Tuesday 11 July 2017

Guest Post: How to Write Scenes by Steve Catto

I was never any good at school, especially not at English. I found it boring and I never understood the purpose behind reading a book and then taking it to pieces to see how it worked. To me, that spoilt the story, it destroyed the magic. I did like to read stories, just not the ones that the school wanted me to.

Perhaps the story books I read in my childhood gave me the ability to visualise and create. I don’t know, it might have been the television programs, but whatever it was I always visualise as part of the creative process, and I visualise the story as scenes in a movie. That means I see each scene in my mind, and the task then is to convert that to words, and that is where I find that the artistic part comes in. Perhaps it’s easier to describe that process using a specific scene from Snowflakes.

So, let’s take the scene at the start of the ‘Many Worlds’ chapter and see how it pulls to pieces and goes back together again.

What I want to describe is a scene where a little monkey is watching the four main characters who are lying beside the fire after dinner, and one of them is going to tell you about her dreams. The monkey has its eye on some of the food.

Okay, well I could just say that, in fact I have just said that, but it doesn’t sound very good to me and it doesn’t allow me, or my reader, to conjure up any real visualisation of the scene and the characters that I see in my mind. On this occasion I’ll start by telling the reader what is happening as the scene opens. So, let’s write:
"Sparks from the fire crackled upwards into the night sky and disappeared." 
That gives the reader a description of something that is currently taking place, it’s a description of something that is moving as well, which I find somehow powerful. At this point in time they’re finishing off dinner, so let’s make that a past tense thing and say:
"It had been a good evening, and the food had been especially tasty."
So far so good. We’ve said they’re finishing off dinner without actually saying ‘they’re finishing off dinner’. It doesn’t seem enough to leave it like that. Let’s write something that talks a bit about the dinner and about Sam’s hunting skills, just to reinforce what I’ve said elsewhere. How about:
"Sam had fetched something back the previous night that looked like rabbit." 
No, it still doesn’t sound enough. More needed:
"and it seemed to tear apart and cook so well, despite not having been hung."
An improvement, but still not enough because that sort of floats with no ending.
"Meat on the bone usually did cook nicely, and he seemed to have the knack of bringing back a wide variety of different things."
Yes! That’s better. Let’s read it back again as a complete section.
"Sparks from the fire crackled upwards into the night sky and disappeared.
It had been a good evening, and the food had been especially tasty. Sam had fetched something back the previous night that looked like rabbit, and it seemed to tear apart and cook so well, despite not having been hung. Meat on the bone usually did cook nicely, and he seemed to have the knack of bringing back a wide variety of different things."
Nice! So I’ve started by describing something dynamic about the current scene, then I’ve gone to past tense and told the reader that they’ve just had a nice dinner which Sam had caught, and I’ve reminded the reader that he’s good at it. This means I’ve said something and then pulled the reader off to something else, but not for long. So now in their brains there are two things going on. I’ve also told the reader roughly what it is that they’ve been eating, which is important if the monkey wants to steal it.

Now what?
"Now the four of them were all laid on the grass around the pit."
Yes, but again not enough.
"watching the last of the fire die away, and enjoying the warmth."
Great, that’s better because it tells you what they were feeling as they laid by the fire too. What about this food that the monkey wants to steal? At some point I’ll have to describe it, and now seems like a good place.
"A few morsels of meat on a discarded bone sat on one of the stones that surrounded the fire."
Good, because I said it was like rabbit so it’s small and it has bones. And the monkey? Well, I could just say that there was a monkey up a tree, but let’s not give away the fact that it’s a monkey yet:
"From a safe vantage point a few feet away up a tree, a pair of eyes was watching them with great interest."
Read it all back. Yes, it sounds good, and now the character is going to talk about her dream and I can be direct about that, so let’s just change the subject now.
"'I had a dream,’ said Tilly."
Sounds OK, but this is the evening and they are tired and lazy and chilled, and the world is slow, so let’s make it:
"'I had a dream,’ said Tilly eventually, watching a particularly large spark float upwards."
That sounds a whole lot better, and it sounds dream-like too.

Read it all back yet again.

I notice that the eyes were watching and Tilly was watching, so I’ve said watching twice in two sentences. I’ll say that the eyes were observing them. That sounds more mysterious and I’m not repeating the word watching.

Put it all together and read it yet again:
"Sparks from the fire crackled upwards into the night sky and disappeared. 
It had been a good evening, and the food had been especially tasty. Sam had fetched something back the previous night that looked like rabbit, and it seemed to tear apart and cook so well, despite not having been hung. Meat on the bone usually did cook nicely, and he seemed to have the knack of bringing back a wide variety of different things. 
Now the four of them were all laid on the grass around the pit, watching the last of the fire die away, and enjoying the warmth. A few morsels of meat on a discarded bone sat on one of the stones that surrounded the fire. 
From a safe vantage point a few feet away up a tree, a pair of eyes was observing them with great interest. 
‘I had a dream,’ said Tilly eventually, watching a particularly large spark float upwards."
Now take it apart again:

I’ve described what is currently happening in the scene using the sparks from the fire because that’s a movement in what would otherwise be a fairly static picture. Then I’ve gone to the past tense and told the reader what the characters had been doing, which was having dinner, and I’ve told them what they were eating and reminded them that Sam fetches back a lot of nice things.

Then I’ve returned to the present again and told the reader what the characters are doing now, and how they are feeling, and described some of the remains of dinner, which I’ll need later.

I’ve then told the reader that the characters are being watched by a pair of eyes, but the characters don’t know that and, at this point in time the reader doesn’t know what they are. That’s a bit of pending suspense, which I can return to during the chapter and resolve later, so it provides an additional element of ongoing interest.

Now I can get down to business because the scene is set, and I can cut to Tilly, who we know is lying by the fire. I want to make it clear that she is probably on her back looking up, so that can be done by referring to the sparks. That seems to close the little loop quite nicely because we’re now back to visualising movement again, which is where we came in.

I’ve read it through at least half a dozen times, so any obvious typos are fixed, I’ve spotted that the word ‘watching’ was repeated in two adjacent sentences and fixed that because it sounded wrong, so it’s pretty much done now.

Now I’ll read it through aloud so that I can get the commas in the places where I need to pause, and make sure that one or more complete sentences can be read properly in one breath. That helps when I narrate the audiobook because I know it will read well and sound nice. I don’t want to change it at all for the narration because then the published text won’t match the audio.

At some point, probably after a few days, I’ll return to that chapter, read the end of the previous one as a run-in to it and check that they join together without sounding odd. By then I’ll have lost the immediate memory I had of the scene when I was writing it, so that exercise will tell me whether the words rebuild the image of the scene properly in my mind, or whether there are things in the picture that need to be there but which I didn’t describe.

I enjoy the process. There’s enjoyment in the thinking and the writing, and satisfaction in reading back the finished fragment of work. It’s an odd situation to find myself in, for someone who failed English and didn’t like analysing books.

About Snowflakes

snowflakes, book, steve-catto

Two lost girls become involved in a love triangle with Sam, a hunter, after setting up house in an abandoned old cottage near a river. Life appears perfect, until one of the girls discovers what Sam really does when he goes out hunting at night, and then the fabric of their dream world begins to unravel. 

Can following their dreams take any of them home, and what does that mean anyway? Who is the girl that never speaks, and what are the strange shapes that appear in the half-light? Is their existence being shadowed by a darker force and, if so, why does it seem determined to help them? 

A journey involving secrets whispered on the riverbank under Arcadian skies, evenings around the fire and deep introspection about the meaning of life. Also mystery, suspense, swords, guns, assassinations... and a small monkey.

Snowflakes is available to buy now.

Have you found Steve's advice useful? Let me know in the comments below!

Monday 10 July 2017

Interview: Nico Lee

This morning I have comedy author Nico Lee on the blog for a chat about writing, books, inspiration and his novel A Good Lie Ain't Easy.

To start off, tell me a little about your background.

At the moment my background is Leeds Bus Station, which tells you all you need to know about the life of a successfully published author in 2017. At least it’s National Express and not the Mega Bus - one must maintain standards. After all, I am solidly working class. Although I’ve now found, after many years, that accessing my inner Cockney can be a daunting task; it seems the accent just drifted away from me… and now I sound like I should be advertising a cure for some woefully embarrassing medical condition on late night local radio. This is what happens when you go to university. That and a newfound inability to pronounce quinoa the way it’s actually spelt. In fact, looking at artisanal bread and knowing what spelt is, is another symptom.  
My father had no time for such loafing about. He was a refuse collector, my mother a cleaner. We come from dust… and then we attended Kent to study English & Philosophy in that brief window of time when you could come from a background of having no flippin’ cash and still be able to do so. God bless the full grant. Since then? Other than the hideous inconvenience of having to pay the rent, I’ve spent most of the rest of my adult life singing in bands, and generally lollygagging around.

How did you first become interested in writing?

I guess it may be something innate, but mum did read to me quite a bit as a nipper. I spent a lot of time back then writing little plays, in my head, for my Action Man, which never did seem to include him being ‘the greatest hero of them all’ as it said in the adverts - more a despicable rogue. This jaded approach found a mirror when I started to read the comic 2000ad in the late 1970s. I never wrote S.F. though, more stuff that was just… I dunno, wrong? A bit odd?  
One of my most vivid memories was finding a copy of Playboy in a hedge when I was a wee lad - strangely for a precocious little tyke, it wasn’t just the nudes that stayed with me. Back then they were still attempting to legitimise the magazine by commissioning articles by various famous writers. Reading William Burroughs and the cartoons of Robert Crumb when you are 9 years old is bound to inspire you. Probably to get arrested… but, fortunately, I internalised these influences and allowed them rarely to escape. I learnt my lesson after I wrote a short story at school where someone is murdered using a trouser press and my teacher marked it down for being ‘fantastical, made up’- at the time I argued isn’t that what a story is? Bloody kids, eh?

Tell me about A Good Lie Ain’t Easy.

It’s a novel about not staying true to yourself and all the joy that can bring to family and friends. Set on the road somewhere between the cheap ache of nostalgia and the numb regret of last night, it charts the trajectory of four young drifters set to wandering, in a time so primitive that Grindr was just a really bitchin' Death Metal band, and... well, that’s roughly what is says on Amazon, so it must be true.  
A Good Lie Ain't Easy, Nico Lee, book
It’s had a few reviews so far - one of which very kindly said that if I continue to write in this vein I will surely garner a cult following, one that said it was a roller-coaster of a debut and another described it as a gem. I wanted it to sit somewhere between it being a solid piece of well written and emotionally affecting literature and on the other hand… well, I wanted it to be funny, amusing at least, as I can’t see why you can’t do both - and that’s certainly how I believe life to be. A veil of tears that obscures one’s vision on a path that leads inexorably towards the inevitable banana skin.

How do you get inspiration?

I think generally it comes and gets you. When the desire to write is flowing, it is an unstoppable beast and a pain in the neck. Rising at god-forsaken hours, your fingers smashing the keyboard in a flurry of two-fingered desperation. Or, if out walking, you’re writing endless notes in half legible biro on the back of train tickets. A Good Lie Ain’t Easy, which is your standard 63,000 words in length, was written in a week and a half. Which means that I owe the person I was on holiday with at least half a holiday’s worth of apologies. I’ll admit it took a lot longer than that to, somewhat sporadically, edit it, but I’m definitely not one of those who rise every day at 9am and writes x number of words - I write instead when I am compelled.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Getting people to read it. I lucked out in getting published because a friend of a friend of a friend of a… was looking to publish fiction for the first time (Mega Dodo Press generally publishes music biographies) and they found the first few pages of the book, when I submitted it, hilarious. Now all I have to do is get reviewers to review it and people to buy it. It’s a long haul and I’m useless at social media… however I’m even worse at knitting, so I might as well, you know, give it a go.

What do you love most about writing?

It isn’t knitting. Or maybe it’s the hours? Is it the hours? Sometimes they let me touch the yellow crayons? Really, I love that they don’t have to put my dumb face on the cover of the book. When you’re singing, for instance, a lot of how you are judged has everything to do with your personal image - which is irrelevant. I guess if you just released albums and hid on an island… with writing, individuals either get what you’re doing or not - they judge you just on this. What you’ve thrown on the page. It’s unrestricted access to someone else’s head, both ways. Here try these words. Do they smell good to you?

Do you find it difficult to write comedy?

I think you either are the kind of person who has offended people all your life or you don’t write comedy. If in any given situation you sometimes find your mouth racing for the joke so fast, you have no idea what you yourself are about to say and you laugh at the same time the room does and also sometimes when the room is looking at you like, ‘what kind of an animal would say that, five minutes after his mother died?’ then you are probably the rube for the job. Difficult doesn’t enter into it. You are driven to it. Whether anyone else laughs is a different matter.
author, Nico Lee

Which authors inspire you?

Nabokov. Nabokov. Nabokov. Say his name three times and he appears in the patterns of your wallpaper. References aside - actually does he inspire or just make me want to give up? Damn, he’s so good. He’s very wittily dry on occasion too, but you’d never guess from most reviews. Then I guess, Thomas Pynchon. Proust. I respect Joyce but he just doesn’t quite ‘do it’ for me. Then it’s odd books rather than an entire particular author’s oeuvre. 

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

I have only just been published. Given my age? That is indicative of how lazy I have been, at least up until fairly recently. So my first advice is carpe piggin’ diem. This question I’m guessing isn’t so much about how to become a writer, how to write - as that is a personal, random thing - so much as how to get published, or taken on by an agent. I was lucky, but not lucky enough to have attended the same school as the head of Harper Collins. Also, I’m a bit old school. I tend to think that what makes a great writer may be antithetical to what makes a successful one.  
It seems the only way to grab attention, especially now, is by building social networks - something that shouldn’t be normal for someone who chiefly should have their head in a book, learning the craft or be observing rather than partaking in life. That is a little specious. You do need to live. Engage. I mean, observation is essential and even Facebook/Twitter et al are tools that can facilitate that but learning from other writers combined with your own real world experience, that is what makes an author, in the main, I guess… Also listen. Listen all the time. Listen to your friend’s stories. Again, live some of your own. Of course, nothing would beat being related to a mainstream publisher - unfortunately, I’ve yet to work out how to arrange that, after the fact.

What’s your all-time favourite book?

I think the best book ever, ever, ever… ever, ever written may well be The Gift By Nabokov, (I may have read Tolstoy, but I haven’t got round to War and Peace yet, so what do I know… and I’ve only read Ulysses once, a shocking admission) but my favourite? That’s Ada by the same author. It’s often accused of being over-blown. But I would argue that this a deliberate ploy which comments on the moral bankruptcy of the central protagonist - in much the same way that Humbert in Lolita is allowed to hoist himself with pretension as well as his reprehensible tastes.  
I’m looking forward hopefully to that moment where I get a review which conflates this author with his creation just so I can fume too. That is the disadvantage of writing non-fantasy. No-one asks J.K. Rowling what it’s like being a twelve-year-old boy that rides brooms. Although I have heard from a reliable source that Stephen King was covered in pig’s blood on his prom night.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing?

I think ‘being’ a writer is not dependent on being published. So unless they are going to ban paper - which, hey, given the way this world is going is not without possibility, I will always be a writer. I will always sing too. Can’t stop it. I get paid for it now as well, better than I do for writing, anyway - so some buffoons… I mean discerning audiophiles, must like it. My 1920’s band The Devil’s Jukebox just played the National Laurel and Hardy Convention - and you have not lived, my friend, until you have led in song a packed ballroom full of grown men in fezes through ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’.

What are your interests outside of writing and reading?

Man, I love to dance. Dance like a maniac. That’s not very authorial - although Virginia Woolf could apparently do a mean foxtrot. I also like pina colada's and getting caught in the rain… no, wait a minute that’s not me, that’s Jimmy Buffet. Er… Film. I love film. Fellini. Jodorowsky. Svankmajer. Jarmusch. Stranger Than Paradise and Withnail and I are the two biggest non-literary influences on my novel.

What are you currently working on?

A novel set in 2035 in Japan. But it’s more Big Lebowski than Ghost in the Shell. It has the working title of Tokyo-yo but we will see.

A Good Lie Ain't Easy is available to buy now. For more information about Nico and his writing, you can hop on over to his website.

What do you think? Are you a fan of comedic fiction? Let me know in the comments below!

Saturday 8 July 2017

Guest Post: The Writing Process by Richard Abbott-Brailey

The inspiration for this book came from a history documentary about the retreating Spanish Armada, and how much of it was dashed upon the rocks during the worst storm in around 100 years. I tried to imagine what it might have been like to observe these ships being thrashed against the rugged coastline of the west of Ireland; perhaps looking at the bodies washed up on the shore. And then Azarias Tor was born – an accidental time traveller, whose father lived in a future some 170 years ahead. And the rest is history - or is it? I then developed the idea that a corrupt body is designing their present day world, our distant future, by manipulating the past, our history, and their history, to suit their own needs.

As for the characters, I wanted them, in this world anyway, to appear fairly normal, on the surface, yet have their demons, and the baggage of their history, weighing them down. In the future, the characters appear much more self-assured and confident, though their weaknesses are exposed later in the story. Aside from exposing the weaknesses of the main characters I wanted to portray the inner strength which most of us possess, wherein we would go beyond the call of duty to help other, even if that means making the ultimate sacrifice! With regards to research, I went out of my way to ensure that all details regarding weather on particular days, in certain locations, and that all music and fashion was appropriate to the time.

The biggest challenge, when writing the book, involved the use of time – finding time to write when I was working full time as a teacher. However, I managed to overcome that obstacle.

The whole experience of writing the book has been a journey but I think the fact that I have developed characters that deserve to live on in other books has been very rewarding. I have also enjoyed the many hours lost in the worlds invented in my mind, living with these imagined characters. More than that, though, has to the fact that the pub, with the mobile phone collection, does exist, though the people are fictitious. I used to wait in the bar for my wife to collect me, and I decided to incorporate the bar and the phones into the story. Finally, here, I would give consideration to the joy I experienced when I declared that I had finished, reached the end, only to later realise that I had more to write, and much to edit.

I suppose, initially, my target market is people who like to read for the sake of reading, and want to read. Beyond that my target audience would be anyone who follows the like of Dr Who, looper movies and stories, science fiction addicts – young adult upwards, though the book does contain themes of an adult nature, and scenes that some readers might find distressing. I wrote the book, with a view to producing a series, and developed the character, with ordinariness in mind, where the protagonist, in spite of his past, is living a fairly ordinary life, wherein he discovers the extraordinary within himself. I like to think that we all have this element, to be able to exceed our own expectations and rise to meet the occasion in moments of need –when others need our help. With that in mind I also wanted to explore the idiosyncrasies that make us tick, and the pain of loss, grief, and sacrifice, in the hope that readers may empathise, even sympathise, with the character’s malaise. Finally, I want the reader to believe that time travel is possible, or feasible!

About Azarias Tor

azarias-tor, book, richard-abbott-brailey

Do we make history or does history make us what we are? Do we allow our lives to be dictated by history or do we attempt to make our history the ‘new' future; do we have an impact in history, and the future, or do we allow ourselves to be the ‘victims' of the impact of history upon us, having the future shaped for us by others?

Imagine that there are people out there who will make us part of their history, and make their future our future; world leaders, artists, authors, and scientists. But what of the ordinary people - in the neighbourhood, or that person in their car, passing you on the road? Is that person harbouring secrets that you could not begin to comprehend? What if that person had secrets that they are not aware of; secrets that could have a major impact on the lives of everyone, everywhere, throughout the whole of time?

Azarias Tor is available to buy now.

About Richard Abbott-Brailey

richard abbott-brailey

The author was born in London and attended school in Watford having moved there with his family when he was aged eight. After spending some years working in the retail sector, and in sales, he returned to education as a mature student, obtaining a BA (Hons). Following a spell working in theatre, in lighting and stage management, he qualified as a secondary school teacher. An alumnus of The Central School of Speech and Drama, Richard now lives in Northumberland with his wife, Hilary, and two cats.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Friday 7 July 2017

Book Review: Surrender by Sonya Hartnett

Last Updated: 3 July 2021

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett book cover

AD* | I am dying: it's a beautiful word. Like the long slow sigh of a cello: dying. But the sound of it is the only beautiful thing about it.

As life slips away, Gabriel looks back over his brief twenty years, which have been clouded by frustration and humiliation. A small, unforgiving town and distant, punitive parents ensure that he is never allowed to forget the horrific mistake he made as a child. He has only two friends - his dog, Surrender, and the unruly wild boy, Finnigan, a shadowy doppelganger with whom the meek Gabriel once made a boyhood pact.

But when a series of arson attacks grips the town, Gabriel realises how unpredictable and dangerous Finnigan is. As events begin to spiral violently out of control, it becomes devastatingly clear that only the most extreme measures will rid Gabriel of Finnigan for good.

Thursday 6 July 2017

Guest Post: Who Gets to Write What in Fiction by Andrea Jones

offshore, book, andrea-jones

The shadowy, shape-shifting possibilities of Brexit and the Trump administration have had some positive effects – in publishing at least.

Diversity is in demand. Agent and editor calls for ‘own voice’ narratives are at an all-time high.

Some observers call it a trend, and that’s the wrong word. The movement is more well-intentioned than ‘trend’ suggests.

More likely it’s a way to resist. To prove that we don’t live in a monochrome, monosyllabic world. We have vibrancy, colour and nuance. And we want to hear, see and read these things in people’s own words.

It's right and important.

But, as a fiction writer (whose job it is to put themselves and their readers into worlds they can never experience) ‘own voices’ presents some heavy existential questions:
  • Can/should you write what you don’t know?
  • And if you do, is it cultural appropriation?
I struggled with these questions for years.

Because I had two stories that I equally needed to tell.

One narrative was familiar: about a bitterly frazzled career woman, leaning out of the relentless and toxic 9-5 culture that we're told defines us here in the West.

The other narrative was about a Syrian refugee. A Middle Eastern male. Someone with the kind of psychological fault lines I hope to never, ever know.

Ostensibly, he couldn’t be further away from my culture and experience, and so I told myself: you can’t do this. You shouldn’t do this. Why the hell are you doing this?

The answer was simple. I wanted (needed) to humanise beyond news spin and statistics; to create empathy in an increasingly dark world. But as much as I wanted to document, I was aware of the political tension on my page. I was scared to misstep, or screw up, or cross that fine, fine line between exposition and exploitation.

My character only came good when I pushed through doubt and learned this lesson: as writers, we need to focus on our common humanity, rather than the identity markers that separate us.

Research and verification are the foundations of documenting what we don’t know. But it's digging deeper, hunting for the common threads, that gives us the confidence to write outside our own worldview.

And what you don’t know, you can almost surely extrapolate.

I’ve never been forced out of my home, for example. But I have voluntarily immigrated, and I know what it feels like to have to start again.

I don’t know what it feels like to be in detention. But I do know what it feels like to be trapped in a cubicle for forty precious hours a week; my bones itching with the knowledge that I should be being and doing something else.

There are realities common to us all. Whoever we are, and wherever we come from.

So if you're doubting your project, but can't let it lie, just write it out.

Balance research with your humanity and you might just have fiction for our times.

About Offshore

Kate Maddison 'Leaned In' and now she's Burned Out. Lost and disillusioned, she volunteers in a Channel Island detention centre and meets Abra, a displaced Syrian detained after he's caught trying to enter the UK in the post-Brexit age.

Two damaged souls meet and mend – or at least begin to. Because the secretive offshore camp they find themselves in isn’t what it appears to be.

But that's fine.

Neither is Abra.

Or even Kate herself...

Offshore is available to buy now.

About Andrea Jones

Andrea Jones is a British journalist, author and outlier. She looks at the status quo and instead of just saying, sure, asks: why?

The question that usually follows is: what if...?

What if everything dark and destructive in our society could be challenged by the power of subversion and storytelling...?

What do you think? Should writers push boundaries or stick within their comfort zones? Let me know in the comments below!