Monthly Archives: August 2013

Editing Update: The Phoenix Fire

I’m typing this early as I may not have internet access at the end of the month. So, as it stands, I haven’t finished the August run-through of my draft novel as planned back in January, but with luck I’ll be there or close enough by the time you read this!

Rereading has been an interesting exercise. Last month, I determined that the new slim-line novel was a bit short to bear that description. at 50,000 words, it’s really a novella. I also resolved to read more novels, and that’s still part of the plan, although it’s been put on hold by the arrival of two interesting baby books and James N Frey (see last Monday’s post). What I discovered on re-reading, though, is that the first two-thirds of TPF feels like a novel. The pacing, plot, character development etc all feel bigger than a novella. And then it charges into a final climax which could come from a novel or a novella, but probably the latter.

So, I don’t think this is a novella at all. I think it’s a novel. With a big chunk missing from just after the half-way mark. A big chunk which ratchets up two of the subplots which are built up in the first 2/3 and then disappear with something dangerously close to an outbreak of deus ex machine. And to rectify this, all I need to do is write and edit that chunk.

It’s a good thing. Right???



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I’m Literally In Two Minds

If you’re a regular on the Thursday grammar posts, you’ll know I’m mostly a traditionalist when it comes to language. I like my spellings accurate, my punctuation punctual and my idiom straight down the line.

But I’m also a realist. I love language precisely because it’s alive and expressive and personal. I love puns, and double meanings, and I’m proud that among different groups of friends, I have different languages which are unique to those friends. (Although it does get confusing; sometimes I have to check whether a word I’m using is universal before I write it in a story!). Chaucer, Shakespeare, JK Rowling… they have all added words to the lexicon of their times, and we are all the richer for it.

Moving to Canada has livened up the situation no end. I’m now bilingual and I’m raising my son the same way. At our post-natal group, I talk about strollers, diapers and so on; to his grandparents, it’s nappies and puchchairs. At work, I offered tomAYto ketchup and wAH-DUH, but at home, I make tomARRto pasta by boiling wOR-TER. (That’s pAstA; at work it would be pAHstER). You get the picture.

So I’m far from up in arms about the OED’s inclusion of the metaphorical meaning of Literally. I do find it uncomfortable when I hear the word used that way, but I’m not outraged. Some of my friends literally went nuts when they found out, pointing out that using a word to mean its exact opposite is, well, an outrage. And putting it in the dictionary ratifies that usage, doesn’t it? And it’s confusing, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no. If you are reading a book, and you come across a word you don’t know. You look it up in the dictionary. That’s not really ratifying, it’s just accepting the truth. Sometimes, when you read a book (or magazine article, or quote etc) it’s going to include the word literally with its metaphorical meaning.

And when you do look it up, you’re probably faced with multiple meanings only one or two of which will make sense. So you’re going to have to use a bit of common sense anyway. It’s unlikely to be confusing. You’re unlikely to read the phrase “I literally died when he told me,” and not be sure which meaning to go with.

So what’s the real problem? Well, possibly the problem is that those people who really do mean literally are now going to struggle to make themselves understood. But I don’t think so. How often do we use literally the “proper” way in a place where it’s imperative that the other person knows we mean it, and it won’t be clear from context?

I think the real problem is what the real problem usually is. Change. Oh no, my friends, we do NOT like change.

Some footnotes (I love footnotes!)

1. The OED’s response to the controversy is worth reading.

2. Change (the noun) has 10 meanings in Chambers (generally the writer’s dictionary of choice). #3 is “a variation, especially a welcome one,”. Kind of goes against the rest of that sentence, doesn’t it? 😉

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Not Friday Fiction

I predict a lack of time to post a FF story this week, so if that’s what you’re looking for, move along, or check out other FF stories at Rochelle’s HQ.

But if you’ve stumbled upon this page looking for a story from me specifically, I’d invite you to consider my other flash fiction exercise, Inspiration Mondays. For all that we sometimes grumble as Fictioneers that there isn’t enough feedback, my FF posts get many more views and comments than my  InMon stories, and I’d love to share some of them with you.

If you’ve got time, have a look at any of the stories here. As ever, I’d love to know what you think.

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Book Review: How to write Damn Good Fiction

As part of my efforts to grow as a writer, I’ve just finished reading James N Frey’s reference book, How to write Damn Good Fiction.


This book is the first writing How To that I’ve really enjoyed reading. In it, Frey refers repeatedly to a small selection of stories from a wide range of genres and styles (Crime and Punishment, Jaws, Carrie, the Red Badge of Courage and a couple of others), showing how the various aspect he’s talking about work together, rather than picking a different book to demonstrate each point he’s making.

The chapters cover such issues as creating memorable characters, evoking sympathy, the narrative voice and the author’s passion. But Frey doesn’t just trot out the usual trite advice, he breaks these concepts down into ideas that actually make sense (at least to me) and gives concrete examples of how to do it well (or badly).

He explains in two detailed chapters, his version of the concept of Premise. It’s something that troubles me and I don’t actually totally agree with some of his examples (see footnote 1), but his explanations are so clear, that this doesn’t really detract from the insight I gained by reading the book.

The book was first published in 1994 and reprinted in 2002. (You may also find it under its alternative title, How To Write A Damn Good Novel II.) The final chapter is quaintly archaic, referring to WordPerfect3.1 (ah, I remember those days) and fax machines. But his advice is just as timely now as it was then, and that doesn’t detract from the book as a whole.

If you’re an aspiring writer, looking to hone any part of your craft, I strongly recommend this one. It’s an enjoyable read, and packed with good advice.

Footnote 1:

Frey defines the Premise as: “A statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict of the story.” So far, so good. However, he gives the following example:

Joe Average on his way to work one day, hating his humdrum life, when he sees an armored truck careen around the corner and a bag fall out the back door. Joe picks the bag up, takes it home, and finds that it contains $3 million. His wife pressures him to turn it in; he does and becomes a celebrity. He goes on the Tonight Show where he talks about his great love of dogs (which he made up because he felt he had to say something) and is picked up as a spokesman for dog food, so he becomes even more of a celebrity and a champion of animal rights.

Joe begins to get a swelled head. His wife leaves him and sues for a ton of money in the divorce. He starts living high on the hog, gets taken to the cleaners by a succession of girlfriends, and starts drinking. While staggering home one night, he encounters a dog on the street and kicks it to make it get out of the way. His mistreatment of the dog is videotaped and put on all the news shows. He’s ruined. In the end, Joe gets his old job back, realizes fame was not for him, remarries his ex-wife and is perfectly happy.

Frey summarises the premise of this novel as: “Finding a bag of money leads to perfect happiness.” Doesn’t seem like that’s what I would take away from this story, personally, and therefore I’m not persuaded I’d describe it as the premise, but let’s agree to disagree.

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InMon – Trust the Beard

My Dad, who once grew a beard and confused everyone by looking just like his twin brother (who’d had a beard all my life) will hopefully know better than to think this story is in any way autobiographical. It just sprung from the prompt. (They are both now clean-shaven, and look identical once again! Love it.)

The Beard

Stacey knew something was wrong the morning her Dad appeared at breakfast with stubble. Her mother was away, a girlie holiday at Aunt Margaret’s. The boys were away camping, so it was just Stacey and Dad for the week. The stubble appeared on their first morning together.

He’d once warned her off a boyfriend whose bum-fluff goatee made him look exactly like what he was – a boy trying to look like a man. “Never trust a man with facial hair,” he’d told her on the way to a date at the cinema. “Anyone who’s trying to hide his mouth is either smiling when he shouldn’t be, or not smiling when you think he is.”

The relationship, predictably, had come to naught. Perhaps it was the beard; more likely it was just the way relationships went at sixteen. It was five years ago; she’d forgotten the name of the boy, but she’d never forgotten her father’s advice.

So when she looked up from her half-grapefruit, she immediately noticed the telltale shadow on her father’s cheeks. She said nothing, but in the pit of her stomach, something dropped a foot or two.

The next day, it was darker, thicker. It grew a trunk, big ears and a rope-like tail and sat between them at the breakfast table. Over dinner, she could not even see her father past its unspoken threat.

He finally broke the silence on the fourth day. “Come on then,” he said, stroking it. “What do you think?”

Stacey tried to look past the beard. She tried to see whether he was smiling or not, and she couldn’t be sure. “I don’t know,” she said quietly.

“It’s just a beard! I thought I’d try something new for a change.” He laughed, as though he’d just gotten his hair cut, or bought a brighter shade of shirt.

“Are you leaving Mum?” Stacey forced herself to ask.

“Are you kidding?” The answer was too cheerful, and she still couldn’t tell if he was smiling, or grimacing behind all that hair. “Where did that come from?”

Stacey placed her spoon beside her half-grapefruit and looked him in the eyes. “I don’t believe you,” she said. “Just tell me the truth.”

Dad sat down. “I’m not leaving your Mum,” he said, his tone now serious. “But I think she might be leaving us.” He stroked the beard as though it were a safety blanket, like her brothers had had when they were babies and Mum had been torn between their cries. “She wanted to tell you herself, but I’m not going to lie to you, Stace.”

He put an arm around her, and Stacey felt the beard scratching at her neck as he pulled her close. It was strangely comforting – a pain that reflected the feelings in her chest, but so concrete and definite. She’d felt as though she was falling into a spin, but the scrape of the beard pulled her back into the kitchen.

“She can’t,” Stacey whispered. “We’re a family.”

“We’ll always be a family,” Dad said, his voice scratching as though the beard was inside his throat too. “Just maybe a different shaped one in the future.”

She hugged him and cried. He was crying too and when she eventually pulled back, she could see the tears trapped in the hairs on his face. They weren’t hiding anything anymore.

“I like it,” she said, with as much conviction as she could manage. “It makes you look like you could take on the world.”


Filed under Inspiration Monday, Writing

Friday Fiction – A Different Journey

It’s FF time and the photo from Claire Fuller which inspires us today is gorgeous. I’m a big fan of old churches and this one reminds me of the Norman church in the village where I grew up. I could happily stare at it all day.

But that wouldn’t get the story written! Head over to Rochelle’s masterpage if you’d like to see what other Fictioneers came up with. As always, your comments are welcome and constructive criticism is actively encouraged.


A Different Journey

Misty’s mother pulled the dress slowly over Misty’s head – careful not to disturb a single perfect curl. Tears welled in her eyes as she looked at her little girl: all grown up and moving on.

In the distance, the church bell chimed noon. The car would be here soon. They’d always expected she’d be married there – a nice boy, a traditional ceremony, a sunny day. Rain slashed the windows today, but it seemed only right for sending her on a different journey.

“She’ll be happy with Him,” said Dad, his voice quiet and croaky. “Until we’re ready to join her.”


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The Alpha in Betas

Beta readers are the first people to take a look at our masterpieces and give us an independent view. Even if you’ve let your writing sit for months or years before you come back to it, you can never get a completely independent reading of it yourself – you know what you meant to happen and how you intended it to feel. A beta reader doesn’t. And that’s their magic.

Finding good beta readers isn’t easy. You’re asking someone to dedicate several hours of their time to your prototype novel. And you’re asking them to be honest. And you’re probably not offering them much of anything in return.

Most people find their beta readers amongst friends, family or members of a writing group. All three have their disadvantages – the first two are likely to be a little bit star-struck (Wow, someone I know wrote a BOOK!) and a lot biased / afraid of upsetting the author. They also aren’t practised in giving feedback on writing. On the other hand, they will read the work like readers, which is exactly what we want them to do.

By contrast, another writer is probably much better able to express the things they don’t like in a helpful way, and is hopefully used to giving critique of the work without attacking the writer. But there’s a big drawback in the way writers read. They often do so quite unnaturally – “studying” instead of reading. Writers have theories stuck in their heads, like don’t use adverbs or show don’t tell, and they can pick these things out in places where, in reality, they don’t cause a problem. There’s a second big drawback in having a writer as a beta reader – they will be tempted to rewrite. No two writers’ styles are the same, and what you NEVER want a beta reader to do is to try to rewrite the story in their own style and voice.

Personally, I love being asked to beta read and I try to find a happy balance between my reader and my writer sides, but I suspect the best solution for a writer looking for beta readers is to seek out a mixture of different types of reader, brief them well, and be aware of the value and the limitations in their feedback. And to bribe them with beer, acknowledgements once we’re famous, or an appearance in the next masterwork!


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No Grammar Post … and Why

Hey folks!

Turns out I forgot to write a grammar post yesterday. The main reason (Mummy-Brain aside) is I’m trying to focus on editing. It’s not going ever so well, but at least it’s going. Except when I procrastinate, and then it’s not.

Anyway, instead of a grammar post, I’m going to give you a bit of insight into my brain right now. Courtesy of someone else. You may need to translate – my brain is a lot less American than this guy’s, and swears less often – but the basic editing process is right there:

Made me laugh, anyway.

(Thanks to @Dragonwrites for the heads-up!)

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Friday Fiction – Crushed

Even those who buy into the “inspiration not illustration” theory might struggle a bit to work out how this story fits this week’s prompt. I had a few ideas which came to naught, then settled on this title before writing a piece which I don’t think fits the title all that well! Nevertheless, thanks to Rochelle for all her hard work guiding this merry band and to Roger Bultot [sorry, not sure of his website. If someone lets me know or if I find it, I’ll add the link] for providing the photo.

For those who missed it, I posted a pledge regarding constructive criticism on Monday. You can read that pledge by clicking on the scalpel picture in the right sidebar, and add the picture to your site if you enjoy receiving concrit on your own stories.


Crushed (Genre: Romance – this is getting to be a habit!)

I waited for him to take it back. He couldn’t mean it; we’d been through so much together. His blue eyes stared into mine, pleading for an answer. He wanted me to tell him I understood, maybe even that I’d been thinking the same thing.

“Amy. Say something.”

I knew it was wrong to be angry. When a boy says he loves you, you should be flattered, happy … anything but angry.

But I trusted him. We were friends. We’d already been through so much as friends, how could we change that now?

I couldn’t speak. Then he kissed me.



Filed under Friday Fiction, Writing

If you can’t say something nice…

Founding Friday Fictioneers member, Doug MacIlroy opened a can of worms last week, with his post about the changing nature of the group, which you can read here. He pointed out that with our expanding numbers, constructive criticism has largely disappeared and short, bland comments have replaced it; and that the wheat is now accompanied by a fair amount of chaff. I agree with both, although as in all art, I think one reader’s wheat is another reader’s chaff.

Different people want different things from a writing group, whether on- or offline. For me, the greatest value is in the constructive criticism (hence, concrit) I receive. Of course, it’s subjective, but writing is rarely perfect even in 100 polished words, and there is almost always something which could be tweaked or improved. Once a story is published online, I must admit I don’t often go back and edit it, even in the light of very valid concrit received, but that doesn’t detract from the value of the concrit – it enhances my ability to read and review my own work, and therefore improves the next piece, or the one after that. It’s up to the writer to decide whether he or she agrees (and for the record, you are ALWAYS invited not to) and whether to make any changes, but knowing where readers stumble is always useful.

Personally, I’m not sure Doug’s entirely right that the disappearance of concrit can be simply blamed on the thin-skinned few. They exist, but I think they are very much in the minority – whenever I offer it, my suggestions are graciously received. But coming up with something which could be improved takes time and effort and I, for one, haven’t the time to do this 70+ times a week. My respect to those who do manage it – Janet and Rochelle spring to mind.

So, here is my personal pledge to the fictioneers:

1)  I will always welcome your concrit on my pieces.

2) I rarely read every story. But I do try to read at least one in five, and (apart from a few beloved writers I will always read) to vary whose I go to each time.

3) If I read your story, I will always try to offer concrit to you (unless you ask me not to).

4) I will always try to phrase my concrit kindly, and to highlight the good as well as the improve-able. I am always happy for you to disagree with or ignore my comment, or to explain further if I’ve said something incomprehensible.

Following the suggestion of neenslewy in Doug’s comments, I have added this scalpel image to my sidebar to indicate my pledge. You are welcome to use it yourself too – the image is copyright-free and obtained from Wikimedia commons.


By the way, in case the title of this post is misleading – saying something nice in this context is actually not as helpful as it might seem. (Sorry, Thumper, and his Mum!) Sure, encouragement and support are great, but encouraging suggestions and helpful support are even better (in my opinion!). If you can’t say something nice, or even if you can, say something constructive!


Filed under Friday Fiction