Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Tips on writing a series

Have you ever thought about writing a series of books? Here, prolific author and great friend, David Robinson, gives his thoughts and advice.

On Friday, November 23rd, Crooked Cat Books released the fifth STAC Mystery, Murder at the Murder Mystery Weekend. Five books, all with the same central characters, but the only theme common to them is a murder mystery.
Writing with a series in mind is a fine idea, and even when I produce stand alone novels, like Voices, I tend to finish them with a sequel in mind. There are many pros to turning out a series. But, equally, there are a few cons.
The STAC Mysteries are just beginning to be noticed, and a part of that lies in the series factor. A reader buys one, enjoys, and buys another, and another, and another. Why? Because they know what they’re getting.
From the writer’s point of view, this is a great advantage. As long as you can keep the storylines fresh, keep the characters in character, maintain or improve the level of quality you set at the start, then the readers will follow, perhaps slowly at first, but they will be there.
In a stand alone novel, you have 100,000 words to develop your character(s). In a series, you can have them grow. Joe Murray, the amateur sleuth of the STAC Mysteries, is a case in point. Grumpy, hiding a heart of gold, Joe remains obstinately single after his divorce, but with this fifth book I took the opportunity to re-introduce him to the joys of love (non-graphically, of course) and in the sixth book, I’m taking that theme a stage further.
Another advantage is you don’t have to go into detail on character backgrounds. Most of the groundwork has been done in the first book. A few reminders here and there in subsequent tales are all that is needed. It frees you up to concentrate on plot and action.
Finally, the great advantage a series has over, say a serial, is that each novel is a stand alone. Think of Harry Potter as an example. Would Goblet of Fire make complete sense if you had not read the earlier books? But if you read Murder at the Murder Mystery Weekend, it would make perfect sense, and you could go back to The Filey Connection (the first STAC Mystery) at your leisure.
But it’s not all plain sailing. There are downsides to the series, and the biggest one is accuracy.
Joe was born sometime around 1955. He was 55 years old in The Filey Connection. I cannot, then, have him as 54 years old in Murder at the Murder Mystery Weekend. Opposite Joe’s café is Doncaster Road Industrial Estate. It will always be Doncaster Road Industrial Estate. It cannot suddenly change to Sanford Industrial Estate, anymore than the local newspaper can start off as the Sanford Gazette and later become the Sanford Herald. To make such changes needs an explanation, and to avoid error, keeping detailed records is vital.
It’s one of the tenets of writing novels that you should know every, tiny detail about your characters. That goes double for writing a series. One of Joe’s friends is diabetic. I cannot have her taking heaps of sugar in her tea when I’m six books in. Another is a self-employed painter and decorator. If I have him installing a new central heating system several books down the line, the reader will want to know where he got the skills and whether he’s just doing it as a favour.
Another problem you face with the series is variety. The Filey Connection was a traditional, British seaside mystery. When I began work on the second book, The I-Spy Murders, I set it in Skegness, but then I changed my mind and moved it to Chester. I did not want the STAC Mysteries to become seaside mysteries. Since then, I’ve set them in Leeds, York, and with Murder at the Murder Mystery Weekend, Lincoln. I vary the murders, the murderers, the circumstances and the motives as much as I can.
Is there a limit?
I don’t know. Alan Hunter, author of the George Gently novels, turned out 46 between 1955 and his death in 1982. I’d like to think that the STAC Mysteries could go that kind of distance, but only time will tell.
In the meantime, if you’re contemplating a series, go for it. I’ll keep an eye out for you in the Kindle charts.

David Robinson is a 62-year-old freelance writer, novelist and blogger. He lives and works in Greater Manchester, England.
He has published six novels with Crooked Cat Books, five of which are STAC Mysteries.
He was a volunteer editor on 50 Stories for Pakistan, an anthology whose profits go to the Red Cross to help those afflicted by the 2010 floods in Pakistan. He was also a managing editor on 100 Stories for Queensland, the proceeds going to help victims of the Queensland floods of January 2011.
You can find David at http://www.dwrob.com and you can learn more about the STAC Mysteries at https://sites.google.com/site/sanford3rdageclubmysteries/

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Saturday, 24 November 2012

Critique Service Gift Vouchers

With Christmas fast approaching you might be wondering what to buy for the writer in your life. Or maybe, as a writer yourself, you’re hoping your loved ones will be a bit more inventive than in previous years and give you something different this year – after all, how many how-to books can one writer read before going insane?

I’ve had such positive feedback from satisfied clients on my critique service that I have decided to offer gift vouchers. You can find more details on this page of my website, but basically, the way it works is this: you, or one of your loved ones, buys a gift voucher which can then be redeemed by the recipient at any point in the future against one or more in-depth writing critiques.

Isn’t that a better gift than reading for the millionth time how to self-publish a block buster?

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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Hand-Knitted Electricity: It’s Quite Cheap and Fairly Funny

Have you ever been close to giving up writing? Lost that essential love of getting words down? Perry Iles, my guest blogger today, knows exactly what that feels like. But he found a way to get writing again - here's how he did it.

A minor warning - if you are easily offended don't read on.

Once upon a time I had a case of writer’s block that lasted for about three years. Are you asleep yet? You should be, because nobody wants to hear writers whinging on about writers not being able to write. It’s a fallacy under which we writers labour – that our lives and work are fascinating whilst yours are not, because you never start banging on about painter-and-decorator’s block do you? Or “darling, I just looked at the washing up. I was scared by the blank, empty sink and the full draining board, and I couldn’t do it; I swear I tried but I didn’t know whether to start with the cutlery or the plates and now I can’t face it any more, so would you now indulge me for five years or so while I get drunk and start shagging the neighbours for the sake of my art? I swear I’ll be able to wash up after that.”

It’s bollocks. We think we’re precious but we’re not. But, while I’m on the subject, one way of surmounting writers block is to write a book without knowing you’re doing it. This is what happened to me. First of all I invented a persona to hide behind, then I put that persona on every morning and lived inside it. This is the best way to write – you put your writing uniform on like some kind of a method actor, then stay in character until you don’t have to do it any more, which will happen when you realise you’ve reached the end. It’s a confidence thing. So no more hitting the word-count button to see if you’ve got a full-length novel yet, no more procrastination, no more thousand words of filler to make yourself feel better. If you really want to feel better, remember it’s the guy in the uniform that’s the control freak, not you – and he’s the one that’s in charge of character, settings, opinions expressed, all of it. You can totally absolve yourself of all responsibility, like a kid throwing stones at a greenhouse. It’s great fun.

Professor Darren Rimmer, for me, was the big boy who did it and ran away. The process came about via an online writing site on which somebody invented a word one day, and asked for other writers to think up a definition of its meaning. More than five hundred made-up words later, the contributors (of which I was one out of about half a dozen) found themselves in the possession of a two-hundred page book called Hand-Knitted Electricity, which had evolved under the auspices of the character I’d invented, a bogus professor of popular culture in a bogus northern university. To say that Professor Darren Rimmer is a bit politically incorrect is like saying Samantha Fox might have suffered from a slight case of nipple-slip before she caught God and turned her back on solids. Professor Rimmer is a ghastly creation who laughs in the face of all that’s decent and does raised-leg bum-guffs in the general direction of just about everything. But the book he created, I like to think, is funny. It’s funny in the same way the Viz Profanosaurus is funny, in the same way Keith Lemon is funny. In laughing at everything else, Professor Rimmer is inviting the reader to laugh at him. If you’re offended, you’ve got it wrong, but don’t expect Rimmer, or indeed his creator, to care very much.

And for me, I’ve written a book, so I can now run down the garden path humming a Cliff Richard tune, leap in the air and click my heels together, pick a gardenia and put it in my buttonhole and skip gaily to work, stopping only to pat babies and kiss puppies. It’s funny how empowering that feeling is, almost as funny as the sudden realisation that you’ve used a word like “empowering” and if you don’t look out you’ll be using words like “up-shift”, “burgeon” and “enhance”, when you mean go faster, grow and improve. The man in the uniform that I turned into for a few months has done me some good. He’s living in my writing node now, sticking a cattle-prod into my brain every so often and telling me not to talk like some kind of tosspot any more.

If you want to read Hand-Knitted Electricity, you can get it on Amazon in electronic or paper formats. It’s quite cheap and fairly funny. That’s me rattling my tin cup at you, in case you hadn’t noticed. Please feel free to tell me to fuck off and get a proper job, but don’t be surprised if I bite your ankle on the way out.

Perry Iles is a grumpy old bastard who people do complicated little dances to avoid sitting next to at dinner parties. Barely house-trained, he has gravitated to Scotland, where he feels at home. He suffers from bouts of frantic scratching and the odd outbreak of genital warts, and looks forward to a time when we all die horribly. 

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Friday, 16 November 2012

Don't give up your dreams

Writer Anon sent in this plea from the heart: I belong to an online writing group and one of the other writers in the group read the opening of my novel and said it was a load of cliché-ridden tripe with emotionless cardboard cut-out characters, rubbish dialogue and unrealistic settings. He said I should give up because I’m never going to make it as a writer. I’m scared he might be right. Would you read my opening chapters and tell me if I should quit?

No, I’m afraid I don’t have the time to read and comment on your writing, but even if I did have time, I would never advise anyone to give up on their dreams. What I can do is give you some pointers on the aspects your writing group peer has highlighted.

Firstly, the problem with clichés is that all too often they sum up exactly what we want to say, which is how they became clichés. When any currently well-known phrase was first written it wasn’t a cliché. A writer sat down and thought of an original way to express something – and it worked so well that others used it until it became a cliché. Your job as a writer is to find new phrases to express your thoughts and emotions, rather than using the words of others.

Moving on to the characters, unless you know and believe in your characters as real people, they will come across as one-dimensional and cardboard to your readers. You need to know everything about them – what’s their background? What drives them? What do they want?  What do they fear? You have to know them so well that you instinctively know how they would react both physically and emotionally in any given situation.

Show their emotions through their actions and dialogue. Don’t tell your readers the characters are upset, angry, happy, sad or any other emotion, show them! Let the characters throw things, pace up and down, punch someone, yell, scatter flowers at a lover’s feet – in other words, have them react on the page.

Put yourself firmly in a character’s head. Become that person while writing – how would the character feel? In each scene and plot twist, what would he or she do and say? If you know the character as well as you should, the responses will enhance the characterisation.

The character’s personality should shine through in the dialogue; this will bring a character to life far more than any amount of description. So how do you get the dialogue to flow? One easy way is to imagine each scene in your mind and then become the character. Act it out in your head. Write the dialogue you can ‘hear’ your characters speaking. Afterwards, read it out loud. Does it sound credible? Does it sound like people talking, or is it stilted?

Whatever your character says should fit his or her background and education level. Use dialect to show where the character comes from, but don’t overdo it. If a reader has to stop every five minutes to try to figure out what someone is saying, they’ll soon lose interest.

One thing to be wary of is using dialogue to tell your readers things that the characters themselves would already know. This is known as ‘As You Know, George’ dialogue. Where the dialogue sounds false, you need to find another way of imparting information to the reader.

So, now that we’ve covered clichés, characters and dialogue, that only leaves settings. The three Ss are your friend here. Sight, sound and smell. If you can introduce these three aspects into your writing the setting will come to life for the reader. You have to become the eyes, ears and nose of your readers, but this (in my opinion) is one of those areas where less is more. Don’t overdo the descriptive passages. Often small touches bring settings to life – in a ghost story, for example, the whisper of a chill breeze blowing out a candle in a windowless room, with the scent of hot wax hanging in the air, sets the scene for fear much better than saying the house was haunted.

I hope the above helps with the issues raised by person in your writing group. Please don’t give up, because clearly you care enough about being a writer to have written to me and no one has the right to take away another’s dreams.

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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Flash 500 - winning stories and poems

All the results for Flash 500 fiction and humour verse are now up on the website.

To read the winning flash fiction, click here.

To read the winning humour verse, click here.

I hope you all enjoy the stories and poems as much as our judges did.

Critique Service for Writers
Flash 500 Flash Fiction Competition
Flash 500 Humour Verse Competition