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. All the while imagining publishers rolling their eyes and tossing the manuscript, written in rivers of my blood, sweat and tears, onto their reject pile. Or, even if you’re lucky enough to have a book published, readers wedging your slaved-over work back onto a bookstore shelf. The thousands of other sentences after that first sentence remaining unread, perhaps for all of time. Opening sentences are such annoyingly important things.

It reminds me a little of something I read a while ago about how on Spotify it’s only after the first 30 seconds of a pop song that an artist gets their teeny weeny royalty. Did you know that? The behaviour even has a name: the shit’n’click habit – deciding something is shit within the first few seconds and clicking on to the next song … and the next … and the next…

Anyway, back to opening sentences. Here are my seven things I reckon are worth thinking about.

  1. The first sentence has to indicate something about what’s to come in the story. That is, set up expectations and raise questions in the reader’s mind, compelling them to want to reader on. What’s this all about, then? I think I’ll sit down and read on to find out.
  2. The first sentence should suggest the genre of the book.
  3. If it’s written in the first person, the first sentence ought to evoke the character of the protagonist.
  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 needs to grab the attention. If you haven’t got this, nothing else matters really.
  7. I don’t know why I said seven? I must have had seven in my head when I began this, but now I can only recall six. Sorry about that! But that’s one less for you to read and think about.

I’m sure there are plenty of other worthy points clever writers have come up with about opening sentences, but these are the ones I’ve come up with off the top of my head, based on stuff I’ve read in the past most likely.

On to something way more fun. Ten opening sentences I happen to like and hope you just might too (whether or not they do any of the above, I’ll let you decide)…

  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. Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat sewing at a window framed in black ebony. (Snow-white and the Seven Dwarfs, Brothers Grimm.)
  10. Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville. The most famous opening line of all. Three wee words.)
  11. It happened this way. (Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene. …Ah, there you go, an extra one is on this list.)

As I like to, I’ll leave you with some photos. I had also hoped to share with you my cut-up reworking of Queens’ Bohemian Rhapsody, but that doesn’t seem to be working out just yet. 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.

Writing in hotel rooms in other cities

Dreary Sydney2

I’d like to tell you about two visits I had last month to a city that is not my own. The visits were to do with my ‘paid job’, but forget about that. I want to focus on my writing in hotel rooms while I was there. Here are some quick and dirty images to kick my post off with. These first ones are a bit bleak…

Sitting in a faceless, outer suburban office tower looking out over a shopping centre car park and stretches of suburbia. Winter. The day is weary from managerial speak loaded with impenetrable agendas.

From the window, I watch cars meandering down white-painted lanes on a concrete shopping centre roof. I can see their near misses as some turn too quickly. From my place above and behind a pane of glass, I have no way of shouting a warning.

High rises sit in the distance, unable to shrug off rain clouds. Later, I travel through a darkness that has fallen too early to a room like any other. I am worn out from earning a living, and I have nothing to talk to but a television. It occurs to me, in some other place, my real life is going on without me.

I jotted those images down upon returning to my hotel room on the night of my first visit. Do they sound gloomy? They probably reflect the mood I was in. The picture at the start of this post is through the office window I was referring to (now via a special effects app I had fun with). Looking at the picture again, yet more gloomy images come to me: the blacks and whites are stark; the clouds are dense.

The evening view from my hotel window. 

The night view from my CBD hotel window.

The city I visited was Sydney and, to do it justice, it’s a city that could easily be described differently from those images above. Some images that could go with the night view from my hotel window could be: The clouds left, revealing grades of black and streaks of moving light, a living city.

There’s something in the statement, If you’re a writer, no matter where you are, you’re never alone. You’re always exploring your thoughts and ideas, and looking for ways to describe them. In fact, a hotel room by yourself can be a good thing. You’re free from the many distractions of home. It’s an excellent chance to write. Doubly so if you can’t figure out how to work the TV remote and the music player only has an iPod connector. (Are Apple sponsoring hotels? Not everyone has an iphone.)

And do you know what? I was more productive in those two evenings spent alone in hotel rooms than I’ve been in a long time. I let myself go wherever the pen (keyboard, really) took me. Amongst other things, I found myself exploring characters from my past years working as a hospital social worker and I have begun a new novel based on some of those times – something I hope to tell you about in more detail next time.

Here’s the above window view again, now in the morning…

The morning view from the same hotel window.

The morning view from the same hotel window.

Some possible written images that strike me for the above: The sun reaches to me through the city, transforming the buildings and long, grey streets with its touch…

Here are some final photos from the second of my two visits. Unlike the first evening, when I stayed in the CBD, this time I was ‘hoteled’ at a place quaintly named called ‘Coogee Bay’. As the rest of my pictures clearly reveal, my visits weren’t all doom and gloom. The light in Coogee Bay glowed. Perhaps it’s always glowing in Coogee Bay…

Coogee Bay at night.

Coogee Bay at night.

There was something about this house (opposite the hotel) that I liked. Perhaps it was the clothes hanging over the balconies, they were like tears rolling from old eyes…Coogee Bay houseI love the colours in this below picture (of what, I have no idea). The shallow, lapping green, the ocean, deep and quiet, and the night sky with its still clouds…

Recent storm damage at Coogee Bay.

I’ve no idea what this is, but it’s located at the far end of Coogee bay.

In honour of the cut-up method that I have come to enjoy toying with, I present a short cut-up piece sourced mostly from the text at the top of this post (focussing on those images from the suburban office). I pasted the words into the cut-up machine found here, and selected new images and word strings that appealed to me. It’s rather bleak, as was the source material to begin with.

I, suburbia
Clouds shrugging over
stretches of impenetrable darkness
and faceless windows.
Pale light meandering over parked cars,
lines of houses,
people’s homes.
White-painted illuminated television lives.
We are all – all of us – unable to move.

One final, more cheerful, Coogee Bay pic to leave you with …

Down on Coogee Beach.

Me, in matching shirt and beach.

 

 

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!

My writers’ retreat in the Scottish Highlands

IMG_9515I am coming towards the end of my three-and-a-half-month writing odyssey through the UK and I’m keen to tell you about the writers’ retreat at Moniack Mohr, 14 miles beyond Inverness in Scotland. This was the second of my UK writers’ retreats and, while very different to the retreat in deepest, darkest Shropshire, was just as wonderful.

Marilyn Bowering and Stephen May

Marilyn Bowering and Stephen May

This time around the two established author mentors were Marilyn Bowering (flying in from Vancouver, Canada) and, Stephen May (from Bedford, UK).

A tiny bit of back story: Stephen May, who was a co-leader at the Shropshire retreat, invited me to come along to this second retreat in Scotland, and nobly made a special effort to include new writerly experiences at this second retreat purely on my behalf. Thank you!

The view from my window.

The view from my window.

There were nine of us emerging writers at the retreat, and all were from Scotland bar me. There was something special about that. And I found, to my surprise, there is far more than the one Scottish accent. The writing projects were just as varied, spanning autobiography through to anime-influenced fantasy, literary fiction, short story and hyper social-realism akin to Train Spotting (you know what I mean). And all of it highly accomplished.

As this was some months on from the first retreat, and I’d also visited a number of writers’ group in between, this time around I found myself highly focussed on the rewriting of my Beneath the Surface manuscript. While I was keen to mix with the other writers and forge what I hope will be some lasting connections, I also spent a lot of time closeted in my bedroom, reworking written passages. There was one particular section of the manuscript, spanning six chapters or so, that I was uncertain about. I’d forwarded these to Stephen May before the retreat for his consideration. Sure enough, my uncertainties were confirmed. He liked the writing, but felt many of the ideas could go from the story. They simply did not support the spine of the story. (If you’ve read my manuscript on Wattpad, I’m especially talking about the ‘market of pictures‘ scenes. Perhaps one day the material might re-surface in short story form? I’ve done that before with my first book.)

My room was the third window from the right

My room was the third window from the right.

Apart from the Scottish setting — so different to the setting in Shropshire — and Stephen May’s excellent efforts to include new things in his presentations, Marilyn Bowering’s mentoring style was also different enough to the previous mentors to justify this second retreat experience of mine. Her emphasis, while affirming, was continually on pushing each of us to explore more deeply the narrative purpose of our written works, questioning every step. What’s more, I have many written notes from her on the writing I submitted (a different section of my manuscript to what I submitted to Stephen May), as well as further suggested reading that relates to my story’s imagery. I’m keen to pore over this stuff when I return home.

P1110171It has been an immense experience, and once more, like the Shropshire writers’ retreat at John Osborne’s house, I have come away feeling even stronger as a writer.

And so, as has become my thing, I leave you now with some final photos (quite a few actually).

Looking out, beyond the main house.

Looking out, beyond the main house.

The cottage, where the writer mentors stayed.

The cottage, where the writer mentors stayed.

'The Hobbit House'.

‘The Hobbit House’.

Stephen May in The Hobbit House.

Stephen May in The Hobbit House.

Some of us having a break from our writing.

Some of us having a break from our writing.

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On the final night, I was invited to ‘Address the Haggis’ – a Scottish tradition that involved reciting a Robbie Burns poem and stabbing the haggis…

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And one final thing to share. I was in charge of baking the chocolate brownies. They were delicious. So here’s the recipe, if you’re interested …

Oh yum...

Oh yum…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting ready for a Scottish Highlands writer’s retreat

Pitlochry

Pitlochry

I’m now in a wee place called Pitlochry. It’s known as a gateway to the Scottish Highlands. And I’m preparing for a writers’ retreat beyond Inverness, even further into the Scottish Highlands and close to Loch Ness. You might remember I was at a writer’s retreat several months back in beautiful Shropshire. Whilst there, I was invited by the author Stephen May to come along to another retreat towards the end of this pilgrimage of mine to find myself (or something like that). It’s at a place called Moniack Mhor. You can check it out here if you’re interested.

Same deal as the last time, I need to be a part of a cooking team for one night. Oh dear, I loved everything about the previous retreat except that. Cooking is not me. (Pray to God it’s not multiple versions of lasagne for 20 people again. Thank God I had able team mates last time.)

While I have been dabbling with my manuscript as I’ve been travelling, I’m looking forward to getting back into it seriously again. I have certain doubts about the second half of the first act of Beneath the Surface (about a third of the way in), and I’ve sent this section ahead of me so I can discuss it throughly with the established authors when I get there. If I do make changes, they’re big — it’s quite a few chapters that will need to be cut. Perhaps as many as six.

I head out to Inverness by train tomorrow, but meanwhile, I will leave you with a few more shots of picturesque Pitlochry, taken today…

Fly fishing - no, not me

Fly fishing (erh no, that’s not me fishing)

Yes, it really was as sunny as this. Sunny Scotland…

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pit 1

pit 3

The town centre

The town centre

The railway station has its own bookshop…

IMG_9211In my next post, I will let you know how I get on at the retreat, and if I’ve gone ahead with that major cut to the first act of Beneath the Surface.

 

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.

 

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.