more whingeing

…about how long it’s taking me to get this blasted novel done.

It’s lost the spark, and added to that I have two new stories rattling around in my brain.

Write me, they whisper. Come on, come and write me. You know you want to.

Would people stop with saying things that spark new stories in my head? On Podcastle (old episode) someone was talking about a book that gets back to the myths about elves, how they were universally regarded as evil. It’s our relatively modern mythologising that has made them the postive role models they are in LOTR and elsewhere. And that triggered a whole story, about an evil elven society where humans are the slave class, about an elven man who buys a female slave. He seems all right as an owner, until she breaks a plate (that had huge emotional value to him) and he beats her until she is close to death. The meat of the story is in how they rebuild some kind of relationship; her despairing and suicidal, him freaked out by the realisation of how violent he can be. There’s room for a meditation on slavery – she chooses not to be involved in a slave revolt, because the freedom on offer doesn’t look particularly enticing. He has always regarded himself as a progressive, until he’s forced to confront the fact that he’s absorbed beliefs about slaves that run counter to what he knows to be true…

Anyway, there’s enough there for a longish short, and I desperately want to write it, but I can’t. I have enough unfinished stories to keep me busy for a year.

And then there’s Confluence, an idea for a SF multi-part short story series, which links in to the 200 000 word novel I wrote back in the 90s. Species wars and AIs and interdimensional gates and Intelligences aaannnd it’s all getting immensely complex and interesting.

Sometimes, when people tell me they couldn’t create a story themselves, I feel like Sherlock, and have to stop myself from saying Can’t you see? Dear god, how boring it must be to exist in your heads.

Anyway.

The First Time They Met, Season of Singing and Pride and Precipitation are all creeping towards the finish line, but dear FSM, it’s like pulling teeth. And when I’ve finished those, I have the rest of Stormwatcher 3 to write, currently standing at (only) 49,000 words. TFTTM has a cover already done, as does Stormwatcher, but I’ve tried three covers for Season of Singing, and they all scream ‘self-published!’

Oh, well. Nose to the grindstone.

[cross posted to Lyssa and Me]

Reviews

After the Greek Seaman debacle, most writers are (and should be) wary of responding to, or criticising, reviews of their work. I have, however, noticed one type of review that unerringly gets on my wick is the ‘This should have been something else’ knockdown.

‘This prose poem should have been a short story’

‘This literary novel should have been a genre book’

‘This novella should have been a family saga’

Just because the reviewer would have preferred a different type of work does not, I feel justify a negative review. Saying “This is a genre book padded with pretentious description to allow it to claim it is literary” is a valid criticism. “I wanted this book to be twice as long because I wanted to know more about the characters” isn’t. It is an opinion, certainly, and it is how the reviewer felt. But criticising a book for being not what you wanted is like going to a shoe shop and complaining that they won’t sell you fish and chips.

 

Excerpt: A Season of Singing

‘Well,’ the bishop said, sinking into an armchair, ‘how have they been looking after you at St Cuthbert’s?’
The grizzled hair at his temples and his small brown eyes gave him the air of a badger, though the only badgers Mark had ever seen had been dead on the verges of the B485.
‘They’ve been very kind to me.’
‘Too kind, perhaps?’
He shifted, trying to find a comfortable position on the overstuffed seat. The last two times he’d spoken, albeit briefly, to the bishop, he’d been in pyjamas. It didn’t help. And the question was dangerous. Agree, hoping to flatter the man’s insight, or disagree and avoid a trap. His thoughts were sluggish, and he couldn’t be sure that they hadn’t always been that way. ‘I needed to start doing things for myself. I hope they don’t feel I’m ungrateful.’
‘I don’t think so.’ The bishop smiled and Mark relaxed, the trap avoided. ‘But people are apt to get their feathers a bit ruffled when their good offices are declined.’
Mark bowed his head. ‘I’ll try and behave with more…grace.’
‘I hope that won’t be necessary.’ He picked up another file. ‘I understand the medical board has passed you as fit to return to ministry?’
Don’t show any uncertainty. ‘They have.’
‘They’ve also made some recommendations.’ There was a pause while the bishop read. He let the paper drop back onto the table at his side with a breath of irritation. ‘I think the medical profession—may the Lord guide them—has little belief in our ability to see what is known colloquially as the bleeding obvious.’
‘Perhaps they just didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings.’
‘Ever the peacemaker, Mark?’ The words were mild, but somehow it didn’t sound like a compliment. ‘Still, there is a benefice just become vacant which should fulfil their recommendations.’ He lavished irony on the final word. ‘It’s rural, two churches, no more than three services a week. I sent someone to have a look at the rectory, as it’s one of the old ones. A couple of minor alterations, and you should be able to manage.’
‘Two churches? I can’t drive.’
‘I’m sure we can find someone on the parish council to help there. You could,’ he added with ponderous humour, ‘get yourself a donkey.’
The interview concluded, Mark hauled himself to his feet, grateful to escape the embrace of a chair that appeared designed to inflict maximum discomfort. He forced a brisk pace while he was still in sight of the bishop; hearing the door close behind him he stopped and leaned against the nearest wall. Somewhere two floors down was the young ordinand assigned to escorting him, as if left to his own devices he’d either fall on his face or throw his walking stick away and make a run for it. In reality he’d probably achieve both simultaneously.
But only another week and he’d leave St Cuthbert’s for ever. He could endure another week. The board had been amused by his eagerness to take up his ministry again. Sometimes he was able to admit to himself that it was closer to desperation.
Ever the peacemaker. Was I? Was that how I was seen? He could remember the past, but much of it was a silent film, emotionless, an unknown actor hijacking his memories.
Wincing, he straightened and made his slow way to the stairs.
Halfway down the second flight the ordinand rushed up and took his arm. Resisting the desire to snap at him, Mark allowed himself to be helped down the last few steps and out to the St Cuthbert’s minibus. The loathing of this innocent vehicle had become automatic; the disabled stickers in its windows, the boxes of latex gloves and tissues always to hand, the lift at the back for wheelchairs, in and out of which he’d been ignominiously carted for months. And always, at the same time, the apologetic internal litany of how this hate didn’t extend to the disabled, that his compassion for them was clear and absolute, that he would be honoured to minister to them.
He settled into his seat, and before he could object, the ordinand reached across and belted him in.
‘There,’ the young man said, smiling benignly. ‘All ready to go?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
Grace, Lord, please give me grace.

Excerpt: The First Time They Met

April 17th

Jack wandered through to the crew room. Roger was on the sofa with Selina, poring over the rota, Hots, in an armchair with his feet on the coffee table and a tea towel over his face, appeared to be asleep. Lyssa sat at the table, writing.
‘Anyone else want a coffee?’ he said.
Selina and Roger indicated half-full mugs. Hots didn’t reply, but Lyssa glanced over her shoulder, said, ‘Yes, if you’re making one. Milk, no sugar, thanks.’ She went back to her writing.
It was only instant; Jack had put up with it for a couple of months then, a few days ago, he’d found a plunger in a cupboard. He’d widened his search, thinking that even three-month-old ground coffee would be better than the dusty-tasting sludge that came in one-kilo tins. But he’d come up empty, and that afternoon he’d ordered an espresso machine online, with a couple of kilos of beans.
The tin was empty; he should have had the machine couriered over.
‘I’ve got some more in my locker.’ Lyssa got up from the table. ‘Emergency supply. Put that tin in the recycling bin.’ She hurried out.
As soon as the door had shut behind her, Roger got to his feet.
‘Watch this,’ he said with a sly grin.
He stepped across to the work surface, unplugged the toaster and kettle, and swapped them round. Then, as Lyssa’s footsteps became audible in the corridor again, he trotted back to the armchair, sat down and opened a newspaper, but not far enough that he couldn’t still catch Jack’s eye.
Lyssa walked back in, a bag of coffee in one hand, a pack of biscuits in the other. She put both down on the work surface, reached for the kettle.
‘Oh.’
She stared at the toaster, as if it were some alien being, squatting, ready to leap at her. She started to glance back over her shoulder, and then seemed to change her mind. Robert was grinning widely. Trying to catch Jack’s eye, giving him an odd sense of déjà vu.
It was like school, the way when someone was being humiliated, everyone else looked at each other and shared the joke in silent amusement. He’d done it himself, for a while, until he’d realised that he didn’t really like the people he was exchanging glances with, and even more that he didn’t like what they were doing. He remembered his one-time friend, Rob, wilting under a barrage of abuse, the other boys laughing. At least, they’d laughed until he stepped up, put a hand on Rob’s shoulder, and the two of them walked away together. There’d been a bit of name-calling, but he’d given them the finger, and they’d shut up. Under his hand, Rob had been shaking. That was the first time he’d realised how much that cruelty hurt, how frightened someone could be.
He got up, walked over. ‘Sorry. I spilled something, earlier. I must have put everything back wrong after I wiped up.’
‘N—no, it’s all right.’ She rubbed her palms on her thighs.
He unplugged the heavy steel toaster, picked it up. ‘Here, shove the kettle back. Before I drop this.’ She did so, and he could see her relax. He didn’t bother looking at Roger. ‘Where did you get your coffee?’
The rest of her tension dissolved in a discussion of the relative merits of several coffee suppliers, as she made brimming mugs for them both.
‘I think you know as much about how to pick good coffee as how to pick good wine,’ he said after he’d taken a mouthful.
She flushed a little, unable to meet his eyes. ‘Not really, I just tell them to give me something that tastes like it’s been stirred with a burnt stick, and might possibly dissolve the spoon.’
‘Alternatively, you could probably tell them you’re a doctor, and they’d give you much the same.’ He sat at the table with her. ‘What are you writing?’
‘Nothing,’ she said, at the same time Hots from under the tea towel said loudly, ‘Poetry.’
She twisted round in her chair to glare at the pilot, but as the tea towel remained draped over his face, it didn’t have any effect.
‘She’s a published poet,’ Hots added, ‘didn’t she tell you?’
‘Why would I?’ Lyssa said crossly.
Hots lifted one corner of the tea towel. ‘Over there,’ he nodded at the bookshelves in the far corner of the room. ‘There’s a copy of her book. It’s the third copy—the other two just vanished. Very strange, but I think the thief knows that if this one disappears, we’ll just buy another one.’
Lyssa sighed and picked up her coffee, drank it without looking at any of them.
Jack wandered over to the bookshelf, sorted through the piles of three-year-old celebrity magazines, medical journals, out-of-date textbooks, copies of Dan Brown and Wilbur Smith, and found a small, hardback volume, titled heavy air, and with a picture of the London skyline on its cover.
‘May I borrow it?’ he said.
Lyssa didn’t reply.
Hots said, ‘Of course,’ dropped the corner of the tea towel, and went back to sleep.

Publishing update

So.

The Painting is up on Amazon, Smashwords and Lulu, and is selling at a steady rate. All ebooks so far, no paperbacks, although I think the paperback royalties take longer to appear on the statement.

Stormwatcher 1 is up in both ppb and ebook versions, and Stormwatcher 2 as an ebook (just finishing the adjustments to the proof – more on that later)

Sense and Celebrity is up in ebook and ppb.

I’m back to working on A Season of Singing. I’m on the last few thousand words, wriggle room I leave myself in the final edits as I tend to underwrite and have to go back and do a lot of filling in between events, foreshadowing, making sure motivations are realistic, that kind of thing.

I never really thought about how much I write about disability until now. I assumed it was because I’m a doctor, but now I no longer think that’s the reason. I suppose it’s that firstly, I prefer to write about people who are disenfranchised in some way – gay men in Nazi Germany, for instance. In Pride and Precipitation (spoilers!) Stephen Rowan ends up the most seriously injured among a small group of people; not a role he has ever envisaged himself in, nor one he’s particularly well equipped to cope with.

Season of Singing follows a deeply religious man who’s the victim of a vicious, mistakenly homophobic attack, from which it has taken him a year and a half to return to independent living. He believes everything that happens has a purpose, but cannot square this with what he’s experienced.

And lastly, The First Time They Met, the most challenging (for me) book I’ve yet written. One character has a lifelong disability, the other has acquired permanent spinal injuries as a result of his own recklessness. One has had it all, and thrown it away, while the other has struggled to be normal, struggled to achieve and yet is still the outsider in her own life.

I’ve suddenly realised that I would find it hard to write without tackling these kinds of issues. I can’t imagine writing a book where all the characters are healthy, privileged people. I’ve often felt guilty about not including more POC, but maybe that’s just not my bag. And if any group of people needs a fictional voice that speaks of them as being fully human, then we certainly do.

Writing m/m

If you frequent forums discussing m/m fiction, sooner or later you will inevitably see the question ‘Can women write m/m romance (or m/m sex, or gay characters generally)?

The discussion rarely draws any conclusions, mainly because it’s so easy to find evidence of poor quality m/m fiction online. That’s not a criticism; by the same argument it’s possible to find examples of poorly written fiction of any type online, or printed. If there’s a literary genre, there will always be people writing bad fiction within it.

But it’s a curious question.

A list of gay writers:

Walt Whitman
Oscar Wilde
Marcel Proust
Federico Garcia Lorca
Cole Porter
Leonard Bernstein
Tennessee Williams
James Baldwin
Christopher Marlowe
Herman Melville
E.M. Forster
Noel Coward
Christopher Isherwood

Most of these writers, in fact all, had heterosexual characters in their work. And I’d imagine most of them had heterosexual female characters (the horror! The horror!). And yet nowhere, on any blog or forum, have I seen readers/writers questioning the ability of these men to write about heterosexual relationships.

Oh well, but these men lived during a time when they were forced to participate in a heterosexual lifestyle. All too true. And if modern gay writers were therefore criticised in a way their forerunners are not, it would be less surprising. But still no criticism. Nil. Nada.

[Just a note – I’m sure, in the depths of literary criticism, there are many ruminating on this very point. But that isn’t the group I’m talking about. You don’t tend to see them on the kindle forums.]

There is a taint of mysogyny in these attitudes. Of privilege. You’d think by now men would know better than to start out with ‘Women writers can’t write a convincing X’. You’d think we’d all know better than to stereotype any group like this. It harks back to my previous post, about how a majority of men won’t knowingly read books by a female writer.

When I pick up a book my main consideration is whether it’s a good story. Whether the characters are complex, and the motivations comprehensible. I care if the prose is well written, that the pacing is good. But if any of these fail, I don’t flip to the front cover and go, ‘oh, well, a male author, what did I expect!’ There are certainly some genres I have no interest in; westerns have never appealed, and I have read very little horror. SAS-style military fiction leaves me cold. Cosies and religious fiction, too. But a badly written book is a badly written book. A poorly paced book is dull. One dimensional characters are just one dimensional.

As readers we really have to get over ourselves. We have many female writers hiding behind their initials. Hiding their gender completely with careful, gender neutral bios and no public appearances, or writing under a pseudonym of the opposite gender. This is crazy. It’s about the story, people!

The success of the book for me as a reader lies in the writer’s craft – and that has nothing to do with gender.

Self Publishing, part 1

I’m not going to get into the should I – shouldn’t I argument about self-publishing. I’m going to assume you’re seriously considering it, and looking for tips. Here are the things I’ve learned; I’ll try and keep them in a vaguely comprehensible order.

Cover design

You know this is vital, right? And you know that unless you’ve got some great skillz, then using MSWord and clipart is out, yes?

So.

I would suggest you really think about what your cover is going to say, and I don’t mean the title and your name. Really look at how covers are designed, how images are layered, colours are chosen, what the fonts add to the whole thing.

Make sure you can output a file in the correct dimensions and dpi for whichever publisher you’re using.

Invest in some decent software; gimp and serif are free, but pretty good. I use fireworks; even older versions of this will probably have most of what you need.

Aim to spend several days fiddling with your cover design. Don’t forget the blurb on the back, and the spine text (which is what will be on display most of the time). Leave room for a barcode, and don’t forget to put the address of your website on the back.

And if you can’t do any one part of this, employ a professional to do it for you. Your book is unlikely to sell without a good cover. Don’t skimp.

Formatting ebooks

Learn how to put together a table of contents (TOC). No, really. Get on the forums and most readers will tell you they find a TOC vital. If you’re writing a non-fiction book, you really can’t publish without it. If you’re writing a non-fiction book for an ereader and you can’t create links so the reader can flick back and forward through the book, then you shouldn’t really be publishing until you know how to do it.

Paragraphing. A confession here. Amazon’s kindle software indents the first paragraph of every chapter and new scene, and I haven’t corrected it in my ebooks. There is a way of doing it (insert p=0 in the html at each and every para you don’t want indented) but it’s enormously time-consuming and freezes the software I use about every 8 minutes. I’ve decided that in this one case, life is too short.

Make sure each chapter begins on a new page. Check and recheck, especially if you’ve had to convert it to a different format. make sure the Text starts no lower than halfway down an ereader screen. I find that’s about 6 to 8 blank lines in 12-point font, then ‘Chapter XX’, then 2 blank lines, then the start of the text. Make sure this is exactly the same for every new chapter.

Put your cover image on the first page. (centered)

Title and your name on the second page.

Copyright info on the third page.

Dedications etc on the fourth page

TOC starts on the fifth page (Centered, may be several pages long)

Maps next. (centered)

Prologue after that.

Then the first chapter.

Easy, eh?

Formatting text – and don’t forget that your tab, or indent, in a Word document is often quite large. In a book it should be about the width of 2 or 3 characters.

Next time – how does formatting differ in a physical book?