Less is better?

Lots of authors I admire have been prolific in their output, but I have to admit that that output can be variable. If they are writing for a living, then there will be pressure to keep producing books to keep the money coming in, and not all of them will be up to the standards of their best.

On the other hand, there are authors who wrote a few novels and short stories and then vanished off the scene, leaving us wanting more.

One example is James Stoddard, whose High House and False House owed an obvious debt to William Hope Hodgson (including character names) and were great fantasy novels. The only other work he seems to have produced since those books at the end of the 90s is a retelling of Hodgson’s wonderful but challenging The Night Land for those who find the deliberately archaic prose of the original hard going.

Another great fantasy series is Robert Stalman’s Beast trilogy which looked at the human side of lycanthropy long before the current crop of Twilight clones. The author’s early death robbed us of a great talent.

Another talent robbed by an early death as Tom Reamy who left one novel and one short story collection. The stories in San Diego Lightfoot Sue are variable as Reamy was still learning his craft, but some are wonderful, as was Blind Voices. The circus setting with talented youngsters has been done before and since and for me the pre eminent example is Charles Finney’s Circus of Dr Lao. Finney produced two other short novels and a short story collection – all brilliantly bizarre and eccentric and worth a look if you can find copies.

My final suggestion is Jody Scott who wrote the great Passing for Human and the pretty good I Vampire which are scathing feminist satires including shape changing aliens.

The next 100,000 words

I’m back writing the rest of The Revolutionary Tapestry having had some interest from agents. For someone who is new to writing this is enormously encouraging as it shows I have good ideas and some ability even if I need to work hard to get it to the next level.

Sending stuff out is scary. Even letting friends see it is an anxious experience. Everybody has that little voice in their head that says they are an imposter and someone will find them out. Writing is always an expression and extension of your personality to a greater or lesser extent and sharing it is an invitation to judge not only your words, but you. I should be used to it, having been both a journalist and a music performer, but in both those cases the feedback is quick and can be quickly forgotten. It’s only if you consistently get criticism or bad crowds that you start to take it really to heart. A novel or even a short story takes more sustained effort and is more personal than a quick bit of factual copy or a three minute song.

My first reader is, of course, my wife Jules. When she first started reading and commenting on my stuff it was hard to take. Overall she has always been positive and her critique is always valid and I have learned a lot from it. There is still the stray thought however that this is someone who loves you so should only say nice things. What I quickly realised is that (a) she was right in questioning the things she did and changing them would make the story stronger and (b) as a parent you should never shrink from being honest with your children so as a writer you should expect the same from your readers. It’s like the people who go on X Factor and react to criticism from Simon Cowell by saying he isn’t a singer. He is something more relevant – a consumer.

My other readers have been similar enthusiastic and positively critical – the story is good, there is good writing there, but there are also things that could be improved. As they are either writers or experts in aspects of the story, this is very heartening and only a fool would ignore their points. I know what I wanted to say and what the characters are thinking and doing, but if that doesn’t come across to the reader it is useless. And I have occasionally also suffered from making the characters say or do things that are out of character because I needed it to happen, so finding that out is invaluable.

The key lesson, I suppose, is that if people say something is not right, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good writer. Just that you have made a mistake, and pointing out a mistake is not an attack on your personality or talents.

So, onto the next 100,000 words and some more good readers.

Life is a cabaret

Jules and I have been busy over the last month getting our cabaret nights at Lowestoft off the ground – first one this evening and then every fortnight at the Seagull Theatre.

The idea behind them was the pain of travelling three hours each way to London to do a five minute comedy spot. If Jules found it a challenge to get a gig in this area, then there should be lots of other talented people with the same problem. The only way to improve your performance is to perform, but if there are no venues around how do you do that? And if lack of experience means the first few gigs are not a great success, that long drive back seems even longer.

With  lot of publicity online and in local media we have eight acts tonight and some lined up already for future shows. They range from performance poets to comedians (including none who has braved the Lowestoft/London journey the other way) to a drag act and a character comedian/singer. Plus me singing a couple of my own songs and Jules compering. variety seems to be making a bit of a comeback on TV with Britain’s Got Talent and the Palladium so fingers crossed.

The intention is to provide a showcase where the atmosphere is friendly and supportive and people are not scared to make mistakes as well as get positive support. The best will get progression to a longer spot on nights we will put on in the main auditorium rather than the bar area where the normal nights take place.

I’m looking forward to performing as well as being general factotum – I used to sing in folk clubs,  but most of them have disappeared, and playing again may encourage me to perform in more general open mike nights. Writing does not provide much in the way of immediate feedback so putting myself in front of an audience will be frightening but fun.

A Novel in a month? easy peasy!

Not quite what the title suggests, but I managed to achieve the 50k target for the National Novel Writing in a Month challenge by day 17 instead of 31. However it took another couple of days of work to actually finish the book and it will take about twice as long to get it to a state I’m happy with. Nevertheless not too bad an achievement.

I had done some work before I started – a general idea of the plot, characters and enough background reading to have lots of info to drop in at appropriate times. As it was set in a city I lived in for 25 years I just needed the odd peak at an A-Z to remind myself of street names (Like most old cities Norwich’s street names can change halfway through to reflect the medieval street layout) and what connected to what at what point.

As a conspiracy thriller, I had to decide what the conspiracy was, and its historic origins. This was a mix of join the dots history (this looks a bit like this so they must be connected) and if in doubt, making it up.The vast majority of the historic background and myths about the city are real, but the way I link them up is imagined and I did invent a couple of historic documents to link things up.It is, of course, not quite the Norwich of today. Although I tried to base the novel in the period I was writing it, the people are made up and the core drivers of the plot are imaginary, though plausible.

The only real character (apart from versions of myself and Jules I couldn’t resist putting in) is local former bookshop owner Norman Peake and I hope he forgives me killing him off (spoiler alert if it ever gets published). Any resemblance to other real people alive or dead is probably libellous so will be strenuously denied.

The timing was quite good as Jules has been working as a supporting artists in London on a six week shoot so I was able to sit at home or in a café in London and type for dear life. It was quite good discipline, though as I have since rattled out 50 pages of notes for a potential sit com and done lots of housework and admin stuff. Our accounts are now up to date, as are those for the Dare2dream Charity, and I’ve finally got round to ordering the 30 light bulbs I need to replace around the house.

Next job is to go back to the Revolutionary Tapestry and edit it into a decent shape so I can start sending it to agents. That is a more ambitious book with a bit of worldbuilding and a lot of period feel to get right in both the setting and characters. I got a couple more books with background info for my birthday so will read and make my usual copious notes on them.

The other good thing is that three stories of mine will appear in the anthology being created for Christmas by the local writer’s group so relatives and friends can guess one thing they may get as a present this year!

Two days in to NaNoWriMo

Two days in to National Novel Writing Month and still going strong! I’m ahead of my word count but it is the weekend so that makes life easier. Jules is working in London a lot of this month so I will have lots of opportunities to either work at home on my own or sit in a café and write while she does some supporting artist work or rehearses for her understudy role at a Christmas show.

I did a fair bit of prep in October – I already had the basic plot idea and some thoughts on locations and characters and I’ve raided some stuff from a short story I started and decided wasn’t working. As it’s set in Norwich I’m familiar with the geography and the background politics and institutions so don’t have to do the same amount of research I did for the Revolutionary Tapestry.

The extra stuff was reading more detail on Norwich in the 1750s and rereading books on the Hellfire Clubs and links between Freemasonry and architecture.

The basic concept hasn’t changed but I moved the time period to the present day rather than the 1990s and wrote biographies of the main characters. That helped as I was able to build in thoughts on the relationships between the characters and background tensions and conflicts not relating to the main action but informing it. While writing The Revolutionary Tapestry I realised it was about family and parenthood and while thinking about Masonic Fire I’ve realised it is about politics and elites and what marginalisation or exclusion does to people.

I suspect I’ll reach the target of 50,000 words in plenty of time and continue writing for a significant word count after that but, as always, the hard work will then be editing it down. It’s not about word count its about making every word count.

Writing a Novel in a Month

For my sins I’ve joined the National Novel in a Month campaign. This means I need to write 50,000 words in November and post it online.

This doesn’t mean stopping work on the existing novel – now in the stage of rewriting following very useful but fortunately positive comments from friends – but adding another one to the workload.

As I had half a dozen ideas already in the notebook I asked members of the Suffolk Writers Group which one they liked most. The answer, by a slight majority, was Masonic Fire – a conspiracy thriller set in Norwich. Second was Grimm Reaper – a serial killer story set in Lowestoft with a group of three teenagers as sleuths. Medieval detective story Trial By Jewry – set in Norwich in 1189 – was third. As it happens this was the same order my wife Jules put them in and my own preference as well. Masonic Fire has the additional benefit that I’ve already done a lot of the research and just need to revisit it.

I’ll get round to all of them – plus my widescreen baroque science fiction novel Legion of the Lost and the two sequels to The Revolutionary Tapestry – at some point. Current plan is to have a set of thematic, character or plot links between all of them.

50,000 words sounds a lot, but the first four chapters and the synopsis of The Revolutionary Tapestry come to nearly 40,000 so I’m not too worried. Finishing the book as well as the target is more of a challenge.

If anyone knows anything about the Hellfire Club in Norwich (at the Bell hotel in around 1750) I would be delighted to hear from you. The Dashwood and Wharton clubs, plus those in Ireland and Scotland are reasonably well documented but not the Norwich one – apart from a reference to an anti clerical riot. I could always use imagination, however.

The original plan was to set it in the mid 90s at the time of the Central Library and Assembly Rooms fires and the chalk mine collapses as I was working for the City Council at the time but I’ve now decided to base it today and use them as background history.

Wish me luck.

Book Imprints I Love

As I’ve grown up reading books I was always looking for the next great book to read. Some stuff was recommendations from friends, some books from author’s I already liked. But quite a lot attracted my attention because of the publisher.

In the 60s you could generally rely on a Penguin Modern Classic. Boris Vian, Gormenghast, Flann O’Brien, Satre and Camus, Herbert Read’s Green Child, Alfred Kubin, the Beats  – all discoveries because they were in that grey cover with a surrealist, symbolist or futurist cover.

Then in the 70s came Picador which not only had some great reprints but lots of new authors I hadn’t come across. And the new larger format paperback spurred Penguin to start their King Penguin range which was also a good indication of something I would like to read.

At university I suddenly had access to smaller presses and US imports (the only ones I had found before that were in the remaindered book bin in Woolworths). As well as working through Terry Carr’s Ace Science Fiction specials and Lin Carter’s Ballantine Adult Fantasy lists, I found Jonathan Cape and New Directions.

My key go to imprints now are Atlas Press (and not just because I know the publishers) and Dalkey Archive. Amazon has taken a lot of the pain out of finding books – most things are available new, second hand, or via print on demand, and lots of stuff is available as downloads for Kindle or as pdf’s. However, nothing replaces that joy of browsing in a bookshop  and finding a book you didn’t know existed that you think you will love.