Ill, send onions

Right now I am under the weather with a vicious lurgy which has reduced my ability to think in a straight line. I’m writing this under the influence of the latest Lemsip, which tastes so vile I have resorted to eating a pickled onion after every dose, just to get rid of the taste.

Burton Anubis p1113-2, (c) Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

This is how to rock a sore throat.

Not the same pickled onion.

Obviously.

However I have been doing some reading which will surface in next week’s post, and hopefully be more fascinating for you than this whingefest against the common cold.

See you then.

Published in: on March 25, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Flight of the Sibyl

RIP Sir Terry Pratchettterry-pratchett_c_heathcliff_o_malley


I met him twice, in the early Nineties, around the time that Equal Rites (his third Discworld novel) came out in paperback in the UK.

He’d come to talk to a couple of SF societies I was on the fringes of, in Birmingham, when I was at university, the first of those where I met people who were to become my greatest friends.

In hindsight those early books are stories told while building up the Discworld universe. The witches, wizards, trolls and dwarves; the Unseen University, the Broken Mended Drum, the Counterweight Continent; geography and history and the rules of magic…

Later books played in that world, adding new technologies like a fast-forward version of British history since the Reformation. The witches became less prominent, making way for Lord Vetinari, the City of Ankh-Morpork Watch and Commander Sam Vimes.

And, of course, Lady Sibyl Ramkin, after whom I named the little airship in my Petticoat Katie stories.

But one thing I remember from the talks I heard Sir Terry give: his dedication to Story.

In his own words, from the opening of Witches Abroad:

“Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling … stories, twisting and blowing, through the darkness.

“And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story the groove rubs deeper.

“… a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.

“So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

“It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.

“Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats.”

And, of course, that the story never ends

Published in: on March 18, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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A nice little bookshelf

Last month I realised I didn’t have a full set of all my novels in print, and none with the new covers, so I bought one of each off CreateSpace*.

Here’s my tiny bookshelf:

6 books by Lee McAulay and Vita Tugwell

I’m pleased with the covers but some of the interior files can be smartened up. I uploaded The Bead Merchant in 2012, for goodness’ sake, and not only have ebooks moved on since then, my interior layout skills have improved too.

For the sake of the postage I decided not to buy paperback copies of the Petticoat Katie short stories I put in print, although that would be instructive as – again – I uploaded some of those in 2012, before I began writing Maiden Flight.

But half a dozen novels isn’t enough.

It’s barely the foundation of a body of work.

Half a dozen novels, not even under the same name, not in the same series or universe. A bare scratch in the surface of literature, of whatever definition.

A handful of blocks to build a cathedral, one word at a time.

Back to the writing desk.


*You can do the same here.

Published in: on March 11, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Halfway home for a change

Halfway through the latest Petticoat Katie novel now! Seems like cheating as I’m aiming for this one to be shorter than the first three.

Dean Wesley Smith posted recently in his new Killing The Sacred Cows… series, about how novels must be a certain length. His argument outlines how the length of a novel has changed over the years, especially through the pulp fiction years when shorter works were popular, right up to stonking great doorsteps like The Shadow Of The Wind or the impenetrable 2666.

I’ve just finished re-reading H. Rider Haggard’s Nada The Lily from 1892, and always thought of Haggard as a writer of fairly short punchy adventure novels. Turns out I was wrong – Nada comes in just over 120 thousand words.

front cover image of Belmarch, by Christopher Davis

Belmarch, by Christopher Davis. My (very old) copy – the price is in shillings and pence!

But other books on my shelves are much shorter (Belmarch, for example).

Up until about twenty years ago, I seem to recall that a paperback took no more than an afternoon to flip through, and were mostly thoroughly enjoyable into the bargain.

Now, it’s a marvel if I finish a book in a month.

Most of my novels come in around 80,000 words. Some are more, but very few have a lower word count. Eighty thousand just seems like a nice fitting number to tell the story, whether that’s the Gothic mystery of SHADOWBOX and THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN or the silly steampunk of the Petticoat Katie stories.

So, back to the novel I’m currently writing. I’m aiming for sixty thousand words on this one. Trying to cut out the banter, the fluff, the silly noodlings and still come up with a viable story that trundles towards its inevitable showdown while allowing my outrageous characters to interact with the usual mayhem and peppermints.

Still seems like cheating, though.

A few wild snippets…

Just a few wild snippets for you as I continue to add wordcount to my next Petticoat Katie novel.

1. Artist as Brand. “Are you making a living from your art?” While I can’t see myself taking a trip to the USA any time soon to undertake one of the seminars, I wonder whether the workbook might be useful. I’d welcome comments from anyone who’s bought the workbook.

2. Self Publishing As A UK Author.  Thriller novelist A D Starrling muses on the writing life and lists a huge number of helpful things you should think about if you’re in the UK and (about to) self publish. Includes a long, wonderful list of other sites and resources, some of which are new to me.

3. Creating A Book Series “Bible”. Karen Myers goes all tech-y on how to use Scrivener and a couple of other pieces of software to basically build yourself a wiki for your series of books. (My Petticoat Katie stories so need this.)

And, of course, this:

4. Old Masters at the top of their game, on the New York Times.

“You may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.” - T H White, quoted in the magazine article.

Still

N.B. I’ll return to T H White at some point in the future. Stay tuned.

Published in: on February 25, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off  
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Winter overlaps Spring

Go read the post “Little Deaths” by Terri Windling. It’s a voyage through the end of winter, drawn from two separate climates, dry desert and damp Devon.

Her themes include the death of the Sacred King, Le Roi Sacré, at the end of Winter – a theme strongly linked to the underlying mythos of my novels THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN and SHADOWBOX.

Skull small

Another snippet, this time a quote from Ellen Kushner referenced in the post:

“Does fantasy demand that you stay in your adolescence forever?”

Again, in The Last Rhinemaiden, the character of Louis Beauregard is at the end of his life, an elderly man, not frail but aware that his time must come. About as far from adolescence as any man can get.

His aim in the novel is to end in sacrifice, as he knows he must. But he’ll fight it all the way.

“I don’t want to die. But I have to be killed.”

There are young characters in each novel, but Louis is the one who fascinates me. I’m intrigued by his position, by what it would do to someone’s behaviour, his outlook, his friendships. There’s a space of almost sixty years between the novels and perhaps I’ve taken the wrong route between them both, writing the old man before I asked what would make him so.

Writing the end before the beginning; winter overlaps spring.

I found writing the character more fascinating as an old man than the young rascal he is in Shadowbox. (When I’ve finished writing the current series of Petticoat Katie novels, I can see me taking you on a mid-life crisis with no-longer-young Mr Beauregard, one step ahead of his fencing-master and his old Russian nemesis.)

And then who knows?

Another link, this last week, was Dean Wesley Smith on “My Best Work“:

“What happens if your most acclaimed book, the one history will remember you for, is going to be your sixty-third book written? And you only manage to write ten? Or thirty?”

So, to the work then, and let posterity be the judge. None of us will ever know – unlike Louis Beauregard – whether we’ll endure. We must simply travel through time, ever forward, through each little death of the seasons, towards the future.

Published in: on February 18, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off  
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Preparation is The Key

Hard at work writing the latest novel, honest.

I’m writing the first draft of this post in pencil in a notebook while I’m waiting for a Chinese takeaway. Behind the counter, they are working like the wind. It’s quite breathtaking.

The art of making the most of time is best observed in a fast food restaurant.

Knowing how long it takes to fry a steak.

Knowing you start the steak first, with the right heat and equipment, and then the chips go in the fryer.

You spent all afternoon slicing lettuce and onions, and you bought your pickles ready sliced because the few pence difference in the price works out in your favour in time saved.

While you wait for the cooking process, you can take a telephone order.

Preparation is key: this is one way I’ve found to get more writing done.

For example, I started writing the second Petticoat Katie novel BOOM TOWN, in 2013, on January 3. By Feb 3 I was near 40k words in.

But I’d begun the prep back in May 2012, when I was writing MAIDEN FLIGHT and realised I had a trilogy on my hands.

I did some wild thinking on plot and scheme and characters, and left it. In Nov/Dec 2012 I set up the Scrivener file, with all the notes I’d made during the first novel: characters, locations, behaviours and gadgets.

I’d sorted out the gags and the set pieces, and most of the structure. I even had chapter headings and notes on my storyboard. So when I sat down at the keyboard, all I had to do was write the flippin’ thing.

And oboy, was that a wild ride.

Now the trilogy is complete and the fourth book is under way, with another three behind it waiting their turn, I see more of the pattern – the recipe, if you will – in this process.

If only I could stop my characters taking opportunities of their own and wandering off in pursuit.

Published in: on February 11, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off  
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Spanners and screwdrivers at the ready

Work is ongoing a-plenty on the latest novel, codenamed Project PK4. By now I’m starting to see a pattern in how I work, and this is useful in a number of ways.

  • I can stop worrying that I haven’t written any scenes of a particular work-in-progress.
  • I can get going with the specific part of the pattern I’m in, such as gathering information, or working out what has to happen in such-and-such an order.
  • I can play around with tools to help me at that particular stage.

For example, I wrote about the use of kanban for writers a little while ago. Kanban is only one tool in a project manager’s toolkit, and as every story is a project, it makes sense to see what else is in amongst the spanners and screwdrivers.

Things like:

  1. Schedule: both for the time you have available to write, and the internal story what-happens-now.
  2. Work Breakdown Structure: your expected wordcount, and the time you have available for writing all those ittybitty words.
  3. Resources: your time and knowledge; your characters and storyline.

That’s three parts to get started with, each one split in two to cover details internal to the story, and external. OnResearching my latest novel!e thing you generally can’t do as a writer (unless you’re James Patterson) is “outsource” (ack! ack! phtooey!) the work…

Maybe some time in the future I’ll be so organised this will be second nature, but for now it’s comforting to know that no, I haven’t got writer’s block, I just haven’t got the next story in the right shape to get started.

I think there’s a difference.

 

Narnia Underground

Just before Christmas, I found myself watching The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, on TV. Nice CGI, fiesty female leads, children doing grown-up things (instead of much of modern film showing grownups acting like children).

What struck me was the timeshift at the end: the four children, hotfoot from a major battle in Narnia, step through a magic portal back into wartime London.London Underground - To The Trains

The Underground, filled with ARPs and darkness, the children in school uniform carrying gas masks. The London of air raids and the Blitz, of missing parents or siblings fighting a war more real and more close than anything Narnia might hold. A city under siege, with no end in sight. More terrifying than an enchanted forest and an army of monsters.

This ending, with its abrupt slip from greenery and fantasy into a country at war, set me thinking.

My parents lived under German bombing raids.

My father’s house was flattened and his family had only the possessions they’d taken into the bomb shelter – the clothes on their backs, the change in their pockets, the baby in its pram and my father barely out of nappies. For a brief while my mother was an evacuee, and she remembered the bonfire at the end of the street on VE Day with an effigy of Hitler ablaze on top.

When I was born they brought me home to a bombed-out suburb. If I’d grown up there my playground would have been rubble and bomb craters and the clearances of condemned housing.

Instead, us kids played in fields and forests. But every time an aircraft flew overhead, we’d hide “from the Germans”, although the plane was more likely a charter heading for one of the Inner Hebrides. Along with cowboys & indians and the Famous Five, the family memories of bombing raids permeated our games.

I’m probably one of the last generations to remember this. My playmates were a few years older, with older siblings, who’d been children in the Sixties when the memory of wartime and rationing were still strong.

Och, even when I started primary school our textbooks were all tainted by the Second World War:

It’s more real to me than the wars fought since by Britain, except perhaps the Troubles, which were as much a part of my upbringing as the threat of imminent nuclear destruction during the Cold War.

What struck me about the Narnia film especially was how frightening it must have been for everyone, not just children, living under siege in wartime Britain. Blackouts darkened the streets, and those who carried lanterns hid their glow from open sight. The long dark nights of winter must have felt quite threatening.

My childhood games were safe – we knew the war was over. Even C S Lewis writing in 1950 knew how it all turned out.

There was a happy ending, for some.

But while the war went on, there was no certainty. Nobody knew how it would end, or when.

Instead the struggle continued – on all sides – and people bore up, or suffered, or caved in. But not to know that you were safe? Not to know that your home would still be there when you rose up out of the shelter in the morning, when the raids were over, the streets obliterated by the rubble of their own construction? To walk through darkened streets with only the lanterns of your fellow wanderers to light your way?

My childhood forty years ago was closer to the Second World War than that childhood is to today. In those forty years or so, the certainties which seemed so strong have been eroded, and continue to disappear, and strange new worlds have taken their place.

This electronic realm is almost close to Narnia – a step away from the real world, into the imagination, away from everyday troubles. We use this realm of the imagination to escape our cold realities. We tell stories to allow ourselves happy endings, even when there’s little hope in sight.

And we look for other lanterns in the darkness, to know we’re not alone.

Blackout Poster on the London Underground

The road goes ever on and on…

After a few false starts, the next Petticoat Katie novel is underway. Phew!

At the end of December, Dean Wesley Smith wrote a good post about how to tackle the year ahead – getting knocked off a goal – which includes some great advice on how to start writing again when you’ve stopped, for whatever reason.

He details four handy tricks to get back into the groove:

1. Plan what project you’ll work on;

2. Have a backup project;

3. Set a backup “time for writing”;

4. Set up a “buddy” to report into.

The key for me is knowing there are stories I want to get to, further along my project list, which I can’t start until I’ve written the ones before.

After the satisfaction of writing SHADOWBOX, I have a hankering to write another big historical fantasy. I have a couple of Petticoat Katie novels after the one I’ve just started, which still need noodling time. And there are more to come, none of which I’ve discovered yet, waiting for me to learn the lessons I’ll need to make them great.

The voice which drags me back to the writing desk when there’s other fun to be had is a reader who wants me to succeed, one who I’ll never meet, one who wants to travel a wondrous road with me and find herself back at her own front door, guided safe by my words.

First steps.

“Little by little, one travels far” ― J.R.R. Tolkien

Sunset over mountains (c) Lee McAulay

Published in: on January 21, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off  
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