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.


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

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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Screen Gritty – Send Eyedrops

The first chapter of Project PK4, as it will be known, has begun. And then begun again.

And then I stopped, because I knew I still had some prep work to do – storyboard, structure, choosing who amongst my reasonable cast of characters will have a starring role in this story.

Instead of working on this, I made some changes to this site after reading What Every Author’s Website Should Contain, via the ever-helpful Lorelle’s WordPress For Writers. Och, it’s an ongoing thing.

The Colour Of Pomegranates. This is how my eyes feel right now.

This is how my eyes feel right now.

On stop of this, today I had an unscheduled three-hour drive in near-gridlock which used up my patience and my eyesight as I’m currently nursing a bout of conjunctivitis I’ve had since Yuletide. When it comes to BOSHOK (Bum On Seat, Hands On Keyboard) the day job gets first dibs at the eyes, gritty and red and not-to-be-rubbed.

Plus, we had snow.

While I was stuck in traffic.

Still waiting for the writing year to really kick off. When it does, I’ll let you know.

Published in: on January 14, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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2015: The Story Begins

2015: A brand new year to play with.

The year is already seven days old, so it seems remiss to write greetings* when most of us are already back at work.

However, there’s an ideal opportunity to use this first post of 2015 to set out my goals for the year ahead, insofar as writing is concerned.

Day Job Rules state that any goal – any objective – should be SMART:

Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

(I made my own graphic for this. Click on the image to see it full size in a new tab. There’s a touch of Lovecraft about the definitions… BTW the lovely font on the capitals is SchnorkelCaps by Manfred Klein)

Steampunk SMARTs - the SMART principles for Cthulhu and Project Yog-Sothothery (c) Lee McAulay 2015

And so to:

The Plan for 2015

  1. Write. First project planned is a new Petticoat Katie novel, which I’ll try to take shorter than the last three.
  2. Write some more. Subsequent projects are lined up like dominoes. Each has their own place on the Kanban chart, and on my Five Year Plan.
  3. Specifically, I’m aiming to write at least a thousand words of fiction each day, four days a week on average (hehe, that should give me plenty of time for this and that and gardening and conventions).
  4. Post here every Wednesday. The WordPress schedule facility is excellent for this.
  5. Learn to write better stories. Guidance is available from seasoned professionals.
  6. Post a series of linked posts around THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, like I did for SHADOWBOX in 2014. This has to tie in with the events that took place in the novel around the Spring Equinox, so that’s a nice set of deadlines.
  7. Keep up with social media. I don’t do Facebook and rarely venture onto Twitter (waves) so blogging is my main outlet. I have places I regularly comment (you know who you are :)), but I’d like to increase the variety.
  8. Publish (at least) two novels. I did it last year. I don’t see obstacles right now to doing this in 2015.

I might add a few more as the year goes by, but that’s enough for now.

* I’ve commented (on Myth & Moor: “2015, a whole new year to play with. It will hold its own sorrows, but also provides the opportunity to make fresh delights and new art. Hope yours is fabulous!” – and at The Daring Novelist. Sigh. I need to get out more).

Published in: on January 7, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off  
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Year’s End, and a new beginning

At Year’s End, here’s my writing achievements for 2014.

1. Published SHADOWBOX, the second of the Cuckoo Club novels to feature Louis Beauregard.Shadowbox: Every man has an enemy within him...

2. Wrote and published a month-long series of blog posts about SHADOWBOX, including how the story came about, why I chose the structure and what I researched to give the story its authentic flavour.

3. Designed new covers for THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN and THE BEAD MERCHANT in the same style as the cover for SHADOWBOX, so the serious novels all have the same style.

4. Published MONKEY BUSINESS, the third Petticoat Katie novel, which completes the trilogy I set out to write three years ago.Monkey Business by Vita Tugwell

5. Wrote the short stories THE LINT FILTER, THE RETURN OF THE BLOOD and REPLY TO ALL, all of which were published on this blog. I also wrote three more short stories which have yet to be published, and a handful of poems.

6. Maintained a regular weekly posting on this blog, every Wednesday, which I intend to continue into 2015 and beyond (as I’m spared).

7. Began to build up the stories I intend to write in the next couple of years. This includes four more Petticoat Katie stories, an unrelated crime series, three more Cuckoo Club novels and a great megalomaniac heart attack of a Gothic novel extruding itself through my skin, page by page.

Am I satisfied with my body of work? Not yet. Not by a long chalk.

Free poem! Very short! West Wind (c) Lee McAulay 2014

Published in: on December 31, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off  
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