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.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Get Down to Writing Tip No. 3

In my last blog I talked about planning or not planning each chapter. The most important thing is that you know how your story is going to end.  Little Red Riding Hood is going to be rescued by the forester and Grandmama will be caught along with her accomplice the Big Bad Wolf.

Your readers will only be interested in this story if they have some kind of feeling for your heroine. If she is a cardboard figure, without any interesting traits, then they are going to close your book after a couple of chapters. "I couldn't get into this" is a common remark on reviews although the reasons why are not always explained.

First of all, though, you have to have your characters lined up in your head and each one will be different from the other, will speak and think differently. So you have quite a bit of work to do. The best way to get it all straight is to use index cards, loose sheets of paper, or a tidy notebook and start writing down names and ideas for the people in your story. The following are obviously just suggestions to get you started.

Red Riding Hood is 18 years old, goes to college, is bright and friendly and very kind (this last is demonstrated by her bringing food to her grandmother). She is of medium height, blonde hair, blue eyes (obviously she can be anything you like: dark-skinned, black hair, brown eyes, or red-haired with freckles and green eyes or tall and skinny or small and plump - it is your call).
She is headstrong, likes to have her own way. Is unhappy when her father re-marries.
She likes to sing aloud as she walks through the woods. You will need some time to think up other stuff  so just leave the description for now and go on to the next important character.
The Forester works in the woods looking after the trees and wild animals. He is tall and muscular. He has been in love with Little Red Riding Hood for months now, loves to hear her sing. But he's a rough diamond so feels he can't approach this girl. Again, leave this and go back to it later on.
Next comes Grandmama and then The Big Bad Wolf. These last two are the villains in the piece and give the central plot of the whole novel so you need to spend time on 1) motive for what they plan on doing and 2) their characters and why they got to be like this.  In my last post we decided that Grandmama is the step mother pretending to be ill, she wants to get rid of Little Red Riding Hood in case she inherits her father's fortune. Every baddie has to have a redeeming feature to make them realistic.  (Remember the James Bond villain with the cat on his lap?) Grandmama maybe feeds  orphaned squirrels or looks after a sick stray cat.
The Big Bad Wolf is an ex-con who Grandmama has hired to kill Red Riding Hood. He is going to be a violent person but you can give him some redeeming feature. He is being paid for his work but just supposing he falls for Grandmama and hopes to persuade her to run away with him.  Let your imagination work here. You'll end up understanding what makes your characters tick and you'll even develop a bit of sympathy for the baddies.

Choosing names can be a headache. Half way through, you might suddenly decide that calling the forester Hugo is not one of your best ideas. Remember, you can change all the names in the middle of the story.  With a click on the Word Find/Replace feature it has never been easier. - just be sure to change them in your notes so you don't get confused.

When you have named all your story people return to the notes you made on their characters and add or subtract what feels right.
The next step is starting to write the novel.  One more thing: you can change all the rules as you go along. Whatever works for you is the right way of doing things.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Get Down to Writing No. 2

So now you have thought about what kind of novel you want to write. You've written down a one-sentence idea which goes something like: Grandma was in cohoots with the big bad wolf. 
Where do you go from here? Where do you even start a novel using that idea?
It's not as difficult as it sounds. First of all, in order to get a plot of some sort, you will need to ask the essential question: what if? 
What if grandma wasn't Little Red Riding Hood's real grandmother?
Now you have got the germ of a plot for your story. The next few questions follow logically:
If she wasn't the real grandmother, then who was she? Why do she and the wolf work together? What is her relationship to the wolf? Is he the ringleader or is she?
You could think up a lot of plot lines using that technique. Pick one that appeals to you, let's say you start to answer the first question: Grandma was really the stepmother and pretends to be ill in order to lure Little Red Riding Hood to her cottage where the wolf is lying in wait. 
Why? Because she  wants her out of the way in case she inherits her father's fortune.

Now comes the hard work of writing a 300-page novel based on that plot. There are two popular ways of writing a story.
  1. You plan out all the chapters, who is doing what, when and where.
  2. You develop the story as you go along - a word of caution here, you have to know where your story is going for this to work. You can't decide at page 110 that Grandma is the "good guy", not if you want the story to be believable (it's OK if you decide it from the beginning so that you can build in clues for your reader)
I use method no. 2 which means that I spend a lot of time writing and re-writng and mulling over where the story is going at any particular time, although I know how it will end.
For example, in the above story plot,  I would know that Grandma gets caught out and that there will be an exciting finish with Little Red Riding Hood fighting for her life. What happens inbetween needs to be written in a way that carries the reader along.
If you use method no. 1,  you will spend a lot of time planing out what is going to happen, chapter by chapter.
Either method doesn't provide any shortcuts to the business of writing.

You don't need to start worrying about what kind of writer you are, any method that works for you is fine. I simply wanted to demonstrate two methods to get you started on that idea in your head.

Every story needs characters. In my next blog I will have a look at developing characters for your novel.
Have fun!

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Get Down to Writing that Novel

Recently I've talked to a few people who told me they intended writing a novel. When I enquired further as to what kind of novel and if they had an outline plot, they were vague. I got the feeling that they thought it was a momentous task involving blood, sweat and tears.
What I want to say today is: if you have an idea for a novel, no matter how sketchy, just write it down even if it only reads Grandma was really in cohoots with the wolf. By the way, that is an intriguing idea for a story!
Let the germ of the idea wander around in your brain. Then go out and buy a fancy notebook and write it down again at the top of the page. My guess is that, by then, a few more ideas will have popped into your head. Start listing your questions/ideas to develop the plot. Where does Little Red Riding Hood figure in all this? Who is the big bad wolf really?  FBI agent? Baddie? 
Then start your story if you are a seat-of-the-pantser or if you are a planner, start planning how the story could evolve. (I'll talk more about this in my upcoming blogs).
Grandma meets the big bad wolf and they discover they want to get rid of Red Riding Hood. Why? Because grandma wants her inheritance. Or Red Riding Hood knows what secret grandma has in her past or Red Riding Hood is a detective on the trail of the big bad wolf.
You can take your story anywhere you like.  You can change it at any time. The same rules apply to romance: girl meets guy, obstacles against them getting together: she is engaged to someone else and has set a date for the wedding or they are work colleagues/rivals and sparks fly from the beginning of their acquaintance.
Sure it's all been done before - but not by you. And there's the difference. Only you have a unique voice to tell the story in a different way to everyone else. I have read dozens and dozens of authors, some talented, some formulaic and dull. What makes a really good writer stand out? Their style, their unique voice. Compare  three classics: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. You could never confuse them with any other writer, could you? I don't think you could.
But you don't have to aim that high. First of all write down the bones of your story and maybe play around with the first chapter. It's always hard to know where to begin. I'll write more about that in my next blog.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Long Hot Summer in Ireland

We are in the middle of a heatwave in Ireland. We have hardly had a drop of rain since the beginning of June. This might be a normal state of affairs for wherever you live, dear reader, but in Ireland it is the top news. Here on the Emerald Isle we expect patchy summers, a day or two of rain, a day or two of sunshine and then back to damp and wet again. But weeks and weeks where we wake up to sunny mornings and blue skies? Now that is a novelty.

I went shopping this morning and everyone I met had a word to say about the weather - most of it very positive. We had a festival here in town and it was so wonderful to be able to stay out late and listen to the band without shivering under an umbrella (and truth to tell, being almost the only person out there ....). And that wonderful night sky promising yet another fine day.
It's very hard to get down to writing - I am still working on my Christmas novella but who can concentrate on frosty mornings on days like these?
The weather has a very positive aspect - it is too hot to eat much so I am making salads of all varieties and drinking lots of water which makes me feel very virtuous! Yes, it is all sunshine and happiness here and I am going to enjoy every minute of it as long as it lasts.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Crime in the Mountains - the first Sergeant Alan Murray Mystery Novel

I started my first Sergeant Alan Murray Mystery novel Death in a Lonely Place several years ago following a visit to Killarney in Co. Kerry.

Death in a Lonely PlaceLink to 

I remember standing on the side of a steep hill and looking down at the lakes below and thinking that this would be a good place to hide a body. The wildness of the mountains - that great mass of land towering above us - intrigued me. And so Sergeant Alan Murray was created.
I invented the village of Ballyamber where he lives and I reckoned that his wife went missing on a climbing trip on one of those majestic mountains several years before my story began. I had no idea what had happened to her, I only knew that she disappeared without trace.
Next, I started to write a novel about a woman who went missing in the area and from there the story took over. Other characters appeared from nowhere, or so it seemed:  the gossipy Mrs. Quinn, timid Helen looking to start a new life and her domineering boss Amy, Major Johnson and his wife Kim. My special favourite is Murray's assistant, Jim Flynn who is young and motivated and does not have too much patience with how some of the investigation is going. They all crowded into the story with their own joys and sorrows.
In the background is the mountain - fictitious - call Ardnabrone which is reputed to claim three lives a year. Ardnabrone means the "hill of sorrow" and so it proves to be in all three novels in the Sergeant Alan Murray series.
Some of my readers have said "I thought I was there, right in the middle of it all". Many readers are asking when the next novel in the series will appear. The answer to that is that I do not know. I had intended Death in a Lonely Place to be a stand-alone novel but it proved so popular that I wrote the second one, Ending in Death and then I just had to find out what had happened to Alan Murray's wife and I wrote A Cold Case of Murder.
All three novels are available on Amazon as e-books and as paperbacks.