Getting towards the end – but where is it?

I’ve had a good week. At first I didn’t think I had, as I only managed to write on five days – the rest of the time was taken up with writing last weeks blog post. Every writer needs reviews, but I find them difficult, especially if I have problems with the book, even more when I seem to be in a minority with that view. Good books are easy to review.

But back to this post. Last week I wrote (pause for dramatic drum roll) 7,822 words, comfortably over the 7k  have set myself each week. In addition to that, the total for book 2 (1st draft) is just over 97k (out of 90k!) and I hope to finish this week. Or have I already finished? I think I have mentioned this before here – if you have read it, that ending did change, slightly.  Anyway, last week I wrote a scene, then sat back and thought “That would make a very good ending. Pity it’s not actually The End.”

Why isn’t it the end? Well there is that big dramatic (romantic?) scene I have been thinking about for months. I’m really looking forward to writing it – you nearly didn’t get a post this week because I’m so desperate to get on with it. But perhaps I am too keen on it; should I kill my darling? After all, I am writing a series, perhaps I could leave it until the beginning of book 3.

There is something else to think about. I recently read a post by Alison Morton on the Neetsmarketing blog about Marketing a Book Series Among a lot of helpful advice, one of the things she said was:

“Firstly, ensure your books can be read as standalones, i.e. that each story is properly resolved and does not end on a cliffhanger.”

If I abandon that final scene, I will be leaving a major character at death’s door, not knowing whether they are alive or dead. I couldn’t do that.

But. When I was talking to someone about that, they reminded me of “Star Wars” – the original films. At the end of “The Empire Strikes Back”, Han Solo is left frozen in carbonite. You have to wait for the next film, “Return of the Jedi” to find out if he survives. It was released three years later – a long time to wait.

Han Solo – waiting

Are films different? How much of a “cliffhanger” do you need to encourage readers to buy the next book, but not frustrate someone who has bought one book.

Any ideas?

Finally, did I tell you I wrote more than 7k words last week?

Book Review – Dunstan

In the year 937, King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a great spear into the north. His dream of a kingdom of all England will stand or fall on one field and the passage of a single day.

At his side is Dunstan of Glastonbury, full of ambition and wit, perhaps enough to damn his soul. His talents will take him from the villages of Wessex to the royal court, to the hills of Rome – from exile to exaltation.

When I noticed this book, by Conn Iggulden, was to be published on 4th May, I was worried. I have written a book and am looking for a publisher. It starts in 937, Dunstan appears in it, although he is not the main character. How would it affect my own book? I had to check out the opposition.

As you can see from the blurb, the book is about Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester and London, ultimately Archbishop of Canterbury – and Saint. He lived through the period when England moved from a collection of minor kingdoms to the country it is today. Some might say this process began with Alfred and completed by his grandson, Æthelstan. Dunstan played his part by reforming the church.

It takes a strong man to do this and the Dunstan we see in this book was certainly strong. I was reminded of the Thomas Cromwell we have met in the books by Hilary Mantel. Both are men from the lower orders. Both achieve high position by their own intelligence and hard work. Both are unpleasant characters who tell their own stories. Mantel’s Cromwell, however nasty, is understandable, even, at times, sympathetic, that is the genius of her books. In this book Dunstan is just plain nasty.

It starts, not in 937, but three years earlier, as the thirteen year old Dunstan is taken to Glastonbury by his elderly father. At the same time his younger brother Wulfric also enters the monastery, but far from looking after him, Dunstan despises his brother. Why? Because he thinks he is weak and Dunstan considers anyone weaker than him is there to be used. Despite Wulfric’s later business success, which mystifies Dunstan, he must drop everything to do his brother’s bidding.

Dunstan rises. He tells us it is because he is lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but we are left to imagine the things he does not mention. The book covers his life and the reigns of seven kings. Dunstan is not interested in battles or even politics, just in how much money he can raise to complete his projects, the Abbey at Glastonbury and Canterbury Cathedral, which he believes will be his legacy. He was an interesting man, with a great interest in science and engineering, never happier than when working in his forge. It should make him more human, but he is too arrogant of his abilities. Everyone is there to serve him. One sentence sums up his attitude: “I have always forgiven my enemies, but only when they have been punished.”

As every hero needs a flaw to make him human;  a monster needs a spark of humanity to gain the reader’s sympathy. The Dunstan revealed in the book has none.

I should rejoice that a ray of light has been shone upon this period. The late tenth century has been comparatively neglected, perhaps because of the lack of major battles, and Dunstan’s is a story that has been waiting to be told. I have read a lot of books set in the Anglo-Saxon period. Most, good or bad, give a flavour of life at that time, this one doesn’t. It could almost have been set in any period.

The author prides himself on the depth of his research; the first person he thanks is his researcher. So why are there so many errors? At one point someone arrived in a pony and trap – yes, there were horses and various types of cart but the expression suggests something other than this period. Elsewhere, someone is searching the crowded streets of Winchester for a girl. He cannot spot her bonnet. Bonnet? Is this a time slip novel and Jane Austin has found her way into the tenth century? Later someone, still in Winchester, looked “up the high street to the cathedral spire in the distance, dominating the city.” Winchester does not have a spire today and, I must admit, I had to look it up, doesn’t appear to ever had one.

I was particularly interested in one event – the death of King Edmund. It forms an important part in my own book. It is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

A.D. 946. This year King Edmund died, on St. Augustine’s mass
day. That was widely known, how he ended his days: — that Leof
stabbed him at Pucklechurch.

There are not many exact dates, or even places, for events that can be identified during this period. St Augustine’s day is 26th May and Pucklechurch is easily found. So why, in this book, does this important event take place on All Hallows Eve (31st October) and at Winchester? There seems to be no reason to change it. Dunstan then says that Eadred was crowned in May 946 (it was August 16th, that year). If such facts, that can easily be checked, are incorrect, how can we trust the rest of the story?

I suppose the ordinary reader will not care about these details. It covers most of the events of St Dunstan’s life. It gives plausible explanations for the “miracles” performed by him. It has the usual replacement of personal names by more “understandable” versions, although I was a bit distracted by “Beatrice” – apparently a version was around at the time, but, to me, it sounds anachronistic. Apart from the errors, it is well written. At 480 pages I finished it in two days.

Two days when I could have been writing. I managed just over 4k words this week before I switched to reading about Dunstan.

Am I being unfair, because it doesn’t fit with “my” version of the period? I hope not, but I was glad Byrhtnoth wasn’t mentioned in this book – favourably or otherwise. I’m sure that if I didn’t know the period, I would have liked the book. I remember reading and enjoying the author’s Emperor series about Julius Caesar and then reading several of the Conqueror series. I didn’t read them all, I’m not sure why, perhaps I wasn’t interested enough in Genghis Khan etc.

If you want an interesting read about a neglected historical figure, buy the book. If you know anything about Anglo-Saxon history avoid it.

Back to work, but is it too late?

With a sigh of relief, I am writing again. When I returned to Byrhtnoth 2 (first draft) I realised that I had abandoned it for four weeks.

There was no problem, it was planned. There was editing to do, a blurb to be written (still a work in progress!), chocolate eggs to be eaten, and a lot of thinking to do. Too much thinking – I am beginning to get ideas for book three, but I must resist the muse’s call and get book two finished first. At least I had left my protagonist in a comfortable position – too comfortable, but I have thrown a bucket of cold water over him and got him going again.

I warmed up on Thursday, with the first writing class of this term. Well, not actually at the class – when given an exercise, my mind went blank. But later, when I got home. I wrote about 600 words on the subject of foreshadowing. I cheated – I started book 3! I’m not sure what I was foreshadowing, because I don’t yet know what is going to happen, but it’s not looking good for a major character. I wonder who it will be?

The best type of foreshadowing is quite unintentional. Sometimes I write something, some minor detail, something to fill the gap between one scene and the next. Later, it might be a few pages further on, or half the book, something happens and you say “Oh, that’s why I wrote that bit earlier.” Is it my brain being particularly clever or is someone else in control? Perhaps I’ll write more on that another time.

Having got my hand in, I managed 1175 words on Friday and 1318 on Saturday. I am back on schedule. I have Sunday under my belt and so long as on-one drags me out to “Do something because it’s a bank holiday today” I will write more this afternoon.

It’s May Day – let’s go dancing!

The enforced break has made me think about why I write. I have heard all about these writers who started scribbling in the pram; they always keep a note-book handy to write down ideas and have a cupboard full of half completed manuscripts. That’s not me. I started four years ago and I could stop tomorrow – couldn’t I?

I found myself saying something strange, last week at the self-publishing conference (report here). “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t started writing.” Sacrilege at an event like that, but what did I mean? I have got into the habit of writing regularly. When I stopped I felt ill for a couple of days; sick, shivery, unable to settle, almost as if I was suffering withdrawal symptoms. It was probably a coincidence, a passing cold.

I remember, back in the days when I helped run a Family History class, one of the first things we taught our students was: Be very careful, researching your ancestors can be addictive. I know, I have experienced that addiction for many years, I never thought I could  escape it. But now? Yes, I still get that thrill, when I am on the trail of some long-lost ancestor, but sometimes, just occasionally, when trawling through some list of names or ancient document, I pause, this is boring, what is Byrhtnoth, or some other character doing?

Have I exchanged one addiction for another?

Am I beyond help? I recently woke in the middle of the night and scrabbled round for a piece of paper, to write down a few words. Soon I’ll be doing it in broad daylight!

Help me! My name is Christine and I am a writer-holic.