the writing life, Write On

Write On – a short practical guide to becoming a published author.

Getting Started – the tools of the trade.

Hoards of people want to write a novel. Just as doctors find that everyone they meet tells them about their ailments, authors find that everyone tells them about the novel they intend to write. Authors generally nod politely, say “oh, how interesting!” and go home secure in the knowledge that about 99% of the people who ‘want’ to write a novel will never put pen to paper because they don’t really want it at all.

It’s only when the partygoer/man on the bus etc says “I am writing a novel” that it’s worth while rolling up a trouser leg, exchanging the secret handshake of writerdom and settling down to talk shop. Like winning the pools, owning a dream house, being famous, going on Britain’s Got Talent, meeting [movie star of your choice] and dazzling them with your wit, for most people writing a book is one of those ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ things that will never come to pass.

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The people who enjoy dreaming about being a famous author – of looking seriously out of a window while the sun floods over their manuscript and somewhere in the distance an influential reviewer is overwhelmed by their profundity – are probably better off not considering the reality of the thing. This is advice for the other people, the ones who want it enough to actually do something about it.

So, you’ve never written anything before, and you want to become a published novelist. There is no reason why you shouldn’t succeed in this goal. It’s not like my desire to go and live in Rivendell – a resolution hampered by the fact that the Last Homely House is sadly fictional. Becoming a published author is entirely in the realms of the possible, providing you’re willing to put the work in for as long as it takes.

How to start?

Writers are very fortunate. The tools we need to begin writing professionally are very simple. At their most basic they are even very cheap. You can go from aspiring writer to Writer using nothing more than a pen or pencil and a piece of paper.

Writing in longhand in a notebook has the advantage that a certain degree of slowness is built in. It gives you lots of time to think as you work. If you’re starting to write fiction from a basis of never having done anything of the sort before, a pen and notebook can seem less intimidating than a computer. Plus it’s more private and more portable than all but the smallest net books.

If you’re going from zero to novel, it can be helpful to do a lot of your initial character and plot roughing out in longhand. However, I really wouldn’t recommend writing out your entire novel in longhand if you have another choice. You can, if you honestly can’t afford a computer. But then you’ll have to send it off to be typed by someone who does have one, because no publisher takes longhand manuscripts. In fact, most publishers will only accept emailed manuscripts in electronic file format these days, so there’s no getting out of it. Just the researching, marketing and networking opportunities of the internet make it worthwhile alone.

So, a computer with word processing software ought to be down there as one of your necessities. In the short term it will make the mechanical act of getting the words down easier. In the medium term, the internet connects you to beta readers, advice, publishers and agents, submissions calls and places where you can begin to establish yourself as a voice to be heard. And in the long term your publishers and editors will need to be able to contact you by email and send your edits back and forth with tracked changes attached.

In short, you can learn the craft of writing using pen and paper but once you’ve done that, if you mean to write for publication, you’ll need a computer.

I should probably just assume you have a computer already, shouldn’t I? After all, how else would you be reading this post?

Assuming you have a computer, you also need some kind of word processing software. In the long term, most publishers will require you to have Microsoft Word, because that’s what they use, and it has the nifty Tracked Changes ability which editors use extensively. You may also end up using a dedicated programme for writers, such as Scrivener. I can’t get along with it, but many writers seem to swear by it.

In the short term, I recommend LibreOfficeWriter. I do all my writing on this. It’s completely free, it does almost everything Word does, it even opens Word docx files which my version of Word itself won’t do, and once you’re finished it can save its files in a doc format indistinguishable from that made by Word, so nobody knows the difference.

OK, we have pen, paper, a computer, a word processing programme and the internet. What else?

The final things you need to get hold of before you can write are time and space.

It’s finding these things which proves so difficult many people don’t even start. Anyone can buy a pen and some software, but ordering your life so that you can have time to write is a sure sign of being sufficiently committed to actually succeed.

What you need is a place where you can achieve a deep state of concentration, and enough time to use that state for something productive. Finding this place and time varies from writer to writer according to their individual circumstances. In my case, I began writing when I was at home all day with the baby. The baby would sleep for approximately one and a half hours in the middle of the day. I would put her down, tuck her up, switch the computer on and write until she woke up. This meant sacrificing all of my “Oh, thank God, peace and quiet and space to be an adult” time, but it was worth it.

If you’re lucky enough to be someone who can concentrate in a crowded room, you may find you can write for half an hour every day in the coffee shop on your way home from work. You could take the laptop to the library at lunch time. When I had two children with asynchronous sleep cycles I booked an exercise class at the local gym, put them in the creche and typed for two hours in the cafe instead.

If you’re a person who can’t concentrate without solitude and silence, you may have to go to more extreme measures, such as getting up half an hour early every day and locking yourself in whichever room in the house the rest of the family are unlikely to disturb when they wake. Or even taking a camping heater down to the garden shed and typing until your laptop battery runs out.

Going to the effort of building writing time into your day is a good litmus test of how serious you are about this writing lark. Much of what separates the writer from the wannabe comes down to how much effort you’re willing to put in. So finding the time to actually do it is the most important step of all.

The next most important step is finding something to write about, and that’s what I want to talk about next week, in Getting Started – What’s the Idea?

the writing life

How to Finish your novel – two essential tips.

Strangely enough, it took me years before these two things occurred to me. Although they’re very simple and very basic indeed, they are my most indispensable weapons in my whole writerly armoury.

How to finish a story no.1:

Start at the beginning and go on until the end. Do not, at any point, ever go back to revise or change anything that you have already written. Do not stop until the story is finished. Keep moving forward. If new ideas occur to you which would mean the first chapter needs rewriting, note those new ideas down in a separate ‘notes’ file, but keep writing from the point that you have already reached until you get to the end.

Only when the first draft is finished are you allowed to go back to the beginning and alter anything.

Before this rule, I would usually get five chapters in to something, and then I would think of something to change or polish in those first five chapters. I would go back and re-write them. Then I would go back and re-write them again. And again. And then I would be bored of the whole project and frustrated with my inability to pin it down. So I would start something new, and the whole process would begin again. I have so many abandoned starts of novels you could leaf a forest with them.

Nowadays, however, I only have finished stories. Many are very rough and need a lot of editing, but all of them have a beginning, middle and end, and are therefore capable of becoming a complete, polished novel in a way that five perfect chapters and nothing more are not.

How to finish a story no.2:

This is less of a technique and more of a psychological pointer. The ‘start at the beginning and go on to the end. Then stop.’ Tip at no.1 is all you need to finish a story. However, no.2 will help you to manage it.

You see, your brain, like mine, is probably highly conflicted about the act of writing. If it’s anything like mine, it loves starting stories. It loves the discovery, the sense of adventure, the freshness and glee of starting something new.

But that wears off once the novelty is past and you begin to realize that there are months of solid writing before you. Suddenly your brain is making you want to do housework, or read Tolstoy’s complete works, or take up quilting, or go back to the beginning to put this cool new idea in. Your brain, if it is anything like mine, does not want to do the long slog of writing day after day that is necessary to get through the middle of the novel.

This is where it helps to know that it is normal and expected to hate the story and to believe that the concept is boring and your talent has left you. It isn’t and it hasn’t. It’s just your brain trying to sabotage you and get you to skive off.

Ignore it. It’s lying to you. Carry on writing anyway, even though it’s a slog and you hate everything you’re writing. Just keep going.

Eventually, as if you have pushed a stone up to the top of the hill and over the top, the story will begin to flow again, your writing will look good to you again, and you will once more be enjoying the process of writing. Hurray!

But beware, your brain doesn’t like finishing a story either. That means tackling the difficult bit of making everything resolve neatly, and when you have done so there will be the pain of parting with these characters you love. Woes! To avoid this, your brain will try to trick you into not finishing. Once more, writing will be like swimming in treacle, your words will look lame and facile, and you will be convinced this is the worst story ever.

Don’t believe it this time either. It’s still lying. Push on and finish the story. And when you have, a miracle will happen. You’ll give it a couple of days to rest, come back to it, and it will turn out to be really not that bad at all! You will have a finished first draft and it will be good.

If you can learn your own pattern – the ups and downs of when you hate your work and when you love it – you will be prepared, and you won’t abandon a promising novel in the middle because you were secretly sabotaging yourself. Learn when to tell yourself to take a running jump, carry on writing anyway, and I guarantee you will have no more half finished novels abandoned in disgust.

How long it will take before you can bear to edit your finished first drafts is a separate question, of course 😉

the writing life

You need to know these facts about fire, or your fantasy worldbuilding will fail.

Clearly there are many advantages to reading bad books. One of these is the inspiration to write blog posts in an effort to make sure it never happens again.

There are several aspects of medieval life which are easily researchable, but which sometimes writers think they can make up on the fly. I can hardly blame a writer, who has grown up with movies and TV series in which the pseudo-medieval people sit round a blazing fire of leaping yellow flames, which comes on and goes off as if at the flick of a switch, for thinking that that’s how it really is.

But you know what, kids, it really isn’t, and writing shows up your ignorance more than any brief glimpse of setting in a movie ever could. Worse, more than enough of your readers will have dealt with camp fires, will have open fires at home, will be blacksmiths, reenactors and twisted firestarters to know you got it wrong and to laugh at you for it.

Here, then, is a cheat’s guide to the common camp and hearth fire.

First of all, to address the scene in the book I just read, if you stumble into a clearing where someone has had a fire which has been left to burn itself out and is now cold, and you want to light one yourself, do not try to set fire to the ‘powdery stuff’ which is left. That stuff is called ‘ash’. Ash is the waste product of fire, and while good for tanning leather and making soap it is not flammable.

So, how do you relight someone’s fire (sounds like a romance plot)?

First of all, you rake the cold ashes out of the place where they made the fire. Ash forms a fluffy, inflammable barrier which prevents air getting to your fuel – so it actually chokes the fire. You want a nice clean start on which to build, because making a fire is hard, and unless you give it the best chance you can, you will fail to get it started at all.

First of all, consider your terrain. Are you in a very dry place? What’s the soil like? If you start a fire on top of an unprotected soil largely made of dry peat, you may end up setting fire to the ground under you. This is a bad idea.

Check, therefore, to see if the previous camper lined the firepit with stone or clay, or whether the ground is wet enough to reduce the danger of roasting yourself and the county you sit in. If not, find stones or clay yourself and make a floor of that to start the fire on.

Next, sort through the raked out mess of the previous fire. There are some parts of a burnt out fire which will be helpful – any largish chunks of wood which are partially but not wholly burned are likely to be slightly more inclined to catch alight than completely unburned wood would be. These don’t go on the hearth (technical term for the floor you’ve made for your fire) yet, though.

Now you want to give the infant fire some baby food to help it grow up strong before it can move on to the solid food of big logs. You cannot just drop a spark on a log and expect fire to result, unless you’re in ‘hello forest fire’ conditions, in which case do not light a fire at all!

Ideally, your sensible pseudo-medieval traveller is carrying a carefully protected bag of dry hay, small dry twigs, and a half a dozen larger dry split sticks. (This is a job for the evening before – drying out enough wood to start the fire next day.)

Arrange the small twigs in a lattice arrangement (any shape you can manage which leaves plenty of space for air to get through, and a hollow in the middle into which you will insert the fire. Arrange the larger twigs on top of that – still carefully preserving the air-flow. Support the larger dry sticks and partly burned pieces on top of that.

Make sure there is a good pile of further wood already gathered and preferably cut up into hearth-sized lengths waiting to go on when the time is right.

OK, so that’s the easy bit done. Now, the prepared pseudo-medieval traveller takes out her tinderbox. The tinderbox contains a small lump of flint and a steel strikealight. It also contains a piece of pre-prepared tinder. This can be a kind of dried fungus, or the fluffy seed of bullrushes, or several small pieces of linen that have been cooked in an airtight box until they’re black.

I’ve never used fungus or bullrushes, but this is how it goes with linen. When absolutely everything is ready, you hold one piece of linen and the flint in the same hand. Strike the steel against the flint until a spark falls on the linen. The spark will hopefully catch and create a little glowing red spot of slow burning on the linen. When this happens, you put the flint down, keep the spot glowing by blowing gently on it, pick up the straw. Place the glowing linen into the centre of the straw and blow hard into the centre of the ball of straw and linen.

Hopefully the straw will catch alight. Not too soon, but not so late that you burn your hands off, push the burning ball of straw into the hollow you created for it in the lattice of what will become your fire. Get your face as close to the fire as you can and breathe air into the flames – gently and steadily.

Hopefully, the twigs will begin to burn before the straw burns out. Hopefully the larger twigs and pieces of branch will begin to burn before the smaller twigs burn out. If so, the careful lattice will slowly settle into itself and begin to create glowing embers.

You cannot walk away from the fire at this stage. It needs another hour or so of feeding it larger logs while being careful not to crush or smother the air out of it before it’s self-sustaining enough to be left for a short period. But even then, you will need to check on it every quarter of an hour or so to make sure it isn’t running out of fuel and threatening to go out, or alternatively to make sure it hasn’t ventured out of the side of the hearth and decided to explore your whole campsite.

Fire needs to be cosseted and nurtured and tenderly nursed, and watched relentlessly to be sure it isn’t going to make a break for it. Fire is not an electric light or a space heater, controllable at the flick of a switch, and it’s a tricky, sneaky creature whom you have to keep a careful eye on.

But, you may say, my pseudo-medieval traveller was robbed of all his equipment and is stumbling through the forest naked. He starts a fire and…

How’s he going to do that then? I say. Naked, eh? So he’s got no flint or steel to create a spark? And he’s got no knife to create a fire-drill? Um… Is there flint or rock around he could knap into some kind of cutting tool? More to the point, is he the kind of character with the survivalist knowledge necessary? Does he know which kinds of trees to make his fire-drill out of? Could he recognise the right kind of fungus for tinder? Is it the right season for the bullrushes to be in seed?

And I really hope it’s not raining, because even if he has the ability to make the spark, if the fuel it ends up on is wet, it will put the spark out.

Your average pseudo-medieval peasant is likely to know how to start a fire at home, using dry everything under optimal conditions, just as you are likely to know how to start a fire using matches and a couple of firelighters. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any better than you at lighting a fire in the wild without matches/tinderbox and kindling.

Your naked forest-wanderer may still be saved if he stumbles over the remains of someone else’s fire. But – here is the key bit – he must do so before it has completely burnt out. If he gets to the fireplace and the ashes are still warm, then there is a chance that there are still small embers alight in the ash-bed. Then, if he can find dry tinder (straw, dry pine bark, paper etc), small dry sticks and larger dry sticks, he might be able to find an ember in the ash which will take the place of that elusive spark (another good romance title).

It still has to be not raining, though.

the writing life

Book Review Targeter

So today I made a first step towards getting my Space Opera trilogy Lioness of Cygnus Five noticed. I have 15 reviews on the first book, and none at all on the next two or on the box set. This is deeply depressing. In an effort to take my career seriously, I’ve bought a piece of software called Book Review Targeter, which claims to make it easier to find reviewers for your books.

I liked the way I could put in ‘Space Opera’ and get a list of books returned, among which I could choose to look up reviewers for the ones that were most like my own. That seemed like it was really working.

I did not like the way the ‘Export to CSV’ function ended up giving me a single line of nonsense when I opened it in LibreOffice. Nor did I like the fact that the ‘Archive’ function does not seem to archive the information in any place you can reach afterwards. I lost the entirety of my first search by archiving it before I manually recorded the results by cutting and pasting them – and of course the lost results still counted towards my weekly allottment. Nor could they be searched for a second time.

I did not like the way that the reviewers’ website links that I clicked did not take me to reviewers’ websites – two were ‘site not found’ pages and one was a website about some Eco-company with nothing to do with books.

I was promised templates for good emails I could send to these reviewers, and there are no templates. I guess it’s possible that those were for the more expensive ‘Pro’ version.

I hope that the reviewers’ email addresses are at least sound, or this is 100% a rip off and disappointment. We’ll find out about that tomorrow, when I start writing to them.

chat, the writing life

How Not To Be An Author

This is my fourth author blog. I’d like to say that it’s the first one I’ve started where I actually knew what I was doing, but that would be a lie. I have more of an idea this time around, but I haven’t mastered the art of anything yet.

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I got published kind of by accident, you see. I’ve always been a keen reader and writer of science-fiction and fantasy, and it had always been my dream in life to be a SF/F author. I’d even written and submitted a manuscript, back in the old days when you had to do it by snail mail. But then I got discouraged. I also got the internet and discovered fanfiction. “I’ll just let myself write a few stories about Qui-Gon Jinn,” I lied. “And then I’ll get back to trying for publication with my own stuff.

It’s already too late to cut a long story short, but ten years later, I was still writing fanfiction. I had discovered slash fiction, gone through a religious crisis in which I briefly but genuinely believed I was damned. (That wasn’t very nice.) Come out the other side – with my religion intact but improved – as a writer of slash fiction. And then I was enthralled by Pirates of the Caribbean, and I went on what I thought was a typical brief sidetrack into being fascinated by the British Royal Navy.

During that period, I discovered that m/m romance publishers existed. Seized with a fit of ‘why the hell not?’ I submitted a novel-length story that I had cobbled together out of my Pirates of the Caribbean fanfiction to one of them. No one could have been more surprised than me when they snapped it up. Suddenly, and without really trying, I had become a published author in the field of m/m historical romance.

This was absolutely fantastic, except for one thing. I don’t actually like romance.

Duely, I set up my first blog on WordPress – Alex Beecroft’s blog. Then, after I had written two more Age of Sail historical romances, I got a little more ambitious and set up my own domain with a blog attached. That was Alex Beecroft’s blog #2.

That was all good. By the sheer accident of catching a wave of obsession at just the right time, I had established a brand for myself. I was a well known author in the genre of historical gay romance.

It’s such a shame that that wasn’t actually what I wanted to write.

Nevertheless, I ran with it until I couldn’t stomach writing another historical. So I wrote some contemporary romances, to give myself a break. And then I thought “Well, my audience is very forgiving. Maybe I’ll write some fantasy with romance and edge into the territory where I want to live in such a soft way that I’ll bring them with me.”

It didn’t work. My fans just asked me when the next historical was coming out. My blog started looking incoherent. The fact that I had to include romance at all began to irk me and it all came to a head about a year ago, with the collapse of one of my publishers. I needed a new start, and there was nothing to stop me from making one.

So I decided to become a cozy mystery writer.

Don’t ask me where this came from. I have no idea. I do enjoy reading a good cozy mystery of the old fashioned sort – the Miss Silvers, Miss Marples and Lord Peter Whimseys of this world. So I thought perhaps I would enjoy writing them – and at least they wouldn’t have to contain romance.

That’s blog #3, Robyn Beecroft. This is still ongoing, and I’m currently writing book 2 of my Dancing Detective series.

This year, however, I got back my rights to about ten novels from the last of my romance publishers. Now I was almost entirely self-published (except for three novels and two novellas.)

It felt very much like going back to square one. I had been a romance writer for ten years, and now that was over and I had emerged with a lot of experience and 20-odd novels to show for it, but with the rest of my life in front of me.

Time to finally start once more on the dream of a career in SF/F.

Hence, here I am with blog number #4; A new pen name; A back catalogue which I am finally going to separate into genres; about four SF/F novels which either contain no romance, or which I have edited to de-emphasize the romance; a lot of experience, and a new hope.

It is long past time to explode some Death Stars, dammit.