Looking Forward.

I can’t believe my first book was published exactly a year ago, today. It seems like only a few days, but at the same time, like a lifetime. It didn’t set the world on fire, but I sold some copies – I actually got some royalties! People I know, who read it, said nice things – it would have been even better if some of them had posted a review somewhere, but never mind, I had a handful, all positive, all four stars. Encouraging.

But that is the past. This post is about the future. I have been busy since the start of the year reading/rearranging/editing book three. I was shocked when I looked at it and discovered it was a whole year since I finished the first draft. It has been an interesting experience, as this was not a book that I wrote from start to finish. I wrote a section towards the end, then the bit before that. I wrote the end and then the beginning – or was it the other way round? I put it to one side because of the problems I had with book two. It was over 110k words.

Having sorted book 2 (It’s away for a final edit, if you’re interested.) the first job was to identify the new start. 13, 639 words were cut with one chop of the axe! I didn’t want to do it, it was my favourite bit, but I knew it wasn’t right. I have printed out the whole thing, reading it section by section, making notes and corrections, then putting it back into the correct order. I got rid of the ending (3,000 words). I’m more than halfway through and shedding words all over the place. If I get rid of too much, I might even have to put more in!

Of course, the reason I’m getting on so well, is because this is just displacement activity. I should be learning about KDP and that sort of thing. Will I finish book three before I have to return to book two? I do like a cliffhanger!

This post is supposed to be about looking forward.
So, some predictions:
1. Book 2 (Bright Axe) will be out this year. I don’t know when, but earlier rather than later.
2. Book 3 (I know the name – it starts with Bright – but I won’t reveal it yet.) might, and it depends on how easy this self publishing lark is, be out later in the year.
3. I haven’t even started book four, so that will definitely NOT be out this year. Next year? Perhaps.
4. NaNoWriMo2018 book. I haven’t looked at it yet. At only 50k it will need a lot more work. Published? This year, next year, sometime, never?
5. Then what? Who knows? Answers on the back of a postcard.

I hope we’ll all be here this time next year to find out if I was right.

WIP. Notes for first part of Book Three. If anyone can decypher anything interesting, please let me know – I can’t!

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End of the Year Review

A new year – time to look forward. But everyone is looking back. We cannot plan the way forward unless we know where we are coming from.

2018 has been a landmark year for me. There can’t be a much bigger event than publishing your first novel. That was back in January. It seems like a long time ago: the excitement of seeing copies of my book for the first time, practicing my signature for the first signing and that freezing day of the launch. I have learned a lot and done a lot more writing, and rewriting, and editing. I will publish my second book this year, perhaps my third as well. More about all that another time.

For this post I thought about writing about the books I have read in 2018 – put together a top five, or ten. But I couldn’t remember what I read last year. Was that book last year, or the one before? The ones I remember are the ones I have written about here – or planned to write about, but never got around to it.
So I have made a resolution – I will make a list of every book I read in 2019, together with notes and a rating. I hope it will result in more reviews here and elsewhere.

So no top ten books this year. What else can I review? What about this blog? Behind these pages, WordPress provides me with a whole load of statistics. What was my most successful post? Since I am planning on a little light housekeeping, it seems like a good idea to find out what works and what doesn’t.

This blog started on the 9th August 2015, just before the anniversary of the death of Byrhtnoth. This enabled me to introduce my character and write about the Battle of Maldon. I have written 119 posts since then, an average of just under three a month – better than I expected! I have had 5,430 views and my most successful post was on the 25th September a review of King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett. It got retweeted by the Dorothy Dunnett Society (@DunnettCentral) which produced 190 views.

But this is a review of 2018. What have been the most popular posts this year?

Coming top, with 98 views is “How do you pronounce that?” Published on 22nd Jan 2018, it is about my problems with finding the correct pronunciation of Byrhtnoth. Not a particularly enthralling subject for the general public. Why has it had so many hits? Is it the title?

Number two is a report on the Historical Novel Society Conference 2018 , with 58 views. I am sure that a mention by the HNS improved the circulation of that post.

Third comes a post from November 2015: The Last Kingdom – Book v Television has had 50 views this year. It is also the second all time favourite. I think it gets noticed whenever the TV program is shown.

Fourth place this year (34 views) goes to “Do you need a Structural Edit?” Something that is of interest to all writers. Giving my current editor a rave review helped to publicise that one.

In joint fifth place, on 27 views each is a post “With Aethelflaed in Tamworth” a report of an event about The Lady of Mercia – talks and books for sale, which was promoted by the organisers (and participants, thank you). With the same number of views came one of a series of five posts about a holiday in Orkney and Shetland. Why was number three more popular than the others?

What have I learned from this exercise? It helps to write about someone or something with a high profile and tell them you have posted. The other is to ask a question. I will have to give this a lot of thought. Of course, I could always ask you, my readers.

What would you like me to write about in 2019?

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.

Where do you go to, my darlings?

As a writer of fiction, you make things up. That’s not really a surprise, but the fact is that those things become real, at least to the author. To the reader as well, I hope, but what happens if they never reach the reader?

You invent a world, and the events in it. There is a plot and you must decide what happens next. You need a scene. It must continue from the scene before and lead on to the one after. You decide who will appear in the scene and what they do. How does it start and how does it end? You test snatches of conversation, imagine the venue – should you add some description? Eventually, when you have it complete in your head, you write it down. At least that is how I do it.

You continue with the next scene, and the next. You end up with a book. You start to edit. You rearrange words, delete some, correct the spelling and get rid of those words that you use too much. You read it through, aloud if possible. You edit it again, you send it to beta readers and you make changes – perhaps.

By now you have read it so often, you know the book almost as well as your own life. The memories of your characters have become your memories; a part of your life.

Then you employ an Editor!

An editor, if he is any good, will tell you what is wrong with your book. He will tell you to change this, delete that. A character is delaying the plot, another needs more of the action. What does he want? Why is she doing that? You will want to ignore the advice. Must I really get rid of that scene, that beautiful scene that says exactly what I wanted to say, the beautiful description, the words that will tear at your reader’s heart? Yes, you must kill your darlings!

But where do they go, those memories? Do they disappear in a puff of smoke? Perhaps they remain, if the reason they were killed was lack of space, they remain as back story, part of your character’s life. But some die completely. The plot is changed, a relationship is destroyed, a life takes an unexpected turn, characters merge to become someone new.

Perhaps they will be recycled, names changed, in another book. But even if the characters forget, I will not. It may be that when I have written more books, the “might have been” scenes will fade away. For now, they linger and I mourn them.

I have been rewriting, it has been a long process, although I hadn’t realised it had been so long since I posted anything here. I am close to the end – an end which I have now identified – that was one of the problems.

Now I must put it all back together. I haven’t checked the word count, I know it is large. There will be more editing. Will I have to remove more “darlings”? I hope not, I don’t think I can stand the anguish.

Editing in the garden

Take a deep breath

If you have been following this blog for a while, you might have noticed that I have been having problems with book two of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles.

In the first place I didn’t intend to write a series. Bright Sword emerged from a writing course, it grew and by the time I finished it, I knew there was more of Byrhtnoth’s story to tell – He had a long life and he was still in his teens. Book two came easily, I enjoyed writing it. I tidied it up and sent it to a couple of brave volunteers for a Beta read. I was told it was better than the first book I was pleased, Bright Sword had been published in a bit of a rush, and was not entirely happy with it. The Beta readers made various comments, on different parts of book two.

Meanwhile I had started book three. I say started but in fact I began in the middle – an experiment in POV. I forced myself to stop at what I thought was the end and went back to the start. But where was the start? Book two had continued directly from the end of Bright Sword, but for some reason I couldn’t get it to work properly this time. I carried on writing, from a later “beginning” and have nearly finished the first draft, joining the two halves together.

I have continued to worry about the beginning: Steal the end of book two for the start of book three? Ignore what happened between books two and three and start later? But that bit of plot was vital! What I needed was someone to tell me what to do. An Editor.

I was wary. I had already had problems with an editor. Where did I find the right one? Someone was recommended – they were too busy writing their own books. Someone else was mentioned, but another person said they were expensive. Time passed and I became desperate. Then I found someone. I won’t say who or how, in case it all goes pear-shaped, but I think it is going well.

I sent off my manuscript, together with synopses of Books one, three (so far) and four (ideas) and a list of what was troubling me. I wanted a basic Editors Report. What I got was fantastic; it addressed every point I had raised, in detail. It told me what was good (thank you) and what was wrong (help). Horrible as some of the suggestions were, this favorite scene had to go (too much like something in book one) and that was too unbelievable, I knew they were right.

I took a deep breath and thought about it, for several days. If I take that bit out, what do I put in its place? Yes, I can shorten/lengthen that piece. That scene is just waiting to be filled out. I came up with a new outline. It is better but there are problems – I still can’t work out where it ends! The Editor has ideas, so I have signed up for a full Structural Report. I’ll report later on how it goes.

I have now recovered from that tornado of emotion – fear and elation. It is as if I had finished a large jigsaw puzzle. Every piece was in place, but the picture was wrong. Someone has taken the puzzle and thrown it up in the air. Where will it come down and in how many pieces? All I know is that it needed to be done and I will lean a lot from putting it together again. Wish me luck.

Another good thing that came out of this shake up. Despite, or because of, spending all that time thinking, I still managed 6290 words of book three this week. All that’s left to do is the final (middle) scene – the battle. I feel I have just been through one, which may be a help.

I’ll let you know next week.

 

Thinking and Dreaming

Do you ever dream about your characters? I expect some writers do, devising entire plot lines and waking to scribble it all down on that notepad that you are supposed to keep at hand for when inspiration strikes. Everyone has different dreams and ways of remembering them – or not!

There are the dreams so vivid that you are scared to return to sleep. Other people claim not to dream at all. Then there are those dreams that you half remember, leaving just a frustrating impression. I had one of the latter recently. I woke, knowing that my dream had been full of incident, but it disappeared before I could catch it in the net of my memory. All that remained was a snapshot. A big man swinging a sword. It was dark and he was surrounded by trees. It must have been Byrhtnoth and this is the only time I have dreamed about him – that I  remember.

I could use that scene, embroider details onto it, decide who he is fighting, and why. But it would no longer be the original dream that I experienced. It is very annoying, but why did I have that dream? Was it because I had not done any writing for several weeks? Was my character, or just my subconscious (which is the same thing really) telling me to get on with it.

Not wanting to end up with nightmares, I obeyed. I retreated to the writing computer and wrote just over 1,000 words – then the rugby came on. At least it’s a start and I’ll try to keep it up.

River and muddy path.

I had warmed up with a bit of editing, because those weeks of not-writing had not been wasted. I had been thinking. A weekend away in the Lake District was not just a time for walking and drinking. I had decided to send my character to this same place, and was looking at the view with his eyes, hearing the sounds with his ears, feeling the suck of mud on my boots. How far would he travel in a day? Where would he stop for the night? The only problem with this, is that I was there in February – he will be travelling in May. I can cope with that, I hope.

The other thinking that occupied me was about the structure of my books. I sat down and wrote a synopsis of book two. I then did the same for book three – a bit more difficult as it is only part written. I then wrote a synopsis – well more of a set of notes – for the unwritten book four. From the look of it, that will be the end. Of course anything can happen if the characters don’t agree!

Then it got really speculative, what next? How about a prequel? A children’s book? Tell the story of other characters? Send Byrhtnoth into outer space – perhaps not that one. A different period? Modern day? A thriller? Then I calmed down, just get on with writing the next book.

Once I had got the synopses down, I started to apply the Three Act Structure to them. It was an interesting exercise. I found that half of one book was about a completely different character – is that allowed? It was difficult to fit the structure onto the unwritten book four – how do I know how much I’ll write for different scenes? I have not become organised enough to say that chapter x will contain such and such scene. Thank goodness, I’m still a pantster at heart!

Feel free to return to this post in a few months/years time and have a good laugh at my dreams.

View down Eskdale from Hardknott Roman Fort.

Fireworks for Byrhtnoth

I have come to a turning point. Well, not a turning point, just a place to stop and take stock of where I am going.

This afternoon, I finished editing Book 2. Not sure which edit it is but I have gone through the first draft, checking for all those words I overuse. One of the worst was “look”. My characters look up, look down, they look at each other, they look at the sky, at the sea and their own hands. Well, they did, but not any more, and you know what? They don’t miss it at all (I did have to put back one or two, You can’t have a whole book without the word “look”.) Other words were Begin and Start, as in “he began to do something” – no he didn’t – he just did it! There are many others – I got rid of as many as possible. Then there were the adverbs – chopped.

When I had done that, I printed out the whole thing, then locked myself away where no-one could hear and read it out loud! The things you discover when you do that! I returned to the computer with my, by now, colourful pages and made the amendments, picking up other errors on the way.

I now have a readable manuscript of just over 91K words – just where I wanted to be. I have turned it into an ebook and sent it off to my Beta readers – yes, I have actually found someone to do that job. I was tempted to write another chapter – there are a few loose ends, but that can wait, for now.

While going through all this, scenes for book 3 have been running through my mind. When the first line appeared, I knew I had to start writing again. I thought about taking part in NaNoWriMo, but didn’t allow myself to start until the editing was finished. It’s too late now, but I would never have managed 50k words in a month. I have too many other things to do.

Bright Sword finally came to the end of its proofread/copyediting and is being printed. It is available for pre-order in all the usual outlets. It even has a review on Good Reads – four stars!

So now I have given a big sigh (another overused word!) and prepare to start writing again.

To celebrate this, and because it’s 5th November, here are some fireworks.

And if you are wondering what fireworks have to do with Byrhtnoth, this picture is from a film was taken on 10th August 1991 – the finale of the thousand-year anniversary of the Battle of Maldon.

(It was supposed to be a video, but apparently it was the wrong format – just hum Ride of the Valkyries and imagine the bangs!)

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