Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Writing is all about Eating Flowers, Sunlight

I was away for more than a month on book tour for You Beneath Your Skin.

Back home I thought the plants were drying up, but clearly not. The better half had been taking care of them. Other than, well, pruning.

Result: three pumpkin vines running riot playing tag in my tiny balcony, throwing out incandescent yellow blossoms as they climb up other shrubs, railings, pots.

(I come from a part of India that has figured out the art of not letting any part of an edible plant go to waste, so of course we eat flowers. Pumpkin flowers, to be exact. We eat the leaves too, but that's a story for another time.)

I'd returned grimy and exhausted from an overnight flight, but these pieces of yellow light brought back too much nostalgia. I washed my hands, and then out came a packet of chickpea flour. I mixed it in with salt, water, and a pinch of baking soda for a super-quick batter.

Harvested the blossoms, tore out their egg-yolk-orange stamens, dipped them in batter and let them slide into boiling oil. I settled down in the sun with a heap of crunchy tempura, eyes closed, and munched my way through them, sighing the while. They tasted like sunlit autumn afternoons. Memories flooded back--- my grandmother frying up a batch of them on a coal oven, a giggly friend making the flowers 'mate' by rubbing the stamens together-- Bollywood-movie-style, where kissing couples on screen were always obscured up by dancing, copulating flowers--of lunchtime squabbles fighting over who got the most, the hottest batter-fried delights. The smoky smell of a sooty kitchen.

That was what writing was like, I told myself.

No matter how hard the day, how exhausted you are, you pick up bright sparks of inspiration, and you cook them, you let your feelings take over, you place yourself in the feelings and memories of others, you chew them up and swallow them whole. It is about being Present. Seeing. Remembering. Doing things by rote because you've done them or have seen them done a million times, an exercise that is at once a chore and a game, old yet new, a delicate, transient thing that must be consumed whole, scalding-hot.

I've let the vines be for the moment.

Carrying (mixing?) the metaphor, a pumpkin has foolishly presented itself last week: hanging off a delicate vine so far above the ground, round with life, unaware or uncaring of the futility of its being fertilised and brought into this world. That too is writing--so many fruits brought into this world only to wither off and die, but taking form, regardless.

What does writing mean to you? Have you ever eaten flowers? 

You Beneath Your Skin Damyanti Biswas
You Beneath Your Skin

Monday, 28 October 2019

Old Houses, Hauntings and Overworked Skivvies by Enid Richemont

I have already posted this on Facebook, so lazily scooped up the info and popped it in here, too. I hope some of you might be interested enough to grab a free copy, and if so, that you enjoy reading it.

There is SO much more to say about both the house and the story. The house itself, with its strange and magical name: "Chanteloup", is in the Vendee region of France, and quite remote. It belonged to our Parisian friends who came from that region, and had been in their family for an incredibly long time. When we first went, it was, of course, with them, and quite a long time ago. Later, at their generous invitation, we returned twice, to take holidays there, which was when I made the drawing of it below.

The house was extraordinary, and almost unchanged since the 1930s (we did NOT attempt to take a bath!) Much of it is described in the novel. It had once been a swamp area, infested with mosquitoes, hence a high instance of disease and early death, and during our second holiday there, I did indeed get very ill - one of those flu-like illnesses with a high temperature - which made the house, for me, even more atmospheric, so a haunting was easy to imagine, and the lake in the grounds (not as big as I've made it in the story) felt really sinister.

As Halloween is approaching, I'm running a promotion on "WOLFSONG" - from October 30th - November 1st, the ebook is free. It was published as a Young Adult novel, but according to one author friend, could easily be cross-over, so if you love rural France and very old houses, it might well be your thing.
The house is real, and had a chaotic history, continuing to the present, when someone tried, and failed, to run it as a hotel. It was then abandoned, fell into disrepair and ultimately vandalised, then there was a major fire. Do houses have souls? I think this one has. Nearly wrecked during the Revolution, but (the story goes) defended by a furious old lady who climbed into an apple tree and hurled fruit at the trespassers.

Still on the theme of old houses, but this time England and Jane Austen, I'm currently reading Jo Baker's "Longbourn" - a Jane Austen-type story told from the point of view of the overworked household staff, and it's very, very good. Does anyone know the word 'skivvy'? I can remember my mother using it to describe someone, always female, who was exploited workwise, and she actually had memories of young female relatives who were put 'into service', with one of them quite literally worked to death - we had one of those faded sepia photos of her looking very young and very frail, and she was called, so appropriately, 'Lily'.

One of the main characters in 'Longbourn' is referred to as 'the skivvy', a maid of all work. I remember my mum using it as a verb, too - "I'm not skivvying for you!" Another character in the novel is the son of a slave woman, who is later adopted (as a servant, of course) by the family, even given the family name, but as a family possession, not a legit member, and taken back to England. I'm sure that Chanteloup, in its heyday, had its skivvies. It certainly had a washerwoman.Our friend, remembered, from when he was a little boy, her coming in to do the laundry every week - all those fragile linen sheets and tablecloths, and all those picturebook bubbles!
(currently communing with mermaids.)

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Ghostwriting Fiction - Andrew Crofts

Invited to talk on the BBC’s Open Book programme with another ghostwriter a few months ago, I was taken aback when the host, Mariella Frostrup, expressed surprise at learning that many people now hire ghostwriters to write their novels for them.

Since Ms Frostrup is one of the most media and publishing-savvy people in the world, it occurred to me that the extent to which this is now happening may come as a surprise to most people.

Image result for what Lies Around Us by Andrew Crofts

Two novels by a ghostwriter about a ghostwriter.

I think it is now generally accepted that “celebrities” who want, or are persuaded by publishers, to write novels may need some help from professional writers. It is also an open secret that the big brand name authors like James Patterson use a stable of collaborators to do the actual writing of the books that go out under both their names, (but mainly the names of the big-brand authors).

What is less well known, but increasingly common, is that there are unknown authors who have been nurturing ideas for novels, possibly for many years, and finally realise that they are unlikely ever to find the time to master the skills needed to write them convincingly. Having reached this realisation they then go looking for ghostwriters who they think will be able to create their books for them, working from whatever brief they are able to provide.

I have been working on an increasing number of these sorts of projects in recent years, finding it extremely satisfying and enjoyable. Sometimes the brief is no more than a roughly sketched-out idea; sometimes it is a first attempt at a full manuscript which needs to be re-written. In either case, for the ghost it is like solving a complex puzzle. They have to be able to envisage the ideal outcome that the client has in their head and then work on the raw material to make it fit as closely as possible to that ideal.

In the past, when traditional publishing deals or vanity publishing were the only real options, such projects would often have ended in disappointment and rejection, but with the growing range of self-publishing and hybrid independent publishing options becoming available, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that a project which is written professionally can also expect to be published professionally at the end of the process.

Whether that book then goes on to fulfil the author’s dreams of bestsellerdom, of course, is no more predictable than it is for any other first time author of fiction who is starting with little or no “platform” from which to market their product, but at least they are able to hold a physical copy of it in their hands – and that is worth a lot.   

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Fitzgerald’s woe: Fiction vs. Cinema -- Rituparna Roy

I have just started working in a private college in Kolkata; and among my teaching assignments this semester, my favourite is an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Crack-up. Written for the magazine ‘Esquire’ for their three consecutive issues of February, March and April 1936, this piece is one of the finest examples of the ‘personal essay’ – bold (for its time, in that the author chose to write about his breakdown at all ), insightful and moving. In writing about his crack-up, Fitzgerald gives us the highlights of his biography – but he does not give away names and years (that homework is meant for the reader), and very interestingly, actually conceals as much as he reveals.

The essay spoke to me at multiple levels, but what was most memorable for me were the sections where Fitzgerald talks about writing, and himself as a writer. And that happens close to the beginning and towards the end of the essay. He starts by saying there are two kinds of breakdowns and ends with the declaration - articulated in an incredibly selfish and cynical tone - that after a lot of soul-searching, he has decided to be only a writer – not "an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition, with an opulent American touch". In between, we get a remarkably detached analysis of his state of mind during and after his breakdown (and at one point, a recalling of two such other previous experiences), without an iota of self pity.

When it comes to his reflections on writing, in the second para of (Part-I) the essay itself, there is a kind of sizing up of the “impact factor” of writers and a candid confession of his own vocation:

"It seemed a romantic business to be a successful literary man—you were not ever going to be as famous as a movie star but what note you had was probably longer-lived; you were never going to have the power of a man of strong political or religious convictions but you were certainly more independent. Of course within the practice of your trade you were forever unsatisfied—but I, for one, would not have chosen any other."

This optimism of the writer and his work having a greater chance of being remembered in the future (vis-a-vis the movie star, and by extension, movies), however, totally gives way to despair towards the end of the essay (in Part-III, 'Handle with Care') -- the despair that is born of the knowledge that one’s medium of artistic expression will always, inevitably, have less value than another; the despair, in short, of fighting a losing battle:

"I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion. It was an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures... but there was a rankling indignity, that to me had become almost an obsession, in seeing the power of the written word subordinated to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power… I set that down as an example of what haunted me during the long night—this was something I could neither accept nor struggle against, something which tended to make my efforts obsolescent, as the chain stores have crippled the small merchant, an exterior force, unbeatable -"

As early as 1930, Fitzgerald had seen the future – of Cinema’s absolute sway over fiction; in 1936, he gave vent to his feelings of frustration and despair as a novelist. But that didn’t stop him from being a Hollywood hack himself soon after: he signed a lucrative 2-year contract with MGM in 1937 and also did freelance screenwriting for a while before his untimely death in 1940. He seemed to go for the very thing he hated... out of a desperate need for money; but he didn’t shy away from mocking himself either in his “The Pat Hobby Stories”.

Reading Fitzgerald’s rant in The Crack-up made me wonder: given the ironic fact that his work became more popular after his death, and his novels were adapted on screen multiple times (the very thing that seemed to be anathema for him in 1936), would he have been less rankled as a writer, had he lived to see his (greater) success in print and on screen? Could the lure of Hollywood been staved off altogether in his case if his novels had sold more?   

I also wondered what he would have felt had he lived now – when all literary “content” ultimately aims to be visual, when the diminished value of the written word has reached new heights, and when cinema/serials/web-series seem to be not just an additional but the only means through which to validate fiction/storytelling. I wondered whether he would have been able to write at all in such a scenario.

And I realized, standing as I do a whole century after him, with literary aspirations of my own, how much more courage it needs to be - to even want to be - a fiction writer today!

Friday, 25 October 2019

This Is The End -- by Susan Price

Last month, I wrote about how a writer friend had asked: At what point in the labour of writing a book do you know you're going to finish it?

This month: another conundrum thrown up by conversation with the same group of friends. How, one of them asked, do you find an ending?

The friend was in the toils of writing a fantasy. She had invented a world which she loved, she had characters she loved, she had involved them in all sorts of tasks and situation which she was thoroughly enjoying writing about -- but she didn't know how the book would end. Or if there would be an end of any kind, good, bad or indifferent. In short:

How Do You Find An Ending?


In my experience, only with extreme difficulty. We all know that stories, novels and poems all have a shape, an arc, and you have to find and follow that structure in order to arrive at the right ending or, at least, an ending which satisfies its creator and readers. But it's very easy to say that. When you're inside a story, jumbled up with its characters and all their motivations, plus theme and even moral -- and subtexts -- well, that's like being one cat in a sack of half a dozen cats and fighting to find a way out. It's hard, if not impossible, to see what the arc of your story is or what way it's inclining.
I am far from certain that any of my books have the perfect ending for that book. I know that all of them have endings that I had to write and rewrite and hack and furiously rethink and rewrite and work my way towards. And then cut severely.
So I can't pass on any sure-fire tips here. Even if I had a sure-fire way of finding a good ending for my own books (and I don't) I'm not sure my methods would work for anyone else.
That said, one method that I always employ is to put the book aside and go and do something else. This isn't idleness. It's technique.

A Greek daemon
Experience has convinced me that the best part of a book isn't written by the conscious mind, but by the unconscious, or the daemon. I'm half-certain that the daemon knows everything about the book before you even start writing it but won't tell you (because it's a daemon.) It feeds bits to you gradually and it won't be hurried or pressured. But turn your back on the book and go away for a few days, dig the garden, go to the cinema -- anything, really, that will make you stop thinking about the book -- and before you know it, the daemon will hand you the plot solution, the next chapter, the reason why that character wants to do that, and sometimes, even the ending. I don't know why this happens. Maybe the daemon is scared you'll lose interest if it doesn't offer you a crumb. Or maybe it's just the same mental process that makes it impossible to remember something until you stop trying to remember it. Then it leaps into your head while you're thinking about something else.

I've sometimes found it helps the process along to 'prime the pump.' Take a few minutes to relax, then lay out the problem in your mind: I need a reason for this character to be here... I need to know how that character will react... Or whatever your problem is. When that's all clear, say, 'Over to you!' And go off to the river with a fishing-rod, or to the football or WI meeting or whatever it is you do for fun. Anyone for burning down Downing Street?

Illustration: Peter Newell
In Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass, Alice is trying to reach the other side of an immense chess-board. She finds that  the harder she walks or runs towards the other side, the farther away it becomes. But when she turns her back on it and walks in the opposite direction, she immediately arrives at the place she's been trying to reach. I've always thought that a brilliant metaphor for originality. And originality is surely what we're aiming at as we try to find an ending. Our plot, our ingenious twists, our perfect ending should all have a little dash of originality to make them interesting.

But the harder you try to be original, the less you will succeed -- because you're thinking about it. Thinking about it uses the conscious mind and will involve you thinking about every book you've ever read and every film you've ever seen. You'll be copying them, reacting to them or reacting against them in a desperate attempt to be original and every time you do that, your own work becomes less you, less authentic. Reflecting or recoiling from someone else's work is not being original -- originating with you, that is. An interesting linguistic point is that 'authentic' and 'author' come from the same root -- the author is the originator of their work. To be original, it must be authentically of that author. Do you really want your book to end that way -- or a character to behave like that? If what you write is genuinely what you think and feel, then it's original and authentic, even if someone else thinks you copied from -- wherever.

Turn your back on the whole 'is it original' quandary and walk away -- let your conscious mind grapple with the problems of baking bread, building IKEA furniture or finding your way on a map -- and the thoughts that sneak up on you from your subconscious will be authentically yours. They have a far better chance of being seen as 'original' by your readers.

Something else I've found useful is to type out every possible ending I can think of, no matter how bizarre or weak or unappealing. It's a sort of brain-storming, I suppose. I also do this at the end of a chapter, when I don't know what is going to happen next.
I make each possibility a different colour and/or font. I write things like, 'If A does X, then B will think Y and will xyz.' This is writers' algebra, of course, and you have to fill in motivations and thoughts according to your book.
Down and down the page the ideas go, in blue, green, red, magenta, black, orange... I come back a while later (it may be days) and read through them. I use click-and-drag to move them into order, those that appeal most at the top.
If, on re-reading, one has no appeal at all, I delete it.
I add more detail to the better ideas. Or other twists that occur to me.
Sometimes, when I come back to the idea fresh, one stands out immediately as the answer to my problem, but this doesn't always happen.
Sometimes some of the ideas are combined -- or one of them will suggest another, better idea. And so I inch forward.
Usually one of these ideas emerges as the way forward or as the ending. Or, at least, as the beginning of an ending, with much work to be done.

One final suggestion from me:- Don't ask, 'How will my book end?' Instead ask, 'What mood do I want it all to end in?' Another good question is, 'Who do I want to come out on top?'
If you want your central characters to end in unconfined joy, happiness and prosperity, fine -- how are you going to get them there? What plot strings will you have to pull, what scenery will you have to shift, in order to bring about that ending?
Do you want villains to be punished and cast into outer darkness? Or do you aim at something more Bhuddist and compassionate? (Dissatisfaction and suffering exist and are universally experienced, even by villains. And Alexander De Piffle Waffle Johnson must be deeply unhappy and dissatisfied to behave like such a shameless dick.)
Do you want lessons to be learned by your characters, spiritual growth to be experienced? If that's the mood you want at the end, what are you going to have to change in order to bring that about?
This works for me because I usually don't have any idea how a book's going to end, but I usually do have a strong feeling of the colour or mood I want it to end with, and I can work towards that.

Writing is so individual that I doubt this will be much use to anyone else, although I hope it is. But if you are, like my friend, having trouble finding an ending, do not despair. Everyone does, no matter how experienced they are.Writing is hard and writing the end is the hardest bit of all.

The End


Some Books By Susan Price


Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Sharing the Load by Lev Butts

So I've been sitting on this for a while, and I still can't go into too much detail yet, but this past summer, I had the pleasure to write my first co-authored story, and I'd like to talk a little about it.

A few years ago, I met Dacre Stoker, the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula) at a local Steampunk convention. I was there to promote Guns of the Waste Land, and he was giving a fascinating presentation, Stoker on Stoker, on the research and writing of Bram's masterpiece.

When we weren't on panels or presenting, we were across each other in the book sellers' area. In addition to his presentation, Dacre had also edited a volume of Bram Stoker's journals and co-authored a sequel to Dracula: Dracula the Un-Dead (It's pretty good; check it out).

We spent a good deal of time talking and getting to know each other since few people were finding their way to the Book Seller's Alley (Appropriately named as we were literally in a hall off from the side of everything else, poorly lit, and decidedly musty).

And the clientele were a little sketchy, to be honest.
I had him sign my copy of his novel, and we discussed having him give his presentation at my school.

From that weekend, a good friendship developed and Dacre and I have communicated and visited regularly about everything from re-publishing the journals book to our works in progress to our mutual appreciation for the sometimes panned Coppola Dracula film.

Shortly after the publication of his latest book, a prequel to Dracula (though unrelated to his earlier sequel) titled Dracul and co-written with J.D. Barker (This book is fantastic and you should definitely buy it now.), Dacre called to ask me if I'd be interested in writing a piece of short fiction with him.

I have to admit I was a little wary of agreeing to it, not because I had anything against Dacre, but because I'd never written something with anyone else before. I started a project last year with Brad Strickland, but it kind of petered out when the two of us proved too busy with our money-paying gigs to work on it. So I assumed I'd run into the same problems here, plus the added issue of us living in two separate states made me think collaboration would be pretty burdensome.

However, I decided to do it because when would I get the chance to play in the world of Dracula with not only the estate's blessing but alongside the original a member of the original author's family? I figured I'd give it a go and if it didn't work out, there'd be no harm done.

And I am glad I did.

There are definitely benefits to writing alone: You only really have to satisfy yourself, you can work at your own pace, and you don't need anyone else's permission to make creative decisions. I have to admit, though, that there are definitely unforeseen benefits to co-writing as well.

Dacre had  a bunch of ideas for a story; I won't tell you what they were, but they were great ideas. We sat down at a coffeehouse that was equidistant from both our homes, and he talked about what he saw as the main plot of the story, particular details he thought had to be included, and some details he thought might be cool to include if possible.

This was the most enjoyable aspect of the process for me: In essence he gave me a box of puzzle pieces to put together into a coherent narrative. My job was to figure out which pieces were part of the puzzle and how they fit together, which pieces were part of a different puzzle and needed to be put aside, and which pieces I needed to shape to fill in the gaps.

The first draft of mine and Dacre's story.
And don't get the idea that the process was just Dacre telling me what to write and me writing it: As our initial conversation developed, we both began contributing ideas. In fact, if we were to map out whose ideas were where, I'd say that the framing narrative of this story, the prologue and the epilogue were 90% Dacre's ideas, and the second third of the story, the flashback narrative was about 85% my ideas. Overall, I'd say we each completely carried our share of the creative weight with plotting.

Dacre claims that he is not a good writer, that he is more of an ideas guy, but I am here to tell you the man can write pretty well when the chips are down. As I wrote myself into particular corners during the drafting process, it was very helpful to have someone intimately acquainted with the project to help develop solutions or take over the writing of the piece until we were back on more sure footing. Perhaps his close familiarity with Bram's journals and writing, but the man can totally pull off the lingo of the late 19th century, seemingly without even trying.

As for my fears about the physical distance between us and the burden of collaborating over it, that I soon realized was completely unfounded and silly. We talked over the phone quite a bit, emailed, and texted even more frequently. It was actually a relief to be able to write in my own familiar surroundings secure in the knowledge that my collaborator was literally a phone call or a text away.

I worried about losing my own creativity because I'd be working mostly with someone else's ideas, but it became a good writing exercise to take this catalog of ideas and notions for a story and not only make it work, but to make feel like it was also part of my own oeuvre. Though it is a very different piece from Guns of the Waste Land or Emily's Stitches, it still very definitely feels like a story I'd write.

In short, I enjoyed co-writing so much, that Dacre and I are already planning a follow-up project, unrelated to this story but still set in the world of Dracula as well as in the world of a fairly well-known consulting detective. But that is, quite literally another story.

In the meantime, our story, "Last Days," should be appearing in an upcoming issue of the relaunched and revamped Weird Tales. Keep an eye out for it.

The start of a beautiful friendship.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Kick those leaves and light those fires. Ali Bacon celebrates Autumn.

Seriously, is there anyone who doesn't like Autumn? There are those who puff and pant their way through summer complaining about the heat, or who like me dread the dreariness of winter with its cold feet and chilblains - ugh! And however lovely spring can be, how many days of it do we usually get between the blizzard and the heat-wave? On our wedding day in Scotland it actually snowed -  and that was in April.

But autumn! I feel a collective sigh of appreciation going round. Even for those without a personal orchard, mellow fruitfulness can be found in abundance in the hedgerows: - sloes, damsons and blackberries. Scavenging - we love it! Then there's that feeling of pleasant wistfulness that goes with misty mornings and low sun through the trees as one year dwindles into another.  Kick those leaves and light those fires. Autumn perpares us for what is to come - soon I might be ready for hygge after all.

All these meanderings were brought on by our trip on Saturday to St Werbug's City Farm in Bristol which was celebrating its annual Apple Day, a well-named event as there were  apples everywhere: some still on the trees, some rotting underfoot but the majority being put to good use in apple tastings, apple cake, mulled cider and apple juice. 
All kinds of Heritage varieties were being put to press, covered in toffee or just boxed up ready for us to try. Yes there was a shower of rain but nothing too severe and no one was too hot - or too cold to stand for a while and listen to the traditional music in the mini- amphitheatre.

Apple tasting

In early autumn particularly I also have a sense of new beginnings, September/October a better time than January, I always think, to take stock, declutter and move forward 'leaner and fitter' before the onset of the mince pie season. And with that in mind I've made the difficult decision to gve up my place on Authors Electric to devote my time to other things. I've really enjoyed being here (I must be one of the longest serving members by now!) and also benefited from the discipline of these monthly posts. But nothing is forever (no, Justin Hayward, not even autumn!) and I 've recently joined another writing cooperative with its own demands on my writing time  - not to mention the need to get on with another book.

Welcome Clare/Mari
Luckily I have persuaded another writer friend to take my place, and either from next month or sometime soon you will be meeting Clare Weiner. I have met Clare, who writes as Mari Howard, in the real world as well as online, so I am very happy she will be taking my place and bringing you her perceptive thoughts.
I can also recommend her two Mullins family  novels which are engaging and thought-provoking, exploring the crossover of science, religion and genetics.  Clare/Mari is an artist as well as a writer and I think you will find her excellent company.

So that's it from me! Many thanks for your excellent company in the last few years.  As it happens, I am off to another harvest tomorrow, helping bring in the grapes at a small local vineyard. If you want to know how that and other things turn out, do keep in touch via Twitter @AliBacon or Facebook.

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction, mostly with a Scottish flavour. 
Her latest novel, In the Blink of an Eye appeared on the ASLS Best Scottish Books of 2018