Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Rise of the short story

Short stories are making a comeback. In 2010 there has been a significant rise in demand for the shorter work of fiction. Two of the books in the New York Times list "10 Best Books for 2010" are short story collections.

What is short?

140 characters. Whether a tweet or a social media update as fiction, is considered fiction is marginal. However, there is a growing demand for tweetbooks in Asia, where the plot is revealed, one tweet at a time.

Hint Fiction consists of a maximum of 25 lines, excluding the title. An anthology of hint fiction published in 2010 has been receiving a lot of press, most of favourable.

Flash fiction is usually around 300 - a maximum of 500 words. The challenge with this length is to produce a narrative rather than a sketch of a character or a situation.

Short stories range in length from 1500 word through to 10,000. Mostly they are 1500 to 3,000 words long, with a few going to 5,000.

Novellas come in at around 10,000 and go through to 40,000 words or thereabouts.

So why is there a rise in the demand for shorter fiction? One cause is technology and the increased accessibility of fiction on mobile and portable equipment. It may be something to do with reduced attention spans though this is not proven in the current adult population. New publishers are setting up new format businesses where readers can access shorter works of fiction, like Quick Reads who are one of the leaders. Old publishers are creating new imprints for the shorter work, Harlequin having been at the forefront of this since 2005.

Are your reading or writing shorter fiction? Why is that?

Monday, 13 December 2010

Reading ePub and PDF books

A few of my non-fiction books are available as ebooks - currently only in the Adobe ePub format. I hope to have them moved to include Kindle during 2011.  Anyhow, I do get quite a few questions about how to access and read these ebooks from people who have downloaded the ebook as it is cheaper, not realising they need to have a means by which to read it! The biggest issue comes from corporate customers whose organisations do not allow them to download the standard Adobe Digital Editions software - reminds me of the early days of Adobe Reader which many organisations banned... No doubt sense will eventually prevail.

I found a blog post by dearauthor which covers in excellent detail the shennigans involved in getting ePub and PDF onto various readers. If you have this problem then I recommend you take a look at the post.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Plot guidelines by Meg Gardiner

The Harper Collins Crime and Thriller Workshop today was excellent. One of my highlights was a session run by crime writer Meg Gardiner on hints and tips about plot. She has generously posted the outline of this session on her blog.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Sarah Dunant is my inspiration

Last week I experienced an epiphany about a novel I have in draft. Sarah Dunant was leading a workshop on voice. The discussion centred on her choice of 1st or 3rd person and present or past tense. I realised I need to test out a change of POV and a change in tense to solve a problem I had identified.

During the workshop we wrote from postcards - some of the pictures were hilarious. A testing task, of course most of us write from the POV with which we were most comfortable.  She then asked us to rewrite using the POV we had not used. The results were fascinating.

Sarah Dunant is my inspiration because of the way she uses superb research to tell the story of forgotten aspects of history, specifically 15th Century Italy. She has a point to make and makes it craftily. If history was like this when I was at school I would have chosen a different career path.

Her website  belongs to the 21st Century and includes videos, podcasts and a blog. I thoroughly recommend you explore it (and buy the books!)

Monday, 15 November 2010

If writing is about communication why are you in your garret?

I am less convinced that 21st Century writer can model themselves on 19th century or even 20th century writing process. The image of the author tucked up in their garret, burning candles until the early morning as they sweat over a longhand script feels as outmoded as the image of monks at their desks illuminating manuscripts. In 2010 we have digital cameras, laptops and the Internet, online discussion forums and ebook readers.

Every writer has their own habits for success. My point is the garret-habit is so alienating a writer may become disconnected from the real world of writing and publishing. Finding time to connect and learn from other writers and publishers, to keep up with the trends, to get out and talk about your writing, to write blogs, tweet about your work - all of this is important. The professional writer is someone who can write well, understands modern publishing and is prepared to be the (modern) salesperson for their work, before, during and after publication.

New technology is not the most important aspect to writing and publishing. However, few publishers, let along writers, would have forecast the exponential rise of ebook use in the last twelve months.

I suspect by the time some writers finish the novel they are working on (longhand or on the laptop) they will look out of the window of their garret to find the world is a very different place and their handiwork no longer suitable.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Short Story published in Sister:A Sporadic Literary Magazine

I think we need a new verb to replace "to publish". The Internet and associated technology means anyone can publish in the dictionary definition of "bring to the attention of, announce". "Publish" also means to prepare and issue material for public distribution or sale. Some definitions specify that publish is about printed works. So I am publishing in this blog and I also publish printed materials for public consumption.

However, there is a completely different feeling, for which I haven't found the verb, when your work is published by someone else. There's something so satisfying about endorsement by others, regardless of whether the public reads what you've produced or whether you make any money from it.

If you have a verb for this type of "publish" then please let me know.

My short story, "Dark Diamonds" is in the November 2010 edition of Sister; A sporadic Literary Magazine.  The story came out of an exercise in writing like Joseph Conrad after reading "Heart of Darkness". I'm finding the exercises "write like..." to be stretching and at times uncomfortable. I would not usually write like Conrad though I am thrilled the short story is published.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Writing without speech marks

Kate Clanchy ran an excellent workshop last week. One of the exercises was to write without using speech marks. The aim was to test how it enables a more rapid pace. We also played with switching tense.  This is the piece I wrote during the session which we all started with "In my mind...":

In my mind my father says that’s not the way to do it.

I say that’s the way I do it and he says if I do it that way the curtain will pull the rail down with its weight. I say, whatever, and leave a gap where he said the extra screw should go. He says he’s not responsible for this, and I say he’s never taken any responsibility for anything.

I would like to tell him he’s the one who’s left the gap, but if I do, he will say he’s just doing my bidding, and I will end up disagreeing with him and we will end up fighting again. If I keep this conversation going we’ll end up where we always do. He will leave the room in a huff and say it’s all my fault.

So I shout at the wall, ‘It’s all my fault.’

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Inspiration for historical fiction; 4 excellent resources

I swore I would never write historical fiction because of the amount of research involved, but he books of C.J. Sansom hooked me (I am waiting for my mother to finish the family copy of the latest, Heartstone). I was educated in South Africa so my knowledge of history has largely been about the Zulu Wars and the Great Trek. However, I've fallen in love with historical settings and with the complexity that characters in previous centuries are allowed to have as authors fictionalise events. And maybe I am enjoying the research phase of writing a bit too much...

There are a few select websites that when I use them I end up going entirely off track but throughly inspired with new ideas.

  1. The World Digital Library is exciting because it contains a growing amount of scans of original texts. The pictures, the maps and the manuscripts are compelling and every one has a story beside and inside them.  You can search bu place, time, topic, period and institution.
  2. The Old Bailey Online contains the proceedings of the trials in London from 1674 to 1913. It is impossible to read one page and not feel inspired to find out more and write the story behind the trial. The tags are interesting - try witches or "hung drawn quartered" ...
  3. If you have access to newspaper archives through a subscription or a University Library then there are vast collection going back many centuries.  I love the scanned versions of the newspaper achives for the advertisements as much as the stories.
  4. Instead of reading the clothing catalogues that come through your door, try the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalogue. It is the picture of the late nineteenth century in the USA, down to the tiniest detail. 

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Story behind "Undressing the Elephant"

Written six years after my first book about the spread of good practice in healthcare, I wanted to share more about my personal learning and experience than write another traditional business book.  I spent nearly a year gathering stories about why spread doesn't happen, why individuals and teams do not adopt obvious better practises, to discover that no-one would allow their work to be referenced as a 'failure', despite the fact we learn best from failure. So I chose to write this book in the 1st person and allow myself the room to share my personal thoughts. It took a year or so to plan and then I wrote the first draft in one sitting over two exhausting weeks. Editing took a few months after that. 

The stimulus to write the book came from attending a peaceful demonstration in Washington DC for the people of Darfur.  (George Clooney was billed to attend so I thought it would be a good use of a Sunday afternoon.) At that time around 200,00 had died in a difficult war over five years. While sitting on the grass I had the dawning realisation that the same number of Americans die each year from known medical error. Where was the demonstration about this? This put the event into perspective. I went back to my hotel room and wrote the first sentence, "This is my angry book".  With editing, this later calmed down to a more realistic, "This is my impatient book."

The book is a bit of a crossover. It is mostly narrative ,with some bullet points for the impatient and although non-fiction, there is an element of creativity in the way the stories are retold. So it may be part-creative-narrative-non-fiction. [shrug shoulders]

The book continues to be a bestseller in its niche and will be available in Danish in October 2010

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Bernadine Evaristo and verse

 I found the talk and workshop given by Bernadine Evaristo at Oxford Brookes on Thursday night incredibly inspiring. Her authoring plaudits are significant and she was generous in her advice, thoughts and understanding of the creative process.

The genre of verse novel or narrative verse had passed me by but I am now sufficiently intrigued to check it out in more depth. She read from her book Lara (Bloodaxe) and explained how she ended up writing in verse after an aborted attempt at a prose version. The workshop session was focused on character and she demonstrated how characters can be brought to life with  a few, carefully chosen words. I liked the economy of verse and the way each word matters. The medium also enables the rhythm and pace of each character.

I think I might have a go.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Why the Google Instant "Blacklist of Words" matters for your book title

Whether we like it or not, Google and other search engines dominate our experience of the web. Until the semantic web is a reality or other significant advances are made in how we search for and find information and products on the Internet, we are subject to the mindsets and rules of others.

Google Instant is a recent function where the search engine uses smart algorithms to predict what it is you are searching for. Mostly this is useful.  However, there is a blacklist of certain words which when typed, halt the instant search function.  Why does this matter for book titles? If your book title starts with a blacklisted word then Google Instant is turned off as soon as it works out what you're typing. No suggestions are offered. This means a potential reader or purchaser need to know the exact name of your book to find it.  This limitation doesn't happen on booksellers' online pages - at the moment.

Test out the following on Google search:

  • what happens when you search for Cathy Yardley's book, Ravish: The Awakening of Sleeping Beauty
  • any book on the topic of lesbian issues; fiction or otherwise

I can see what Google is trying to achieve by avoiding inappropriate search suggestions for any children on line. However, there are wider implications not only for Google Instant but also for their SafeSearch option.  Did you know potentially offensive (to Google) pages are removed from the initial search options once enter is hit?

If you are researching topics where the words may be blacklisted you can get round this by using smart searching terms, like using quotes to search for exact phrases ("catcher in the rye") or being more clear about what to include and exclude in the search (catcher+rye -baseball -farm).

In the meantime, choosing a book title where the first word is not on a search blacklist may be a good sales and marketing strategy.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Knowing your eggcorn from your acorn

Photo from www.ancienthistory.about.com
The literary web is awash with discussion about Sarah Palin's use of refudiate, a new word she invented covering both refute and repudiate. Making up words is akin to spelling existing words incorrectly. Eggcorns are those words which are spelt like they sound (blame phonetic language learning at school) and where they become common use.

elk for ilk
youthamism for euphemism
impremature for imprimatur
cacoughany for cacophony
waver for waiver

The Eggcorn Database records 630 eggcorns...

So let's see how many eggcorns I can get into a sentence:

'A cacoughany of dispair greeted the politician who in her youthemism  refudiated the possibility of her words being impremature.'

Friday, 17 September 2010

What is an ebook?

If the question "What is an ebook?" came from my mother I would be surprised as she knows what one is. When I was asked the question by a librarian, I was stunned.

I was going to write a post describing what an ebook is and decided not to as the Internet is full of information.  Just use your search engine and ask your question.

What? You don't know what a search engine is.


Friday, 10 September 2010

I've started ... so... oh dear, when will I finish?

I do have an excellent digital filing system. The disadvantage is the incomplete writing projects are neatly arranged, in date order. Ten years of starting and not finishing is languishing on my hard drive. Many of these projects are short stories or small pieces of writing that I am hoping one day will morph into something more useful.  It's not that I don't produce completed writing - I do, and lots of it. I'm just feeling a bit guilty about the things that got started and then faded away.

Rather than list out all the reasons why there are so many loose ends, I have written myself a 5 point mantra to help me focus on getting to the end of a variety of writing projects.

  1. Prioritise which two writing projects are the best ones to complete
  2. Keep the new ideas in the writing journal before starting them as a project
  3. Curb my perfectionism; better to complete a draft than get stuck eternally on the beauty of the second paragraph
  4. Test out setting aside a whole day to write an article or story, rather than do it in fits and starts. End the day with completed draft
  5. Promise myself not to go surfing (Internet or on the sea) until a committed project has been completed
So let's see these ideas help me marshal some early starters into completed works.

(Photo: www.mylongwalk.com)

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Man Booker Prize 2010 iPhone App review

The Man Booker Prize 2010 is the first literary prize to launch an iPhone app.

Installing on an iPhone 4 was quick from the Apple app store. No registration  is required.

The key features are:

  • list of the long listed books (obviously...) and this list will be automatically updated when the short list is announced (7th September)
  • Each book has 
    • thumbnail of the book
    • short synopsis
    • excerpt
    • author's biography
    • audio extract
    • button to buy which conveniently does not go to only one online store; there is you local bookstore (uses the GPS function), Amazon, Foyles, lay, Waterstones, WH Smith
    • two options which look like they will be available later: interview and video
  • List and details of the judges with a short biography
  • Bookshops option which takes you to a map and based on your location will find one nearby
  • Archive of all the Booker Prizes back to 1969 which is a really useful reminder of not only the winners but those who nearly made it
  • Page each for information about the Man Group plc sponsors and about the Booker Prize itself
If you want to be the first to know about news on each stage of the prize process then turn on Push Notifications.

This app scores highly in my works-well-for-dummies rating as it is designed for the user rather than the geek, has excellent content and uses the iphone fancy features in a way that is does not deter from the topic of the app.

The Man Booker Prize winner for 2010 will be announced on 12th October.

Booker Longlist 2010: What point of view POV are they written in?

In a fairly non-scientific piece of research I looked at a sample of each of the thirteen long listed books for the 2010 Man Booker Prize to see what point of view they are written in. Specifically I was checking to see how many are in the 1st person.

It's common knowledge that agents and publishers don't like the 1st person. Yet on a similar "review" process in a bookshop in Canada (Montreal, June 2010) I found seven out of ten novels on the ranked bestseller shelf were in the 1st person. Are the readers voting with their pockets for the more intimate 1st person?

I found two of the Man Booker Longlist to be in the 1st person

  1. Room by Emma Donaghue
  2. Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
It will be interesting if these make it on the short list.  More interesting if one of them wins.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Lux Theatre Production 1945

Audiobooks are a useful way to read while you cook or garden. Rather than pay iTunes for the unabridged audiobook on Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, I downloaded the free radio dramatisation of the movie of the same name starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.

It is a fabulous recording and worth listening to if only for the 1945 advertisements for Lux soap that begin and end the major scenes. I'll still need to read the book and will do so with the sound of two stars in my head as I do so.

This is part of the blurb on iTunes:

This radio dramatisation of the classic movie features Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman re-creating their Academy Award-nominated roles. It aired on February 19, 1945. The Lux Radio Theatre was one of radio's most popular series attracting Hollywood's top stars and boasting a lavish budget.

I've discovered all the recordings from Lux Radio Theatre are available online (not only on iTunes) so will work my way through them.

(Photo from www.antiqueradiomuseum.com)

Thursday, 2 September 2010

How to name a fictional character

About half way through the first draft of a novel based in South Africa in 1901 I felt my main character had the wrong name. On the one hand making the change in the document using "find/replace" was easy and on the other I was surprised at the impact of the change. Relationships in the book changed as a result and so did some other names. I'd like to avoid this happening so made a list of things to think about when naming fictional characters.

1. Be age and context appropriate
A forty year old Afrikaner woman in 1901 will have a name distinctively different from a twenty year old English woman from the Midlands in 2010.  I know this sounds obvious, however, I found out the hard way that some names are more contextual than others.

2. Be creative but not overly so
When I read books where all the characters are Jack, Jane, Andy, Mike, Lucy - type names I get lost. They are insufficiently distinctive. When I am presented with a novel containing a large number of first and surnames that are difficult to remember, or pronounce, then I end up exhausted. So for me it is a balance. I'm not convinced that sci-fi novel need a cast with completely unpronounceable names. For fun try out a random name generator.

3. Check how much the character makes the name and the name makes the character
Does Cosmo Baracchus grow into a different character than Ethel Jones? I think so.  My recent lesson is a character can outgrow their name.

4. The sound and colour of the name
How many syllables are there in the name? Is it soft or jarring in sound? Does it invoke a colour or other image?

5. Check the meaning and the translation into other languages
Most names have meanings and while I haven't made most of my character name choices using baby-naming dictionaries, I have checked there is no obvious dissonance between the name's meaning and the character's actions.

Monday, 30 August 2010

How long does it take to write a book?

My experience suggests for non-fiction the easy stage is the writing and the time-consuming stages are before and after. I've published eight non-fiction books in the last decade. Some have sold better than others but the investment into each one follows a similar pattern for me.

I have two shelves full of notebooks. There are nearly forty A4 wire-bound notebooks in which I keep all the written detritus of my working life; from telephone messages to notes of meetings through to scribblings and drawing about new ideas. When I do get an idea for a book if I go back through my notebooks I usually find that something was stirring long before I recognised it.

I generate long lists of ideas for books, papers, stories, scripts and poems. These are unstructured and often without context or anything that may guide their development. When an idea grabs hold of me more firmly I (a) start a box file in which I can collect any tangible papers etc and (b) I use Evernote as an online storage and organisation facility.

There are eleven box files in my office which have been gestating ideas for business books and novels for over three years, some as long as seven years. Their time has not yet come. When I do get focused on one idea then I will spend many months consciously researching it. This is true for both non-fiction and fiction. The novel I have recently completed writing took me six years to research; I swore never to write historical fiction because of the research required but the story kept nagging me.  Because of this long gestation time I try to keep a number of projects on the go.

For all my writing there seems to be a moment when the need to get the words down becomes so intense I have to get on with it. I think this is when the angle of the idea and the specific audience and reader comes to mind. When I know who I am writing for the task is clear. The decision to get started is usually quick and I commit to taking on the project.

After the years spent researching and mulling over ideas and themes, the writing comes as a playful relief. Getting two thirds of a draft on the computer is relatively straightforward and I have to be disciplined to reach the end. There are a fair few incomplete projects languishing on my computer... When on the go I aim to write  a minimum 1000 words a day as I know then I will complete the first draft within three months. Some days I hover at 250 words and on others the enthusiasm pushes me to 3,000. My bottom line is I write something every single day - even if it means turning on my laptop and writing one sentence only.

A draft is easy to write. I know for every month I spend on the first draft to plan for around three months to edit it. I've come to terms with the fact that editing is as much of the creative process as the first draft. Figuring when to stop editing is another matter and the more people who get involved, then the more editing needs to be done.

Second Editions
I'm at the stage with some of my books that they are coming round for the 2nd edition. After the delight or horror in discovering what I wrote ten years ago, editing has proven difficult. In some cases my thoughts have moved so far in ten years that I can't see how to update a work other than to ditch it and start again.  So I am working on how to do this.

Any thoughts on coping with editing for new editions will be appreciated.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Gibson's Zero History is, for me, unreadable

Photo from www.waterstones.com 

Waterstones kindly sent me a review copy of a new book due to be launched in September 2010.William Gibson is a well known author with books regularly on bestseller lists. He is also known as someone who influences academia, science, technology and the wider world around him.

I can count on one hand the number of books I can recall ever having to stop reading. If we discount the accidental purchase of a paranormal romance and a novel masquerading as a porn pamphlet then this review book is the first put-down for at least a decade for me.

I am finding the book too difficult to read for limited reward. Not a page goes by and I am fumbling for the dictionary or rereading sections. The first twenty pages have 15 - 36 commas per page, producing tortuous clause-filled sentences which are difficult to follow. The first twenty pages are filled with adjectives and adverbs, sometimes three per noun and verb. When I reached two sentences with no verb I gave up.  In comparison, James Joyce's Ulysses is an easy read.

My conclusions so far:

  • maybe this is an experimental genre which is going right over my head
  • possibly I am so entrenched in commercial and easy to read fiction that this is wasted on me
  • the agent, editor and publisher were too afraid to tell him it is unreadable
  • other reviewers have significantly more persistence than myself

The wonderful aspect of authorship and readership is there is room for all forms and functions of fiction. In this instance, however, William Gibson's Zero History is not for me.

Friday, 27 August 2010

List of weasel words I am trying to avoid in my writing

In 1981 while reading for an undergraduate degree in Linguistics at the Witwatersrand University in South Africa, I began a love affair with English quantifiers. The reason for finding words like some, many and more fascinating was because I was interested in how computers might understand them. How do you write a computer program so something sensible happens when you ask it to "Pass some biscuits" or "Move a few samples to the left side of the table"? That was 1981 and before the PC was invented so we thought about things like that then. (If you are interested, the answer involves an obscure logic and philosophical approach called Possible Worlds Logic.)

I am past the lustful stage of my affair with quantifiers and have definitely reached comfortable indifference. That was until I did some searches on my latest novel script. I think I now use quantifiers because I am too lazy to find a better word / description. I've set the MS Word dictionary not to accept words from my weasel list as a mechanism to make me take notice when I am using them.

The following are on my list of Weasel Words I am doing my best to avoid:


If you can spot which of the words in the list above are not quantifiers then make a note in the comment section of this post!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Booklist for MA Creative Writing Oxford Brookes Narrative Module

The primary texts for the MA Creative Writing Narrative module that I am about to start includes a number of reassuring classics as well as a few novels which I am sure will surprise me.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Joe Dunthorne, Submarine
James Joyce, Dubliners
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
Ernest Hemingway, For whom the Bell Tolls
John Irving, The World According to Garp
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Choosing a pen-name

After two years of prevarication and numerous hours of hilarity in testing potential pen names, I've decided to stick with my own name for my foray into fiction.

The analytical person in me made a list of the pros and cons which ended up fairly evenly balanced. I was persuaded by my heart which felt that a pen name would be dishonest. I've always been critical of the 'anonymous' bloggers whose hiding of their selves meant they behaved in ways they might not if their identity was known.

Why is my name a problem for me? Over the last decade I have published a number of healthcare business related books and run a successful training and consultancy company. The Internet is awash with references to my name which take you to aspects of my business related self. My long term web strategy has been successful in keeping my name at the top of the Google search page. How will my loyal business followers react when they discover I am writing fiction? Will they still employ me when they have read that sex scene in the novel?

It took me a while but I've eventually come to the conclusion that how my readers and clients react is their responsibility and not mine. I am only one person and I am looking forward to integrating my business life, writing life and home life into one Sarah Fraser.

In case I change my mind I am open to ideas for names. Feel free to leave your idea/s in the comments below!