Friday, April 30, 2010

Rationalising characters

This week I yanked a novel off the shelf, where it's been festering for the best part of a year. I'd got horribly stuck on one particular scene which stuck out like a sore thumb, but which I simply couldn't think up a suitable replacement for, and it was only this week that I suddenly thought of a solution.

When I came to read through the relevant chapter, though, I found that scene was only part of the problem - a symptom rather than a cause. You get so familiar with works in progress that sometimes you forget the details and in this case I'd forgotten that I'd made the love interest American, probably because I was writing for an American market back in the day when I started the novel.

There's nothing wrong with an American love interest, of course. It's just that being British, I'm not entirely familiar with American dialogue, American history, American culture. Most of what I know comes from tv series and films and might not always be strictly authentic, and I'd never even been to the city I had the character coming from. This all made it much harder to familiarise myself with the character. What would his accent sound like? Where would he work? Which part of the city would he be likely to live in? What's the attitude to gay men in that city? If I don't know this sort of basic stuff, I'm never going to convince my readers that the character is a real person.

I started to ask myself why the character needed to be American. Did it add anything to the plot, or to the character himself? The quick answer was no, not really. There were a few culture-clash style comedy moments but very little else, and it's easy enough to rewrite those.

So, this week my American has become a Liverpudlian. I know that city pretty well; I'm familiar with the accent which means I can hear the character's voice in my mind and know the sort of things he would or wouldn't say. And I can 'place' him geographically, and come up with a few amusing anecdotes about Liverpool, to add a bit of local colour. It'll mean a heap of rewriting, of course, but I already feel happier that the novel will be better as a result.

I don't think I've ever re-nationalised a character before, but there's a first time for everything...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Once there was... a disappearing blog

A couple of months ago I discovered the Midlands-based writing/resources blog Once There Was, and promptly stuck it on the list of blogs I follow. It had some interesting articles and useful links, it wanted stories for an anthology, and it was running a flash fiction contest. I entered the latter and was delighted when my story was 'placed' and appeared on the blog. The winning entries were also posted (and very good they were too), but after that I'd noticed the blog wasn't being updated any more.

I assumed the owner was on holiday or 'otherwise engaged' and checked on a weekly basis for anything new. This week when I clicked the link I was greeted with a mostly blank page and the alarming words 'the author has chosen to delete this account. No content is available'. Well, that can happen with blogs. It only takes the blog provider's server to be up the spout and the whole thing can vanish for an hour or two, and then reappear as though nothing had happened.

But Once There Was hasn't reappeared. The blank page and the message are still there, several days later, and it looks as though the owner has pulled the plug. This is a real shame, not least because it was such a friendly and useful site. I've had to take all the links to my flash story off my website and I have no idea what to do with the story I'd almost finished for the anthology. I'm left in limbo, wondering whether I missed a re-direct to another site, or any other sort of explanation.

If anyone knows what happened or where I can find Once There Was in the future, please get in touch. I'd hate to think I was missing out on all the fun somewhere else on the net! In the meantime, I'll have to chalk it down as the strange case of the disappearing blog...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Phone shop sharks

Dave's been looking around for a new mobile phone lately. His is now several years old and although there's nothing physically wrong with it, the rate technology moves on means it has been left lagging behind. Since he uses it all the time for work, something with the latest gizmos is pretty much essential.

This afternoon we happened to be passing a mobile phone shop, so we called in. We collared a salesman and explained that we were looking specifically at the new Nokia handset and an O2 tariff because several of the places Dave works can't pick up any signal from the other networks. We asked what their best tariff would be. He ummed and ahhed, said he would have to check with his manager, and sat us down to wait.

After a while the manager came over and the two of them started to ask us a load of personal questions and write the answers on a form. First question was: What's your home telephone number? This always annoys me, because it's quite obvious they don't need it and are only taking it for marketing purposes, so I told him it was ex-directory (which it is) and we don't give it out. After that he asked for Dave's mobile number, our name, our post code, and even our broadband provider. Quite why these details were necessary wasn't explained.

In the meantime the manager was doing his level best to sway us away from Nokia and O2, for some unspecified reason. Were we sure we wanted O2? Were we really, really sure? Why didn't we go for the i-Phone? Because we want the Nokia, I rather unhelpfully replied. Oh, he said. But why do you want O2? By the time we'd explained for the fourth time that we couldn't pick up any other signal, we were beginning to wonder what was going on.

Eventually, after much looking up in books and muttering amongst themselves, the pair of them came up with a quote for the tariff, which was reasonably competitive but not exactly outstanding. The salesman then asked Dave to sign the form with all the answers on it. "What am I signing for?" asked Dave, who's been caught before. "Oh, nothing, it's nothing, just some internal stuff for us," the salesman replied, looking shifty. We read the form. It turned out to be an agreement that we would purchase mobile phone insurance from them. Dave promptly ticked the 'no' box, but signed the form.

The next time we turned round, we found the salesman quietly filling in a load of other 'yes' boxes on the form, that quite patently didn't apply to us - but that would have been covered by Dave's signature. I asked for the form back and changed all the 'yes' ticks to 'no'. I then turned the form over. In small print on the back, it said 'by signing this form you are agreeing to let us contact you for marketing and research purposes, and to let us sell on your details to related companies and other businesses for marketing purposes' or words to that effect. On a form that was supposed to be 'nothing' and 'just for internal stuff'.

Needless to say we walked out of the shop without buying a phone, and the whole experience left us feeling grubby and used. What a difference from the O2 shop we visited a few days ago for a similar quote, where they told us the various tariffs without taking so much as our name and were friendly and polite throughout.

I very rarely 'name and shame', but Phones4U Kings Heath branch, you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The reality of writing

Writing, almost more than any other occupation, suffers from a strange and skewed perception of itself. In part this could be due to the way writers are portrayed in films, on television, even in other books. Writers tend to be shown as either mad ('The Shining') or bad ('Secret Windows') and the business of writing is shown as terribly artistic and genteel. I've had any number of people say, when I've told them I'm a writer, 'Oh, that must be a lovely hobby...' and the general perception of writers seems to be that we sit in a summerhouse surrounded by flowers, sipping wine (or tea) and tapping out our latest novel on an ancient typewriter.

At last there's an antidote to all that in the shape of a wonderful, and wonderfully funny, article by author Kate Douglas about the reality of writing and publishing. No floating around in summerhouses for Ms Douglas; she emphasises what anyone who tries to make a living from writing already knows - it's bloody hard work most of the time.

It’s great—you write full time, the kids are grown and three months is more than enough time to get a book written, right?

Yeah…sure. If that’s all you do.

I read the article, laughed, winced in sympathy, and wished I'd written it. I may not be writing simultaneous series of novels for different publishers, but I've been there with the edits and the cover art information and the second round of edits and the third round of edits and the proof-reading, all whilst trying my damndest to write something else. It makes juggling with chainsaws look easy. It's worth it in the end, of course, when you have your latest book or story published, but sometimes I do find myself wishing that people realised just how much of a full-time, business-like job writing is....

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tourists for a week

Last week we had our first visitors to stay at the Lakeland cottage. They'd never seen the area before so we put our tourist hats on and took them for a cruise on Lake Windermere, a walk round Bowness and Ambleside, and a trip to the old grammar school at Hawkshead where the poet Wordsworth was a pupil.

Once they'd gone we forgot to take our hats off again and ended up doing all sorts of other touristy things. We visited the South Lakes Wild Animal Park near Barrow in Furness, we took a ride on the Lakeside & Haverthwaite steam railway, and we popped into the Lakes Aquarium to see our favourite pygmy marmosets (yes, they have monkeys in an aquarium... go figure). All of which was immensely good fun.

The only time we'd been to the Wild Animal Park before was shortly after it first opened. It was very sweet, but a little sparse in the animal department - a few lemurs and wallabies and not a lot else. Now we're pleased to see it's bedded itself in really well, is chock full of animals and has started up a couple of great conservation/rescue services, for spectacled bears and macaws. Long may it continue the good work.

The steam railway only goes about three miles along the south-western shore of Windermere, but it passes through some amazingly pretty scenery along the way and there are all sorts of engine sheds and exhibits to clamber over at Haverthwaite station.

It always feels a little strange being a tourist in an area you call home, but it did mean we got to see things we wouldn't have done otherwise. Maybe next time we'll do a coach tour of the lakes and mountains. Then again... ;)

Friday, April 09, 2010

Crime writer tv show

I'm wondering if anyone else caught the first episode of a new US import called 'Castle' the other night? It was tucked away at 9pm on the Alibi channel so I'll forgive you if you say no, but you missed a treat.

We weren't optimistic at first. Yet another US crime drama. Yawn. Yet another series with the hero's name as the title of the show. Double yawn, step aside House and Dexter. Yet another series where a civilian with an unusual speciality helps the police. Hmm. Haven't we seen that idea before somewhere?

But Castle turned out to be much better than we expected. Nathan Fillion (of Firefly) was excellent in the title role and Stana Katic was equally good as his 'will they won't they' love interest/colleague. The script was a joy, chock full of witty one-liners that had us laughing out loud. And best of all, Castle's unusual angle was that he's a successful crime novelist.

Too often in movies and tv series, writers are shown as dippy floaty artistic types who drink lots of coffee, bang away on an ancient typewriter and talk to the walls. Castle was different, because he was intelligent and because he truly understood his craft. In order to write successful crime novels (possibly more than any other genre) a writer has to understand the motivations of his characters - why they would do something, or why they wouldn't. This was used to great effect in the first episode where several times Castle changed the direction of the police investigation because the motives didn't fit. Of course, it was a little hard to believe trained detectives could be quite that thick, but it was nice to see a writer genuinely using his craft to untangle the foibles of human nature.

Pilot episodes aren't always a good indication of the rest of the series but we're hoping the intelligence continues - and we'll definitely be watching episode two to find out.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Radgepacket 4 reviewed

Thanks to fellow Radgie author Paul D Brazill for spotting this one, the first review of the anthology I've come across. Author Donna Moore recently read Radgepacket 4 and had this to say about it:

"A collection of 22 short stories - gritty, funny, weird, warped and wonderful... They're not all crime stories but many of them have a crime in, and all of them are deliciously nasty. An anthology for those who like their fiction twisted, profane and depraved. Me, I loved it."

I've just finished reading my own copy and I have to agree - there isn't a duff story in the whole collection and many of them are very, very good indeed. My own favourites were Ragna Brent's 'Piano Man', Patrick Belshaw's achingly sad 'Grey's Elegy', Blaine Ward's startlingly chilling 'Eye for an Eye', and Carol Fenlon's poignant 'Half Mile Island'. But you don't just have to take my word for it now - you can pop along to Donna's blog and read the rest of her review.