Saturday, 15 December 2018

Christmas Cards

Since the beginning of December I have been getting a trickle of Christmas cards from friends and family. This is a lovely tradition, I always think, and it is such a pity that with the popularity of social media it is dying out.
As an ex-pat, living in Germany, I was often starved for news of friends who wrote once a year at Christmas and updated me on their lives. Even more valuable were those who gave me a thumbnail sketch of what was going on in the country they were living in. Of course, you had the one-liners who simply wrote on the expensive Christmas card "we are all well" and added a pious hope that my family were equally healthy and happy. But even these few lines meant that they had thought about me and my family for a couple of minutes at the very least: they had to pick a card to send from the pile they had bought  and in order to write something, they had to call me to mind. I am a great believer in the power of thought or prayer if you want a better word. I remember when I was in hospital following surgery for breast cancer that I could almost feel the get-well wishes pouring out to me.
But I digress. So here I am thinking about the niceness of receiving Christmas cards and the fun of reading how those friends and family who only contact me once a year are doing. How was it all those years ago, when receiving a letter at any time was a big event? When the post coach with its four horses plied between the cities and towns and delivered news of loved ones far away?In those days, far away really meant just that. Many Irish people who emigrated to the USA never came home again. All they and their families had were these letters, cards and well wishes, all of which were read over again until the next time.
I sometimes think that we kept in touch to a much better extent before the advent of email, whatsapp, skype, etc. Letter-writing is an art, of course, and there were people who, because of the lack of education or abilities, simply could not write a very coherent account of themselves. Nowadays they'd simply send you an emoji - enough said!
I still write Christmas letters to friends or family members who I don't get to see very often. These are getting fewer, though, I have to admit. This is partly due to the fact that the cost of travelling has really come down over the years, and let's face it, it's much nicer to see people face to face than to write to them.
This year I have written all my Christmas letters and sent off all my cards except the very local ones. I hope I have made a few people as happy as I am to hear from them.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Buddy Can You Spare Me A Smile?

I've been travelling. This is not a major thing in itself, I hasten to say, I often travel and this year has seen me make two non-scheduled trips. So, what was different about this time? I think that travelling in the summer months, when tourists are mixing happily with the locals, is different from travelling in November before the Christmas markets start.

What do I mean about travelling being different in November? I'll try and explain. I stayed at a hotel in the heart of Frankfurt. It is very convenient, being near the Zeil, the main shopping area, where you can buy anything you fancy and things you never knew you wanted. I travelled several times on the Underground and on the suburban trains. In summer with lots of excited tourists, it wasn't so obvious  but this time with mainly locals coming and going, I noticed the difference. What struck me most was that people put on what I call their "travel face", that blank look, eyes glazed over, seeing nothing, hearing nothing. I noticed the same thing at the airports. Some people read books or Kindles, others flick through their phones in an attempt to distract themselves until they have to get off the train or their flight is called. Far too many plug in their music and can't hear a thing. All of which is understandable at least in part, but why that grim expression? No one cracks a smile not even if an acquaintance/work colleague sits down beside them - they simply nod acknowledgement and go back to their phone or book or whatever. We are all on the same planet but side by side and not together.

Whenever I visit Frankfurt I plan on making two people smile whether they like it or not. It was hard going this time around. In the end a young man (clearly a foreigner) smiled at me when he held the door of the Kaufhof department store for me. The cashiers resolutely refused to twitch so much as a lip muscle. I bought German bread Bauernbrot, a sort of sourdough loaf which I just love to eat when it is fresh. I asked the guy at the counter if he could slice it for me and he gruffly replied that that wouldn't work because it was too fresh and would crumble. End of conversation. Take it or leave it.

Happy Ending: when I showed up at Security at Frankfurt Airport I was literally the only one there - the flight was half empty, as it turned out, and people were either ahead of me or came later. So here was I with a team of grim-faced Security personnel. In fact, they were joshing each other and having a great time and so we got talking and laughing (who'd have thought it?) and they assured me - and I believe it - that a sense of humour is vital for doing their job.  This encounter gave me a feel-good feeling for the rest of the day.

I think we should have a smile day at least once a week, let's say on Mondays when everyone is feeling a bit grumpy about having to go back to work after the weekend. Let's all try it and see what results we get.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Finding the Right Words

I think nearly all writers share a love of words. We write a sentence and then listen to it in our minds, checking for rhythm and sense. If one word jars, then we search until we find a more suitable word or we rewrite the sentence. I have just rewritten the first sentence of this blog: originally I wrote All writers share a love of words and are grammar freaks. Then I re-read it and thought that not all writers do love words and quite a lot of writers that I know are not keen on the rules of grammar. And I wondered if I should put a hypen between re-written or just leave it as rewritten. So I've done the hyphen for re-read although I might still change that, too, when I read this blog again.
Does it matter? you might ask and rightly so. As long as the reader understands me, I'm not going to beat myself up over it. But, I have to admit, I do like to pay attention to grammar. I see red when I read something like The Grapes' of Wrath instead of The Grapes of Wrath, or Marys' dress when it should be Mary's dress. Or he was sat in the chair (and I've seen this in a best seller recently) instead of he was sitting in the chair. But maybe I'm old fashioned. Maybe I should get out more.

All of this went through my head yesterday when I saw, for the umpteenth time, an advertisement for something or other which had the words get your free gift. A gift is free, that is why it is a gift. So what is a free gift and should you trust a company who might not know exactly the meaning of the word gift? You could end up getting a bill for something you thought was free.
And another thing that caught my eye: exclusive offer. Exclusive to whom, exactly? If everyone on the internet reads the advertisement, then it is hardly exclusive, is it?
I am always hearing about jobs being up for grabs. Really? Isn't this just a position that is vacant and you can apply for it? It's time we changed that expression. Newspaper headlines tell us a politician or other public personality has been slammed for saying or doing something. Wouldn't the word criticized tell me the same thing and less violently at that?

Let's get more creative in our speech. A friend of mine was recently describing a very tidy, efficient acquaintance and she ended with the words : "she'd mind mice at the crossroads for you."
What a great expression! I just love it and I have been trying ever since to see where I could fit it into one of my stories.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Halloween and Childhood Memories

On Friday night I went to watch the fireworks which opened Youghal's Halloween festivities. There was a full moon and the tide was in, the water reflecting eerily in the moonlight. It was the perfect setting.
Looking back on my own childhood, Halloween was pretty low key. Fancy dress costumes were not on sale in every store as they are now and there was no such thing as trick or treat. It was mostly celebrated at home. We bobbed for apples and as far as I remember there might have been a ghost story or two broadcast on the radio and also published in the popular magazines (we didn't have a television until I was a teenager).
For me, at any rate, the biggest thing was the barm brack. This is a yeasted bread with added sultanas and raisins. Traditionally, each barmbrack contained a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. This was a form of fortune telling in which each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to foretell the fate of the person who received it: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. As children, we were very competitive. I remember once getting the stick and being highly upset about it and teased by my siblings. At school next day we always compared what we had found in the barm brack and word would quickly go round that so-and-so had found the coin. I was never lucky enough to find the silver coin. In those days sixpence would have seemed like a small fortune to me!
When I bought a barm brack the other day, I discovered it did have a toy wedding ring. I expect that the other items are no longer allowed for safety reasons. At any rate, the wrapper on this barm brack warned about swallowing the toy ring by mistake. But I am not going to start moaning about lost innocence or the necessity of food safety regulations. Halloween is still a lot of fun and it is refreshing to see that kids still like dressing up and painting their faces. Some things never change.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Keeping on Writing

I have been away in Holland on holidays at the beginning of the month. Before I left, I told myself I would not start re-writing my novel until I returned home. I have now been back over two weeks and still have not got round to it.
Writing is a habit. Every morning I get up and work on a novel. Or so it has been up until now. Yes, there are always days when I don't get round to it but they are few and far between. I do believe I am addicted to writing and suffer withdrawal symptoms if I am not working on something.
Thus, I have been plaguing myself for not doing anything these past few weeks. I have, in fact, talked myself into a guilty conscience. 
Today, I resolved to get down to revising the first chapter of this novel tomorrow. I originally titled it FREEFALL but there are a number of novels with this name out there and someone once told me that it could be classified under ''hobbies - parachuting''.  It is a thriller and although I hope it will keep readers on their toes, it has nothing to do with choosing a hobby.
I know that when I get started, I have a lot of work to do because although the original manuscript got some positive criticism, it does need a lot of work. But that is the writing life. You have an idea, you write up your first draft, read it over, make changes, come up with the second draft and so it goes. Like most writers, I am never one hundred percent satisfied. I usually work on as many as ten drafts of any novel until I feel I have got it right. This can mean deleting thousands of words. But it is all fun and that feeling when the words flow, can't be beaten.

What am I doing tonight? Well, now that you ask, I'm going to curl up for an early night and finish reading Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. I love that feel-good effect her novels produce and when I finish reading one of them, I often take a break from picking up another book to read. Looks like I'll be back on track with my writing.
In the meantime, my Christmas novella is available in paperback on Amazon and will be available as a Kindle in mid-November which proves I have done some work this year. Here's the cover. See what you think.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Get Down to Writing Tip No.5

Last tip of this series: I promised to have a look at publishing.
Fact No. 1 is that it is very hard to get published these days.
Fact No. 2 is that if you persist and you are good enough, the chances are high that you will find an agent and eventually a publisher.
Fact No. 3 is that you can self-publish, using Amazon's CreateSpace for a paperback or KDP for a Kindle version of your work. This requires computer skills, an excellent knowledge of grammar and an idea of how to market your work. Or you can get a company specializing in this to do it for you.

So now you have written your Red Riding Hood novel and think it is good enough to send out to an agent. If you can afford it, get an editor to go over your manuscript. If you can't afford it, get a few good friends to read it and if one of them is a whizz kid on spelling and grammar, so much the better. Sloppy writing, as agents often refer to it, i.e., writing that is full of grammatical errors or which is illogical (for example: calling one of the main characters John, an orphan, in the first ten chapters and then changing his name to Jeff with five siblings by the end of the book - you think this doesn't happen? - believe me, it does!) is a big turn-off for agents. If you have your story checked, obvious errors will be weeded out and the agent can concentrate on the story you are telling and on your style of writing.

First thing is to research agents. There is no point in sending Red Riding Hood to an agency which only deals in women's fiction or horror.
In addition to finding an agency which deals in the kind of book you have written, it is advisable to research who they represent.  This will give you an idea of what they like - agencies have preferences, too.
The agents themselves (and I have met and chatted with many leading UK agents) are human beings not monsters. They are looking for THE NEXT BIG THING and until they find it, they are looking for an author who can write a novel every year which will hit the publishing mid-list and bring in revenue for them and for the author.  When you have accepted that fact, it gets easier, I feel.

Once you have chosen your agent and checked out their website for what they require, your next thorny task is to write a synopsis and then a covering letter. Every writer has groaned over a synopsis - what to say what to leave out. A good solution is if you can get your long-suffering friends to write one and then go through what they have written. There are websites and books which give tons of useful hints. Agents will tell you that, knowing the difficulties here, they will skim over synopsis and concentrate on the covering letter.
A covering letter should be one page with around three short paragraphs. In your covering letter you should introduce yourself very briefly, state the name of your novel and the genre - this will be crime in Red Riding Hood's case - and having done your homework you can add something like "the story will appeal to readers who like Agatha Christie" or better still name an author the agent represents provided of course that your story is in that genre and of that type (hard-bitten, cozy mystery,police procedural, etc.).  As you can see, you really need to know quite a bit about what is on the market and the publishing terms for it.
Be prepared to get a standard letter with a refusal. When the agent writes a few lines such as "liked your story but don't feel it is right for our list", you are getting places. I have been lucky in the past where agents have taken the time to point out a few mistakes or given me advice on finding another agent.
Above all:  develop a thick skin.  Don't take it personally.

If you prefer you can open an account with KDP and publish your book with Amazon as a Kindle e-book.You will need reasonable computer skills to do this and it is advisable to get a professional cover design for the book. KDP will also convert your Kindle book into a print on demand paperback. Or you can use CreateSpace instead. CreateSpace will convert to Kindle e-book as well as paperback.
It is very difficult to sell books like this without doing a lot of marketing. If you are prepared for the long haul, this way of publishing can be very rewarding. You are in command of what you write, are not tied to deadlines, you don't have an editor who wants you to change and correct your manuscript. It is very important, however, to present your book as professionally as possible. There are many complaints from readers on Amazon about bad spelling and bad grammar. Despite our fast-paced world of communications and texting, readers still do notice this.

Above all, whichever path you take, do your absolute best to produce a quality product. Most important of all:  have fun!

Monday, 10 September 2018

GetDown to Writing Tip No. 4

Now that you've got your characters, their names and what makes them tick all sorted and you know how the story is going to develop, it's time to take the plunge and start writing.

Where to start? Every author starting off a story has sat down to a blank page. The good news is that you can start at the beginning, in the middle or do the ending first. What you have to do is to make the story interesting to your readers.
If you area a seat-of-the-pants writer, you'll write a couple of pages to start off the story : Red Riding Hood walking through the woods on her way to her grandmother's. Sounds pretty dull, doesn't it?  What if she feels she's being followed? Or she hasn't heard from her grandmother in a while, which is uncharacteristic. There's a rustling in the bushes, last summer's leaves crackle underfoot, a bird calls in the distance signalling that it has been disturbed by something. Now you're on the way to getting a bit of tension.
If you are a planner, then you will have outlined your chapters, so now you have to write what you planned. The same applies as for the seat-of-the-pants writer. You have to draw in your readers and make them wonder what is going to happen next.
More importantly, you have to make them care enough about Red Riding Hood to want to know how things work out.  I have read or tried reading to be more exact, stories with excellent plots but where the main character was so lifeless that I couldn't have cared less what happened to them.
Develop your characters, this is vitally important.  You can fudge the plot any way you like, but characters are what drives the engine.
So now you have written the first three pages or so. Tomorrow you may look at these and clap a hand to your forehead: what was I thinking?  Don't worry, this is all part of the process. Every writer worth their salt has to delete, change, add to everything they write. This gets easier as you go along, by the way.
So, off you go. Write and then write some more. Don't look back, you can change just about anything. You might find half way through Chapter Ten that another character steps out of the shadows, one that you hadn't actually planned on. This happened to me while writing my Christmas novella (Christmas at Castledarra available on Amazon around the middle of October) and I had to re-write chunks of the story.
The golden rule is that the story can be anything you want it to be. Give it your best, always. And enjoy every minute of its creation.
In my final tip on writing I will discuss getting published.