A nightmare scenario

For writers of historical fiction in particular, years may pass when you are oblivious to weather and seasons, filling your days with toil, sweating and straining in search of the möt juste. First the research, faithfully transcribed onto cards or computer discs, then the tentative putting of pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Gradually but oh so slowly the pace picks up and you ense a revving of your engine, rather like formula one drivers on the starting grid, and having completed the first chapter, you are raring to go (again like formula one drivers on the starting grid) quickly accelerating into a swifter pace. Before you know it, like a fox hunt, the blood is up and you find yourself staying up beyond your bed time, waking in the night and reaching for a notepad, exultant as the chapters fall beneath your pen, each day exceeding the  prescribed number of words. Then a blip occurs! Horror upon horror, words are stalled, stationary, your mind fixated, pleading with words to fall down like autumn leaves. You stare at walls, or seek out consolation in the form of coffee, chocolate, wine or gin … your choice.

A good night’s sleep, a bad night’s sleep, and away you go again. Finally, you reach that metaphorical (or in my case very real) hill from where in the distance the finish line is now visible. Taking a deep breath, with the liberal use of spur and whip you make a dash and reach out for those magical words … the end.

But is it?
No way!
Days, if anything, are even busier, and once again the many tomes you borrowed from the research library are strewn across the room so as to check your facts, conscious that your work will soon become public property, and the target of the eagle-eyed history buffs. Worse than being burned at the stake is the idea that you might have got something wrong, for a slip in your eyes is not seen as such by the ardent reader of historical fiction. For them it is a heinous crime, on a parr with treason, and definitely capable of destroying your credibility as a narrator of facts. Sweat pours from your forehead before the damn spot is found. Hastily corrected, you pass on with a sigh of relief. Only a mirage, nothing to worry about.

Still it is not finished.
Both sense and sensibility must be checked, so must English versus US terminology and spelling. Commas and full stops, paragraphs and punctuation – all must pass muster.

And so the race goes on – never slowing – round and round. ‘What is a Caucus race?’ said Alice.

Finally – the day arrives and you gaze at the list on the computer of jobs to be done and all, every single one, carries a tick.

But can you stop? Can you now let it go and walk outside, breathing deeply.
No, not quite yet, for the chains that bind this novel are strong, and as you try to go cold turkey, the bonds cut deeply.
Take it slow, one day, perhaps more, but the day will come when the links separate and you can say, ‘My job is done. My novel is free to sail where it will.’

And find yourself totally at a loss for something to do.

After all, how can housework or gardening possibly compare with the majesty of creation?

A great wave of inertia sweeps you off your feet, as you realise that you are entering the matrix for writers - the lay-off period between books.This is quickly followed by the doldrums which calm common sense fails to quash.  Even the holiday you have promised yourself as a reward for all those months of hard work is a let-down, at worst an irritation. Because now you are desperate to get back home to mitigate your punishment and read the first reviews.

Fine, all is fine. Maybe this time, I can relax and enjoy life again.
How wonderful to take each day as it comes.
After all, I don't have to write. It's my choice. It's not a jail sentence with hard labour.

No wait.
What is this. Are those doubts I see edging over the horizon? And what are those midde-of-the-night doubts saying? ‘What happens if this is my last book and I can’t find anything new to write about?’  ‘ What if …’ horror upon horror, ‘I find I can no longer write?’ 

Eventually, after counting numerous sheep, and dallying with a cup of milk and a biscuit, you drift off to sleep only to enter into the world of dreams in which you discover you can no longer cut the mustard.

Like a stubbed toe, that thought refuses to abate. It nags and nags. Even when doing housework or taking the dog for a walk, or reading someone else’s best seller, it won’t leave you alone. Escape is impossible. Furtively you pick up a pen trying a sentence for size, and new words for practice.

Then arrives that magical day when you stumble on a name or an event and a frisson of excitement to learn more sweeps over you. Out comes the notepad (tablet or keyboard) and you write a half page. But not any ordinary half-page, a decent half-page, worthy of being in a book.

Conscious that you are once again on the cusp of entering that holy of holies, the writing place that means more to you than anything on earth, you glance guiltily at your husband, partner, dog! aware for however long the book takes to write, they will be playing second fiddle to the magic you hold in your hand.

A Question of Balance

It would seem that more and more writers are self-publishing. For some, it costs almost nothing. Perhaps the purchase of ISBN’s and a professional cover designer. For others, a lot; especially if you are intending to employ a professional copy-editor, proof-reader, and publisher who will print the paperback for you and upload the ebook as well.
Is it worth paying for these services? For many people … yes. Their reasoning: you wouldn't exactly set out to go bungie jumping or enter for the Olympics without a soupçon of training.

I believe the ability to write creative prose to be an inbuilt gift, describing this gift as the ability to set down words and phrases in such a way as to elicit a reaction from the reader: excitement, happiness, sadness, interest, anticipation, even dislike. But not boredom and ennui. Sticking words down on paper in a higgledy-piggledy fashion is not exactly what Shakespeare and Dickens had in mind when they embarked on their careers.

However, the possessors of this amazing gift are not necessarily able to produce a good book.
My granddaughter, for instance. She has fantastic ideas, writes brilliantly in short bursts, fixating on elaborately drawn characters with unpronounceable names who live in an equally unpronounceable world and by the time she has written herself into a series of dead-ends, she gives up. (Having said that, I want to steal one of her ideas!)

Writing a book take additional skills – fortunately all of which can be learned.
I list a few!

Good Grammar.
Unfortunately, having the ability to write well-constructed paragraphs and chapters doesn’t necessarily mean you can punctuate them correctly. My ability to place a comma in the wrong spot is well-known, and so I employ a proof-reader with a degree in placing punctuation judiciously!
Since computers are good enough to correct spelling, the only conundrum there is whether to use English or American.

Text Layout
In today’s computer age filled with self-help books, there’s very little excuse for failing this category. However, I still use a publisher. I want to write, not faff around uploading drafts onto Amazon, and worrying whether text should be justified or flush with the margin.

Structuring Scenes and Chapters
This is a whole different ball game and a skill worth learning if you wish to be plucked from the crowd and published. I know at least fifty percent of those reading my blog will be pantsers – who travel where the mood takes them. But whether you are a plotter or a pantser at the very least you must know the nuts and bolts of chapter construction and where you are heading with a particular chapter.

Most books are an even balance of description, action and speech. Description is needed to set the scene. A skill of paramount importance particularly when writing for children, you learn early on that readers like to feel comfortable in a story. But not too much. Readers can become bored with pages of description so like the story of Goldilocks – it has to be just right. Conversation and action rarely prove a problem and need no advice from me – in awe of writers’ ability to create battle scenes etc.

However, even great writers of prose find their work littered with booby traps

Show not tell
A greatly overused phrase and bandied around all the time, although it fits right in here. In some cases especially when recording past events, telling is the only way to get them down on paper. But future happenings? If they are not worth a scene in their own right, get rid or reduce to a sentence or two that links action. I have seen books given 5* on Amazon with pages and pages of telling.

Over Egging the Pudding
Where less is more
From time to time authors invent extra scenes purely to emphasise a particular aspect of the story. It can be an extra scene of violence and bloodshed to make their book more exciting or it can be an extra scene to emphasise a particular characteristic in their hero or villain. But it is always a brilliantly written paragraph with plenty of action that the author has fallen in love with. For the reader who is not as emotionally involved as the author, such paragraphs stand out like a flashing neon sign. By and large intelligent beings, who don’t need telling more than once, such emphasis is an irritant. ‘Okay I got it first time round. He’s a scum bag. Now get on with the story.’

A Question of Balance
For me, it is in the balancing of events within a story that books so often fail. Not the writing, nor the grammar – all of these are superb. It is the decision on how long a scene should be and whether it should be included in the first place. Just because a scene is well written, it shouldn’t necessarily have a place in your novel. Drummed into me by all my copy-editors, and Cornerstones in particular, are the words: if it adds nothing to the story – get rid.

I suppose this is why I am a plotter rather than a pantser because I plot the relevance of each scene in my story. Most of my children’s books went to Cornerstones for analysis, others to JBWB – who made me laugh because he was so forthright. (If he hated it, he said so. But with humour. Much better than shilly-shallying and tip-toeing around scared to offend – which I do.)

One of my most popular YA novels, ‘Time Breaking’, is the story of a modern but unhappy young girl (Molly) who slips through a time chute and reappears in 1648. (Charles I was executed in 1649.) There, she takes the place of Molly, the eldest  daughter in a Puritan household. Of course, it is a mystery as to why she went and how can she possibly get back. Halfway through, I wrote a scene in which Molly goes with Ann Hampton (Molly’s mother in 1648) to Bryanston the town where John Hampton has his business. Leaving the horse and carriage at an inn, after visiting various places in the town, including the cemetery to visit the grave of Molly’s father, they return to the inn for a meal. Having researched the subject quite extensively, I waxed lyrical about the town and the inn, and indeed their meal, wanting to show details of life in those times.

Cornerstones editor wrote about the scene in the inn; ‘great scene, very atmospheric but it takes up 8 pages and adds nothing whatsoever to the plot except window dressing.’ She was so right. Two chapters later, up comes a really crucial scene which took up only 2 pages of writing.

So plotter or pantser, weigh up the importance of each scene and write accordingly.