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Monday, 8 September 2014

Creative Writing: Self-Help And Suggestions...

View From The Barrow Wake by B.R.Marshall
If you want to write a best seller, self-help and sex are the subjects to get you the highest sales. Think of all the books on dieting that'll hit the shelves to coincide with our New Year Resolutions in January 2015, or the sales figures of Fifty Shades Of Grey.

Whatever your book is about, how are you going to get it written? You'll need imagination and determination, but it helps to have some encouragement along the way, too. This is where self-help and community action join forces.

I wrote here about how the Marcher Chapter of the Romantic Novelists' Association held a creative writing workshop back in the spring. We each submitted ten pages of our work in advance. Then we all made notes on everyone else's work, and presented them on the day.

I found the experience of having other writers assess my work really helpful. After all, they're keen readers, too, and that's exactly the audience I want to entertain.  After a day spent talking about nothing but the craft of writing, we all went home after that workshop with lots of inspiration.

Along with everyone else, I was encouraged to finish the work I'd showcased. You can read an extract from The Survivors' Club here. Our workshop that day was the final push I needed to finish the whole book. After a final polish, it was packed off to the publisher. Everyone else arrived at our next meeting with similar stories. Nobody wanted to be the one to confess they hadn't done anything more with their project!

The need for advice, and a spur to turn it into action, are prime reasons to join a local group. The online writing community is great, but sometimes it's good to get out from behind your screen and meet other people face-to-face. If there isn't a writing group in your area already, why not start one yourself? It's got the potential to be much more productive that a simple book club, although there's nothing to stop you combining the two. All writers are readers, and you might encourage other people to pick up their pens. That's how fan fiction began, after all. You can cheer each other up when the going is tough, and cheer each other on when it's going well. All it takes is somewhere to meet. Plenty of tea and cake always helps the creative process, but that's optional!

If you want your meetings to be productive as well as sociable you need a good chairman (or chairwoman) to keep meetings on topic, and make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. Criticism should always be constructive, and try and keep to the ratio of three stars to every black hole–that is, highlight three times more good points than you give suggestions for improvement. It keeps meetings upbeat. That way, you all go home feeling your work has been praised more than it's been criticised. It makes everyone feel more confident about tackling the suggested revisions.

Do you belong to a writers' group or book club? What's the most useful piece of information you've been given?


Friday, 5 September 2014

The Archers: This Time It's Personal...

You're In The Country Now...
My blogs on the state of BBC Radio 4's long-running serial, The Archers, have excited a lot of interest. The programme used to be a few minutes of easy listening for me each weekday evening and for a longer stretch each Sunday, but not any more. That's why I came up with a few suggestions for what may–or may not be– improvement, depending on your point of view.

You can see what some other readers had to say about my previous blogs here. No less a person than Alison Graham, columnist for The Radio Times, also weighed in with this comment on Twitter which I'm reproducing here in full:

Your suggestion that TA will be scrapped is absurd - why would R4 dump its biggest drama? And plots about dog theft? Really?

I didn't have time to craft a reply succinct enough for Twitter. However, if Ms Graham reads this post, my original aim in blogging about The Archers was to stave off any possible plans to scrap it–however unlikely–by acting in advance. I mean, look how popular and useful the BBC Gardening Message Boards were, and they were closed down!

Rather than simply moan about why I don't listen to the programme any more, I wanted to suggest ways to turn it back into the rural–based drama and entertainment I used to enjoy. Part of this enjoyment stemmed from the unique feel of The Archers. It  was different from all the urban-based soaps, on TV. To my mind it's become a clone of those other programmes and has suffered as a result. Other opinions are available, by the way. This blog is a purely personal rant.

For example, take Jill Archer. A brilliant cook, homemaker, mother and beekeeper, she was always one of my favourite characters. I'm younger than Jill's daughter Shula, yet while I need the help of a big, strong, ruggedly-handsome chap to help me with the honey harvest each year, 80-something Jill is suddenly throwing herself into a difficult calving. I may be wrong, but I don't remember her having either the time, strength or inclination to offer much more than tea and sympathy to her farmer husband Phil when she was of an age to give hands-on help

Here's my idea for a storyline for Jill.  It's relevant to contemporary country living, without alienating urban listeners.

Jill is being helped with the honey harvest by another cast member and one or other of them gets stung.  The victim goes into anaphylactic shock. The notorious lack of a good mobile signal in the countryside (rarely if ever mentioned on The Archers) could make this serious situation fatal. If that storyline's too scary, how about Jill reluctantly deciding the active side of beekeeping is too much for her?  She starts working on the theory side instead. Google the dread word "modules" and you'll find they take a lot of study. That will bring in the lack of further education provision in many rural areas, reduced library services and the truly cr*ppy Broadband speeds most of us out in the sticks have to endure. In the meantime, she can act as a mentor to the next generation of beekeepers, while they do the heavy/awkward work for her. All that would be completely in character for Jill, IMHO.  These ideas are too late for this year, but they'd be something to consider for the future.

A word of warning though, Scriptwriters. Whatever storyline you're working on at the moment, please, please, please don't ram it down our throats every day for a month then drop it without another mention. The huge snowball of costs incurred by the-wedding-that-never-was is a famous example of this, but there are plenty of others. I'd cite that Mr Tod and Jemima Puddleduck of Ambridge, Rob and Helen, but you've come back to that storyline recently. Great–I can't wait to see how that turns out!

I think weaving any story-strand in and out for weeks and months is better than dropping in huge lumps at one time, like clay onto a wheel.

 What's your opinion?


Friday, 29 August 2014

It's The Question Every Woman Asks Herself...

By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Evan-Amos
...when she can't get pregnant. Why her and not me?

There are expectant mothers everywhere you look. Believe me, I know. My first baby didn’t arrive until I’d been married for nearly ten years. It's a painful subject, and one that splits opinion straight down the middle. Clare Rayner the agony aunt said most of her mail began with either the words; "I'm desperate for a baby", or "I'm in trouble, and I don't want to be."

These two problems have been around for as long as there have been people to suffer from them. There was proof of this in Dr Suzannah Lipscomb's recent TV documentary about the affair and later marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

As a young girl, Anne Boleyn was lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude of France. Claude married into the French royal family at the age of fourteen. Her next years were spent in an endless round of pregnancy and childbirth, and she died at the age of twenty-four. 

In contrast, Anne Boleyn turned out to be anything but a baby-machine. Miscarriages and still-births couldn’t satisfy King Henry VIII's desire for a son. The unhappy couple must have asked themselves over and over again why a frail, joyless girl like Claude could have created a family so easily. Despite all their glamorous advantages in life, Henry and Anne never managed to produce the male heir England wanted. Anne was only survived by one child–a little girl, who eventually became Queen Elizabeth I. Henry never had a legitimate son until he married Jane Seymour. 

Those are the facts, but while watching the TV documentary I was struck by an idea for the perfect plot-twist for a novel. Who says television isn’t educational? When a man marries his mistress he creates a vacancy. When a high-flying woman marries the top man, she stirs up a conflict. With everyone asking when they're going to start a family, the pressure can only increase...

You can follow the progress of my new novel by signing up for my newsletter. Email me at christinahollis(at)hotmail.co.uk, putting the word “Updates” in the subject line, and I’ll send you a seasonal recipe as a thank-you.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

More About The Archers...

Mustardland Redux?
Lots of people have said how they agreed with my previous post about BBC Radio 4's The Archers, Missed! You can read that here. Long story short, my family started listening to this Everyday Story of Country Folk (!),  as it was originally subtitled, with Episode One. I don't know anyone who listens that regularly any more. I'm disappointed at the way The Archers has gone downhill recently, so this post suggest a remedy.

I used to listen to The Archers every evening, sometimes its lunchtime repeat too, and always the omnibus on Sundays. Now, like thousands of other people, I lurk on The Archers message boards instead. I keep trying to pick up my listening habit again, but so far I've had no luck. In my opinion the programme's no longer worth it. That makes me sad.

The Archers began as thinly-disguised information for farmers and growers. Over the years the preachy part reduced, and it became a  few minutes of easy listening at the end of the working day.  Admittedly in the past, some of it was laughable (Walter's elephant, and the Great Ambridge Train Robbery) but good scripts and careful research meant listeners took the rough with the smooth. If you got fed up with one story line, it didn't matter. You loved, identified with or enjoyed disliking the characters, rather than the plot. It was no hardship to shut your ears to the bits you didn't like, and listen out for the rest.

Now it's all change. Character-driven entertainment has now become plot-centred soap-opera. Ok, so the words "An Everyday Story of Country Folk" is too old-fashioned, but "Essential Drama From The Heart Of The Country" means Eastenders-on-Am is here to stay. Believe me, that's NOT a good thing.

In this house, suspension of disbelief has been replaced by ridicule. Rural churches aren't full every week, with thousands raised for repairs within months. Children (especially babies, and/or those with Down's Syndrome) don't disappear for months on end without even being mentioned in conversation. Festivals aren't organised on a whim to bolster failing finances. To get people to pay decent money to attend them, you need class acts. To try and persuade us either Jolene or Fallon have ever been paid to sing like that is not simply beyond the realms of fantasy. It's an insult to our intelligence. Parachuting The Pet Shop Boys to save LoxFest at the last minute was beyond ridiculous.

I could go on, but it's too depressing. There are well-handled bits too, like Jack's decline, but they're far too thinly spread. Why don't the scriptwriters find the drama  in what is really happening in the countryside today? Why are country people so short of money and opportunity? How do you manage with a special needs child, miles from hospitals, and with infrequent public transport? What's happening to our sense of community? There are a lot of subjects out there to be explored. All it needs is vision, and sensitivity.

Warning - it's my belief that The Archers is being run down, and on purpose. The next stage will be constructive dismissal from the radio. I've had this suspicion for a while, but didn't like to voice it too loudly in case it speeded up the process. It's up to us, the listeners, to suggest something better.

Here's my contribution. Archers Team, please liaise with the people from Farming Today. Dramatising that would be far more interesting and engaging than The Archers has been for some time. In the last week or two, Farming Today has featured pieces on rural crime, specifically dog theft,  rural tourism, and an interview with the farmer who owns the land where the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered (NB. Scripties: I enjoyed that one on the day, and in omnibus. It's The Priceless Discovery That Keeps On Giving, IMO).

The Farming Today team find interesting, varied things to put on five days a week, every week. I hear it nearly each morning while doing early greenhouses. That programme is never predictable or stale. More importantly, it's often dramatic without being laughable. Come on, Archers Scriptwriting team! Make friends with Farming Today, and we'll flock* back to our once-dependable programme.

What do you think of that idea?  Have you got any suggestions for improving The Archers?

*See what I did there?

Monday, 18 August 2014

Research For Writing–The Painless Way...

Not Big Ned's Finest Hour
There's been a thread on the LinkedIn board for Historical Writers asking whether or not we do our own research. It's had dozens of replies and although I haven't read every one they all said the same thing as I did. Research is half the fun! When I was researching Lady Rascal, I was looking through a local newspaper archive for ideas and found the cautionary tale of a man in Georgian Bath who visited his brother, who happened to be eating his dinner.  Cheerfully offering a chunk from the roast, the host went to pass the carving knife. He dropped it, and slashed his femoral artery. The poor man was dead in minutes. From family visit to bloodbath...talk about truth being stranger than fiction.

I haven't written any historical fiction for a while. After listening to Carol McGrath and Pamela Hartshorne speak here, the idea of writing my own timeslip novel has been brewing in my mind. Silence and solitude helps me come up with ideas, so at this stage of research I spend long periods out in the greenhouses or garden. I didn't have much luck doing that this week though, as there were some brilliant history documentaries on TV.

First up was Michael Wood with Alfred of Wessex. The photography was stunning, and as always Michael Wood's enthusiasm for his subject draws you in then tugs you along until you're completely absorbed. It's always such a shame when his programmes end but good news–it's available online, with another episode on Tuesday, 19th August. See here for details

Then it was Dr. Susannah Lipscomb's Henry and Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History. I have two terrible confessions to make about this. I grew up in a staunchly White Rose household (Family Motto: Nos spoliatum :D) so Tudor-mania was something that happened to other people. The second shameful secret is that I only watched this because the guy playing Henry VIII (Jack Hawkins) bears an uncanny resemblance to the current Bishop of Tewkesbury. Well, in my overheated imagination, anyway. I didn't care for the presentation of this drama-documentary (apart from the bits with the Bishop of..sorry, King Henry in) but it sparked a great family discussion afterwards. That gave me several ideas for further research, which may or may not prove productive.

TV saved the absolute gem until last. If you haven't watched Dominic Smee's battlefield promotion from mild-mannered IT specialist to Last Real King of England (oops- a bit of "automatic typing" there by my father), then get a load of this. Nothing I can write could possibly do him justice, except to say if you see a guy walking around Tamworth with his underpants on the outside, then that'll be Dominic–the Superman of re-enactment societies everywhere.

So now it's over to you. Which historical period do you like reading about? The pre-and-post Battle of Hastings world of Michael Wood and Carol McGrath, the Tudor turbulence of writers like Phillippa Gregory, or England's very own Game of Thrones?

Friday, 8 August 2014

Three Top Tips On Characters and Readership

Power of Words by Antonio Litterio.jpg: Antonio Litterio derivative work: InverseHypercube
By Antonio Litterio
1. Make your readers care about your characters and what happens to them. Grab them on page one, and don’t let go. Your audience is hungry for action, whether it’s romance or drama. They want to escape from their everyday lives into a different reality.  Give them heroes and heroines they can relate to, and give those characters aspirations, a job to do and a journey to make, whether it’s real or metaphorical.

2. Let your characters grow and change through the course of your book. Make them interesting and multi-dimensional. Remember the words of Rudyard Kipling: “I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.” He trained as a journalist, although his verse hold true for fiction, too. “Why?”is the main man you want nagging away at your reader, urging them to turn the page to find out what happens, how and where, when and to whom (or "who to", if you're going for the popular vote).

3. If you’re determined to launch your writing on the public, make sure you aim in the right direction. Find out exactly what readers want, and give it to them. Nothing less (or more) will do. Writing for profit doesn’t work in the same way as producing meals for children. You can’t say; “you’ll have this, and like it.” or “how can you say you don’t like it if you’ve never tried?’ The purchasing reader has the right of ultimate veto. If you want to sell, fit your work to your audience.

This is an extract from my next release, You Can...Write a Book. To find out more, mail me at christinahollis(at)hotmail.co.uk, putting "Booklet 2014" in the subject line.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Politician Speaks Perfect Sense Shock!

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Leon_Panetta_given_tour_of_the_House_of_Lords.jpg
by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo
In order to make our* medal haul as impressive as our sporting venues at the London 2012 Olympics, the national steering committee adopted what Team Sky's Principal of Cycling Sir Dave Brailsford calls 'The Aggregation of Marginal Gains'.They looked at the gold-medal winning times at previous Olympics, and Team GB's times for the same events. The differences were so tiny I'd have put our shortfall down to bad luck on the day. According to Olympic committee member Lord Moynihan in his speech to Monmouth School last month, that's not how it works.

You have to look at every tiny detail of what every person does, from the athlete themselves to the person in charge of bio-security. If every system runs perfectly, fit and healthy athletes will reach the track/pool/course in perfect condition. Unstressed by delays and equipped with the latest scientifically-thought out kit and equipment, they'll be able to make the best of their perfect nutrition and training regimes to shave off the ten-thousandth of a second or centimetre which makes the difference between coming first and second.
A bit more effort, a lot more tomatoes!
The beauty of the aggregation of marginal gains is that you can apply the system to everything in life, not just sport (thank goodness). For example, I've grown good tomatoes for years but since hearing Lord Moynihan's speech I've improved the quality of them no end by scrutinising everything I do in the greenhouse, from hygiene to pruning.

Now I'm going to bring The Aggregation of Marginal Gains to my latest release, Jewel Under Siege by releasing a paperback version to complement the ebook already on sale here. I'll keep you updated on my progress on this blog, and you can subscribe to it by using the box on the top-right hand side of this page.

*This is egregious buddying-up on my part, as my PB for the 100 metres at school was 27.2 seconds so there'd be plenty of time for Asha Philip et al to cross the line, make the tea and cut the cake by the time I rolled in.