Thursday, 26 November 2009

Washing Away Words

Well, what a week it's been, since I last blogged. Anyone would think the Weather Gods had decided that Simon was not going to be distracted from working on his novel by nice weather tempting him onto the fells instead.

I'm sure many of you will have seen the devastating floods in the north Lakes at Cockermouth and Workington on the news, but the people in the South Lakes are suffering too.
The first picture here of the flooded road is my one and only road to civilisation. Just outside Hawkshead, Esthwaite Water had suddenly expanded over night in the early hours of last Friday morning. Nowhere was accessible by car. Luckily, I found a footpath, which enabled me to bypass the flooded road (passable only by tractors) and made it into Hawkshead. I needed bread and milk, and I wondered if the Co-op would be open, because it was currently undergoing a refurbishment.

I was therefore delighted to see that it was (although I think the refurbishment wasn't quite complete, but due to the flooding, the decision had been taken to open early.) The second picture is of the queue. It took over half an hour for me to reach the tills. In the meantime, people kept leaving their baskets in the queue and nipping to a shelf and picking up something else for their baskets. The locals kept joking with the manageress that this was all a cunning plan - just have one till open, keep the queues long, and the customers will keep topping their baskets up whilst they wait! Suffice to say that the Dunkirk spirit is alive and well. The third picture is of a house in Hawkshead that did not fair well during the downpour. Sadly, there are many other places in the south Lakes like this.

I don't know how many of you have been to the Lake District, but if you've ever seen the jetties at Bowness on Windermere, you may be surprised to know that yesterday evening (Wednesday), 6 days after the main weather event, those jetties still cannot be seen because they are under so much water. There are many businesses that will take years to recover from this.

More and more roads are becoming passable each day - I finally managed to get the car out on Monday, although, those roads that are not underwater are littered with branches and stones. At times it's like driving over gravel, so many rocks and stones have been washed onto roads. And many of the stone walls have been destroyed, simply by the force of the water washing them away.

The fourth picture here is of the current weather. If you listen to the weather forecast, Cumbria is having some respite from the rain. I suppose we are in a way - this is hail! Rumour has it though, that there may be some sunshine on Sunday. Wayhay!

So, what with the weather, literally, cutting me off from the rest of the world, how's it going with the novel, I hear you ask. Actually, not bad.

One of the reasons I'm doing this, is because I paid for a professional critique to be carried out on my text. Essentially, I was told two things - the novel was 30,000 words too long, and that the genre was not a particularly commercial one. (i.e. it isn't a crime novel!) but if I deleted those 30,000 words, I would have a novel of publishable quality. Another comment made was that there are no 'nice' female characters in my novel for female readers to empathise with.

I'd been thinking about this a lot, and decided that perhaps this was something I needed to rectify. So whilst I've been deleting words, I've also been adding more! I created a new female character and as I included her in more scenes, I really got to like her. I'd added her into about a third of the book and then I stopped and re-read what I'd rewritten.

I didn't like it. Whilst it wasn't 'padding' because I'd been able to slot her into the plot easily, and she'd enabled me to add some interesting twists to the plot, she had made an impact on the pace of the novel. It was much slower. I'd like to think that novel is a good old fashioned British farce, and therefore pace is important. I had a decision to make.

So, I put on my walking boots and went out (in the rain) and stretched my legs around the ever expanding Esthwaite Water. About an hour later, when I returned, I'd made my decision. My new female character had to go. I liked her, but she wasn't right for this book. (I'm sure she'll have an important role in my next one!)

I therefore spent the next few days deleting and rewriting everything I'd written and rewritten over the past few days. When I reread my text again, I was much happier. The pace was back. Doors are slamming once again, rather than being left ajar. (door slamming is important in British farce.)

What's this taught me? Actually, it's taught me to have more confidence in my text. In the professional critique, the main criticism was the length of the book. The female character for female readers to empathise with was more of a personal opinion of the professional reader, not a criticism of the novel's structure itself. Re-reading the critique reminded me that the plot works, it moves forward at a good pace, and my characters are appropriate for the genre.

In light of this, I'm back to simply cutting and honing my text. Sometimes, the errors I spot are embarrassing! For example, I had a character in a building on her own, and she mutters something under her breath. At the end of the sentence I'd used the phrase "she muttered to herself." Well, if she's in the building on her own, then who else is she going to be muttering to? The reader knows she's alone, therefore the reader knows she's talking to herself! Duh!

So, whilst a lot of the editing is the usual deleting of unnecessary adverbs, there's also a lot of 'common sense' deleting taking place too. It's surprising how often we writers repeat information.

Now, if you'll excuse me, the hail has stopped. It's raining once more. I'm going back to washing away some more of my words from my novel.

Good luck.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Safe and Sound

Just a quick post to thank everyone for their concerned queries during this weather event in Cumbria. I am safe and sound, on high ground, with enough provisions to see me through to the middle of next week, so I have no need to venture out at all.

This is the road to Hawkshead, my nearest village about a mile away, which is only passable if you have a Land Rover (and then, it comes up over the bonnet!). Technically, I am stranded. All roads are blocked. Cumbria has seen 18 inches (about 45cm) of rain since the beginning of November, of which 16 inches (40cm) have fallen since this Tuesday. Locally, the Met office are calling this a 'one in a thousand years' event.

Where I'm staying is above Esthwaite Water (the lake that has flooded the Hawkshead Road above) however, the volume of rain has flooded the cellar here at the property, which has knocked the heating out. Thankfully, it isn't cold though. I still have electricity too!

And even if I lose that, I have a head torch with batteries that last 140 hours, and because I'm working on the novel, I'm using a red pen to highlight the words I want to delete on the manuscript, so I shall still be able to work!

My thoughts though are with the family of the missing Policeman and all those other people who have been flooded out in Cockermouth, Keswick, Coniston, Ambleside, Windermere, Kendal and Ulverston.

Stay safe.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Batten Down The Hatches!

Well, greetings from week 2 in the Lake District. The picture is of my 'office'. How's the weather with you? I only ask because on Monday night I was talking at Carlisle Writers group and it took me nearly two hours to do the 60 miles through wind, rain and hail. It was worth it though because they were a friendly bunch and we had a good laugh.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the Met Office have said that 2.5 inches of rain fell in Cumbria and today they are forecasting another 4 to 8 inches of rain within the next 24 hours! Who knows, by Saturday the Lake District may just have one very large lake - I'll call it Lake Cumbria.

Of course, as far as I'm concerned, this isn't a problem. The family have all gone home now, leaving me on my own to do what I planned to do whilst I was up here - deleting all those words from my novel. I'm stocked up with food, and more importantly, teabags, so I'm set for the next few days. Which is probably just as well because Kendal is no longer accessible by road from the north.

But all this talk of bad weather has got me thinking. Do you mention 'weather' in your writing? Whilst fiction writers should avoid the classic cliche, "It was a dark and stormy night", this does show how weather can set the mood of a scene. It can be a great tool in our "show, don't tell" toolbox.

Reading through the last six of the stories I've written, I've noticed that I've only mentioned the weather once - when a character had to shield their eyes from the sun. This simple action conveys much to the reader. This is not a weak, washed-out sun trying to burn its way through autumnal mist and fog, this is a strong 'glaring' sun, the type that makes you sneeze if you don't take avoiding action. This is the type of sun that appears on days with clear blue skies.

So don't tell your readers that it was raining, show the weather in other ways. Have a character getting drenched by the cheap umbrella which inverted itself in the slightest breeze. That tells the reader that it's raining, is windy, and that the character is too mean to buy a decent umbrella!

Of course, the weather is a useful tool to the non-fiction writer too. Many travel magazines like to see blue sky images accompanying the articles because it inspires readers to go to those places. (They'll have trouble this week in Cumbria, that's for certain!) But it is still possible to write a travel feature using bad weather as the catalyst.

I once spent a week in Wales on holiday, where it rained everyday. (Wales has a lot in common with Cumbria, it seems!) Yet, I still managed to produce a travel article from this. How? I simply wrote about roofs! By the end of the week, I realised that I'd gone to tourist attractions with a roof - well you would if it was raining, wouldn't you? So, I simply created a travel feature entitled, "Roofs of Wales". I produced a tourist drive linking the straw roofs of the Iron Age huts found at Castell Henllys Iron Age settlement, with the striking and ornate roof of St David's Cathedral, and the new 21st Century roof of the glasshouse of the National Botanical Gardens of Wales near Carmarthen. Naturally I had pictures to accompany the piece!

When I moved from Surrey to Shropshire, neighbours said, "ooh, you'll get a lot of weather up there!" Actually, in Shropshire, I get just as much weather as anywhere else in the country, it just happens to be more varied!

So whilst most of the Irish Sea and half of the Atlantic Ocean appears to be hammering at my windows panes, why don't you ask yourselves this ... is there enough weather in your writing?

Before I go, I thought I'd share one more anecdote with you. It isn't one of mine, it's one of Beatrix Potter's, which seems most appropriate seeing as I'm in Beatrix Potter country. (in fact the country house I'm staying in is adjacent to land once owned by Beatrix.) I'm reading a book entitled "The Wrong Kind of Snow" - it's a daily companion of the British Weather, so I read each entry for the relevant day. In light of all the rain we had yesterday (and will get today), I thought yesterday's entry with a quote from Beatrix Potter was quite appropriate.

"After heavy rain the hill sides are slippery, and I saw a neighbour's cow tobogganing as if she had been shot out of a gun - she flew down hill sitting on her tail. If she had not kept all her legs in front of her, she would have broken her neck, but she finished on a flat piece of grass, sitting down like a cat, just before she reached the river."

Beatrix Potter, Lake District, 18th November 1927

Good luck. (And don't forget to put your waterproofs on!)

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Will Your Reader Reach The Summit?

Just a quick post this week because I'm preparing to do a talk at Kendal Writers' Group tonight. Here's a picture taken on Monday in the Lake District (the weather was like this on Wednesday too!)

Standing at the top of Wetherlam (2,502 feet above sea level) I could see far and wide. I had a complete overview of my surrounding area - the northern Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, Morecombe Bay and in the very distance, Scotland. Height helps us put things into perspective.

I'm currently re-reading my novel and because I haven't looked at it for about a year, it's like standing at the summit of Wetherlam. Suddenly, I'm rediscovering the journey to the summit and getting a 'feel' for my surroundings. Already I've deleted passages that take readers along the wrong path and hinder them from their journey. Our writing should always push the reader forward (whether it is fiction or non-fiction). If we're giving the reader information they don't need to know, we're merely sending them in the wrong direction, which not only wastes time, but it can be so infuriating it causes the reader to abandon the journey altogether. Not what we want!

So, when you have a few spare moments, have a rummage in your notebooks or on your computer and dig out something you wrote a long time ago. Re-read it. Does it still achieve what you wanted it to when you wrote it originally? If it doesn't, cut out the dead-end paths and make the journey more direct for your reader. You'll find your work will be tighter, easier to read, informative and more authoritative.

Good Luck (with your writing ... and the weather!)

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Making Time to Write

Do you 'find' time to write, or do you 'make' time to write?

Is there a difference? Yes. 'Finding' time is when you finish doing a job (mowing the lawn, doing the ironing, preparing a meal) and then realise that you have half an hour until you need to be doing something else or until the rest of the family will descend upon you. Deciding to use this time to write is a wise move. But in reality, 'finding' time should be seen as a 'bonus'. What you need to do is 'make' time - regular time.

'Making' time is all about setting a clear time frame during which you can write. I've just had an article accepted by Writing Magazine on this very topic, so I'm not going to go into too many details here - you'll have to wait and buy the magazine to read about it(!), but I interviewed three writers who have all made the effort to 'make' time for their writing. And of course, all three are benefiting from this decision.

One bought a laptop so she could write during her lunch hour for two lunch breaks a week. Two hours of writing a week doesn't sound much, but add it up and it is equivalent to doing a full time writing job for two weeks of the year. What could you achieve in two weeks? Another writer reduced her working hours, so she spends a few days a week on her writing now, whilst another took a career break.

Some ways of making time are easier than others - finding two hours a week is easier than taking a career break. But the point is, you need to find the writing time that is right for you.

In November, there are hundreds of thousands of writers who have 'made' time. November is 'NaNoWriMo' - National Novel Writing Month and the aim is for writers to start writing a novel on the 1st November, and by midnight on 30th November have completed at least 50,000 words of that novel. It's a tough challenge, but it is achievable. Many do succeed. The reason they succeed is because the 'NaNoWriMo' event gives them the excuse to tell family members that it is a special event just for November. It has a constrained time frame. The family may be annoyed that the writer isn't around much during November, but at least they know that the writer will be back to 'normal' in December!

So if any of you are tackling 'NaNoWriMo' I wish you all the success in the world. Congratulations on making the time to write 50,000 words. But when the 1st December arrives just look back on what you have achieved in November. This is what happens when you 'make' time to write. Just think what you could achieve if you 'made' time to write every month. Obviously making time to write 50,000 words every month isn't sensible, but now you know how to make time (because you did it in November), why not try to 'make' two or three hours of writing time a week in the future?

Talking of making time to write, I too am making some time to write. Yes, I know I'm full time, therefore I can write all day everyday (within reason), but when you're in this fortunate position, you spend a lot of time writing what other people (editors, publishers, other customers) want you to write and not necessarily what you want to write.

So this Saturday I'm off to the Lake District in the north of England for five weeks. I shall not be returning until the middle of December. The picture above is the view from the window of the self-catering apartment that I shall be staying in. Unlike many writers, I actually find a beautiful view inspiring, rather than distracting.

What shall I be doing? Well I have a novel of 130,000 words and basically, I need to delete 30,000 of them. So whilst there are thousands of writers in November creating words, I shall be deleting them. Perhaps I should establish NaNoDelMo - National Novel Deleting Month instead? Will the novel be of publishable quality once I've done that - who knows? Will it help me secure an agent? Who knows? The only way to find out though, is to 'make' the time to enable me to do it. (Yes, I've been busy working overtime in order to write all the articles that I needed to write during those five weeks that I shall be away.) Doing this though, has enabled me to 'make' the time.

I still intend to post to the blog whilst I'm away. I hope to have a mobile Internet connection, although I have been warned that the weather can interfere with this, and let's face it, the Lake District has a reputation for 'weather'!

I'll let you know how I get on with my writing time, whilst I'm away. Good luck to those doing NaNoWriMo, and for those who aren't why not 'make' some regular writing time for yourselves?

Good luck.

PS - Writers Bureau students may be interested to know that the latest Chapter & Verse online Ezine for enrolled students is now available. Use your login details to take a look.