Finish/Start

Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction writing was released last year under the name Slip of the Keyboard. There are several really good essays on writing, and being a writer, in it.

In one of them he says the best time to start a new book is the day after you finish the last one. Now, reading his other essays I don’t think he means you put the pen down one day and pick it up the next. I’ve learnt that putting the pen down is not the end – there are always changes to be made. I reckon the book is finished when the publication date is set, and no-one wants any more changes.

I also don’t think a book is started by just picking up a pen. Personally, as I write historical fiction, I have a lot of research to do for books. Terry Pratchett talks about sitting in the front of the word processor, just day dreaming, thinking, typing a few words, deleting them, thinking about something else, going to find a book about tortoises, looking up a reference, and finishing the day having not written a word. Now I know this process led to the excellent Small Gods, so I don’t consider a second of that wasted.

For me, a book begins with the first idea. But, between actually writing one book and another, I find I’m spending a lot of time researching and reading and following up unusual links and letting my mind wander off on strange tangents. By doing this I’ve already come up with a brilliant way to link two events in my next book, which I didn’t think could be linked, and been inspired to create a few new characters and got a couple of plot twists.

It looks like procrastination. It looks like time wasting. If anyone asked me how much I’ve written I’d have to say ‘well, nothing’. But I am working, and working hard. This is the time that I gather the information together that will feed my book. This is the time that I get the sparks to start my creativity. It’s like I’m charging the battery. This time is as important as the actual writing.

And do read the Terry Pratchett book. He has a lot of interesting things to say. In fact, read any book written by any writer about writing. It’s always reassuring to know that the famous and successful writer go through exactly the same problems and difficulties and joys as the rest of us.

How Will You Sell Your Book Once It’s Published? by Christine Duncan

I’m a member of a group that wants to publicize some local community news in hopes of getting out the vote. The group has effectively used some social media such as Facebook to gather people but there is definitely more to be done.  There has been some thought about a newsletter, either emailed or snail mailed, but the question is bigger than just what kind of media. The group consistently draws the middle-aged, not the younger community residents. We need to figure out how to reach them.

This is a question that many communities, school districts and non-profits have faced for years. How does one get the word out? Media is wonderful, but if your Nextdoor group or Facebook page is  to do any good, it has to be attract people in the first place.  That puts you in the position of advertising the thing you are using to advertise. And what do you do to find the people who aren’t on Facebook, or don’t read blogs?

Why am I even bringing this question up with you?  Because it is essentially the problem that you and I face as  authors.  We can tweet, bloghop  and  have that Facebook page, but even in the digital age, that has its limits. We need more.

Booktours are increasingly expensive as small bookstores faced with online competition seek to level the playing field by charging authors.  But even  so, you can’t rule them out.

There have been tales of writers who sold books on streetcorners and by having talks at senior centers. You definitely want to think about what you can say that will interest an audience.  And the first step there is figuring out who your audience is. Because even if writing is a solitary profession, selling your writing is not.

What I’ve learnt

Every time I write a book, I learn something useful for next time.

When I wrote the first one, I learnt to write timelines for my characters, the plot and the general days around the story. Otherwise I get confused as to what’s happening when, and if you’re writing a crime story that depends on timing, that can be a bit of a difficulty. I’ve even printed out a calendar for the year of my story.

When I wrote the second one, I learnt to keep a list of who my characters were, what they looked like, what part they played and their general personality. I learnt this after I realised I couldn’t remember what colour eyes anybody had, and after I realised I had changed the name of one my characters half way through.

For this book I’ve learnt not to write on little scraps of paper. Notes, research, scenes to add are all now stored in one book – with a waterproof cover. No bits of paper to lose, no frantically searching the rubbish bin for that one scene, and hopefully no soaking notes in the cup of water I’ve just knocked over.

Every time I write I learn one more practical detail to save me from disaster next time. I start off with saying ‘right, something went wrong, so this time I will avoid that by….’. It’s a bit of learning curve, but at least I am learning.

Downer Fiction by Christine Duncan

Maybe it’s because it’s the end of winter and I’m in need of a big bunch of sunlight, but right now, I’m done with downer books. You know the ones I mean. The protagonist is an alcoholic, unemployed, three times divorced, schizophrenic who just got a cancer diagnosis and then was hit by a bus on the way home and now wants to reconnect with the (disfunctional) family s/he abandoned years before. This is reality fiction these days, and all I can say is if that was my reality, I would have jumped in front of that bus.
I want a book that reflects hope and fun and family. I want a book that gives me a glimpse of a happy day if not a happily ever after. I want a book that not only gives me that stuff but also doesn’t make me feel that they dumbed it down to one syllable words and concepts suitable for the feeble minded optimist I undoubtedly am. Any suggestions?

Sir Terry Pratchett

One of my very favourite authors died this week. Sir Terry Pratchett.

I started reading his books years ago, long before J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman and all the fantasy writers made fantasy popular. Back then, fantasy was supposed to only be read by nerdy teenage boys in bedrooms, who would eventually grow out of it. Women like me weren’t supposed to read fantasy.

But I happened to pick up Wyrd Sisters, and read this.

‘When we shall three meet again?’
‘Well, I can do next Tuesday’.

It made me laugh. I read some more and I laughed some more. Then I got caught up in the clever story. I got caught up in the glorious, wonderful amazing characters, especially Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. There were no other women like them in anything else I was reading! By the end, I was hooked. I moved onto Mort, and the rest of Discworld, and when the rest of the world became obsessed with fantasy, I, thanks to Terry Pratchett, was already fully engrossed.

Back then, there were no women in fantasy apart from a few random elves and witches. Certainly none I could identify with. And, to be honest, there weren’t that many women in books in general that I felt were decent role models. But Terry Pratchett gave me Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg and Lady Sybil and Angua and Susan and Tiffany Aching – all very real, and human and wonderful and worthy of copying in any situation.

He had a gift for creating a whole world, and inviting you in. It was real, all of it. Somewhere there was a flat world that floated on the back of four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle. I could see Pseudopolis Yard very clearly. I knew exactly where to go for a decent drink in Anhk Morpork. And as for the people who lived there – they lived. When you closed the book, they didn’t stop. Their lives carried on. We might not see them, but they were there. The stories didn’t end with the last page. I believed in Discworld. Some days it was more inviting than reality.

And he used that world to show up the silly things, and the ridiculous things and the wonderful things and the awful things about our world. Whilst he made me laugh he also made me think. He made me reevaluate my opinions.

He was only 66. He had Alzheimer’s. He should have had 20 more years of inviting us into Discworld. We have been robbed.

People are paying tribute all over the world. We are crying at the loss, and laughing at the books he left us. He once wrote that no-one ever dies until all the ripples they have left die away. His ripples will not die away for many many years – if ever.

What Keeps Us Reading by Christine Duncan

I picked up a mystery the other day and I am fascinated by  why I won’t put it down.  You see, I don’t like it.  I have no liking whatsoever for the narrator/heroine of the story.  I dislike the copious and unnecessary use of four letter words as adjectives. No I’m not a prude and I have been known to drop the f-bomb but to use it as a frequent adjective is just boring.

And the plot, which seemed so interesting when I picked the book out…well let’s just say I’m pretty sure I know whodunnit. But I   keep  reading and I don’t know why.

As a writer, I find  that question compelling. I thought readers needed a hero they like, a plot that gave unforseeable twists and turns, and writing that transported them.  And in a way, if I get past the Gen X inside jokes and the four letter words, there is a flow…. But I can’t believe  that is enough. Yet  I keep picking it back up.

What keeps you reading?

Neither One Thing Nor Another

H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. I usually enjoy the book that wins that, so I thought I’d have a look. What’s it about, I asked? Well, it’s about someone training a hawk. Well, ok, I thought, not something I’m fascinated by, but I’ll give it a go.

Except it’s not just about that. There is a hawk to be trained, and the story of that is wonderful and fascinating and gripping and moving. But it’s also about T H White, the author of the Sword in The Stone, and his hawk training, and his life, and it’s about the author’s father and the author dealing with grief, and a childhood spent fascinated by hawks, and the books the author read, and it’s all so beautifully, achingly beautifully written.

The point I’m making is, it doesn’t just fit into one category. You could shelve this in the animal care area of the bookshop, and that’d be fair enough. You could also shelve it in biography. You could shelve it in literature. It could go in several different places.

I’ve found Nella Last’s diaries of World War II England in history, war, biography and social sciences, and that’s not the only book I’ve read that floats from category to category.

The point is, a book doesn’t have to be just one thing. It doesn’t have to be just a crime novel, it can be funny too. It doesn’t have to be fit neatly into a category ( although that does make life more difficult for people who work in bookshops and libraries. I do feel your pain). It can cross all the boundaries, and all the guidelines and produce something wonderful.

You don’t have to say ‘my book is this and nothing else’. You can mix it up and change it around and shoot off into odd little corners and start chatting about something else altogether. I love those kinds of books. It’s those kind of books that make me feel like I’m chatting to the author.