Random Reading

Everyone having a relaxing Christmas? I am. There’s something about the Christmas season that encourages a relaxation of all the rules – perhaps it’s the exhaustion after all the rushing about. The shopping, cooking, the frantic rush for everything to be ready for the big day. It is when time seems to stop. What day is it? Friday or Saturday? It makes no difference. It is also when there are no rules – misrule – when you can do what you want without guilt.

At one time, this would have meant eating too much, gorging on chocolates, long meals with a different wine for each course, then sitting slumped and hungover in front of the television. I am older now, and wiser. I have been binge reading. I would always have spent a lot the time reading but this year I gave myself permission to forget everything else. Anyway there was a precarious pile of books I needed to tackle.

Normally, I would think carefully about what to read next but this Christmas I decided to start at the top of the pile and work down. The books in this particular pile (it is one of many) were ones I retrieved from my mother’s house. We cleared it when she moved to a care home. They are not family heirlooms – she was better at me of keeping things tidy. These were the books that she bought when her memory was starting to fail. The compulsion to buy books remained, but the ability to remember what she had bought and then read them had diminished.

I am not going to talk today about what is in the pile. The first one I read sent my thoughts travelling in another direction. Why do we pick the books we read? Or do they pick us? In the last few months I have read three books, all on a similar subject, the Second World War – a period that I would not normally read about and specifically about Resistance and how the past impacts on the present. I read the books for completely different reasons, not for the connection.

The first book, the one on the top of my pile was Citadel by Kate Mosse. The paperback edition was published in 2013. I, and presumably my mother, had read the first two books in the Languedoc series – Labyrinth and Sepulchre. They are all set in Southern France and involve a certain amount of time slippage – between the present day and the distant past. All involve mystical secrets that must be kept hidden.
In Citadel the present day is limited to an epilogue. The action takes place first in 1942 when Carcassonne is part of Vichy France, the unoccupied area under the control of Marshal Petain and then in 1944, after the Germans have invaded. It tells the story of Sandrine Vidal as she changes from innocent girl to experienced member of the resistance. There is a parallel storyline as Arinius, a monk, travels through the same area in the fourth century, carrying a valuable document for which he must find a hiding place.
As well as the tangled politics of wartime France, people are searching for the same document, some to destroy it, others to preserve it – even use it to fight against the destruction of the local population by the enemy as the Allies land in the South of France.

An exciting book with plenty of tension – setting bombs, evading the enemy and a love story as well. I learned a lot about conditions in France during the occupation, a time I knew little about and the connections with the past added an extra layer of interest.

And the connections with my writing? Earlier this year I was contacted by a friend of a friend, who wanted to find out about how to publish his writing. Originally from Rugby, he now lives in France and had met Kate Mosse – probably a better person to ask about getting published than me!

The second of the three books is The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths. This is the tenth, and most recent book in the Dr Ruth Galloway Mysteries. The way I found this series is an example of the serendipity of discovering books. One Thursday morning in writing class, we were talking about writing in the present tense. This is something that is frowned upon in certain writing circles. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a famous example – some people find it impossible to read. A member of the class mentioned books they had read that were in this format and easy to read. A detective series, set in Norfolk, in which the protagonist is an archaeologist. This piqued my interest and I made a note of the author – Elly Griffiths. That afternoon, after finishing my weekly shop at Sainsburys, I stopped at the charity second hand book stall. Staring up at me was a book by the same author – I think it was Dying Fall, the fifth in the series. I bought it and later started reading it. I discovered that after the first couple of pages, I was hooked, I no longer noticed the present tense.

The main character is a forensic archaeologist, Ruth. She specialises to bones, teaching at a local university. She is single, middle aged and slightly overweight – the ideal character to relate to. She lives on the edge of the saltmarsh in north Norfolk – a landscape that becomes a character in its own right. In the first of the series, The Crossing Places, the bones of a child are found on the marsh. Ruth is called in, but body turns out to be more modern. DCI Harry Nelson of Norfolk Police investigates. There are mysterious notes, archaeologists and police and a druid. By the end of the book, after an exciting night chase across the marsh, Ruth and Harry have solved the case and a partnership has begun.
I won’t go into details – I don’t want to give anything away but the series continues. New characters appear, others go (or die). There are old bones and new bodies. The culprit is revealed but at the same time you get to know these people: Ruth and Harry, their friends, relations and colleagues.

Most of the books are set in Norfolk but in the most recent, The Dark Angel, Ruth goes to Italy. In a hilltop village an ancient grave has been found, but the skeleton holds a modern mobile phone. Someone is killed and the answer lies in the past, in the conflict between resistance heroes and fascists during the second world war. I didn’t find it as good as the previous books. The situation was somewhat contrived and the characters were out of their comfort zone. Is the series reaching the end of its life?
The next book, The Stone Circle, is out in February 2019. It returns to the saltmarsh and the case where it all started.

If you want more coincidences, I was intending to buy The Dark Angel (it came out in Feb this year) when I went, on impulse, into a charity shop I had never been into before. There it was on the shelf.
Also, I have only just noticed there is a quote on the back by – Kate Mosse!

The third book I want to talk about today is Tell Me No Truths, by Gill Vickery. There was nothing forcing me to buy this book, unless you could say that sharing a stall at a Christmas Fair with the author counts. The fact that the Fair was in the same building as the writing class I attend and the author is my tutor might also have had something to do with it.

Like the Elly Griffiths book, this is also set in Italy, but whereas The Dark Angel is set in the Liri Valley, south of Rome, this book takes place in Florence and the surrounding villages. The book is Young Adult, and concerns a trip to Italy by three modern teenagers. Twins Amber and Jade are hoping to find out more about their much loved Italian grandfather, a hero of the Partisans in the second world war. They meet Nico who is only interested in discovering the identity of a reclusive writer of detective thrillers about the same period. They uncover secrets that have remained hidden for years.
I don’t know about young adults, but any adult would enjoy it. The story was gradually revealed and I loved the references to plants and flowers. It brought out the heat and beauty of Florence and its art, as well as some of less savory aspects of life during the war.

So, three books on a subject that I wouldn’t normally read but enjoyed. I wonder what else will force its way to my attention, or I will encounter in my mother’s TBR pile, before I plunge back into the tenth century?

On which note, you have only a few more days to read an extract of Bright Axe – to be published next year (or this year if you are late in reading this post!)

Three books about WW2 Resistance

Do you need a Structural Edit?

As mentioned in my last post my second book, Bright Axe, is getting close to publication. Why has it taken me so long? Basically, because I have been re-writing.

It is now over a year since I thought it was finished. I sent it out to a couple of beta readers. While I waited for a reply I made a start on book three. That was when the trouble began – at the start. Where did book three start? Bright Axe had two different endings, or rather I was unable to decide where it ended. I hoped my beta readers would tell me.

They were happy with both endings. It was what came before that was the problem. What was worse, they didn’t agree with what was wrong. I knew I was in big trouble. I won’t go into details but these were major plot points. If I’m honest I already had doubts myself. I didn’t know what to do, except that I needed help.

What I needed was an editor. But which editor? Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know I had a nasty experience with the editor of Bright Sword. Could I trust anyone with my book? I asked around. Someone looked good but was too busy. Someone made a recommendation but someone else said they were a waste of money. Finally I found someone, on Twitter, of all places.

It was something retweeted by Matthew Harffy, another dark ages writer who I have known since he was a struggling self published author. Actually, I don’t think he was ever struggling, because his Bernicia Chronicles, set three hundred years before mine are so good. This was the subject of that important tweet; a link to a blog post explaining why Matthew’s Serpent Sword, the first of the series, was so well written. You can read it here.

The article was written by Andrew Noakes and he is a Historical Fiction Editor. Was this the editor I had been waiting for? I had a look around his website, it was clear and well laid out and the articles interesting (only a few then – there are a lot more now.) There was an invitation to join his email list, I signed up, having decided to lurk and observe for a while before making contact.

Within hours, I received an email from him, thanking me for subscribing and asking about my work, to enable him to “provide useful content”. Well, if you ask an author to tell you about their work…! Within a few days I had signed up for an Editors Report (This is now what is described on the website as an Editors Critique.)

The result was a writer’s worst nightmare – and exactly what I needed. It ran to four pages of closely targeted text, starting with a summery, mostly complimentary but pointing out the main problem, the fragmentary structure. It went into detail about this, going into the storylines, narrative and plot. It went through the manuscript covering, in particular, the points that worried me. There were notes about characterisation; motivation and conflict and setting. It covered everything. I now knew exactly what was wrong. What it didn’t tell me was how to make it better.

For a more experienced writer, this would be more than enough to repair the damage. I was not an experienced writer – this was only my second book, after all. After a lot of thought and head scratching, I knew I couldn’t do this on my own. I needed help. I signed up for a full Structural Edit. The price of the initial report was deducted from the cost of this which made it not quite as expensive as it might have been.

What I received became the bible that enabled me to write the best book I was capable of. It went into more detail about the faults and showed me ways to correct them. Together with the odd email consultation, I discovered my protagonist’s motivation – my manta became “What does Byrhtnoth want?”. I learned which parts of the plot had to go and what to replace them with. More detail was needed in one place, less in another. More fighting, less sex. Best of all, there was a Chapter Analysis, going through the entire book, chapter by chapter, explaining what worked and what didn’t.

It was not so much a re-write as writing a completely new book, from scratch. There were a few things we disagreed on – there is still plot that I was unable to discard, because I felt half the book would collapse if it disappeared. The book now has a proper ending, which turned out to be a combination of the two original endings. Characters changed as I put them under more pressure; some had more strength than I imagined, others showed a side I hadn’t previously been aware of.

I had found the editor I had been looking for. How I wish I had found him earlier, Bright Sword would have been better than it was, but that is water under the bridge.

As well as improving this book, I have learned so much more from Andrew. To look at my writing in a more intelligent way and question every word. If it doesn’t progress the plot it is out, however beautifully written a scene may be. I have discovered that I can actually do it – given the incentive I can rewrite. Whole plotlines that seemed set in stone have changed; scenes that I have loved were obliterated.

Bright Axe is a different book, I hope a better book. I have often heard authors praising their editor. Now I know why. Not only do they improve your book, sometimes they can change your life. That is what a good structural edit can do. Thank you Andrew.

How I won NaNoWriMo

Any writers reading this will know why there have been no posts for the last month. For those who haven’t experienced the terrors (and joys) of NaNoWriMo, let me explain.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers with too much time on their hands write a novel – in a month – in November. Not quite a novel, but the first draft of one, 50,000 words to be precise. There are rules, although no one checks if you stick to them. The novel must be new, not something you are already working on. You are allowed to plan it beforehand, but must not start writing until the first of November. You finish on the 30th, or before if you reach that important 50k. You can enter the number of words you write each day and compare you total with other writers taking part (your buddies). When you reach the target, you must upload your work to validate the number of words and “win”.

What do you get if you win? There’s a certificate to download and … that’s about it.

No one checks what you have written. It could be complete rubbish. It probably is! So why do it? Why put your life on hold for a month to do something so strange? Well, for one reason, you are a writer and anything that forces you to write is good.

I had heard other writers talk about NaNoWriMo and last year considered taking part – and dismissed it. I was in the final stages of publishing Bright Sword, correcting proofs etc. This year I thought “Why Not?”. Bright Axe is close to the end. I was sick of Byrhtnoth and his problems. I needed a rest. A change is as good as a rest, they say and I had an idea that had been simmering for a while. I thought I could manage the 1,667 words a day that would be needed. So I signed up.

I made my plans. If I was to do this I needed to get rid of as many distractions as possible. I was involved with a First World War project, researching local men who had died. With the centenary of the armistice on 11th November, I had a deadline. I mentally altered the deadline to 31st October. Anything else outstanding I got out of the way, or delayed it to December. This explains why there were no posts in October either. There were certain events I could not avoid – a whole day at the NEC promoting Family History Societies. I thought I could cope by writing more the day before and after. I did.

As it turned out, there were only two days when I didn’t write at all. That day and another when I binged wrote the day before (nearly 3,000 words) and then had other things to do. I tried but I was just too tired. Apart from that I forced myself to the computer and wrote. Sometimes not enough, sometimes over the daily target of 1,667 words. It evened out, as you can see from the graph that measured my progress.

So what did I learn from the experience?
The main reason for doing it was to see if I could do it – I found I could.
I learned that I could control my writing. There were certain days when I had more time, so I wrote more on those days and didn’t worry when I couldn’t write, for whatever reason.
I discovered there was a limit to how much I could write a day – somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 words. There was no point in writing more, it would be rubbish and I would be unable to write the next day.

I found it liberating. Doing something like this means there is no time to go back to correct things. Realise you have missed an important chapter? Never mind, write it now, you can put it in the right place later. Have I already written this event? Never mind, keep going, delete it later. Need some research? Don’t stop, add a note “Find date later”

It was also fun to write something different. I have written two books about Byrhtnoth and a draft of the third. Was I getting tired? Could I even write something, anything, else?
I won’t go into details, but this book is less serious. Still historical, but with time travel. Some of it is set in the present day – literally – it started on Halloween 2018. I could have a character say Okay. I could describe someone by saying they looked like some well known actor.
I enjoyed myself.

When I wasn’t writing, I was reading, one of the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon. Not to improve my writing, but because it was time travel. My work is set, partly, in Scotland, so it was useful to pick up some of the accent. The time period is not a hundred years away as well. She includes a lot of details of daily life – too much some might say – but useful for someone who has been inhabiting the tenth century for so long.

I am pleased to say my manuscript includes no stone circles or bare-chested highlanders. There is a pirate (of sorts) and a dog and that is all I am prepared to say. 

I don’t know what it is like, I haven’t read it yet. This is recommended by the organisers of NaNoWriMo. When you finish, you must put it away for a month – at least – before looking at it.
I know it is nowhere near being a proper book, although I know it has a beginning and an end and some interesting ideas in between, not necessarily in the correct order!

It doesn’t matter. I have something I can work on later. Perhaps it will never be published.
What it has done is teach me a lot about writing – or at least about how I write.
It has given me a big sense of achievement. I tried and I succeeded. Some of my “writing buddies” didn’t, all for very genuine reasons. Some did. I think the competitive element is important, although your main competitor is yourself.

Finally, it stops you thinking about Christmas until the start of December – still too early, but better than the alternative.