May and June have been busy, momentous even, and I’ve struggled to find time to write and update the blog. I did, however, snatch the time for a quick trip to the seaside; we are pretty much in the centre of the landmass of England, and the coast is a long drive in every direction, but we managed to get over to Felixstowe on the East coast during that blink-and-you-missed-it heat wave we had a few weekends ago.
I’ve also had a couple of pieces of flash fiction published recently; Uncle Cliffordat Fifty Word Stories and Conditional at 101 Fiction. As usual, both are inspired by real life events, although “Conditional” has a nasty whiff of wish-fulfilment! If you have the time, please grab a moment to visit these great flash fiction sites; I’m often inspired by the quality of the stories they feature.
I’ve also taken time, now a couple of months have gone by since its publication, to revisit The Battle of Watling Street, specifically to review how it reads to me, four or five months after I completed the last edits. I’m pleased with the result; the text is nice and tight, and I haven’t found any glaring historical anachronisms! I enjoy the characters and their voices, and I might be tempted to catch up with Dedo and Cata and follow their adventures after their escape from the destruction of Boudicca’s forces.
I’m currently working on the modern-day sequel to Street, but emboldened, I revisited my first novel-in-progress, And The Buntings Flew which is around 50% through; I’ve parked it for now so I can finish my Sci-Fi novella, but it means the most to me, and I wanted to have a read through to refresh my memory ready for me picking it up again towards the autumn.
It was a revelation – the story is still great, the characters and descriptions still grip, but I was so long-winded in writing the action and “doing” scenes; just moving characters around in their world would take pages, and it made a really tense story with high stakes drag at times.
Anecdote time; when I was first asked to take minutes in a meeting, many years ago, I captured pretty much every word uttered, and turned in a whopping ten-pager instead of the usual one or two sides of notes and actions – the writing in my draft for Buntings, particularly where characters are acting, going about their business and driving the plot, has similar style faults. My writing inexperience shines through.
I shouldn’t have been surprised – the experience of completing my first novella really helped in tightening up dialogue, action scenes and just getting characters from A to B, and the whole process has come under some scrutiny from beta readers for Watling Street, and the results are there to be read. I’m writing more tightly, and coming to the point – my words have lost their flab and have muscle, exactly the result you expect from training and lots of practice. The good news is that I can sweep through the slow sections in “Buntings” and trim them considerably with relatively little pain; the total word count will take a hit though!
Have you had a similar experience when revisiting your earlier writing, maybe an unfinished draft you’ve picked up again recently?
It’s nearly May, and as well as hopes for warmer (or at least consistent) weather, my thoughts have turned to murder mysteries and crime; May 1st – 7th is Mystery Week on Goodreads, and I’m taking part this year!
Goodreads have organised a raft of activities for mystery writers and readers between the 1st and 7th of May; use hashtag #MysteryWeek to search for new stories on social media, including the five sentence mystery feature; below is my offering, which you can also find listed on my Goodreads writing page; I’ve also answered an Ask the Author question on Goodreads that specifically relates to #Mystery week; links to all of these below the story!
In my five (very long) sentence story, my mind took fancy with the revenge motif, but some of the incidents in this story are based on a real life tragedy and also figure in my upcoming novel And the Buntings Flew, which constant readers will know is set in 1970’s Troubles-torn Northern Ireland.
THE HAND OF KANE
Barbs of rain flayed the skin from Napoleon’s Nose and lashed down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road, where the forensic team had finished off and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra:
“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle” – the young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag; one glimpse of the dead man’s right hand was enough, sloughed of skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones, while the rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple;
“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard round his neck”; he waved his arm along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.
“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied; “surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit – come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”
The port authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan:
“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water – the body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties, the trajectory was clear to all who saw his body; he’d leapt from the ferry, but not the one currently in dock; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, since the last ferry had docked – there was some connection between these two deaths, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.
Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust; he had suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car, but it was the body by the ferry that told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, and an exile from Norn Iron for forty years; the appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out; door to door in the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise; Jimmy never moved from his birthplace, revelling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now, when he had his own death sentence –
“But Sarge”, interrupted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs…” –
“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson, “my theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”
He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, still none the wiser:
Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast A pocket bible Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph; the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and a historical article on the myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster; shakily underlined in red felt tip was the following passage – “Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown – one contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.”
It’s January, dear reader, so of course, my thoughts turn to new beginnings, goals, and achievables; not for my fitness regime or healthy eating plan (recovering after a brief but brutal holiday tussle) but for my writing.
If you’ve read my last few posts you’ll know that 2016 wasn’t the most conducive year for my creative endeavours, but I’ve put that behind me; I want to achieve more this year, but I had a multiple choice of things I wanted to work on, both writing itself and tangential topics such as social media, this blog, etc.
In my day job (yep, I’m not actually a money-earning writer just yet), I’m a programme manager: I deal daily with forecasts, plans, deliverables, milestones and critical paths. For some reason, I haven’t properly applied this experience and knowledge to my writing, thinking maybe that my creative muse would frown on such quotidian tools to stimulate her.
But if I’m not writing simply for the pure creative pleasure of putting stories on a page, but with a goal of completing first drafts, editing them, and one day in the not-too-distant future looking forward to seeing them published, I need a plan, just as much as those projects do at work; arguably more so, because I don’t have the luxury of the systems, tools, and resources (people!) I have access to in my day job, to get the work done. This is all on me. I can use a bad personal year as an excuse for not feeling like writing, but I can’t claim to not have the tools to plan the best use of my time, to prioritise my tasks and to break down my target into less daunting, more manageable chunks or milestones.
What was going on with me was conflating some issues around my writing; the will to create a novel was something apart from my day job, in fact, it felt like its antithesis. I didn’t want to wear my project planning hat for my beautiful fiction writing; I trusted to my creativity to write. And it’s there, true enough, but so is real life and all the delays and distractions it brings. That’s why we have an annual plan at work, with prioritised projects, and a monthly tracker for how we are doing for each deliverable against our forecast, which is a dynamic thing and often needs to change.
This is just the same with my writing, which is seen by many as a tolerable eccentricity or hobby (maybe even by me, too?), so it loses out quite often in the daily press of stuff-that-needs-to-get-done. I needed some suggestions and guidance; cue a very timely webinar I listened to at the weekend from Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. Joanna is an author who is also very active blogging articles, video, and webinars about writing and creativity, publishing options and book marketing.
If you haven’t already checked it out, I urge you to have a read of the Creative Penn site, as it’s a real treasure trove of ideas, suggestions, and content to boost your writing time with tangible suggestions. For example, I got the idea to create Pinterestboards for my works in progress from Joanna; it’s a great idea and not only to publicise your writing; it aids me in visualising locations, themes and period details for my works.
The webinar I listened to was Plan To Achieve Your Creative Goals in 2017and although honestly none of the ideas were new to me, Joanna’s simple writing goals plan really inspired me to sit down and come up with the following:
A spreadsheet for each novel-in-progress where I calculate how many words I have to write weekly to hit my first draft target date; breaking it down made it seem much more achievable and structured, and I now have a (really simple!) weekly schedule, as suggested by Joanna.
The Spreadsheet Plan, Schedule, and Tracker
Screenshots of my writing schedule for The Bondage of The Soil below. Because I enjoy using spreadsheets, all I have to manually update on this file is the number of words I’ve written in the “weekly summary” tab; this then updates the “Calculations to complete first draft” tab, thus easily giving me a simple and powerful means of visually tracking my progress, and measuring if my word count is bringing the target first draft date closer or further away.
I’ve set two of these files up, one for each of my works in progress that will be my big-rock projects this year. Which leads me onto…
The Writing Contract: Big Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand for 2017
I’m sure many of us are already aware of the Big rock, pebbles and sandanalogy, that makes an important point about stuff like time management, planning, not getting overwhelmed and prioritising the big stuff (big rocks) from the medium and smaller priorities (pebbles and sand).
Joanna Penn used this analogy in the above webinar, proposing that we need a jar for our creative endeavours for the year; the big rocks being the one or two Priority One projects that you really want to progress or complete; the medium pebbles being other bits you plan to do that aren’t as important, while the sand is the smaller stuff that can wait, and should be done if there’s any time left over. When I was looking for some pictures online I found one that added another layer; water, meaning those things that just don’t matter, as they will flow into, then out of your jar of priorities. I liked these ideas and sat down to create what I call my 2017 writing contract. The picture at the top of this post is a screenshot of the first page; I created this contract as a presentation so I can print it off and always have a copy to hand. It also makes the whole thing seem more professional!
The last element for me was visualising and writing down the critical path to achieving these big rocks (you can do the same for your pebbles and sand but I want to concentrate on my big goals) -for me the critical path is very simple; to complete a first draft of one of my novels by the end of August this year I have to write so many words a week; if you scroll back up a bit you’ll see that visualised in my writing tracker and schedule, and if I stay on target that’s not a big number!
This great exercise only took me a few hours, yet it brought renewed and clarified focus to my writing goals for 2017, and the concrete things I have to do (and refrain from doing) to achieve them. Bringing some structure to the goals helps me visualise them, and provides a powerful tool to measure my progress and keep me on track.
If you think that either of these tools would help you define and plan for your writing goals, please feel free to get in touch and I’ll be happy to send you a copy; my 2017 writing inspirational gift to you!
I’ve been working on a Christmas post for the last few weeks – I didn’t finish it off in time (waste not, want not, it’s saved in my drafts and may be recycled for Christmas 2017), but I’ve been thinking about the essence of what I was trying to say in that post.
2016 was a challenging year, it felt, for nearly everyone, and although that feeling was exacerbated by the plethora of too-soon celebrity deaths (David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Lemmy and Rick Parfitt, thank you for the music), I do think it was a year of abnormal troubles for many. I wasn’t immune, and I struggled with some fairly momentous family issues; they haven’t gone away completely, but in 2017 I look forward to a new year with hope; I also struggle with extending that hope to the wider world, but it’s vital not to give up hoping for a better world, even in the face of the awful, latest atrocity in Istanbul on that dawning day of the New Year; that’s about the only thing I concurred with the priests and the nuns at my Catholic secondary school – the loss of hope, despair, is the only sin.
Getting back to my doomed Christmas post, I can distill what I wanted to say just as well here, in a New Year post; what I miss about Christmases past, and what gives me hope for Christmases and New Year’s in the future is people, good memories, kindness and the hope that I can and will make a difference for the better in this world, through my actions and hopefully through my writing, even if only in my own local sphere.
I may miss my parents and family and friends no longer with me, or estranged for whatever reason, but I am fortunate to have many more good people around me and to be in a position to follow (if only in my own time) my passion, which is to write; I have hope, and an ambition that I will work hard to finish at least one manuscript this year, and press on to publication, and I have the ability to change the world for the better, or at least to not make it worse. For years I’ve worked hard to be green and environmentally friendly in as many ways as possible, and to spread this message, long before it had the (rightful) exposure it now does; now more than ever we need to start with ourselves, our family, our house, our neighborhood and ask, what can I do, me, myself and I, to make a positive difference?
So, dear constant reader, to wrap up this brief, slightly preachy, but well-intentioned post, I’d like to wish you all a very happy, successful and creative New Year; take care, of yourselves and each other, and lastly I look forward to enjoying more of your creative labours, some of which have brought me such joy as has lightened my darkest days of 2016.
I’ve had a tumultuous couple of months, and my writing has suffered; in fact my output nose-dived to zero. I keenly feel the truth of the (probably apocryphal) Chinese curse of living through interesting times. You may note, dear reader, the lack of any posts on here since July, but my hiatus is hopefully over, and I’m able to concentrate once more on the only thing that really matters.
In the meantime I’ve kept my hand in by reading and catching up on some recommended podcast listening; I’m currently working my way through the excellent HP Podcraft.com podcast, a literary treasure trove of all things HPL, as well as some excellent readings of Lovecraft tales. And now we’re in October, what better time to read of witch-haunted Arkham and the evil cults that worshipped and called back to earth the Old Ones?
Talking of Halloween, John Xero’s 101fiction.com is open for submissions of 101 word micro fiction; the theme is “Hallowe’en or unlucky thirteen or just something dark and chilling” – head over there if drabbles are your thing, and keep your fingers crossed for me, I’ve just submitted an HPL-inspired tale!
Although I haven’t completed any serious writing for several months, I have written down a couple of short story ideas, and the plots for Buntings and Bondage have been simmering at the back of my head, so I hope to make quite a bit of progress on both drafts before year-end.
Last but not least on this brief round-up, I haven’t neglected my editorial duties at strippedlit500 – if you haven’t already read them , please take a look at the excellent short fiction I’m proud to present in Issue 2.
I’ve just returned from a three-day break to Northern Ireland; the trip was definitely a mix of pleasure and writing research – the first thing I did after checking in at the wonderful Europa Hotel (the most bombed hotel in Europe) was to head for the Belfast Central Library Newspaper archive.
And The Buntings Flew, the novel I’m half way through writing, is based in 1970s Northern Ireland, specifically, Belfast and those of you who have read my blog posts will know that it’s at least partly autobiographical, with a generous pinch of artistic licence.
My research at the newspaper archive bore some fruit, but this success was tinged with sadness and uncertainty; the Troubles left very few families untouched, and I now have to contemplate and investigate the new information I uncovered.
Despite any unease I felt while reading through the microfiches from 1975 and 76, they did offer, for a writer, a wonderful window on the past. I was particularly interested in the world news, and closer to home, the adverts; in 1975 the Northern Ireland government had members warning that if the UK voted to join the EEC (Common Market, and we did), that it would grow from a trade agreement to a federation of European states with a loss of UK sovereignty, which was a very topical read!
Some of the job adverts would be illegal today; some jobs called for “men”, “Christians”, and the jobs that females could apply for often called for “girls!” Such was life in the 1970s.On the plus side, a three-course meal with entertainment could be had from as little as £1.20 per head at a selection of Belfast hotels and restaurants!
I’ll be posting some more about some of the information I found in the archive library, but for now, I just wanted to post some pictures from our trip of the wonderful places to visit in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland (we confined ourselves to County Antrim on this trip.)
I’m also pleased to relate that I brought back lots of Thompsons Tea and vegetable roll, both Northern Irish treasures that I wrote about in my article lauding the Foods of Ulster!
This is just a quick night post to proudly announce that one of my flash fiction stories has been published by Richard Hearn at Paragraph Planet, a brilliant creative writing site that has published one 75-word story every day since 2008. I’m very pleased to have my story featured as the 27th March entry!
Please check the site out, it has an archive of all 1,600 plus stories published, as well as author interviews and bios.