Late for a reason

This week’s post is late for a reason. Last night I finished the revisions/edits on Project AR.Scroll, #amwriting, and I'm done!

Doing so took up all my writing time, so I didn’t have time to put up a post. I’m glad I waited. It’s so much more satisfying to report success!

On another note, I spent the weekend dancing my socks off at a music festival. And I got to observe professional creatives at close quarters.

Musicians with over 40 years experience, performing a range of pieces from their body of work, new stuff as well as old favourites, for an audience of fans in an intimate venue. They mingled with the crowd before, during and after the performances so I had the chance to say how much I enjoyed it (okay, so maybe I did a bit of the burbling fan-girl thing too <blushes>).

The experience brought home to me the importance of Practice.

The importance of Output.

The importance of Work.

You’d think after 40 years or more, these guys could just rock up and play. Maybe they do, but what I saw looked like the result of constant, lifelong practice.

The hard work of practice shows in the face of the man who waves his hands in front of a Theremin and gets it to produce exactly the sounds he wants. It shows in the ability to play as an ensemble with others, picking up cues and nuances. In the casual remark that there’s so much back catalogue sometimes they forget the words to one particular piece.

A reputation for odd habits doesn’t keep you working in the music industry for decades. What does is a reputation for delivery. It’s a lesson that applies across all the creative industries, writing included.

I’ve been privileged to see long-term professionals at work and recognise that their success is down to commitment and persistence (and sheer damn brilliance). My next trick is to work out how to apply that insight to my own creative endeavours.

In the meantime, look out, you’d better duck…

Not much of note to report

Only a wee bit of activity to report this week – I have been writing some very silly short fiction.Scroll, #amwriting

Think Thirties matinee idols and H P Lovecraft and 21st Century sass and you’re starting to get the flavour of the thing.

I’ve also reached the last few chapters on Project AR as far as edits go. The whole novel is starting to appear as an entity with its own shape, rather than a set of scenes and set pieces.

Always a good point in a novel. It means you can imagine The End.

Carving My Own Walnut Burr

A few years ago I read a newspaper interview with a shotgun manufacturer – high status, expensive, bespoke sporting guns – and their apprentices.

For the first year (at this particular manufacturer), the apprentice learns to carve the stock of a shotgun from a block of burr walnut.

Artisan work still exists in the 21st century.

High quality artisan work in the 21st century.

That’s all.

No metalwork, no ballistics, no mechanics.

Just carving a block of wood.

The point?

It weeds out those apprentices who just want to make guns. They leave.

The ones who stay are those who have the patience to spend years making a matched pair of bespoke sporting guns that sell for upwards of £50,000.

“A bespoke gun is unique in that it is fitted to the customer, like a tailor makes a suit to be fitted onto his client. A shotgun or sporting rifle made for a specific owner will be unique, have durability, and suit the individual need of the customer in terms of weight and feel. It is also a thing of beauty and elegance. The hand-made gun is a very personal thing and there will always be a demand for them.” – John Hogan (Sporting Gun)

“A bespoke gun is unique in that it is fitted to the customer, like a tailor makes a suit to be fitted onto his client. A shotgun or sporting rifle made for a specific owner will be unique, have durability, and suit the individual need of the customer in terms of weight and feel. It is also a thing of beauty and elegance. The hand-made gun is a very personal thing and there will always be a demand for them.”
Read more at http://www.sportinggun.co.uk/homefeature/542040/Are_provincial_gunmakers_a_dying_breed.html#G1hYo71K6A2J3mkY.99

The reason this comes to mind right now is partly due to the post over on Dean Wesley Smith’s site, “Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing: #2… Self Publishing is Easy” and partly from my ongoing thoughts about writing, self-publishing and endurance.

Many of the people I follow online have been in the writing business, and the publishing industry, much longer than I have. Envy of their position is not sensible. Some of those folk have been published writers since before I could write.

The most wonderful part of this, however, is that so many people are willing to share their experience and knowledge for free, on their blogs and websites, like having a master in that craft to teach those of us who are still at the early stages of our apprenticeship.

Lawrence Watt-Evans. Terri Windling. Jim Butcher.

I have a lot more burr walnut to carve.

Death Of A Novel

Yesterday, I decided to kill off a novel.390px-Brooklyn_Museum_-_Portrait_of_Genghis_Khan

Project RC, begun in late 2011, abandoned mid-edit in February 2012, has been officially retired.

Ninety thousand words, a bundle of characters, settings, challenges. A plot that wove between them all less like a hessian sack and more like a bucket of beansprouts. I even had a cover. One I was pleased with.

Deciding to abandon all thoughts of reviving the story has lifted a weight off my writing wrist, freeing my creative mind to look for other stories. Better tales. Fascinating characters, some of whom I like.

I feel like I’ve made a big step in terms of writing progress.

I’ve learned that I’m better at writing novels when I have a structure, and characters I know, and a definite sense of time and place.

When I went back to review this project all I saw was another six months of editing the story, staring at maps of Eurasia, finding better places to set the story and blending those into the words I already had, and trying to work out who my characters thought they wanted to be.

Sure, there were some beautiful passages, some ‘darlings’ I was pleased with:

His little psalmbook had become pulp in the humidity and was no use for even lighting fires, yet he kept it, squeezing the water out occasionally and wondering if he should drink the liquid to save the ink, which had so recently told God’s words, and perhaps maintained some element of holiness within.
At that point, he realised he was growing mad.

And:

In midsummer the nights seemed endless and when he travelled with the monks into the blue-topped mountains on a pilgrimage he saw the stars disrupted by some shimmering, shifting wave that shook pale green across the sky, drifting like sand across a dry riverbed in the deserts east of Aleppo, rippling like the dusting of snow that skittered over the steppe and sung of desolation.

RC Nestorian_Mongolian_BishopEnding it here, like this, is a little like ending a friendship which didn’t quite work.

Perhaps the story of a nomadic monk caught between the Black Death and the Mongol Invasion of Europe will resurface at some point in the future, but if it does, as the old joke goes it won’t start from here.

In the meantime, I have other work to do.

Look out for a novel in June.

Published in: on April 2, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Women Destroy Fantasy

I have to remind myself that I have a number of short stories near completion that I promised I’d submit to magazines. One of these calls for submission comes from Fantasy Magazine – Women Destroy Fantasy.

Go to it.

Published in: on March 24, 2014 at 10:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Progress Update for March 2014

I’ve been writing. Short stories, mostly, and a new idea for a novel in one of my off-Club series.Scroll, #amwriting

Also, I’ve been busy discussing with Amazon UK the appearance of two of my novels under a name like mine, which are nonetheless Not Mine i.e. unauthorised.

You’d think the nicking of a novel would be a flattering thing, but…

No.

So Amazon UK and I are having words.

On the plus side, I had a weekend off with the intention of reading and relaxing, but the weather was glorious so I spent much of my time outdoors soaking up the sunshine and writing poetry. I also “harvested” a lovely story from a lady of mature years – a complete stranger – which might make an appearance sometime in the future, when it’s apt.

And while I was outdoors I went to see some hawks being flown – beautiful, graceful, fabulous – and of course now I want to add hawks, falcons  and suchlike to whatever I’m writing. A bit like going on holiday and spending your time poking your nose into alleys and courtyards to see where it leads.

Is it just me, or do you know you like a place when you start to plot out a novel in its setting?

Published in: on March 19, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Scent Of History

Ah, scent. Of all the senses, it’s often used to anchor memory in the mind, so that the whiff of fresh mown grass takes you back to childhood summers or the odour of rank socks reminds you of house-sharing with a sporty type.

But what about events or places outside our experience?Odour

It’s been said that outer space smells of dust. And if a novelist tells me that a made-up food tastes like peaches and shampoo, I can make an educated guess at what that might be like without trying to experience it myself.

Sometimes, however, it helps to smell a scent first-hand.

From the more recent past, some of the things which perfumed history are still around.

For example, while writing a story set in the summer of 1914, I might describe the perfume one of the female characters was wearing. How would I know what that smelled like? Blogs like Yesterday’s Perfume show the way.

It might not mean much to other writers, but I am keen to keep my historical fiction as accurate as possible before I twist it my way. If I write that a character was drenched in Tabac Blond, he or she better not be drenched before 1919.

Likewise my latest short story, Dogger, Forties, German Bight. It’s set in the 1950s, in England, and the country was still under post-war rationing. My characters aren’t wealthy, and they live in a small rural community on the shore of the North Sea.

They aren’t the sort to drench themselves in Tabac Blond, or L’Heure Bleu. They smell of ordinary things: carbolic soap, newspaper ink, Brylcreem.

I know what these things smell like, because they’re still around. Carbolic soap, in big rough pink blocks, was the staple of school washrooms until at least the late 1980s. You can even still find Izal Medicated! Listerine has that clean sharp buzzing taste, the original version, but was it as harsh in the 1920s?

The trench hospital montage in the Imperial War Museum – when I visited a few years ago, anyway – hit you in the schnozz with a waft of dried blood and TCP. At the time I was up to my eyeballs in Great War history, including the John Buchan volumes (not all 23, I hasten to add), so I reckon the museum curators had it spot on. After all, there were still a good few WW1 veterans around when the display was constructed, and nothing beats experience when it comes to recreating something from scratch.

In the (mighty fine) novel Perfume, The Story Of A Murderer, a hero with no scent of his own lives surrounded by the odours of Paris and Provence which the author describes in lavish detail. We have perfume recipes from the era in which the book is set. We even have perfumes that claim to be from that era, and the scents of the Parisian fish markets and tanneries have remained unchanged for centuries.

We have the same olfactory organs, the same sensitivities, as people in the past. Once you smell a scent and know its name, you can use that memory to translate others. Hence wine buffs going on about “oak” and “black cherries” and “lemon pips” and “the scent of fresh linen on the spring day a child takes her first Communion”.

There are other sources of smells from the past. Historians have recreated Bronze Age beer, and made ancient-style bread, using modern stock of the old genotypes of wheat and barley and rye. Archaeologists in Siberia regularly excavate mammoths so we know, or can make a good guess, what their diet was, and what they might have smelled like on the wind blowing across the taiga when the Ice Age frosted Europe.

But when you have a truly lost scent, or the scent of an alien planet, how can you convey that on the page?

Giuseppe Baldini at the mixing desk

Du Riechst So Gut…

Published in: on March 12, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Buried Treasure

“When we study history we obtain a more profound insight into human nature by instituting a comparison between the present and former states of society”
- Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (1832)

As a student, I chose to study archaeology because I’d been fascinated by Ancient Egypt since childhood. Only when I got to university and had to decide in which area to specialise did I realise I’d been led down a false path.

I couldn’t see the practical application of being able to read and write hieroglyphics.

I couldn’t afford to visit Egypt, and back then I didn’t know enough about the world to realise that if I had to travel on business I’d get expenses.

And I didn’t see too many jobs in the museums of Britain where an in-depth knowledge of Egyptology was going to be a boon.

So I chose to study Prehistoric Europe.

Prehistory by its very nature is mysterious: before history, before documentation, before the record-keeping and writing that forms so much of what we know about ancient peoples. So I didn’t need to learn Ancient Greek, or Latin, or hieroglyphics.

I got to play with a theodolite. I got to Italy, and excavated a site where Otzi the Iceman got his axe. I got chapped fingers scrubbing pot-sherds in cold water.

I discovered buried treasure was the result of a lot of digging, a lot of sifting, and a lot of luck.

On November 5th 1922, Howard Carter wrote in his pocket diary: 'Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramsses VI investigated same & found seals intact.'

On November 5th 1922, Howard Carter wrote in his pocket diary: ‘Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramesses VI investigated same & found seals intact.’

I got to realise that the world of professional archaeology is a small one. Contracts are short, and pay is low. Competition is high for the paid jobs that come up and I’d started too late to make a career of it without paying my dues for years to come. Years of moving from place to place and job to job, never settled, not knowing where your next contract might lead.

I’d already spent years living like that. The lure of buried treasure wasn’t so strong that I’d put up with the equivalent of going to the Klondike and living in a tent for a decade.

But as a writer, I can create buried treasure of my own.

I go digging. From the comfort of my desk, with a map and an open mind.

I take my lantern and my shovel and go out into the darkness between the lines of my favourite stories, like Howard Carter searching between the empty tombs of the Valley Of The Kings.

Searching for wonderful things.

Free Fiction! via Smashwords

In the heart of Jack The Ripper's London, a dreadful secret lies...For one week only, until 8 March, I’m taking part in the Smashwords “Read an Ebook” week promotion.

The Last Rhinemaiden is free to download. Just follow the link and use the code RW100 at checkout to get this book for free.

 

Halfway Through Edits on Project AR

Halfway through edits on Project AR. Good progress has been made, but I should be further along the road to publication by now, and the drag on my writing schedule is starting to show.

One thing I hadn’t expected was a slowdown in late January. There was a good reason for this. I was lucky enough to get on a week-long professional training course, but I hadn’t anticipated the mind-numbing effect this would have on my non-work faculties.

Sure, I anticipated I’d be tired. I knew I’d be out of my usual routine, and I’d have homework to do in the evenings after the day’s work was done.

But I hadn’t figured on how suffocating – how draining – would be the combination of a slide show, with a full pack of all the slides printed out, and a 300-page manual of the subject matter, and a trainer verbally adding her own interpretation to the material.Reading plenty of books

Eight hours a day.

I know the theory that different people learn in different ways but – sheesh! – applying them all at the same time? Just. Doesn’t. Work.

Net Result: No writing or editing. None on the weekend that followed. Little the following week either. I’m just about back to normal now, almost a month later.

On the positive side, I did some artwork, including the new covers for the Vita Tugwell novels, new covers for the Cuckoo Club short stories that directly tie into Project AR and a mock-up of the cover for Project AR itself. It’s not ready yet, but it’s close. I wrote some blog posts for later, and started to work on a month of posts to go up when I finally get AR published. But I did no new writing, or plotting, or editing. I didn’t make the progress I’d expected.

The reason I need to explain all this is more as a reminder to myself than an excuse, though.

Because I have another of these courses scheduled in a few weeks’ time, and I don’t expect the effect to be any less stuffy.

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