How Long To Let It Sleep?

I was at an authors talking event recently, and a lady in the audience said that she was a writer, she’d written a book, and, as advised, she’d put it into a drawer to sleep. What she wanted to know was, how long should she let it sleep? (If this was you, I was right behind you. Good question).

I can’t remember the exact answer, but it was along the lines of ‘as long as it needs to’.

I put my book away between drafts and usually get it out when I am desperate to start working on it again. However, the one I’m working on now needs to be done by the end of the year, so it’s sleep period can only be a couple of weeks.

On the other hand, I once put a ghost story away for a while. I found it about three years later, and read it. I’d forgotten it completely, so I came to it fresh. I read it and it was good, it was really good, I was really enjoying it – and then discovered I hadn’t written an ending. That was very frustrating. I’d completely forgotten what the ending was supposed to be.

I normally get a feeling for when my book is ready to be looked at it again. It’s like it starts tugging at me. The story will start bouncing around my head again, with all new ideas as to how I can improve.

So how long to let it sleep? Until it’s ready, but if you’re not sure, about a month is a good period of time, I think. Long enough for a space, not too long you forget what it was all about.

The author – Anthony Horowitz – also said something else good for us to remember. He’s always convinced, when he’s finished a book, that it’s the best book ever written ever! And then, six months later, when it’s about to be published, that it’s the worst book ever written ever. I think the lesson is, we can never judge our own writing fairly. And also that Anthony Horowitz gives really good talks.

Holiday Tradition by Christine Duncan

It’s been a week of snow and cold. And now, at eight o’clock on a Sunday night, I’m finally in the excited planning stages of getting ready for the holidays to come. So of course, I have to read a holiday mystery. I’m starting JD Robb’s Festive in Death. Yes, I know many people who turn up their noses at Robb’s popular in Death series, making statements like, “it’s the literary equivalent of junk food.”
Too freakin’ bad. Noire and the holidays just don’t mix. And there is a reason Ms. Robb (Nora Roberts) is a best seller, she delivers. In this case, I am expecting a futuristic mystery with overtones of the holiday and I’m sure that I will get it. But I’m open to reading just about anything with a holiday bent just now. Snow, cold and the shortened days just spell holidays don’t they?
And I’m not above dissecting the whole deal to try to figure out just how it all works. So I can create my own holiday themed mystery.

On The Bus

Now, we all know just sitting and thinking is an important part of writing. But where do you do this sitting and thinking? If you do it at home, there’s a chance you’ll get distracted by the other things you have to do, like the washing up. Or, if you live with someone, they’ll assume you’re doing nothing, and interrupt you. The park can be cold, the coffee shop can be an awkward place to just sit and stare – people get uncomfortable. So I like to do it on the bus.

I go out of rush hour, to make sure I get a window seat. Gazing out of the window is very important. And hopefully I won’t get anyone sitting next to me, so I won’t be distracted by someone’s music or phone conversation.

The route I take lasts about an hour, and it goes from almost outside my house, through three high streets, past an atmospheric graveyard, past a stately home, past a house where Virginia Woolf used to live, past a scene Turner and Constable have painted, and then over a river.

I can daydream to my heart’s content, and all that going past my window means I get a lot of stimulation. The graveyard is going in a book (and I’ve seen it other people’s books too). I can people watch and no-one will notice. All that scenery and life is wonderful for making me think.

And the other good thing about the bus is other people’s conversation. People sit and chat about all kinds of things, just as if they were at home, and you can eavesdrop on them very easily. I’ve overheard all kinds of things, including intimate details about divorces and medical problems and jobs. And it’s great for listening to people’s speech patterns, and catching how they talk.

At at the other end of my journey is a coffee shop where I can sit and write down everything I’ve just heard off. So there you go – need to sit and think your story out? Get on the bus! (the train works quite well too, as long as it’s not too crowded). Some bus route about an hour, with a lot to see, and a bit to listen to.

More on Finding the Time to Write by Christine Duncan

I woke up this morning with a story in my head. A full fledged short story. That never happens. But I had laundry and grocery shopping to do, bills to get paid. I needed to figure out how to get Quickbooks on my tablet, get dinner started and drop some clothes off that had been left at my house and yeah, I never got the thing written down. Now here it is night, and I know I’m not going to get it done after this. The list of chores is not yet complete.
I’m hoping I’ll get it at least sketched out on a pad of paper next to my bed tonight. Cross your fingers for me. Because I’m tired already.

No, I don’t like him.

It’s always tempting, if you know someone truly awful, or wonderful, or memorable to put them, all complete, into a book. Writers deny it, but they do. I’m not going to stop you (or admit to it….no-one I know is in any of my books!). What I will mention is, if your reader knows the person your character is based on, does it affect their reading of it?

I read a biography of the Mitford Girls. Nancy Mitford had a lover, Gaston, who, in my opinion (and in the opinion of a few of my friends) was an awful, self-important, selfish man who treated Nancy badly. I disliked him heartily.

Nancy, however, loved him desperately until she died. She used him, fairly obviously, as the basis of her hero, Fabrice, in The Pursuit of Love. (Almost all her characters were based, very recognisably, on people she knew). Knowing Fabrice was Gaston, I hated him, and wanted rid of him, and desperately wanted the heroine to dump him.

However, a friend of mine who hadn’t read the Mitford Girls, and knew nothing about Gaston, rather liked Fabrice. Her opinion was based solely on the character in the book, mine was highly influenced by knowing about the real man. (We both heartily disliked Boy, one of the characters in Love in a Cold Climate, even though we don’t know who he’s based on).

That’s the problem of basing a character on someone real, in a very recognisable way. If you base someone obviously on a politician, or celebrity, or historical figure, the readers’ own feelings about that person will colour their view of that character – and as everyone has very different feelings about everyone else, that might not give you the reaction you want.

Mind you, if you base it on someone you know, your readers may not have a strong opinion about it until they read about this person in your inevitable best-selling biography.

It’s a tricky question. Some people are just begging to be put in a book. It turns out Agatha Christie, despite what I thought, really did put people she knew in her books too – and then murdered them, which is very tempting. But, will your readers feel the same way about them as you do? Nancy Mitford obviously wanted us to adore Fabrice, as she did Gaston, but as I feel very differently about Gaston, I do not adore Fabrice.

Skype Critique

I said that I would report on how Skype critique is working for me. I’m pretty happy with it. I spent a lot of time moping around because my critique partner had moved and I no longer had any time to find a new critique group let alone attend one. This is a pretty good answer to the pity party.
Neither one of us has much time so it is just the two of us. We meet on a week night but that works too, because there is no travel time to somewhere else, we just call each other on Skype.
I do still have a few things to work out on it. I’m working on my writing on my lunch hour now and she sends me her manuscript in advance so that is also how I critique her. I have a tablet but I’ve been doing this stuff on my phone (android) which is a little limiting. I could get a keyboard for my tablet which is a Windows 8 version, but I don’t want people to know I’m writing. I can’t tell you why, it just is not something I want to talk about with my co-workers. I know of people who write on their commute, but I drive so that’s out.
On the other hand, everyone and their brother is on their phone, on Facebook, texting or whatever, so that attracts no attention. The problem is mainly that it is a clunky way to write. Still, it beats not writing.
It makes me feel good to make use of time that was not productive before like the lunch hour to do something I’ve been wanting to do. And I love the feedback of critique, so I’m more apt to write. Win-win!

Happy halloween

It’s Halloween, and minds turn to ghost stories (or they should – this is the day where the dead rise from their graves and walk the earth. The sweeties are just a distraction). There’s many ghost stories out there, some good, some magnificent, some awful. It’s not easy to tell why some stories work and some don’t. Here are five of my favourites.

The Woman In Black by Susan Hill. I’ve read this over and over again, and it scares me every time. The young man, all alone in the scary house – it’s a standard form of ghost story, but it’s the haunting itself that lingers. Always silent, always at a distance, always there. You end up looking over your shoulder as you read to make sure she isn’t behind you. If you want to see an adaptation, don’t see the film. See the stage play. It’s truly chilling.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. A young woman participates in a scientific experiment, staying in a supposedly haunted house with several other people. Again, terrifying. But it’s the main character that catches my attention – terrifying as Hill House is, she welcomes it as an escape from her suffocating life. You sympathise with her. And, not to mention this book really pulls off the idea that houses can be evil. Again, if you want an adaptation, don’t watch the recent movie. Watch The Haunting, made in the 60s.

The Signalman, by Charles Dickens. Everyone wrote ghost stories in the Victorian era, and this is Dicken’s best. The Signalman, spending day after day in that lonely box, out of the sunshine, constantly listening for the faint signals, knowing lives depend on him, his only human contact the trains dashing by. No wonder he believes himself haunted. The ending was not what I expected, and it’s all the better for it. The BBC did a very good adaptation of this.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. I picked this up because I’m fascinated by Polar exploration. What I got was a ghost story so gripping, I swear I held the book so tight I left marks on the cover. A man, alone in an observation station, comes to believe that something is out there….Solitude can be terrifying if you have no way out of it, and snow can be terrifying too – anything can be if it doesn’t behave like you expect.

The Turn Of The Screw. Henry James’s go at a ghost story. One governess, two disturbing children, and other visitors – possibly. The argument still rages over whether the ghosts are real, or whether it’s all in the governess’s mind, or the children or…This has inspired several good adaptations.

The best for last. Whistle and I’ll Come To You by M.R. James (known as The Master of ghost stories). A professor who does not believe in ghosts finds a whistle on a beach and blows it. Guess what happens next. The glory of the story lies in the fact that we, the reader, do believe in ghosts (for the purpose of the story, we are reading a ghost story after all) so we know he is being haunted whilst he appears oblivious until that final moment. This is my favourite ghost story of all time. Not a lot really happens, but the atmosphere is chilling. If you want an adaptation, try the BBC Jonathan Miller black and white one, which really catches the atmosphere.

So there we go, my favourite ghost stories. What do they have in common? Well, there’s solitude, if not actual physical solitude then solitude of the soul. A good setting, haunted houses and deserted beaches. Good characters too. And a ghost that never explains, rarely talks, but never stops neither.

One more thing – they’re all short. Two short stories and three novellas. It’s not easy to sustain terror over a full-length book.

Happy Halloween, and good reading – just don’t look behind you. Goodness knows what you might see in the darkness just beyond the lamplight….