes, everyone.

 

Ideas and story making at Fitzroy Community School

The school I visited

Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to be invited to Fitzroy Community School to talk about EleMental: A first-person Shooter. This visit has to rate as my very favorite school presentation so far. I was made feel very welcome from the outset, given a quick tour of the school and then we all settled down to an hour’s chat (with some readings from me) in the school library. Here are some of the things we talked about …

Exploring words and ideas

Writers are often asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’. The best answer is: ‘From everywhere! The important thing is to be open to them.’

But are there some special ways? On the dedication page of her novel Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones describes how she got the idea for writing the book. A boy approached her after a school presentation and asked if she could write a book about a moving castle. That idea was a gift and she was very much open to it. Thankfully, because we now have that fabulous young adult fantasy. (Sadly, she says in the book, she put his name in such a safe place, she couldn’t find it when it came time to publish the book.)

We can’t always rely on wonderful ideas being presented to us so succinctly and directly from our audience. So another way to find interesting ideas, one that I came up with, is to think about words that interest you. Some we talked about on the day at Fitzroy Community School were droplet, sun, music and float. These are just words I quickly came up with while preparing the presentation. When I think about music, all sorts of images present themselves to me that could lead to a good story idea. So too any of those other words.

But there’s another step – and this is a truly magical one. Try putting two or three of these interesting words together. We can get things like: Floating music. Or even: Droplets of floating music. Wow! Lots of interesting images there.

When you have selected some interesting words, it’s always worth turning them into a what if sentence: What if there was a girl who floated every time she heard music? Or: What if man wrote a piece of music that made people float when they heard it? This what if sentence could act as the main idea behind your story, expressed as a question that your story will answer.

And, most importantly, as you you have selected words you’re interested in, remember to pour that interest into the story as you write. That’s the best way to ensure others will find your story interesting too.

Words I found interesting while writing EleMental: A First-person Shooter

We then looked at some of the words I found interesting and wanted to explore in my story: virtual and addiction. (I worked for years as a social worker in the addiction area, the part that most interests me is: when people keep doing something over and over too much and lose the control to stop even though its making them sick). Combining the words, I came up with the what if question: What if someone created a virtual game that was so addictive that when people played it too much they could no longer tell when they were in the real world … and when they were in a game?

I named this blurred state, gameblur. One moment, you could be sitting at your desk, the next you could be battling a creature that’s half-dinosaur, half-tank.

Pretty scary. But thankfully there’s humor in the book too!

Smaller ideas

We then talked about smaller ideas that can be related to your big idea. These smaller ideas are important as they can help you fill up your story with details. However it’s important that they don’t grow so big that your  reader starts to get confused about what is the main idea behind your story. A smaller idea in my story is how virtual games can start up and shut down. I loved finding different ways to describe those moments and they’re peppered throughout my book. I gave some readings to the school group to illustrate this smaller idea.

The photo

It all went so well, I almost forgot to take a photo until the last minute. Check it out, above, it was taken in the school library with a few of the remaining students. I forgot to get everyone’s names – but you know who you all are!

Some thank yous

A very big thank you to all I met at Fitzroy Community School for being such a great group. Thank you to Marlon (who had already read the book – both print book and ebook versions) for his informed comments to everyone (including me!) about my book. Thank you to Bridie (who happens to be my niece) and Freda for the tour of the school. Thank you to Myf, for organising it so beautifully and to Nick (the teacher) for his class help. And to everyone for their great questions during and after my presentation. I felt very welcome and I’d love to come back again sometime, if you’ll have me.

Back from Bali, Back to writing

The memorial for those who died in the first of the terrible Bali bombings.

I am back from my family holiday and am working hard to re-establish my writing rhythm. Family holidays are important, and this last one especially so as it’s likely to be the last with the whole family – my son and daughter are getting older!

As a writer, you’re never too far away from thoughts about your writing projects. I may have spent some time sitting on a banana lounge by a pool, but let me reassure you I was still very much engaged in chapter revising on my iPad.

And I also read my very first ebook novel. A copy of Hunger Games a friend gave me. Easy reading! But I was amazed at the number of typos. It was like an un-proofed copy. Perhaps it was? My daughter owns the print version and the typos weren’t there. So what’s that all about?

I also read about half of Catherine Ryan Howard’s ebook The Best of Catherine, Caffeinated: Caffeine-Infused Self-Publishing Advice (available here). Catherine Howard is an indie writer who very much wishes she was a traditionally-published writer. She’s from Cork, Ireland (where they say Cark  for Cork). As my parents and my eldest two siblings are all born in Ireland, I feel a sense of connection in a number of ways.

I recently began following her blog for her self-publishing advice and this ebook is essentially a collection of her website posts over the last few years on indie-publishing. It’s marvelous, honest stuff, full of big-picture as well as micro advice, and is engagingly written and super generous. I happily downloaded it as a part of her free launch back in May, but it’s well worth the tiny price tag attached to it, if you’re after self-pub advice.

Catherine Howard lays out her posts as chapters and you can easily dip into them in any order that takes your fancy, or follow through chronologically, as I am doing, as it gives more of a sense of story.

Her passion to be traditionally published is her life’s ambition (well a prominent one, she has a number) and the irony that she is not, and yet clearly can write, makes for an intriguing subtext. One can’t help wonder along with her why she isn’t (as she does dwell on it a few times). She feels – largely based on publishing house feedback – maybe it’s because her non-fiction writing is ‘too niche’. Certainly, travel writing doesn’t appeal to me (perhaps because I want to go there and do that too, but can’t!). Yet it’s interesting to see how many travel writers there are in the global indie writing community. It’s clearly popular.

The view from my window in Ubud, Bali. I kid you not.

Well, enough about Irish Catherine – this has turned into an unintentional review!  I’m confident she will achieve her ambition one day – all she needs is staying power, like the rest of us. But now you know a little about my Bali holiday. Not really. But you know about what I was reading by the pool and on the plane home, crammed in with everybody else (watching Hunger Games on airline iPads).Meanwhile, I am very happy to be back at my desk and ready to throw myself wholeheartedly into promoting EleMental: A First-person Shooter and preparing its follow up.

PS: Having spent some time on Catherine Ryan Howard, I should also link you to her website here, if you are interested in checking out more about what she has to offer.

One of my favourite books on writing

 

If you love writing like I do, then you’ll also love reading about writing. Surely? If I spot a book about the craft of writing in a bookshop, I can’t help myself, I have to buy it. I guess I feel about writing as I do about life. There is always something more I can learn. And as I do, I feel I’m growing as a person.

And in this post, I want to tell you about one of my favorites, an eighties book on writing with the intriguing title Writing Down the Bones. It’s by Natalie Goldberg.

Her book is both about both the craft of writing and the craft of living.  I have read other books that blend the themes know yourself with know how to write, but few, to my mind, succeed to the degree Goldberg has. She manages to perfectly balance a Zen-like reflective tone with hard-nosed advice on honing one’s writing skills, exploring the art of the creative writing process and identifying many important signs that might help others travelling a similar road.

She even has her very own Zen master – and she quotes his advice to her in the introduction: ‘Why do you come to sit meditation? Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace.’

Throughout her book, you can easily see Goldberg has taken her Zen Master’s advice. Her book has a loose structure that permits you the reader to enter at any point, and find yourself anywhere. Everyplace. You can browse through her pages, reflecting, and treat her book like Lao Tse’s Tao De Ching (or pretty much anything by the Dalai Lama).

I read her short chapters (they average two pages and are interestingly titled – ‘Don’t Marry the Fly’ is my favorite) in an order more borne out of whim than anything.  And I found her many thoughtful messages – many feel more like that than hard-and-fast lessons or rules – apply no matter the context of your life.

But what’s with the book title? She does explain. ‘When I teach in class,’ she says, ‘I want the students to be “writing down the bones”, the essential.’ That’s the essence of a Zen approach, I understand: cutting back and searching for the essential, finding what is important. You can feel she’s doing just that in her elegant prose, and in the overall simplicity of the book itself.

She is also a fan of writing in cafes, often with a fellow writing friend. Something I can relate to.

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book once very cool to own and carry about in your bag, some people even read bits of it), praises her book and likens her style to a Zen archer ‘who looks like he’s not even aiming, yet sends arrow after arrow to the bull’s-eye time after time.’ I agree.

 

Not writing, reading

A character trying to get the reader’s attention

Sometimes one should allow oneself to take a break from one’s writing projects. That can be frowned upon in some quarters. A writer who isn’t writing isn’t a writer.

Tosh.

I guess if I never returned …

But, if I’m anything to go by, even away from writing (to enjoy more time with wife and family, for example) most writers’ minds are not far from their projects. Their most recent ones or ones in the wings.  I am looking forward to returning to my latest, hoping to find I still like my sentences and ideas. (So a little fearful too.)

But in the mean time I am reading. Often I like to read about writing, but at the moment I appear to be having a break from that too. Instead, I am reading a brick of a tome about the building of a cathedral in 12th century England. It’s Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. This historical drama is also a mini-series, which I’m looking forward to viewing one day ­­– but not until I’m through the book. It’s 1076 pages and I am a slow reader.

According to Jennifer Byrne, ABC presenter, Follett’s Pillars is one of the most successful international bestsellers of all time. It was sixteen weeks on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, number one in Canada, Great Britain and Italy, and, to top it all off, in Germany it was voted the third greatest book ever written.

Oh wow, who wouldn’t want to read it? Even if it equals the size of a cathedral corner stone.

The thing I am most enjoying about Follett’s writing, and why I believe his book is so popular (and no doubt his others), is his knack of seizing upon a marvellous action sequence and wringing it for all it’s worth. For example, the other day I read an engrossing scene where a bishop and some devious characters arrive at the monastery, ready to spoil the start of the cathedral building – only to have the tables turned on them. Does that sound boring? I reckon it does. Well, I’m telling you, it wasn’t. Why not? Well-paced action and good tension.

And now I’m reading about the engagement in battle of two evenly matched armies. Follett springs between two points of view, giving us close-ups from one character in the thick of the clash, and long shots from a priest watching from the cathedral roof. Do you know, this is probably my favorite scene of the whole book.

All writers reading books also have an analytical eye open. How could they not? For me, it doesn’t spoil the reading, it’s just another dimension. I am constantly looking out for what I can learn, what I can apply to my own writing. And I notice things I might do differently.

There are two such things in Pillars.

Ken Follett at times likes to communicate details several times over and in various ways, as if to make certain the reader will get it. I will never forget Mark Macleod, my mentor during a residency at Varuna Writers’ House, waving a page of my manuscript in my face and telling me: ‘Steven, it’s all right, we get it!’

To be honest, it’s one of the things I find most challenging about story writing: gauging when a reader gets it. Especially if the story idea or scene sequence is complex. It was very useful to have Mark point that out to me. Reassure me when I could stop. Now, once I’ve said something, I do my best to get out and not repeat it elsewhere, unless it’s for thematic deepening. If a reader misses an important point, that’s just how it is.

The second thing Ken Follett does that I know I would do differently, is include so much research. Perhaps this is a trait of historical dramas? Perhaps readers expect this genre to include highly specific details, for example on cathedral architecture, for a sense of accuracy and authenticity. I read little of this genre to know.  I do love including detail in my own story writing, especially for visual colour, but I also love the movement of a story. And, as a reader, there is a point I reach in reading research-based information where I begin to feel disengaged from the story.

We’re all different.

Overall, as a writer, when I read I become restless. Reading fills me with excitement and anticipation for when I return to my own writing projects. But for now I will keep that in check and return to Follett’s drama about the building of a cathedral a long time ago in Kingsbridge, England.