Monthly Archives: March 2013

Editing Progress Report

Another month down, and my editing process for the Phoenix Fire is going well, in a slightly scary way! This month was all about some off-text work, using the suggestions here to help me consider how best to reshape the novel. It’s been an enlightening process; I really feel as if I’ve now got a grip on what needs to change, be added and removed, be tweaked or recast, studied the plot arc, the character arcs, the balance of themes and the shape of the novel. I’ve spent quite a long time at storyfix.com‘s Story Structure articles, and I’ve started watching movies in a whole new way.

I don’t agree with everything I’ve read about structure (at these websites and others), but even by forming those opinions, I feel I’ve learned something which helps me to write better. I’ve also found myself checking how far I am through DVDs I’m watching, just to see if the “plot points” are where I’d expect them to be.

According to my original plan, April was about planning the rewrite, but in truth, I feel as though I’ve done a lot of that already. I still need to sit down and work out what I can import from the deleted scenes (I’m cutting almost the first third of the existing text, so a lot will need to be fed in at a later stage), but I feel much of the arc-work is done. So I might start the rewrites next month, or I might just give myself a break and work on a short story or two.

Still, I’m pleased with everything about March’s work except one elment. The first thing in March’s plan was the infamous “25 word pitch”. One or two of you have asked what TPF is about, and this pitch is supposed to answer that question. It’s also supposed to hook agents and publishers, get everyone excited about the novel and generally be the most important 25 words I could ever write. But as yet, I haven’t found a way to hit 25 words I’m really proud of. I’d love to receive your thoughts, input and suggestions.

Here’s the 50 word version:

Unemployed, homeless and heartbroken, Adam Heywood arrives in Wales looking for a fresh start.

What he finds is an ancient magic that caused its last discoverer to be burned as a witch.

Will he suffer the same fate, or will the phoenix fire bring him back to life?

And here’s all I can do with 25 words:

Adam Heywood is seeking a fresh start. Will the phoenix fire provide it,

or will he be burned as a witch like its previous discoverer?

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To Wrongly Split

Captain James T Kirk did it, George Bernard Shaw championed it and yet most of us were taught to never do it … what? To split infinitives, of course.

The infinitive is the basic form of the verb. In most languages, it is a single word, but in English, it is made up of two words: to + [verbal part]. For example:

To Be is etre in French, esse in Latin, sein in German, etc.

To split an infinitive is to put a word in between the “to” and the verbal part. It’s not a problem in those languages with one-word infinitives, but it is in English, and oh how we like to get worked up about it!

The most common forms of split infinitives are to add an adverb and to add a negative.

To quickly go

To not go

Adding more than one word is also possible, such as

To more than double

Most people over the age of 40 will have been taught to avoid split infinitives as an absolute. Like so many grammar rules, these days it’s a question of style. There is no imperative reason not to do it, but in the vast majority of cases it will look like better English not to, and as I’ve said before, if your writing might be judged by someone who cares and it matters to you what they think, go with the “rule”.

For the most part, it just feels more English to avoid a split infinitive. No native speaker would say “I wanted to just like that go and see him” or “To better than achieve his goals…” for example. But there are plenty of things we would and do say, and partly when writing speech or in the voice of a casual character, it would be perverse not to use constructions like “I wanted to never see him again” or “I had to quickly grab all my things” and, of course…

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Friday Fictioneers – Spirit Lamps

I had to have a good think about this week’s Friday Fictioneers prompt (Rochelle’s own photo) – the lamps seemed somewhat incongruous to the background. And then it came to me, and I’m very pleased to introduce the Fictioneers to Melanie. She is one of my go-to characters and one day I’d love to write her a longer story, but for the time being you can see some of her other adventures here and here. InMon followers will know her already. As it’s part of Mel’s whole life story, this is more a snippet than a “story”.

As ever, your feedback and constructive criticism is welcome, and the previous draft is provided only for those who like that kind of thing. No need to read it if you don’t!

lamps

Spirit Lamps

Sometimes, Mummy makes me take a casserole to Mrs Mwanna. She has these lamps. They are really old, and when I look at them, they make me think of Tinkerbell, but Mrs Mwanna calls them her “spirit lamps”. She says that they bring her closer to those who have passed over.

I once asked Father Andrews whether he used spirit lamps. That was before Mummy said not to talk to Father Andrews about Mrs Mwanna, because it makes him angry. And Father Andrews isn’t meant to get angry because he’s the conduit to Our Lady, and she never gets angry.

***

First Draft [not many changes, only really to cut the word count and mess with the theology a bit!]

Sometimes, Mummy makes me take a casserole to Mrs Mwanna across the road. She has these lamps. They are really old, and when I look at them, they make me think of Tinkerbell, trapped in a lantern. But Mrs Mwanna calls them her “spirit lamps” because she says that when you light them, it brings you closer to those who have passed over.

I once asked Father Andrews whether he used spirit lamps. That was before Mummy told me I should try not to talk to Father Andrews about the things Mrs Mwanna says, because it makes him angry. And Father Andrews isn’t meant to get angry because he’s a priest and that means he’s our conduit to the Lord Jesus, and Jesus never gets angry.

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Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

Last week’s post considered the elements of a good first line, but there’s a bigger (and in some ways harder) issue about the start of a novel, which is *where* in the story to begin. It’s usually pretty easy to know where to finish (although I struggled with that too last week). But it’s harder to know where the story begins. The actions of any character will partly depend on the things they saw and felt and experienced outside the confines of the story itself. In a later post, I’ll come back to ways of weaving in backstory, but for now, let’s just agree that some things are backstory, and some belong in the “now” of the narrative.

You want the beginning to be punchy, to include the hook, to rope the reader in. You want it to include an exciting scene, some intrigue, to introduce the main characters, setting and plot. So it’s tempting to find the most exciting thing which happens in the first quarter of your novel, and start there. Great – fantastic beginning, all sewn up.

BUT

If you do that, you spend the rest of that quarter catching up. As a rule of thumb, if the opening (which could be a paragraph, a scene, a chapter or even a couple of chapters) is immediately followed by a backstory-dump, you started too late.

There’s no easy answer to the question of where to begin; it’s entirely dependent on the story you’re telling. Usually, you just get a feeling about it – if the start drags, you went in early, if you end up with that backstory-dump, you came late to the party.

Think about your character arc and plot – generally, the first portion of the book sets the scene, tells us about the characters before anything starts to change in their lives or their psyches. Give yourself time to show this, but then you need to get on with the story, which is about those changes.

Since I’ve stolen a line from the Sound of Music for my title – let’s think about where that story starts. We get a brief look at Maria’s life in the convent: she longs to be free (The Hills Are Alive) which causes trouble for the nuns (How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?); and then we’re off into the family Von Trapp, which is where the changes and therefore the plot begin.

Of course, starting before the action doesn’t mean you can’t start with a bit of action. It just has to be a little detached from the plot, whilst still being relevant at least in terms of theme and/or character. Consider, if you will, the beginning of any Bond movie (I’ve got Daniel Craig in my head – what else is new? – Casino Royale, I think). We see Bond somewhere exotic, taking down bad guys, possibly romancing a lady: none of them in the slightest bit relevant to the plot, but all relevant to the Bond franchise and exciting enough to start us off with a bang!

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In Mon – Myth Kit

In Mon’s prompts this week include “Recycled Heart”, which reminds me of this piece I wrote a while back for a not dissimilar prompt. Anyway, I digress, because the prompt I’ve used this week is not that one, it’s Myth Kit. I make no apologies for the seasonality or lack thereof of this piece, and dedicate it to all the Joes out there who make a difficult lives a little happier every year.

Writing-wise, this story actually started off just being the first part (up to the ***), but then Melanie wanted in on the action. You remember Melanie, don’t you? Let me know what you think!

Myth Kit

Joe rubbed the rouge into his cheeks, then picked up the lipstick.

“That’s my Estee Lauder!” Eve used to cry, when she saw him use it. “Can’t you use something cheaper ?” She’d bought him some unbranded crap from Boots, told him to put that in his myth kit tin, but he always ended up grabbing hers anyway, just to see that look of horror mixed with pride cross her face.

Every year, it was the same. He’d sit in her chair, dolling himself up in her mirror, with Eve hanging over his shoulder: smiling, chattering, fussing. Then last year, there had been less chatter and more coughs. And this year, there was no Eve.

Myth kit tin, he thought, chuckling. That had been one of her ideas too – a name for the box of tricks that turned an ordinary man into a legend.

He took a final look in the mirror, straightened the beard and pulled on his coat.

***

At the hospital, they were all ready for him. A couple of nurses were wearing the obligatory elf outfits, and in the back room, piles of gifts were stacked next to signs saying things like “Girl 5-8”. A queue was already forming, so Joe glanced in the mirror and then took his seat.

The first child was a boy about eleven or twelve years old. He was not suffering any obvious illness, but you never know, Joe reminded himself. Later, he’d be touring the children’s ward, so most of these kids were relatives not patients, but there’d be a few of the walking wounded amongst them.

“Now then, young man, what would you like for Christmas?”

“I know you’re not real,” the boy replied, a little too loud. Joe looked around to see if any of the other kids had heard, but they were being distracted by the elves.

“Up to you,” Joe said, “But I’m guessing you still want something for Christmas?”

“’Course.” The boy was sullen; Joe thought the only thing he deserved was a good hiding, although people didn’t do that these days. That’s why the kids end up rude, he mused. The boy was still talking, listing some toys or games Joe had never heard of, but which were probably expensive.

“Well, if you’re a good boy, I’m sure you’ll get what you deserve,” Joe said, in the sweetest voice he could muster. “Would you like a little present now?”

“What d’you think I’m here for?” The boy grabbed the gift from Joe’s hand and ran off. Someone shouted that he’d missed the photo, but he was long gone with his spoils.

They weren’t all like that, mercifully. Most of the kids were quiet and grateful, or boisterous and fun. Joe enjoyed the childish pleasures they brought out in him. This year, more than ever. He wondered why he and Eve had never had children of their own.

One little girl took his hand and held his eyes with hers. They were deep blue and incredibly serious. Joe thought he might cry, just looking at them.

“I’m Melanie,” she said.

He pushed thoughts of Eve as far back as he could. Eve’s eyes, gazing into his, the way this little girl’s did. Eve’s hand, holding his tightly. Eve talking in that calm, quiet way of hers.

“You’re supposed to say ‘Ho ho ho’,” said a voice, which wasn’t Eve’s. The little girl was still holding his hand, but now she was patting it gently.

“Oh! Ho ho ho and a Merry Christmas,” said Joe, with gusto. “Sorry, I was just, err, thinking about all the japes the reindeer will be getting up to while I’m away!”

The little girl smiled. “Did you leave Mrs Claus to look after them?”

“Of course. They are quite silly if no one’s watching.”

“I bet Mrs Claus is beautiful,” said the girl, and then, as Joe began to feel he might cry, “May I sit on your knee for the photograph? I have something special to ask you for, for Christmas.”

Joe nodded, “Jump up!”

She climbed onto his lap and, as Milton angled the camera, whispered in his ear. “I’ve asked Jesus, but I’m hoping you can help too. Please can you make Mummy better?”

Joe looked out, past the little girl, past Milton and the nurses, to where a woman stood watching them. No older than forty, she wore a hospital gown and held onto a walker. She gazed at the girl, beaming with pride. Then, as he watched, she bent over the walker stricken by a bout of coughing. Just like Eve, he thought, and a shudder went through him.

“Why don’t you ask Mummy to join us for the picture?”

 

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Friday Fiction – Counsel for the Defense

It’s Friday again! OK, it’s not, but it’s Friday Fiction day, and that’s good enough for me. This week’s photo prompt is courtesy of Doug MacIlroy via the ever-awesome(1) Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. I had an immediate idea to write from the horse’s pov, but in the end that just seemed too obvious. This story, written in my head whilst trying to make Sebastian sleep, didn’t have any interesting edits in the writing phase (a few cuts and polishes, but nothing worthy of interest), but a few notes follow it regarding my thoughts during the creation phase.

Feedback is always welcome – good or bad.

thirsty

Counsel For The Defense(2)

Genre: Mainstream Fiction **COARSE LANGUAGE WARNING**

“Gentlemen of the jury, my client’s accused of the most heinous crime: murder! The prosecution(3) say that he deliberately set a trap to kill our neighbor(3a), Farmer Doug(4). Witnesses will testify they saw him pouring water on the ground by the electric fence. The prosecution will ask you to believe that he then toppled the fence – despite the obvious risk to himself – in order to electrify that pool. Finally, they will ask you surmise that, knowing Doug had a heart condition, my client lured him into that pool and to his untimely death.”

“Sit down, Perry fuckin’ (4a) Mason, you’re drunk!”

****

Notes:

1) My husband has threatened to kill the next person he hears over-using this all-American compliment. I’m relying on someone else having met this fate before he gets round to reading this post!

2) It sticks in my craw to spell it this way – in England it would unquestionably be Defence. I feel this is an American story, though, and as such I’ve tried to Americanize the language. On which note, do let me know if you spot anything else “British” in this one.

3) I toyed with the idea of using more slang in this piece generally. For a drunk guy this speaker is very eloquent, but I eventually justified it to myself as him being a bit of a fan of crime shows and therefore knowing the jargon. One place in particular I considered slang was in his description of the prosecution. I wondered to myself whether he might refer to them as “the cops” or some other police slang. Then I realised he could call them “the pigs” (although I’ve no idea of the geographic authenticity of that) which made me laugh, and I almost used it. But then I thought it would all sound a bit Animal Farm, so in the end, the Prosecution remained.

3a) Thanks to moondustwriter for Americanizing my spelling.

4) Sorry, Doug. He needed a name. Think yourself lucky, in the long version of this story in my head, Farmer Doug was a cruel and spiteful man who deserved everything he got!

4a) Thanks to various commenters for Americanizing my slang.

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In the beginning…

Last week, I posted about the false finish; this week I’m looking at the other end of the spectrum – the start of the novel. The editing process I’m going through with TPF has brought this question into sharp focus, but it’s perennial in the field of writing and editing.

We all know that a good opening is crucial. The first line should be perfect, the hook irresistible and the opening 3 or 5 chapters pack enough punch to make an agent / publisher request the rest of the manuscript. We also know that a good opening is generally not a good opening if chapter 2 is a massive flashback to cover the back story. That just means you started in the wrong place in order to hit an easy hook.

Next week, I’ll consider where to start – the answer to which both is and isn’t “at the beginning” – but for now, let’s look at how. Some novels have incredibly strong, famous opening lines. Some incredible strong, famous novels, don’t. But if you’re looking for greatness, it’s not a bad place to begin.

genesis

1. Novelty: Look for something the reader doesn’t feel like they’ve seen a hundred times before. “It was a dark and stormy night” was arguably a bad opening even before it became a trope, because it just sounds so familiar.

2. Theme: Think of the class reading your novel five, fifty or a hundred and fifty years into the future. They will have been told to identify the themes (for example marriage and love, revenge and redemption, whatever). Then they will be writing an essay on how you introduced the themes. These students will thank you endlessly if your opening line is a great big pointer to at least one of the themes. One of the most famous (in a good way) opening lines ever is from Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen jumps right in there and tells us it’s going to be a novel about marriage. She gave a couple of other pointers in the title too – I like to think she had my high school years in mind.

3. Interest or Intrigue: Introduce the story without giving us too much information. Intrigue the reader – who is talking? what’s happening? where is this taking us? and perhaps most importantly … why? Information is for later, possibly even later on page 1; the opening line is about reeling us in.

4. Well-written: Your reader has read the blurb on the back cover, but he wants something different from the opening line. The blurb made them want to read the story, the first line has to make them want to read the second line and the third and fourth. And that means they have to enjoy your writing style as well as what you have to say.

5. Consistency: If you think of the most wonderful, catchy, well-written first line ever written, but it has nothing to do with the rest of the novel, it’s not the best first line for this novel, it’s the worst. Maybe another day, you will write the novel which stems from this line, but if you glue greatness to greatness you might still end up with a mess (Imagine the Mona Lisa pasted onto the Venus Di Milo). The best first line for this novel, is one that goes with it – has the same tone and style, is relevant and interesting.

Mona di milo

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