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Monday, 30 March 2015

This Writing Life...

I'm on holiday this week, lazing around the beautiful Costa del Back Garden. Although I might not be chained to my desk, the writing never stops. I've just sent out my spring newsletter, so if you'd like to read an extract from my current work in progress (working title, Love On The Run) get the recipe for Jamaica Orange Cake, or hear some great news about one of my street team, join my mailing list by signing in to the box on the right of this page.

This week I'll be reading through the extracts submitted for the workshop being run by the local chapter of the Romantic Novelists' Association. Each of the eight people taking part sent a piece of writing to the co-ordinator, who circulated anonymous versions of all the samples. We read and make comments on each one, which we then discuss when we meet up at the day-long workshop. It's a really productive exercise. We've all picked up loads of ideas and improved our writing after holding previous events, and I'm really looking forward to this next one.

I write up a few nature notes nearly every day, and today it will be all about choruses: dawn and frog. Every morning I'm out before dawn, either running, or checking the greenhouses. This morning a dunnock fell out of bed to join me with an alarm call at about 6am, but the robins and other birds didn't join him until about 6:15. The territories of five singing thrushes overlap in our garden, and I waste a lot of time standing and listening to them. You can get a taste of their song here. It's hard to believe such lovely sounds are really war cries and warnings to rivals!
By Dick Daniels

Our wildlife pond has been alive with frogs, newts and toads for weeks. The water boils with amphibian action,  but spawn has only just started appearing in large amounts. The pond needs an overhaul. It's the ambition of every small body of water to become dry land (or at least bog), so it's an endless struggle stopping it silting up. That's going to be a long, wet and muddy job for somebody. Maybe I'll book a holiday away from home when that crops up on the "to do" list!

If you're on holiday this week, I hope you can manage to get out and about in the fresh air. What's your favourite sign of spring?

PS: If you fancy trying out my Jamaica Orange Cake at Easter, don't forget to sign up to my mailing list, in the box on the right.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Birth Of A Book, Part Six—Writing, Reading and Rewriting...

By Antonio Litterio
In the first five parts of this series, I've covered finding ideas, character development, planning (or not)basic three-act structure and dirty drafts. If you've got your first, rough draft down on paper and you've managed to put it aside to mellow for a while, you'll be raring to go.

Now's the time to tie everything together. This is where the old line "write about what you know" can be both a blessing and a curse. Inside knowledge is perfect for adding details, and that's the problem. If you're a mechanic writing a thriller, you're the ideal person to give tantalising glimpses of the power of getaway cars, and the intimate luxury of limousines. Just make sure you only salt your work with facts, rather than pickle it in brine.   John Grisham gives enough detail in his legal thrillers such as The Firm to fill you in and keep you reading—he's careful not to make you feel you need a Bar exam to read his books.

What if your book is a personal memoir,  and you think you don't have technical expertise in any field? Think again. Everyone knows how it feels to be hungry, thirsty, disappointed or excited. You're an expert in being you. Put your own personal spin on your fictional characters. Deepen their conflicts by drawing on your experience of your own feelings, and the reactions you've seen in other people. Use all your senses to enliven your work. The sound and feel of fresh snow crunching under your feet, the sight of clouds rushing across a March landscape in fitful spring sunshine, the fragrance and taste of fresh baking...writing is a chance to indulge your creativity, so get thinking!

Make sure you do plenty of external research to get all your technical details correct. Don't feel you have to include everything you know, or find out—see the comment about John Grisham's books, above. Keep some things in reserve, complete with all references, so you can answer any questions put to you by your readers.  I used my memories of a recent holiday at a luxurious spa to spice up His Majesty's Secret Passion, then double-checked everything I could.  

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From Amazon, with love: http://amzn.to/14udZUC
However brilliant you are, there'll always be someone out there who knows (or thinks they know) more than you do—even if it's only your mum. You owe it to your readers to get everything as near-perfect as you can. As well as checking specialist facts and figures, don't forget the little things. Unless you're writing about an alternative universe, don't say the date's 30th February, or give England tropical temperatures on Christmas Day. Stranger things have happened—but not many.

Once you've produced a detailed second draft, take the time (and the throat sweets) read it through aloud to yourself. I use this step to produce a timeline, too, if I haven't done one already. This makes sure everyone and everything hangs together. Make all the alterations and amendments your work needs, then repeat the reading and nit-picking as often as it takes to make your work perfect.

Then comes the moment when you find out whether your manuscript can survive in the wider world. If you have a friend you can trust to give you impartial advice, get them to read your work. A fresh pair of eyes will shine like searchlights through holes in your plot, and pick out the kind of typos and inconsistencies  we all miss when we're poring over our work. It needs distance to be able to spot these things. I type "form" instead of "from" and vice versa all the time. However careful I am about reading back and checking, my Beta reader almost always finds one that's slipped past me.

 If you think your friend will be either too kind or too harsh (it can happen!), employ a professional Beta reader. Word of mouth is the best recommendation, but there are plenty of ads in writing magazines, and online. Check them out thoroughly before you part with any money.

Once you've polished your book until it gleams, put it aside again for at least another week while you get on with the next important steps in the birth of a book: starting the next one and finding a market. Those topics are going to be the next parts parts in my Birth Of A Book series. To make sure you catch them, sign up to my blog clicking on the link above, or email me at christinahollis(at)hotmail.co.uk with the word "Blog" in the subject line, replacing the word "at" with @ in my address.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Archers: This Is The End, My Friend?

An everyday view of country life...
The Archers on BBC Radio 4 used to be like a big slice of chocolate cake at the end of a hard day. It was a harmless indulgence. A pick-me-up containing a few ingredients that might even do you some good (well, eggs and butter are off the verboten list now, aren't they?), if only psychologically.

Lately it's become cigarettes and absinthe—a deadly habit I just can't kick. How I wish I could, especially after the past few months when, as I predicted in my other blogs here about The Archers, it feels more like Eastenders on Am.

I don't have the heart to go through all the ways this programme has failed me, and a lot of other listeners, recently. If you want a taste of public opinion, read the comments on The Archers Facebook Page (beware trolls), The Archers Blog, and #thearchers on twitter. All this social media was set up by the BBC to create an interactive community, but they never seem to do any interacting themselves, or act to stem the rising tide (a fitting image) of complaints.

How I Spent My Last Sabbatical From The Archers...
The night of The Flood dragged out over every evening for a week was a perfect example of a great opportunity wasted. I was once caught up in a real-life flash flood that killed several people. The hell portrayed by The Archers was realistic—it was the execution that was all wrong. The drama should have been condensed into a one-hour special. As proof of this idea, it worked well as an omnibus, but as five (was it only five? It felt like five hundred) chunks of 13 minutes, it was an incoherent mess. Floods are a short burst of mindless terror, not a week of fancy sound effects.

The Archers team is very proud of their research among farmers and others caught up in last year's flooding. Unfortunately, that simply reveals another great flaw in this storyline. How many of the farmers they interviewed will ever be caught out by flood water again?  Despite this dry winter, every landowner I know in Somerset has kept one ear to weather forecasts, and has been even more scrupulous than usual about clearing out drainage systems. If the scriptwriters had let a few years elapse before using this story, complacency might have set in among real-life people living on flood plains, and it could have served as a useful reminder.

What sort of farmers don't take any notice of online weather warnings so thoughtfully put out for them by the BBC? Wait—I know! The sort of farmers who wanted to move an entire dairy enterprise to the other end of the country, and  invest shedloads of money they didn't have, in creating a brand-new dairy farm at a time when milk prices are on the floor. In other words, idiots. Who wants to listen to a drama about such unbelievable, unloveable characters?

Which brings me to my final rant. A member of the Mustardland online community of Archers listeners wrote a letter of complaint to the BBC. They received a form letter in reply, full of platitudes and basically saying The Archers was cutting edge drama with millions of faithful listeners. The inference was that this is how it's going to be from now on, so get used to it.

The sneering dismissal of anyone who dares shine a light into this growing gloom is bad enough. The fact that I, and several other people I know, received exactly the same letter—word for word apart from our names, and complaint reference numbers—makes it ten times worse.

The Archers is going to feature on Radio 4's Feedback programme this week. I'd like to think the programme will kick its usual habit of letting The Powers That Be tell all complainants they're wrong and the editor and scriptwriters are completely right, but I'm not holding my breath.

Those who live by social media may die by it. I really hope it doesn't kill off The Archers I once knew, and loved.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Birth Of A Book, Part Five—Getting Down And Dirty...

By Antonio Litterio
...it's time to get creative. If you've been following the first four parts of this series, you'll have a stash of ideas, and you'll know the importance of detailed characters, and a strong basic structure. To catch up on any of the parts you may have missed, here are the links: From Thinking To WritingFinding The Heart And Soul Of Your BookFind Your Writing Style and The Basic Three Act Structure For Creative Writing.

All (!) you have to do now is put the advice into action, so sit down and write. Nobody can put those words together for you, and that's the beauty of it. Your work is as individual as you are. The problem is, those words and ideas are no use to you, or anyone else, while they're inside your head. To get them noticed, put them down on paper, or up on screen.

I'm a great believer in the dirty draft. Once you've worked out the who, what, when, where and why of your major characters, live with them for a while. Don't start writing until they stop being characters, and become real people for you. Then imagine you've opened a vein—let the words flow fast. The important thing at this stage is to get something down. Editing your written work is about a million times easier than staring at a blank screen (and ten million times more productive), so start and don't stop when you run out of words. Stop when you still feel you could write all night. Then your story will be so desperate to be told, it'll keep your imagination on high alert until your next writing session.

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Once you've typed The End, you reach the hardest part of being a writer (since the last hardest part, and until you come to the next hardest part). That's when you put your work away for a while. It must be out of sight, and out of mind. If it's on a computer, save it to a flash drive, and email it to yourself as well, as insurance. Then go and do something completely different from writing. Hike a long distance path. Join a gym. Go on holiday. Do anything but touch your finished dirty draft. This break gives you and your work a chance to mellow after the ferocity of the writing process. A cooling off period puts your work, like a teenage affair, into perspective. Leave it for at least a week, but preferably much longer. If you use the time to plan, and begin writing, your next book the time will go much faster. A head start on your follow-up project is important if you want to make wiring your career.

You'll be glad to know writers and their drafts have a much better chance of long-term success than playground partnerships. You can alter and improve your first love in written form to your heart's content—you can't do that with real people!

Next time, I'll be talking about the process of reviewing and editing your work. Do you revise and edit as you go, or do you use the dirty draft method outlined above? There's a signed copy of my current release, His Majesty's Secret Passion, for a comment drawn at random after 9th March.