Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why do we do it?

I said in one of my recent posts that writing is hard. I was wondering why on earth I do it if it is so hard. No one is making me. It isn't homework and it isn't my job. But I really, really want to write a book.

I tend to think it started with NaNoWriMo but I'd written before then. Nothing much: a 10k completed story that was fictionalised autobiography and an unfinished fantasy novel was about the sum of it. Then I took the NaNo challenge and completed three novellas in three Novembers. Now I'm hooked but I don't know the first thing about writing.

Each time when it comes to it I'm sure both that I'm writing complete rubbish and that the story has the potential to be wonderful. I feel like the words have to be dragged out of me. I'm down to aiming at a word count of fifty a day. (Thanks Sylvia, that feels manageable!) So why I do it? In fact, why does anyone do it?

That's not a rhetorical question. All answers will be welcome.

Sylvia's Sentence: the contest

There's a nice little contest going on over at Timothy Hallinan's blog, based on a sentence by Sylvia of Can't Backspace fame. I recommend checking it out.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Word Count

When I did NaNo, I managed 2000 words a day. OK, it was messy and disorganised and I haven't managed to edit what I wrote into anything passable. Since 12 April the most I have managed in any one day is 871 and I rarely manage more than 500. That's on days that I actually write. I have averaged 126 words a day. I hate to think how long it would take to finish a novel at this rate. Writing is hard!

I've sent myself back to re-read Tim's Writer's Resources and I think I really do need to print out and put on my desk this word of wisdom:
The enemy is not the badly written page; it is the empty page.

If there’s one rule you should write on a card and tape over your desk, this is it. A bad page does a lot of good things: it advances the story, it gives you a chance to work with your characters, it demands that you write all or part of a scene, it challenges you to describe your setting – on and on and on. (It even makes the stack of pages look a little thicker, which can give you a psychological lift.) So what if it does some of these things badly? You’ve learned one way not to handle that particular piece of material.

But the great advantage of a badly written page is that it can be rewritten. It can be improved. A blank page is zero. In fact, it’s worse than zero, because it represents territory you’re afraid, unwilling, or too lazy to explore. Avoid exploring this territory long enough, and you’ll abandon your book.

I've written 284 words today and now I have to go and get dinner. Maybe later I can make it up to 500. I wonder what a reasonable daily target would be.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Lollipop Shoes

I've just finished reading The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris, published in the US as The Girl with no Shadow. It's a sequel to Chocolat, with some of the same characters.

I like the way that Harris tells the tale in the voices of her three main characters. The young girl Anouk has a very distinctive voice. I also enjoyed the more explicit magic in this book. Harris's magic is usually more ambiguously presented and it's possible to believe that there is a rational explanation for it. I don't think that is an option this time.

I really enjoyed this book, although it made me want to go back and re-read Chocolat. Towards the end I could hardly bear to put it down but at the same time I was almost afraid to read it in case the ending wasn't what I was hoping for. Now it's finished I want to go back and read more but there isn't any. As we say in my family, "my book has run out".

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Desert Island Book

There is a British radio program called Desert Island Discs that has been running for decades. Imagine you are marooned on a desert island with only a record player and eight single records. (I did warn you it's an old program.) What are your records, and what parts of your life do they represent?

You are also allowed one book, but not the Bible or Shakespeare. And one luxury: nothing like a fishing line that would be any real use to you.

I've got my own personal list of tracks for when I'm famous but the book is more elusive. Just one book that might have to last you the rest of your life. Mind you, if I had to live off the land on a desert island the rest of my life might not be very long.

I've often thought I'd choose Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett as my one book because it covers so many fairy tales and because it's funny and I'd need a laugh if I was to survive. It's an old favourite, so maybe I'll stick with it but I'll miss some of my other old favourites (see Herding Cats below).

I'm not sure how I'd survive without a fresh supply of books. If I had pen and paper as my luxury I could write my own but that wouldn't give me what you'd call a steady supply.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Writing by hand

I've been reading the excellent handwritten blog Can't Backspace and enjoying it but not imagining that I could ever hand write anything these days. Then in York the last few days I wasn't at my usual comfortable pc and I suddenly felt inspired to write a bit more of the story I'm working on. I had a notepad, I had a pen. We were on a steam train at the time ready to go for a little jaunt and I sat and wrote a few words while my husband hung out the window and took pictures.

It was so hard writing without the backspace key. I kept wanting to change things as I wrote and had to circle paragraphs and put arrows to where they should be. The sample below gives you an idea of what it looked like. The worst part is that it all seemed so clear at the time and now I'm having trouble reading parts of it. Oh dear.

I was chatting to one of the stewards at the Barley House, where they are recreating a medieval house bit by bit. He had quills with him and a horn for ink. He said that when he tells children that the ink was made of honey and soot they say, "What's soot?"

I remember using metal tipped pens that you had to dip in ink. The ink was usually lumpy and ran out after a few words. I can't imagine how I would have written a story, much less a novel, if I had to use those methods. The steward thought that people had better handwriting back in the day but I welcome technology: now however bad your spelling or your hand-eye co-ordination you can still produce writing that gets your ideas across. Surely that is the point?

I also remember when cut and paste involved scissors and glue but for inquiring minds out there: I did not use ink made of soot and honey when I was at school. I'm not that old.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Herding Cats - the reading challenge

I've just found Herding Cats the reading challenge.

I'm trying to work out what my list would include. At the moment, my thoughts are:
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
The Gate to Women's Country by Sherri Tepper
Gibbon's Decline and Fall by Sherri Tepper
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Gate of Ivory by Doris Egan
The Crow Road by Iain Banks
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon
Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones

but I see that I've got two Sherri Tepper's in there and I want to have ten different authors.

I'll have to come back to this. Tomorrow I go to York for a few days, so I shan't be posting for probably a week.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Fashions in science fiction writing

I'm reading Mary Gentle's Orthe at the moment. It was published in the 80s and is a leisurely, descriptive book about an ambassador to another world. It reads more like fantasy than science fiction to me, although it has space travel and a futuristic version of our Earth.

I'm enjoying it but it is very different from the kind of science fiction I grew up with - the more laconic writings of, say, John Wyndham or the early Brian Stableleford books, of which a particular favourite is Critical Threshold.

I'm wondering what the fashion is now. Most of the writing advice seems to be to get into the action as quickly as possible and to keep it coming. I think there needs to be a balance between too little description so no one knows what is going on and too much description so that the reader is bogged down. Maybe every reader has a slightly different idea of what they want.

I think I'm going to write the kind of story I want to read and hope that there are other people around who will want to read the same kind of story.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Two nations divided...

It was GB Shaw that said that the US and the UK are
Two nations divided by a common language

I've been thinking about this as I enjoy blogs by writers from the US. It's often in the everyday things that we show our differences. Now, I would call top object a purse and the lower one a handbag. I believe that my American friends would call the large black object a purse and the small colourful one a wallet. I suppose it doesn't matter, until one of us talks about a "purse" without giving enough context. I'm pretty sure I couldn't get my mobile phone in my purse. Or should I say my cellphone won't fit in my wallet?

I've noticed that in the UK we tend to expect to find a bath in the bathroom - otherwise it's a toilet. We don't have restrooms but you can sometimes use the toilet in an old-fashioned cloakroom. Although many of our cloakrooms are just places to put coats.

It doesn't have to be confusing. We just need everyone to realise that the UK way is the simplest and best.

Cat with book

From: Cats With Attitude. I just can't resist intelligent cats that like reading.

We're assured that
no books were harmed in the making of this photo

So that's all right then.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


You can see more of Dan Piraro's comics at KingFeatures.

I've actually been doing some writing so I'm afraid that's all you're getting today.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Writing fun

I'm in a bit of a dilemma at the moment. One reason I'm not getting on with writing my current science fiction story is that I can't decide whether to write in the first person or in the third.

For sheer fun in writing, you can't beat first person. I can get into the story as the Main Character (MC) and just romp along. The problem is that the story isn't terribly easy for anyone else to follow. Too many of the details that the reader needs to know wouldn't be in the mind of the MC.

When I write in the third person, it's easier to follow but harder to write. So I suppose it comes down to the question of "Who am I writing for?" If I ever want anyone else to read what I write, and I do, I think maybe I need to take the harder path. Either that, or write the whole thing out as it comes and then go back and third-person it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Vacuuming the Cat

I've heard that the activities writers do to avoid writing are known as "Vacuuming the cat". (Unfortunately I don't know where I saw that to give credit so please let me know the source if you do.) What I'm doing to avoid writing is reading a lot of other people's books and I was delighted that my copy of Personal Demons arrived today! That's a couple of month's earlier than amazon said it would - good old amazon.

It's a strange feeling reading a book by someone that I've met online - although I'm not sure which of my friends on the various writing sites sent me off to look at Stacia's book. Maybe I found it on her blog.

Stacia's website lets you read the first chapter, which really helps me to decide if I want to buy a book or not. I'm glad that amazon often includes a 'Search Inside' feature now, even if I do sometimes have to go to the US site to see it.

So far I'm enjoying the book, although I'm not entirely convinced by the counselor in it. Maybe counselling practices are different in the US. At any rate, it looks like being a lot of fun.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

More About Endings

I was Stumbling around and came across a page on Endings - which is about endings in science fiction series. The author made a point about the emotion generated at the end of a series which I think also applies to any story: whether book, film or tv series.
Happy or sad is good. Disappointed, angry or indifferent is bad.

I must admit that I prefer happy to sad but the other feelings are in a different category. Anything that comes under the heading 'unsatisfied' can spoil the whole story for me.

Satisfying story endings that I have come across recently include Son of Rambow, which I saw last night. It was a very enjoyable film and the ending felt satisfying. If it hadn't, for me it would have spoilt the entire film.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Home library

I've been feeling very pleased with my home "library", or landing as it is sometimes called. I thought I needed a lot of space for my books but someone has worked out a solution with this library under the stairs The blog shows the stairs from the top as well, so you can see that some of these shelves are in fact steps.

I'm not sure how practical it is but it looks wonderful. By the way, this isn't my library - I wrote about that in A Room of My Own.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Northern Lights

My son has just read this and passed it to me to reread. I can see why they called it The Golden Compass in the US and for the film, although I prefer the title Northern Lights. It seems more evocative to me, although maybe that's just because it was the first title I knew it by.

It was another easy read, although not so full of wish fulfilment as Kim Harrison's books. I do love being swept up into another world and I love the daemons. Who wouldn't want their own daemon? I think mine would be a cat - or I'd like to think so.

Now I have to find where I've put The Subtle Knife so I can read the follow up.

Beginnings or Endings?

I've finished The Steep Approach to Garbadale and I'm a bit disappointed. Technically, the book answers all the questions it raised but I feel dissatisfied. I've put my more detailed views in a comment, so as not to spoil the book for anyone.

It did raise for me the question of which is more important: the beginning or ending of a book? Anyone who wants to get published knows the importance of a beginning to hook the reader in but as a reader I think it is the ending of books that tends to stay with me. If the ending doesn't work for me then it colours my feelings about the whole book.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


I've nearly finished Where Demons Dare and I'm embarrassed to admit that I've enjoyed it more than The Steep Approach to Garbadale. I think that makes me very lowbrow.

The Kim Harrison book is full of demons and vampires. It's not beautifully written, for example it has characters growling or hissing dialogue in places, although I've noticed fewer editing problems than in her last book. But the story pulls me along and it seems to be getting somewhere. Relationships are changing. Revelations are being made. The main character is struggling with good and evil and finding it's more complex than that.

The Steep Approach was very funny in places but it was let down by its ending. I'm just hoping that Demons doesn't suffer from the same problem. Not long now till I find out.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Writing about life

I've been reading Timothy Hallinan's blog and laughing guiltily at it. Guiltily because I don't usually laugh at other people's misfortunes and laughing because he has taken a bloody awful day and turned it into a very amusing piece of prose.

It got me thinking about feelings and writing. I don't think it's any use writing a story simply as catharsis if you want someone else to enjoy reading it. I've read other people's work that was written simply to get something off their chest or as tribute to a wonderful family member. It has huge emotional impact for them but not for anyone else.

My first longish story was fairly autobiographical. It was also crap but I felt better for writing it. Unfortunately, I haven't reached the stage of non-crapness yet where I can tell you how to do the opposite: take the experiences you have and transform them into something that will resonate with the reader and give them a good experience. I'm pretty sure that avoiding self-indulgent writing is in there somewhere. Perhaps it means writing with another person in mind. Experienced writers, please feel free to chip in here.

I don't know if writing his blog post yesterday made Timothy feel any better about his day but it definitely made me feel better. That's good writing at work.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Look and Feel of New Books

I've just got Where Demons Dare delivered. It's published as The Outlaw Demon Wails in the US, hence the widget at the top of this post. I have no idea how good it will be: the last ones in the series were a romp with vampires, pixies, witches and demons. They have been getting progressively less good, in my view, but I find myself wanting to follow the story.

What struck me today was the sheer joy of holding a brand new book in my hands. Freshly unwrapped, it looks like it has never been opened. All the pages are tight, there are no creases anywhere, the cover is shiny. I almost don't want to spoil it by reading it. Almost.

I can't imagine a time when I won't love paperback books. I wonder if electronics will ever take over? I suppose no one imagined that papyrus scrolls would become passé at the time.

Note: I'm not affiliated with any booksellers. I just link to where I can find a good picture and/or review.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Writing about sex

I'm still reading Garbadale (see previous post) and I'm struck by how well Banks handles writing about sex. He's very witty, for example when writing about the main character (aged 15):
He hadn't seen much porn, but he was damn sure the way to instant sexual success wasn't becoming a plumber or a pool technician.

He also manages to describe sex in words appropriate to whoever is the Point Of View character at the time, so we get
rubbing her through her jeans

where the first "her" stands in for a more explicit description, through to the use of words like "fuck" and "penis". He does it beautifully.

I have to say that I find scenes which use indirect words can be very erotic, as a misplaced "clitoris" can pull me right out of the story. I need the characters to speak in their own voices, otherwise it sounds like a visit to the clinic.

I think I said much the same thing about the use of strong language generally. Is that the secret of good writing: get into your character's heads?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Iain Banks

I'm just reading The Steep Approach to Garbadale and enjoying it very much. The blurb suggests that it's Banks best book since The Crow Road, which is high on my list of favourite books. It certainly has the most amazing first line of any book I've read:
It was the day my grandmother exploded.

It takes an unusually good book to follow that beginning successfully and it does.

Banks has written other books and I haven't enjoyed them all. The Player of Games is his only science fiction that I've been able to get on with. But it looks like The Steep Approach to Garbadale is going to be a keeper. I'll let you know when I finish it.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Speed of Write

I've just found this nifty little speed test for typing. Unlike some of them, if you make a single mistake and go back and correct it, it doesn't count everything you type as wrong: just the mistake.

It makes my typing look good. Although in the very short extract you're given I managed between three and six mistakes. I love my backspace key!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

See how it's written

I keep coming across new ways of writing or presenting writing. My latest find is Fuzzmail. You type an email in a special window and all your keystrokes and pauses are recorded. Then when you send the mail to someone, they get a link to the window and can see the email as you typed it.

The creators say:
We created fuzzmail because we wanted a more emotionally expressive alternative to email, so that an emailed love letter does not have to look the same as a business letter.

I'm not sure if they've succeeded. Do I want to let someone see my thinking as I wrote to them? Sometimes when I edit it's to be clearer but in an email it may be that I want to be more tactful. That's not going to happen if someone can see my first thoughts.

It could make for some wonderful fiction though. You could show a character's real thinking and what he or she presents to the world and how different they are. I had a go at it here. If you do one, maybe you could post the link in the comments and we can all see it.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

No Regrets?

I have just found out about The Beast, which was an interactive web game by a team of writers including the novelist Sean Stewart.

It has finished.

I wasn't entirely inconsolable as I'm not sure I would have managed to keep up anyway.

Not so long ago I came upon the wonderful blog by Miss Snark, offering witty advice to aspiring writers from the point of view of a literary agent. A whole community grew up around the blog and I would have loved to be able to join in the comments. But I came to it late.

It had finished.

Now that one I was sorry to have missed. If only I could have been a Snarkling. Alas, I was too late.

I'm determined not to have this happen again but I'm not sure how to keep up to date with what's happening. It seems to be a feature of the internet that the most exciting events end just as they become most popular. At least I'm in on Evil Editor's blog and community of writers. I hear he's just had his millionth hit. I hope he won't be leaving us any time soon: I've only just found him.

snollǝʌɹɐɯ ƃuıddılɟ

˙"ɹǝʇuǝ puɐ puǝıɹɟ ʞɐǝds" :ʎɹʇ oʇ pǝǝu ı ǝqʎɐɯ os 'dn ʎɐʍ sıɥʇ ɥsıʌlǝ ǝɹoɯ sʞool ʇı ˙ƃɹnqɯɹʎʍ ǝɥʇ uı ƃuılıǝɔ ǝɥʇ ɯoɹɟ ƃuıƃuɐɥ puıʍǝɔuıɹ ǝʞıl 'sʇɥƃnoɥʇ uʍop ǝpısdn ǝʇıɹʍ oʇ pǝǝu ı ǝqʎɐɯ ˙uʍop ǝpısdn ƃuıʇıɹʍ ʎɯ ǝǝs oʇ ǝʞɐɯ llıʍ ʇı ǝɔuǝɹǝɟɟıp ʇɐɥʍ ɹǝpuoʍ ı

I wonder what difference it will make to see my writing upside down. Maybe I need to write upside down thoughts, like Rincewind hanging from the ceiling in the Wyrmburg. It looks more Elvish this way up, so maybe I need to try: "Speak Friend and Enter".

You can flip your own text here:

Thanks to Pewari for finding this.
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