The pen is mightier

BrendanBannonPenAlmost nine years’ ago my wife bought me a pen for my birthday from Brendan Bannon’s small shop in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. The body of the pen is bog-oak, estimated by Brendan as being between 2,000 and 6,000 years old, which means it fell to the ground to begin its preservation when the pyramids were being built.

I’ve carried it in my pocket every day since then, initially for work and latterly to help me write four novels and countless short stories. Two weeks ago I lifted some change from my pocket and discovered the cap of my beloved pen had broken. I fiddled with it for a half hour without success then contacted Brendan Bannon, asking if he could fix it or replace all the fittings. He got back to me saying he probably couldn’t replace the fittings because it would damage the wood, but he’d supply a new pen at trade price – a very generous offer. However, did I want a new pen? I wasn’t sure. This was an old friend. We’d been through a lot together, at least three murders and hundreds of thousands of words. So I thanked Brendan and explained my dilemma.

Today he’s sent me a message saying he’s fixed the cap and he’ll post it back. What a star!

The point of this story isn’t to praise a pen-maker in Northern Ireland, or to talk about a bit of old wood, but to show how important it is for writers to have routine in order to be effective. This routine isn’t just about setting word targets or the hours when we write, it is also about the mechanics (pens, paper, tablet, laptop, etc) and place (coffee shop, desk, garden shed, etc) where we feel comfortable. I wouldn’t have stopped writing if I’d been deprived of my birthday pen but it wouldn’t have been the same and it may not have felt right with a new one. At least not for the first 50,000 or 60,000 words.

What routines do you use to increase your production?

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Why did she say that?

How often in creative writing workshops have you heard that it is important to make your characters come alive? Like most authors I’ve struggled with that over the years but let me tell you, when it happens it’s both exhilarating and problematic.

I’ve plotted every scene of my current novel in sufficient detail for me to work on the first draft, which I’ve been doing now for a couple of months. There are quite a few characters in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, some I’m happy with, some I’m not. The latter need more work but the former feel well-rounded and I can see them. The problem starts when they’re so well drawn that they say things that aren’t in the plot but seem entirely appropriate for them to say at the time and in the place they find themselves. The other characters then need to react to the new situation and the story takes a twist I wasn’t expecting.

I could, of course, just go back and make the character say what I wanted them to say, bully them into submission if you like, but that would then be me talking, not the character. It would be false and, after all, I’ve wanted my characters to jump off the page so shouldn’t complain when they do.

How have I drawn them in this way? I don’t know. I’m a writer not a tutor and there are many good books out there which explain better than I could how to strive for this. All I know is that the two characters in this novel who seem to be speaking out of turn the most are ones where I drafted character sketches in the early planning. They didn’t become the characters I’d sketched, not entirely, but something in the process must have made them more real to me – allowed them (and me) to break free of two dimensions.

It’s exciting when this happens, even if it does mean parts of the plan need to be screwed up and re-written. It’s more than worth it in the end.

Is Research Worthwhile?

This week I spent a couple of hours researching the availability of cross-Channel ferries during the first weeks of the Second World War. Why? Because a character needs to get to France from England in September 1939. I found my answer after extensive googling and three emails to people who might possibly know. Continue reading

Newsflash – exciting

Today I have received an offer of contract from a publisher, Sapere Books, and am so excited. Sapere Books has offered to publish the new novel, A Rose by Any, alongside a relaunch of A Shadowed Livery and possibly a third in the Inspector James Given series which is currently at an early stage.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will be aware I’ve been looking for some time to place my second novel, following the decision of Holland House to stop commissioning new work for its Grey Cells Press imprint. It was a shame, because I have nothing but admiration for the dedication and editorial insight of Robert Peett and his team at Holland House, but independent publishing is a difficult game and I fully understand his decision.

One of the effects of these changes is that the digital version of A Shadowed Livery has ceased to be available for a while, although the print version may remain available via Amazon and other online outlets, or directly from Grey Cells Press. Hopefully, they will both become available again, alongside the new Inspector James Given novel, in a few months.

I’m very much looking forward to working with Amy Durant and her colleagues at Sapere Books on this new phase.

 

Finding the killer

I was just running through the main plot of my new crime novel with my wife a few days ago and she pointed out some similarities to the plot of my last one. After arguing for a few moments and trying the ‘there are only so many stories and it’s how you tell them’ defence I acknowledged she was right.

Unfortunately, by this time, I’d outlined almost 60 scenes and three sub-plots. I couldn’t abandon it all and I couldn’t go on – not with this ‘you’ve written this before you dummy’ gremlin sitting on my shoulder. So I tried tinkering. Could I use a different murder method? Could I use a different victim? Different killer? But I was so wedded to all the work I’d done and the intriguing (in my eyes) characters I’d developed that I couldn’t see past it.

In the end I drew a deep breath, pulled out my mind-mapping tool (mine’s Freemind but any will do) and started a new page. I asked three questions:

  • What are the methods of killing someone?
  • Why are people murdered?
  • Who might the killer be?

I didn’t bother with all the subsidiary variations, just enough to give me some choices and ideas, though I would have broken them down further if I was getting nowhere.

What I ended up with were half a dozen or more options in each category and within a few minutes I’d freed the head to completely rethink the story I was going to tell. I’m now writing a few alternative story-lines to see what works and what doesn’t.

The figure below shows my initial results. Try it for yourself. Let me know what you think.

Motive etc

People for Action

In the mid-1990s an organisation called People for Action (PfA) was set up in the UK to support housing associations to develop their approach to something called ‘community investment‘, a form of corporate social responsibility. Put simply, community investment, in this context, is the work carried out by housing associations beyond basic housing provision. It might include such things as money advice and support to a whole range of community initiatives. I was PfA’s Chief Executive between 2002 and 2006, when, sadly, the organisation closed down due to lack of funding.

PfA ran a programme of seminars, workshops and conferences alongside a range of networking/information sharing activities including a newsletter, a knowledge and ideas database and written ‘briefings’.

The briefings, around 100, were compiled into a report called ‘Shaw’s Apples’ in early 2006. I recently discovered that none of the material seems to be available on the ‘net so have decided to include it on my site, even though it is not strictly relevant to my writing. I believe it is still important information and should be shared.

I acknowledge the work of all of the contributors to Shaw’s Apples, both in carrying out the initial work reported and those who wrote it up.

Number Three

Finally. The writing of James Given number three has started. I’ve been plotting for a few weeks, and planning to start for much longer, but the actual words on the page have eluded me.

True, there have been a few changes in my life over the past few months (selling the house, moving country, etc, etc) and I’ve not quite settled in to a routine yet, but it’s not really a good excuse for not writing. I’ve still been sitting at the keyboard for a few hours every day reading those all-important Facebook posts, checking vital emails from holiday companies, and generally wasting time. I’ve told myself that if only I was still able to go into my favourite coffee shop (Mrs B’s in Killybegs, County Donegal if you’re passing) the prose would flow, though I know it isn’t the reason. The real reason is I’ve just been too lazy and easily distracted – not a good combination for a writer. I did have a traumatic experience in one new café though – I was accused by one of the locals of writing down everything that was being said. He might have been right but I wasn’t going to admit it!

So, to get a grip, I started to plot. I began with a vague notion of a body being found – there almost always is, you know – then asked ‘how did it get there?’. A chance encounter with a ‘what’s on’ guide gave me a murder weapon. Whilst thinking about who the villain might be, I wrote a ledger for the victim using some characteristics from someone in a newspaper article. The murderer came to me part way through the poor corpse’s scribblings so I wrote their journal next. Then, using a three act structure passed to me in a recent workshop, I sketched out the three main storylines.

Today, I wrote the end, then the beginning. At least it’s a start, and only 75,000 more words to join them together.

I’ll keep you posted.