Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Notes on Grief

Have you ever seen those model houses with an old woman and an old man that come forward to tell the weather? The old woman means it's sunny and nice; the old man means it's stormy and cold.

Today was my first day back at work after the break. I work in a primary school and I like it. Usually, I'd say I love it (especially Fridays - on Fridays I work in Reception and Nursery. I could write a load of posts on that alone).

Today I was talking to a colleague about Christmas. She initially said she'd had a great Christmas, then added how it was, in fact, pretty bad. Grandparents and falls and broken hips and hospital. That sort of thing. So not really a great Christmas at all. I made a joke that people are inclined to say they've had a good Christmas because that's what people expect to hear, but actually, if you've had a shit holiday, it's good to have it acknowledged from those who understand, because Christmas is a pretty tough time for some.

This year is our second Christmas without Matthew, but things started getting heavy for me around October. I've dealt pretty well with things up until now. I mentioned this and said that I sometimes feel like one of those old models with the old woman and old man. When I'm at school I play a role of the old woman - all sunny and bright. I have fun and genuinely mean all the jokes that get me through the day. But inside, a storm is brewing.

When I get home, I can put the old woman back in the house. The old man steps forward and the bad weather comes with him. And that's not a bad thing, because in all honesty, sometimes it's nice to be the old man. It's nice to allow that side out.

Grief is hard. It comes in waves of different sizes, waves where the dips and peaks can last for months or days, or hours or minutes. Happy times come with their counterparts. What the hell do you call that? Bipolar grief?

One day, I'd like to write a story about this. Not a memoir, but a story, based on all of this. No holds barred, no emotion caged and I'll call it Notes On Grief.

But not yet. Not for a long time. For now, I'm content that I can be the old man in the comfort and safety of my own home, because that means tomorrow, I can be the old woman, and the sun will shine again.

For a while.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Girl With All The Gifts

Finally saw the movie. I read the book a couple of months ago and loved it. I first heard about it when it was shortlisted for the 2015 August Derleth award (alongside Station Eleven and that year's winner, the completely brilliant No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill). It took me a long time to get round to it but it was worth the wait.

I read a few early reviews that were quite severe, stating it was an original idea that fell into cliché territory once the main characters left the compound. I can understand the frustration because neither the original cover nor the blurb gave any indication that this was a zombie story. And as zombies are the the modern day luvvies of the horror world, this particular area is getting a tad tedious (but thank god the romantic vampires finally slipped away).

There was a lot I loved about the book. More than anything, the detailed look at zombies at the physiological level. This approach, for me, means The Girl With All the Gifts does for zombies what the Necroscope series did for vampires.

The movie, by comparison was pretty good. It kept very close to the book with two unusual changes - the skin colour of girl and her teacher. For some reason they swap. It doesn't really impact, and anyway, Sennia Nanua is amazing as Melanie. I didn't recognise Glen Close till halfway through, which was round about the time I realised Sergeant Parks was Steve from The World's End. I did like the change in the way the movie dealt with the spores near the end, having them growing up the post office tower rather than filling the streets.

All in all, great book and pretty good movie.

And then I wrote some stuff. 700 words on Daniel's Daughter and 700 on another - more about that in another post. For now, I'm just playing with scenes.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Why you should write really bad scenes

Most writing guides focus on writing good scenes, getting the conflict and tension in there. A bit of detail to add colour and location, good dialogue. I'm going to put forward the argument for bad scenes - the stuff that gets cut.

The problem with focusing on good scenes and top copy is the moment you write a dull scene, you have a good idea that it should be cut, so you cut. And you start again, which leads to frustration and the feeling that you're getting nowhere. I certainly feel that way. And then I read an article by a YA author who said she had to write nearly half a million words to get one particular novel right. If an average YA novel is 70,000 words then that's 430,000 words not needed.

Does that mean they could be avoided?

Well, it got me thinking to how I wrote Clash and Arabesque. Clash actually started as a very different book, something called Get Even, Get Girl, Get Lost, and the story of Kyle and Alex was really just the opening of the book. It wasn't until I came to rewriting the entire novel that I realised Alex was really interesting and the rest of the book paled compared to those first few scenes. Two thirds were cut right there. About 40,000 words, and nothing of that was reused or reworked. It wasn't particularly bad, just nowhere near as strong.

So I began rewriting to develop those first scenes further. The majority of that first chunk was either rewritten or ditched. I think only two scenes of the original draft survived, and both were developed further and rewritten several times over. It was months before I had enough scenes to take a step back and be able to work on the plot.

I couldn't have planned Clash, and I couldn't have written it straight off. It was a mish-mash of good and bad scenes that were eventually hammered into shape.

Yesterday I wrote a scene for my current project (I'm going to call it Daniel's Daughter from now on, just as a working title so I can refer back to it), As a scene, it's okay. It was fun to write. It's got conflict and tension, it fires off questions for the reader and ends on a cliffhanger. But now that it's written I can't help thinking, 'What if...?' and approach the opening a different way. Over the past year or so, this has stumped me again and again and made me rethink, replan and start over. It's that fear of taking a wrong path that has held me back. It's that fear of writing bad scenes - or at least, unnecessary scenes - that holds back development of new ideas. The result of this is a book with lots of good scenes, but not a lot of development - no depth. I've written some clangers over the past few years!

So maybe writing those bad scenes has its place. I know that yesterday's scene probably won't make the final cut, and today's scene might not either. But I do think that writing them is the springboard to the good stuff.

So for now, the scenes stay, and Daniel's Daughter moves a step forward.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

ZERO by Matt Brolly

I don't read a lot of crime fiction, but the mild dystopian/sci-fi slant of ZERO grabbed my attention. And the cover... I just love the texture on that yellow text.

ZERO is set in the near future where authorities have adopted a zero tolerance policy towards crime. If found guilty, regardless of the crime, there is only one sentence: execution. And without giving any spoilers, it's the manner and delivery of execution that has more than shock value - it really resonates throughout the book. There are no flying cars, no robots or spaceships, but ZERO holds an unsettling atmosphere reminiscent of Bladerunner.

The story kicks off with the kidnap of a judge, which at first doesn't seem particularly surprising. The events and investigations that follow build up slowly, leading to a fairly complex, but convincing plot. Underpinning this is the conflicting turmoil within the main character as she digs deeper.

Again, no spoilers, but the result is a novel that avoids the quick fire twists and turns and cliches of pulp crime and instead, delivers a dark picture of social control and authoritarian hypocrisy.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Nano Day 6

Grinding to a halt... and here's why. In a nutshell, This isn't writing: this is typing.

There is a difference. At least, to me there is. In YA novels, every word counts. The moment you waffle, you lose the reader. You have a bit more leeway in adult fiction because adult readers have more patience and are more likely to stick along for the ride. But there has to be a promise to the reader, a hint that there is an end game, that we're on a journey. You can do it with a question or a hint, but there has to be something.

Here's the opening line from The Shining:

On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado's great resort hotels burned to the ground.  

It sets a moment in time, a voice and lets us know where the book is going - a disaster, a great resort hotel is destroyed. The book is going to tell you why.

With my Nano project, I've got a good opening and three strong scenes, but I don't have an endgame in sight. There's no promise to the reader, no hint at the big picture. There's nothing wrong with the actual writing, but that feeling of not knowing where I'm going is very likely going to transfer to the reader, and frustration is the last emotion you want any reader to experience.

It's like I've set sail on a big wide ocean without a compass and a broken rudder. And there's a hole in the bottom of the boat. And a big bastard of a shark following me.

I think it's important to know what kind of writer you are, so in that respect, six short days of Nano has helped me out. I'm a plotter. I like to plan. So that's what I'm going to do.

That doesn't mean I'm giving up. It means I'm going to sit down and work out what I can do with this novel, what the goal is. If I can, I'll keep going. If not, I'll plan something else and see if I can catch up.

There's still 24 days left, so plenty of time. :)

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Nano Day 3

I've just passed the 5,000 word mark! Yesterday was a bit difficult because I got in late, had to build a fireplace to give the room a bit of atmosphere for the first of our Christmas Movie nights, and then watched Elf, so the only writing I got done was what I managed to cram into my lunch hour, which meant today I was playing catch up.

Didn't get the opportunity to do any lunchtime writing today, but I go to watch the kids diving on a Thursday so I took my laptop along and knocked out 1,000 words there. Came home and managed another 1,000 (the last 500 words flew out.)

So, over the first three days, I've got an average of 1,800 per day. No idea where this novel is going but really want to keep pushing and see what happens. And to be quite honest, if it wasn't for the need to keep up with NaNoWriMo, I certainly wouldn't have done that last 1,000 words. In fact, today would probably have ended up as a non-writing day.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Nano Day 1

Finding time to write is the key, and it really isn't that hard. By some smashing stroke of luck, my dog woke me up at 5:00am this morning, quickly followed by the cat. Unable to get back to sleep I started thinking of my Nano project and the scenes began to flow.

At 7, it was time to give up on any further chance of sleep and get out of bed. Quick packed lunch for my youngest, a bacon and egg sarnie for me, check Facebook (quickly, because I really wanted to write a few notes) and then managed about fifteen minutes writing. Doesn't sound like a lot but it was enough to get about 150 words down.

It's a start.

I work during the week, so I couldn't do anything more until my lunch break. I nuked leftover pasta in a the staff room microwave, found an empty class and began tapping away. I knocked out around 1000 very messy words.

This evening, I managed a bit more time behind the keyboard. This was easy enough - really just time I usually spend scrolling through Facebook and watching videos of cats falling off tables and such. Went over the stuff I'd written earlier and watched a documentary on Victorian bakers, wrote a little more, watched a bit of an old movie, the news and QI. Then an early night and a few pages of current book (Midnight by Dean Koontz).

Total words today - 2168. Not bad considering I haven't really felt like I've had to tie myself to the laptop.