Monthly Archives: August 2012

He Extrapolated

Myself and a small group of compadres were recently privileged enough to be allowed to read a good friend’s first efforts on the Writing Front. It was the Edinburgh Fringe and as we were recovering from a 2 – 5 (in the morning) comedy gig around the breakfast table he passed us a trio of short stories and asked what we thought of them.

This post isn’t about those stories per se. They were quirky, surrealist, at times touching, and certainly much, much better than any of my early works. But they also brought up an interesting point, one which I feel the urge to share with the mighty hive consciousness of the blogosphere this afternoon.

On a number of occasions whilst reading I paused to dispense my obviously mighty and incontrovertible wisdom. One of the foremost points mentioned was the use of words following his dialogue. He was, I declaimed, guilty of the common rookie mistake of seeking to use any word other than “said” to describe his speech. Hissed, whispered, spat, shouted, howled, you get my drift. This, I SAID, was all unnecessary since “said” is one of a small group of words in the English language which is in fact invisible. It can be used frequently and with great repetition and still not jar the reader from the flow of the story.

This caused a few raised eyebrows amongst the gathered amigos.

‘What about school?’ one of them asked/hissed/whispered/spat/shouted/howled/anythingbutsaid. I opened my mouth to reply, and closed it again as I realised that she was right. What about school? Cut to flashback scene, as I recall the teachers in Standard Grade English blithely telling us to spice up our writing by throwing every word in our imagination down onto the page in place of “said.” At that moment I realised who I had to blame for my condition.

I’m a recovering anti-saidite. I too, until very recently, was guilty of eschewing said word from my vocabulary. “You really need to stop doing that” was the message loud and clear from my editors. And so I did, slowly, painfully, eroding all unnecessarily descriptive items from around my dialogue. And it works. The writing is better, punchier, more compact. 9/10 times the context of someone’s speech will inform the reader how they’re saying something. You needn’t tell them.

However, the shock my advice garnered amongst my friends threw me into doubt. Was this elementary law not universally accepted? What strange world of writing-savages had my TARDIS plunged me into? I kept my eyes peeled after that and, sure enough, yesterday I came across this.

The author shall naturally remain nameless, all you need know is that he/she/it is currently in the NYTimes Bestseller list. Reading a brief extract of its work, my worst fears were confirmed. There were twelve instances of speech in the section I read, and here are the words that followed each one;

Interjected

Roared

Spat

Snorted

Exclaimed

Snapped

Demanded

Replied

Asked

Challenged

Said (hooray!)

Now some are less offensive to my newfound said-love than others. Replied and asked you can pretty much get away with (assuming the character is replying/asking of course!). But the overwhelming message from this bestseller was the same which my friends had reacted with.

“Your saids are lame, all the cool kids use big words!”

So who is right? Well first off, this is writing, so NOBODY is right. But who does the collective wisdom of the blogosphere favour? Are you a Said Loyalists or a AntiSaidite? For my part I’m going to hang tough with my cold turkey said, but I’ll keep my eye out from here on in. If I do start using the “other words” again at least I can point my editor to the friend who reminded me of our school indoctrination and go “Well that’s what she said!”

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Anbestinge Bóc Se

If you can’t read the above then congratulations, you’re not an English Language graduate. And if you are and still can’t read it that’s because it really doesn’t make any sense because though I do EL at Edinburgh Uni I’m still very much a novice, Saxon is an absurdly complex language, and all I did was look up words on google. So… perhaps you’re wondering why I’m going with a title in a language that nobody in their right mind speaks anymore (what it actually says is ‘Insert Title Here,’ but that’s not the important bit).

Today is the 372nd anniversary of the battle of Newburn. Yes I love history and no, I still wouldn’t have known that if it hadn’t been for my Facebook feed (yes, I have a lot of strange pages liked). Why is this of an significance? Well the battle of Newburn took placed during Scotland’s Bishop Wars, which are very much the subject of my newly completed novel, Covenanted. I have thus been inspired by said anniversary to write a little bit on my particular poison, historical fiction. I’ve even included a pic of me at the recent (and utterly amazing) Fort George re-enactment day. Go Fraser’s Dragoons!

The title of this post is in Saxon to prove a point. Starting 60 – 100 years ago and going back FOREVER, people spoke differently from the way they speak today. And as you can see from the title, sometimes they spoke very, very differently indeed. Now this is a big beef when it comes to historical fiction, because one of the most common comments people seem to throw around when reading their fantasised works of yor is that “they wouldn’t have said that in those days!”

These simple words are almost guaranteed to trigger an unfortunate reaction in the otherwise mild-natured, timid historical novelist, ranging from a swiftly-disguised flinch to an apoplectic fit. What? Whaaaaat? You mean the Roman gladiators in my novel probably wouldn’t have spoken MODERN ENGLISH to one another? Oh my God, how did my months, nay, years of painstaking research miss this? Quick, fire my editor! Dammit no, SHOOT my editor! My entire work has been rendered utterly worthless by this mammoth, monument oversight!

Hopefully the above flood of melodramatic sarcasm gives you some insight into how people feel when you point out the so-called flaw of their inaccurate dialogue in historical fiction. No, you’re right, they probably wouldn’t have said “Good morning, how was your night last night,” in 15th century China but guess what? If the author went to the absurd effort of finding out exactly what they would have said, you wouldn’t have had the slightest hope of understanding it! Imagine if Bernard Cornwell had written his entire Saxon Stories series in Old English, that would’ve been a fun read wouldn’t it? Or Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror books in Medieval Mongolian? It just wouldn’t work.

Now, I’m not saying abandon hope all ye who seek historical accuracy. Accuracy is massively, massively important to any historical novelist worth her salt. But, and it’s a big, big but, when it comes to accuracy vs story, story must, must, must win every time. Even if it’s set as “recently” as Victorian England I still don’t want to have to wade through reams of Dickensian prose whenever the characters speak (unless I’m actually after a Dickens story, in which case I’ll probably just read his actual work rather than yours… no offense, he’s probably just better). Dialogue is a horrid temptation to historical writers, because their inevitable love of the history leads them to want to try their upmost to be faithful to the period they’re resenting. Speech then becomes a trap, something that may be fun for the writer to research but not so fun for the reader to read. And, sorry writers, but the reader is always right (I lie, but it’s a good rule to follow). If you send your editor a 150,000 word epic in Middle English, in the style of Chaucer’s original tales, well… probably going to struggle with getting that one past the slush pile.

To summarise yes, well done you sharp-eyed cookie, the people in our novels wouldn’t have addressed each other in that manner. Just be thankful I’ve translate it for you, and you don’t have to sit through the oft-times hellishly boring degree I’m going to be going back to in a couple of weeks’ time. Wyrd bi∂ ful aræd

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Paper Vultures – A SITREP

I try to post things that I think others will gain something from. You could be forgiven, then, for wondering what anyone will gain from a list of my past publishing credits and current writing endeavours. It’s true that half of this post’s raison d’être is to provide me with an account of where I am and what I’m at as of August 2012, but you can get something from this too. I constantly keep up to date with what my writer friends are working on and who their publishers are. It stands to reason that if those I admire are getting work picked up by a certain press I too will likely want to check said press out and thrown, sorry, pitch, things at them. So, if like me you’re a literary scavenger, a paper vulture, then read on.

My first ever accepted stories Heavenbloom and Heavenfall, were published in eBook format by Books to Go Now a bit over a year ago. They’re currently my only standalone works, and I’m quite fond of them and their steampunky-fantasy-ness (they’re on Amazon, just in the craaazy offchance that you might want to buy them). BTGN accept a lot of clients and you get a healthy slice of the royalties, so if you’ve got a solid fan base/big bunch of friends you can rely on to buy your book you’ve really got nothing to lose!

Static Movement have supposedly published two of my stories in anthologies, The Devil’s Own and After-Class, both horrors. I say supposedly because though I can see one of them in print from where I sit typing, the other seems to have gone off the radar. If it is still in the works I presume it’ll not be hitting Amazon for many months yet. SM don’t pay and, like BTGN, churn stuff out by the library-load, so really they’re only worth going to if you’re just setting your first foot on the authorly ladder and want to get some quick credentials.

As-yet to be published are two more horrors, Golden Seas and The Little House at Bull Run Creek, both accepted by new small presses – Cruentus Libri and World Weaver Press. Despite their fledgling nature both are professional in their dealings and I’m extremely glad to have been picked up by them. They pay royalties and should be hitting shelves within a month’s time. Look ‘em up if you fancy a crack.

On the non-fiction front I’ve had two historical articles accepted by print magazines, Skirmish and Military History Monthly. The pay for the latter alone has been 25 times more than all my works of fiction thus far combined – if you were considering a switch to journalism then now, ladies and gentlemen, is the time. Compared to us fictioneers they positively rake it in.

Novel-wise I have three full works completed, though two are only first draft and wait patiently for the Grand Editing. The third, and largest, I’m currently throwing pitching at agents (check out my post Have you Ever Met your Own Familiar for more on that and yes, if you were wondering, the rejection list is currently four and doubtless growing). The plan for the coming months? Finish a horror short I’m working on for inclusion in a friend’s monster anthology, polish up those novels (I’ll admit, a never-ending process) and keep submitting like mad to literary agencies. Ah AgentQuery, how I do love thee.

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I’ve Got a Problem

I’ve been suffering in silence for too long now. I need help. I need to tell someone about what I’ve been going through, even if it’s embarrassing, even if I think it’ll make people not want to talk to me anymore.

I’ve got Writer’s Snootiness.

Please, I beg of you, bear with me. This isn’t something I want to tell you… it’s something I need to tell you. I noticed the first symptoms when I went and saw Captain America at the cinema (NOTE – there will be mild Captain America, Brave and The Dark Knight Rises spoilers from here on in). It’s an awesome film, my favourite of the Avengers arc, but there were a few bits I found myself frowning at. I mentioned a few to my friends – “hey, wouldn’t it be more cool if they did this instead of this?” Like, when Red Skull self-destructs his own base, why don’t they show a segment of the portrait alluded to earlier, with the horror of his true face partially revealed just before it goes up in flames. That’d just have been plain awesome (NOTE 2 – I’ve not see any deleted scenes from that film, so if that’s one of them then bow down now before your new prophet!).

Needless to say I thought this was only a passing inspirational spark, and swiftly forgot the brief glow of smugness felt at the fact that I’d come up with something cool the scriptwriters hadn’t already thought of.

Then I went and saw The Dark Knight Rises.

Again, an amazing film. I’d been hyped to hell by both the reviews and my friend’s anticipation beforehand – this thing was going to blow my mind. And in many ways it did. Bane in particular has instantly become my 4th favourite all-time villain, after Davy Jones, Scar and Palpatine. His voice is ear-orgasmic. But, just as in Captain America, there were bits where I found myself frowning. At the end wouldn’t it have been so much more hard-hitting, so much more powerful to have just had Alfred’s facial reaction shot in the cafe, without ever seeing Christian Bale? It felt like that was what’d been set up for in the earlier scenes. Did the writers get cold feet at the last moment and throw in the shot of Bale to stave off accusations of an Inception-esq cliff-hanger ending?

I saw Brave a couple of weeks after that. Yet again, great film. By now however my condition was endemic. Throughout the showing I questioned the tightness of the plot, the relevancy of the main villain, the voice casting and even at one point the historical accuracy of having clan Dingwall talk about how they fought the Vikings (‘Dingwall’ is my hometown in the Highlands of Scotland – it was actually founded by the Vikings, and is Norse for ‘Meeting-Place’).

I mentioned none of my reservations to anyone this time, merely agreed – truthfully – that overall I’d enjoyed it. But inside I knew now what was plaguing me. I had The Snootiness.

Writer’s Snootiness, or just ‘The Snootiness,’ is when a writer has spent so many sleepless nights constructing everything from plot to dialogue to descriptive sequences that she naturally finds herself picking apart every single dramatic endeavour she comes across. I in no way think I could do any better than the original creators of the works mentioned, but I can’t help but feel I can see faults, faults which apparently no one else is aware of. I’m being a writing snob, and I don’t want to be, and I don’t mean to be, but I’m not sure I can ever view a creative work in the same way again. I can see the weld lines, the schematics. I can see the beams and the keystones and the foundation blocks that make up what everyone else views only as a beautiful, exciting construction. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but I’m glad I’ve finally gotten it out there.

I’ve cite films as the main sources of plot deconstruction because since going on my summer holidays my reading has been sparse. Once I get back into that… who knows what will happen? I think I may need to seek treatment, before I do something horrific like try to dissect and defame the apparent total lack of motive behind Shakespeare’s Iago in Othello

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Don’t Write What You Know

Write what you love! If you can do both in one story then nice one. It seems that writers are often counselled to pick subjects they have personal experience of. This is sound advice, because when the going gets tough (and it does) being able to fall back on situations you’ve actually been in or have knowledge of can be the difference between make or break. It’s also generally accepted that covering a topic you have an intimate understanding of will shine through in your writing and make it all the stronger.

All well and good, but here’s the conundrum – what if you really want to write about something that isn’t “what you know.” Now, a scientist will be well placed to add loads of delicious titbits to his sci-fi novel, but even NASA’s brightest couldn’t claim that exploring the fauna of an alien planet is a topic they have personal experience of. There are many, many novels, probably a majority, where it’s just not possible that the authors “wrote what they know.”

I was struck by this fact yesterday as I dug into the last 10,000 words of my current project, a historical fiction piece carrying the provisional title Covenanted. At long last, I’d reached the book’s one and only battle scene (the 1639 clash at Aberdeen’s Brig O’ Dee in case you were wondering, and I know you weren’t but that doesn’t matter. Spread the history love!). Now, I’ve never served and I’ve never time-travelled, so for me to claim I had any kind of experience in 17th century warfare would be a tad facetious. And all the research in the world doesn’t make up for first-hand knowledge, does it?

But I wasn’t in the slightest bit worried as I ploughed into the Covenanter’s bloody storming of the bridge yesterday, for the simple reason that I was writing what I love. I grew up on the novels of Bernard Cornwell and Dan Abnett, on the mythical battles of King Arthur, and on the stories of my own ex-Army father. Writing combat action scenes is just about in my blood. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t there – if it was pacey, punchy and a bit gritty, I knew I’d nailed the spirit of the thing.

Which brings me onto the salient point of this post. The research doesn’t matter. The knowledge doesn’t matter. The writing matters. That’s why you’re a WRITER. Get that right and you’ve done enough. Focus on telling the story and don’t worry about which way the wind was really blowing on the day, unless that’s part of the story! Write what you know but, when in doubt, always write what you love.

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