Stand Up and Write!

Some years ago, I hosted a writing course with the above title. I forget why I worded it this way, since the course was certainly not about standing up to write, however, this post is about that very activity – writing standing up.

ernest hemmingway

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote standing up. Even though he apparently had a ‘tower workroom’ which he retired to when the need arose, most of his writing was done standing at a bookshelf in his bedroom with his typewriter on top.

Hemingway wasn’t the only devotee of standing up – Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Philip Roth are only a handful of the many famous writers who’ve pursued the habit. And authors aren’t the only fans: Thomas Jefferson had a six-legged ‘tall desk’, while Otto Von Bismark and Winston Churchill stood up to do specific tasks during their working days.

But there are more pressing reasons for standing to write rather than sitting:

As John Moir pointed out back in 2008 (Poets & Writers),

“Sitting down to write…can actually lead to a decline in mental acumen”

Which is clearly not a good situation for a writer, but recent studies (and there are lots of them) show that standing to write is better for our health – it improves posture, burns more calories, generates a genuine tiredness (so we sleep better) and prolongs life.

Since my day job involves a fair bit of sitting on my butt, I thought it was about time I did something to combat that declining acumen. Now, there are all sorts of ways to bring your writing desk up to a suitable height, but as I don’t have either tools or wood, I won’t be knocking up a workbench in the near future. Neither will I be forking out for one of those gorgeous Varidesks that really are the biz when it comes to standy-up writing.

I do my writing at my kitchen table and as there’s nothing else in my house that’ll give me that additional height, I resorted to that good old standby method of piling-things-up. Admittedly, this ttowering deskeetering tower is not going to work in the long term, but I reckoned it would do as an experiment.

So, did it work? You betcha! Although there were pros and cons as I expected, I was surprised to find it quite a comfortable position, enabling me to get several hundred words banged out before I resorted to my usual butt-on-the-chair routine.

As you can see from the photo, my towering workdesk will have to be swapped for something safer and sturdier, but I think I can say I’m well and truly converted. All I need is an easier method of getting my laptop up to the required height, since any difficulties will (I know) result in going back to the old routine. And that ain’t good

Amelia Dyer – the Killer Character

Amelia DyerLooking for a plot for Book 2 in my mid-range children’s series ‘The Christie McKinnon Adventures’, I happened on a bunch of Victorian villains. One that stood out from the others was Amelia Dyer – baby killer. At first glance, maybe she wasn’t ideal material for a children’s adventure, but I reckoned she’d be good for a bit of source material:

Having trained as a nurse as well as bringing up her own family, Amelia must have appeared to be a fairly ordinary woman in her adult life, but her childhood was another matter altogether. Amelia’s mother had developed a mental illness (a result of typhoid) and her daughter was forced to nurse her mother through many violent rages until the woman died. Amelia was barely 10 years old at the time.

After staying with an aunt, she went on to marry a man almost 40 years her senior. In the meantime, Amelia’s nursing experience had taught her how to make an extra income by taking in young women who had given birth illegitimately. She could then earn additional cash by putting the children up for adoption.

Following her husband’s death, Amelia began to develop her ‘profession’ in a rather more deadly manner. Taking in unmarried mothers, Amelia also offered her services as an adoptive parent – for a fee, of course. After some years pursuing her new calling, Amelia was caught out when a doctor reported her for a series of what he thought were suspicious infant deaths. This led to a 6-month jail sentence for neglect. But Amelia had a plan: back home, she set out to make sure that in future there wouldn’t be any evidence to convict her. Instead of calling in the doctor to confirm infant deaths, she simply got rid of the bodies herself.

Her modus operandi however, was far from perfect and her habit of stuffing victims into carpetbags and throwing them into the river was to be her undoing. When one package was discovered, the police found letters leading them to Amelia’s house. They quickly put their suspect under observation and raided the house. Although convicted of the murder of only one child, the police suspected Amelia had killed more than 400 infants over a thirty-year period. Amelia Dyer was hanged at Newgate gaol in 1896, having apparently shown no remorse for what she had done.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – maybe this is a bit too dark for a children’s book? Absolutely, so that’s why I’ve tamed my villainess down to a more acceptable level. In my novel ‘The House That Wasn’t There’ the child-snatcher Mrs McIver doesn’t kill anyone, but if it wasn’t for the investigations of my young heroes Christie and Donal, there’s no telling what the wicked woman might get up to.

Of course, that’s assuming the intrepid pair manage to catch the kidnapper before she gets out of hand…

Sequel Schmequal – What Should I Do With My Characters?

Finishing one novel is fine, but how easy (or difficult) is it to start the next one? And more to the point, should the novel stick to the same formula? Having just finished the second book in my ‘Maps of Time’ series, I’m now back to working on the second one in the ‘Christie McKinnon Adventures’. While I’m well into the story, I’m not completely sure where my characters are headed.In Line for Murder 150x

The first in the series (The Hounds of Hellerby Hall) introduced a host of strange and likeable characters and established my heroine’s penchant for solving crimes, with the help of her pal Donal, her writer friend Hugo Skene and the affable Inspector Robertson. The second book ‘The House That Wasn’t There’ is about a child-snatcher who prays on vulnerable parents. Christie (naturally) comes to the rescue.

However, thinking about how to move the series forward, I also wrote a wee story about the Inspector in what I fondly imagined was something akin to the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. In Line for Murder is a short story (free to download, by the way) about an apparent murder where there doesn’t appear to be a body. Anyway, it got me thinking that perhaps some (or maybe all) of my characters could potentially have their individual stories (a bit like boy bands whose members also have solo careers).

Although I’m not seriously considering knocking out another five or six novels (one for each band member), I am wondering about my audience. The difficulty is that Christie and Donal are children, whereas several of the other characters are adults. If the grown-ups had their own novels (as it were), the books can’t really be aimed at children, since children’s books really do need to have a child as the main character. So Inspector Robertson is off solving his own (grown-up) crimes, and there’s my dilemma.

Of course, I realise I’m probably making too much of it and I should just let the Inspector do whatever he feels like doing and see what happens. In a perfect world, I’d be able to finish off this post with an explanation of how I’ll go about that. But as we all know, nothing is perfect, so I’ll just leave it out there for a while and you never know, like all good ideas, it might just get up and walk itself into another story.

Please Release Me – Dates

A recent blog post from sci-fi/paranormal novelist Allan Krummenacker, highlighted his decision to postpone the release of his latest book, “The Vampyre Blogs – Coming Home”. Why did he do this? Simple – he had the good sense to realize that pushing the proverbial boat out and burning the two-ended candle just wasn’t going to give him enough time to finish the book to the standard he wanted.

Sounds like a sensible decision. Which brought to mind a few questions about my own planned publications dates:

  • Are my deadline dates achievable?EBook_Reader_PocketBook_Ultra_-_Frontansicht
    Are the publication dates realistic?
    Am I expecting too much of myself?

Well, the short answers are:

  • Not sure.
    Maybe not.
    Absolutely.

Hmm.

My original publication date for the pre-order copy of ‘Mortlake’ (book 2 in my mid-range historical time-travelling series) was the middle of November. And yes, if I’d been able to stay on track with the thing, maybe that would have been fine, but since my particular style of writing is firmly set in the Land-of-Not-Planning, this means when the story sets off on a longer journey than I’d anticipated, it obviously adds another chunk of time to the work involved.

The tricky bit is, unfortunately, moving this deadline has an impact on my other deadlines, therefore adding another month to the ‘Mortlake’ release date, adds another month to the finish dates for my next book too. But that’s okay, since, as Allan says:

‘Timing your release and making sure the product is as good as it can be
is crucial to your book’s success.’

So when common sense prevails, the finished product will be the better for it. After all, writing the book is just part of the process – getting it ready for your readers is a whole other kettle of haddock.

So, now that ‘Mortlake’ is set to be released in mid-December, I’m feeling a lot less stressed and ready to make sure my book hits the virtual shelves when it’s properly finished. Of course, if I’d realized this earlier, I might have saved myself a bit of anxiety.

Cheers Allan.

‘Storm Ring’ by Stephen J Carter

Storm Ring Carter
Storm Ring
4-stars

Stephen J Carter’s “Storm Ring” is the 1st volume in the “Zero Point Light” Sci-Fi series. The story opens on the starship Arcturus 4 when the ship’s computer wakes up its human cargo. Rather unhelpfully, the initial scenes reminded me of ‘Alien’, but this feeling quickly passed as the story progressed. The six-strong crew discover their convoy has been destroyed and they are now faced with either going back to their last location, or exploring the unknown, but apparently habitable, planet of Nebura.

Naturally, they head down to the planet and soon learn that warring factions headed by Levrock and his partial-synth mutes are not the only thing they have to worry about: an environmental phenomenon known as the ‘Stilling’ eventually forces the crew and some of their new friends to attempt a sea journey to Polarica, where they anticipate things will be safer. However, they first have to negotiate the mysterious storm ring.

Normally, I’m not a great fan of sci-fi, but Stephen Carter’s writing is clever and wonderfully inventive, the story ripping along at a fair pace that, for the most part, held my attention without too much trouble. His descriptions are at times fascinating and thought-provoking and while his writing is always appealing, at times I found myself somewhat besieged by an overabundance of technical language. In addition, I felt that my interest in the characters began to wane slightly towards the end – though whether this was to do with the direction the plot was moving in, or something else, I really can’t say.

As with all good novels, the ending leaves us with a bit of a cliff-hanger and the promise of plenty more action in the next book of the series. One for the collection.

Night Shift by Stephen King

night-shift-stephen-king
Night Shift
4-stars

Though some of the short stories in Stephen King’s first collection were familiar to me, I’m amazed I haven’t read this book before. Some (like ‘Strawberry Spring’), were first published in the late Sixties, but most appeared between 1971 and 1978. Only four, including ‘Jerusalem’s Lot’ and ‘Quitters Inc’ were previously unpublished.

While I’d always say King is a highly talented novelist, his flair for the short story is almost unsurpassed. My favourite is ‘Children of the Corn’, where a bizarre road accident prompts an argumentative couple to seek help. When they begin to explore a strange town, a rather disturbing lack of adults leads them into a sinister ritual. King’s own experience of working in an industrial laundry inspired the ‘The Mangler’, where a laundry press develops a taste for human flesh. ‘The Lawnmower Man’ is a simple story that revolves around an original, if somewhat bloody, slant on grass-cutting techniques. Not all the stories are quite so gory though – in ‘The Man Who Loved Flowers’, a handsome young man grabs the attention of passersby, whereas ‘Jerusalem’s Lot’ and ‘One for the Road’, both follow on from King’s 1975 novel ‘Salem’s Lot’.

All the stories are wonderfully creepy, with well-observed characters that shine through with an originality that gives credence to their various fates (though of course, they don’t all die!) While this may not be the best of Stephen King, it clearly shows how, even though barely into his Twenties, he was developing a way of telling stories that most writers can only dream about.

 
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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

PD_James_CologneAsked for her 10 top tips on writing, British crime writer PD James talked about the ‘necessary loneliness’ that many writers endure. But how does that work in practice?

“I’ve never felt lonely as a writer, not really, but I know people do.”

PD James

 

In the Mode
If you’re in it for the long haul, as opposed to just ‘having a little go’ at writing, it’s easier to get into a routine, and this is a useful discipline to learn. Such routines might involve having a specific place to write, being free of interruptions or demands on your time, and knowing you have a certain amount of time to escape into your own world.

All By Myself
Many writers speak about the need to be alone while writing, but most don’t equate this to being lonely. However, one of the things I’ve noticed in my own writing routine, is that spending so much time on my own, it’s easy to block out everything that isn’t vital to the ‘world’ I’m involved in.  Sometimes I’ll decide not to do something (go out, clean the car, spend time with friends) in order to preserve my uninterrupted status and write late into the night. Like anything else in life, variety is the key and ignoring everything that’s going on around us is probably not a great idea. Note to self: get a life.

My Virtual World
One of the things I love about my writing life is making contact with other writers. Since this is generally something that happens in cyber space rather than in the real world, I sometimes wonder if having so many writery friends online is just a way for each of us to pat ourselves on the back and say ‘you’re doing fine’. And of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it’s important we don’t isolate ourselves completely, retreating into our make-believe worlds where everything revolves around us and what we do.

Being a writer is great – but it’s important to stay in touch with reality.

Writer’s Groups and Other Worm Bags

Walt_Whitman_by_Mathew_BradyA little while ago, I spouted forth on my experience of writer’s groups. On that occasion I did so from the point of view of being a member of such a group, however, the other bag of worms I mentioned in that post referred to the one held by the person who runs the writing group. So how do things look from that point of view?

Captain, my Captain, thrill me with your acumen…

Apologies for the Walt Whitman/Hannibal Lecter reference (an early poem of mine), but the idea that ‘teacher knows shit’ was a popular opinion during a couple of writing courses I facilitated some years ago. One of the recurring rants consisted of students explaining how their badly-executed piece of prose was simply a reflection on their ‘style’ and should be appreciated as such. There was no reason (they argued) why a writer of their stature should concern themselves with such niceties as spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like.

In these cases, I would point out that good writers tackle such issues as a matter of course, in the same way a plumber ensures a washing machine is properly connected, rather than simply leaving the pipes gushing water all over the floor. This view, naturally, did not always elicit a positive response, and I have found over the years that an awful lot of people who call themselves writers, will continue to trot out the ridiculous ‘it’s the way I write’ mantra as if it will somehow cover up their creative inadequacies.

This horse goes into a bar and the barman says, ‘Why the long face?’

Another theme that regularly prompted histrionics , particularly with flash fiction writing, was how novice writers will often come up with what they consider to be ‘hilarious’ stories. They’d read them out and guffaw like hyenas at their (apparently) side-splitting prose, clearly expecting everyone else in the group (and especially, the tutor) to demonstrate his or her appreciation in the usual way.

It was always hard to know how to react to such examples of unwitty drivel, since humour is a very personal thing, but my fall-back position tended to be to offer gentle encouragement, citing relevant books etc that might help with this type of writing. In other words – avoiding the issue.

Those that can – do, those that can’t…

Since those merry days of leading expectant (and occasionally, very talented) writers towards what I hoped would be a higher standard of literary creations, I rarely give my honest opinion on another writer’s work. While I do write the odd book review (when I generally feel I can say what I like), those times I have given my opinion, it has rarely been warmly received. The last occasion I succumbed to the ‘I’d really like to know what you think’ line, I offered what I thought was honest, though encouraging advice. The writer hasn’t spoken to me since.

So, anyone interested in my opinion on their work, should perhaps first ask themselves if they really want my opinion. And if they do, beware.

Hitting the Blyton Target

Enid Blyton 10000 WordsContinuing my ramblings about deadlines (and strange references to Enid Blyton), I decided to try something new today – setting a daily target. This radical idea was also prompted by a couple of points I saw in a list of writers’ tips on Book Baby’s Blog. Two of them got me thinking:

  1. Don’t edit as you go
  2. Set achievable goals

First of all, setting daily targets is something I generally never do, since I don’t want to give myself any more stuff to worry about apart from actually finishing the damn book, but I thought I’d take a leaf out of Enid’s regime and set a daily target. Just for today. No strings attached. Simply to see it I could do it.

So how many words did I set for this once-in-a-lifetime thing? 2,500? 5,000? 7,000?

Nope, I went for the biggie – the Enid Blyton Eat-Your-Heart-Out target – 10,000 words.

In relation to the Book Baby pointers and setting achievable goals, I did think this was (maybe) achievable. The reason being, I’m quite a fast writer. On the other hand, I tend to stop every two or three sentences and re-write what I’ve just written. Which obviously slows things up a bit.

The challenge, then, was to write in as continuous a way as I could without looking back, making corrections or any other type of editing, and see if I could hit the target before dawn.

On the plus side, I had the whole day to do it. I mean, come on – there’s no way I’d lumber myself with such a ridiculous word-count if I had to do my normal day at work, get home, have dinner, wash-up etc and then start writing at maybe 7.30pm. Not a chance.

Secondly, I’ve been trying for a while to write continuously, ie without stopping every two minutes, because I’m aware that it interrupts my flow, so is somewhat counterproductive.

So how far did I get? More than half way, but considerably short of the Big Ten: 5,186. In other words, quite a bit more than I usually achieve. In fact, on a good day I rarely hit more than 2,500, so I’m fairly happy with my new daily total. And maybe I can do better. Maybe that magic 10,000 isn’t that far away?

Then again, it does mean I have a lot of re-writing to do tomorrow. Hmm.

Deadlines, Schmedlines…

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Douglas Adams

There was a time when I considered deadlines to be a bit of a hindrance. Having to produce a piece of work by a certain time can be a great way of motivating yourself to actually get on with the damn thing, but equally, it can simply add to the pressure, making the task in hand even more daunting.

Some deadlines, admittedly, are necessary: short story completions, job applications, project proposals and the like won’t work without a cut-off date. Somebody, somewhere has to make a decision about these things to keep everyone else on track. Making your own deadlines, however, is another box of frogs altogether.Box of Frogs

I reckoned that if I worked on the novel every night and every weekend in between, I might actually be able to finish it in true 10,000-words-a-day Enid-Blyton style.When I finally settled down to finish the novel I’d started some years previously (The Devil’s Porridge Gang’), I gave myself a bit of a deadline. I say ‘bit’ of a deadline, as it wasn’t really a deadline at all. It consisted of a period of three weeks when one of those proverbial window of opportunity moments came my way – my childcare responsibilities were to be put on hold while my offspring was away in foreign lands with his mother.

Of course, it didn’t work quite like that. I’d already written 15,000 words (over the previous few years) and during those three glorious child-free weeks, I wrote another 30,000. It took me a few additional weeks to finish the thing and yet more weeks to knock it into shape, but that pretend sort of a deadline did the trick.

Since then I’ve avoided deadlines as much as possible, but when I started putting my ebooks on Smashwords etc it seemed to make sense to advertise forthcoming books as well (ie ones that weren’t finished yet) in order to drum up interest. This, in turn, created a need for deadlines. Hmm.

Many years ago, I was a regular theatregoer in Hull (East Yorkshire) where the (then) resident artistic director John Godber premiered all his plays. Godber’s writing schedule demanded that the theatre set a production date for his new play. They would then work out a time-scale for when it would be written – usually a mere three or four weeks before the first night. So I wondered if this sort of thing might work for me, too.

Gunpowder-Plot-conspirators
Anyway, I’m well on the to reaching the desired word count with Mortlake‘, so if the strategy works, maybe I’ll continue to impose time limits on my writing. If it doesn’t…well, Mr Fawkes may have his imitators…My deadline for the current novel is November 5th – a date I hope will not be too literal in its significance, since I have no desire to be burned at the stake for not hitting my target.

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