And The Buntings Flew, Grammar, Language & Dialect, Reading and Books, Writing

And it started with “And”

“And it stoned me”
(Van Morrison, 1970)

The title of my novel in progress is And The Buntings Flew.

It’s a title I agonised over for a long time, so I’m not surprised when some people ask me, why does a self-confessed Grammar Prig have as the first word in the title of her first book, such a glaring example of bad grammar? As we were all taught at school, one should not use a coordinating conjunction to start a sentence. If you’d forgotten all about coordinating conjunctions, take heart, there’s only seven of them: and, but, or,nor, for, yet and so

It’s true that it would be unusual to use one of these words to start a sentence often, and definitely not if writing formally. Apart from anything else it would get boring very quickly. Don’t believe me? Take a quick read of the King James version of Genesis, Chapter 1. My CTRL-F search counted more than 100 uses of the word and; the age-old technique of listing out repetitions to aid learning also makes such writing rather heavy going, if not turgid, when read for entertainment.

I can’t say that messing with grammar conventions was the only reason I used and in this way, but it was definitely a contributing factor. If used sparingly, starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions evokes for me a slight remove from correct diction and formality, giving writing an informal, true to life and I think, a dynamic feel. 

For me the title is a way of dropping straight into the action, the lives of the characters, the history and natural surroundings I’m writing about in the novel. I want to evoke a sense of the reader stepping into that world and experiencing it first hand, in an everyday, matter of fact way, no matter how momentous the events described may be, to the characters or in history.

I did check to see if there were many written works with And as the first word of the title: I found a few, mainly poems: And Oh, That The Man I Am Might Cease To Be by D.H.Lawrence, and And there was a great calm by Thomas Hardy; suitably reassured, I decided I could follow in the footsteps of such literary heavyweights.

So, asks the reader (slipped another one in there for you!), tell me about the Van Morrison quote at the top of this article? Well, Van the Man is another poetic muse of mine, and this song is one of my all time favourites; my fellow Northern Irish singer-songwriter wrote And It Stoned Me about a semi-mystical event from his childhood in Northern Ireland, when a normal day in the life of a child was transformed, by a place and the people in it, into a time where time stood still, and the participants seemed in another dimension, if only for a short while.

So the title of And The Buntings Flew is also inspired by the song,  and its meaning, which are both sublime. I hope a little of that everyday real life transformative mysticism , just a little, rubs off onto And The Buntings Flew.

 

And The Buntings Flew, Reading and Books, Writing, Writing Tools

How Low Can You Go? Novels, Novellas and The Renaissance in Short and Micro Fiction

It had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!
(The Shrinking Man)

I’m starting to flex my writing muscles now! As well as working on my novel, And The Buntings Flew, the past few months have been increasingly creative for me; I’ve rediscovered the joy of writing short fiction. I have a couple of stories with magazines right now, and will post links if/when they’re published, but this has caused me to relearn what actually constitutes a “short story”.

When I was younger, the advice for budding writers was, avoid short stories – unless you were already a successful author, short stories simply weren’t something publishers were interested in, as they didn’t sell well. But recent years have seen a resurgence in the popularity of the short story; which is undoubtedly linked to new technology and possibly to our decreased attention spans.

The short story has more platforms than ever with which we can engage; reading War and Peace on our phone or tablet may not be an attractive proposition, and many readers may not wish to engage with 1,000 page epics, with today’s hectic lifestyle that has many tied 24-7 to a Blackberry or to work via emails, but the short story is more manageable in terms of time spent on mobile devices and in terms of attention span. They give us a “quick fix” of literature, in a quick fix, espresso age.

The rise in online platforms for both published and unpublished writers has also exploded, and more writing is “out there” – short stories provide the perfect taster to a writer’s works, and are a useful and easily sampled “try before you buy” for longer works.. Platforms such as Blogs, and latterly sites such as Smashwords,and  Amzon’s Kindle Singles, where authors post short stories from 99p or even in the case of Smashwords, for no charge, have transformed the genre.

So all of this is great news for people like me who enjoy writing and want to make their work quickly accessible, and also to build a reputation. Where I lagged behind was understanding the classification of fiction in terms of length, which have moved apace with the electronic revolution; when is a short story not a short story, but a piece of flash fiction, or a novelette, or even Twitfic?!

Discerning minds need to know, so I’ve listed below the main categories for fiction with some of my favourite examples; which ones do you prefer? It should be stressed however that although stories can be categorised by word length, this isn’t the whole story – the nature and depth of the story being told also determines where the story is most at home, category wise.

The Novel

The novel is generally recognised as being a work of fiction between 80,000 to 95,000 words; furthermore the novel is expected to reflect broad aspects of the human condition. So far so good, although there are broadly accepted variation by genre for the average novel length; for example commercial literary fiction and romance novels tend to be shorter than for example crime and historical fiction.  Literary Rejections has a good summary of these genre guidelines.

“The Hobbit” and “1984” are two of my favourite, typical length novels (80-95,000 words)

The Novella

I wasn’t aware how many of my favourite books were actually novellas until I was writing up this post: most authorities and literary awards define a novella as being between 17,500 and 40,000 words in length.  Based on this criterion, “Animal Farm”, “The Metamorphosis”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “A Clockwork Orange” are novellas. What these stories have in common, and what defines the novella is that they obviously explore more back story than a short story, but cannot develop themes and conflicts in as much detail as a full-blown novel.  For stories like my favourites listed above, I think the common factor is there is a single vision or message the author is relating, and the concentrated length of the novella delivers this message to us, undiluted by lengthy character development.

The Novelette

The novelette is the baby brother of the novella, or an overgrown short story, based on your viewpoint. Historically, novelettes tended to be seen as trivial stories, mainly romances, but there is now a recognised category for this work, particularly in the Science fiction genre. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America specifies that a novelette is a work between 7,500 and 17,500 words, and has a category for novelettes word lengths as part of its Nebula award. 

I admit, I’ve struggled to find any examples of novelettes that I’m familiar with – most fall between novella and short story; please comment if you can enlighten me!

The Short Story

The short story is generally agreed to be a work between  3000 – 7,500 words, although if flash fiction is generally considered to be from 300 – 1,00 words (see below), in theory the short story is any work between 1,000 and 7,500 words.  Think short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Roald Dahl, Stephen King and James Joyce’s “Dubliners” collection. Online Classics has a great list of 50 of the best short stories of all time you might like to check out.

Flash Fiction

Although the term “Flash Fiction” has relatively recent provenance, very short stories have been around for several thousand years – think Aesop’s Fables, from the first century BC. Flash fiction is a short-short story which still contains the main elements of a complete story, such as a protagonist, conflict, obstacles or complications, and some sort of resolution. In this way Flash fiction differs from a vignette,which tends to concentrate on a given slice of time or an impression of character, or setting.  Flash fiction also differs from the traditional short story in that the limitation on word lengths requires that some elements of the story are absent, or merely hinted at. As noted above the platform for flash fiction has widened enormously with the advent of online and mobile platforms.

I currently have two flash fiction stories submitted to online publications; they’re a great distraction from my longer novel, they flex different writing muscles and they’re a much quicker means to bring your writer’s voice to a wider audience. Which brings us to…..

Micro Fiction

I have to admit this was where I was lagging behind the times, but there are lots of great Blogs out there that helped bring me up to date;  Karen Woodward’s Three Kinds of Micro Fiction introduced me to the Drabble and the Twabble, neither of which I’d heard of before!

The Drabble

A drabble is generally held to be a story of around 100 words or less; the challenge clearly being to write something entertaining and engaging with such a tight restriction. Most prominent in the Drabble genre seems to be Sci-fi, Fantasy and Fan-fic; the Drabblecast on Twitter showcases typical drabble works. Drabble contests often consist not only of a word limit, but also a time constraint. Drablr.com is a site dedicated to publishing 100 word fiction pieces.

55 Fiction

This was another new one for me; a variant of the Drabble, 55 fiction is micro fiction, limited to no more than 55 words. There are fairly strict requirements for a piece of work to be considered 55 fiction in addition to the word count; the story must still contain a setting, at least one character, and an element of conflict and resolution. The title of the piece is usually restricted to no more than seven words. 

Twitfic/Nanofiction

My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!” (The Shrinking Man, Richard Matheson)

And so to the ultimate (so far) in micro fiction. Twitfic, or Nanofiction, refers to stories up to 140 characters; the limit for a single tweet. The need to make ourselves understood in such a small space has given rise to the Twitfic phenomenon; (tiny) bite size pieces of fiction. #twitfic throws up an array of micro fiction, as do many dedicated Twitter pages and websites – Daily Twitfic and Nanoisn.net are two good examples. I haven’t got to grips yet with using Twitter as a communication tool, much less as a story form, but I might have a go; watch this space!

Until we follow Scott Carey, the Incredible Shrinking Man, on his journey to zero, Twitfic/Nanofiction is the smallest category of fiction recognised, but I have no doubt we will see even more compact and bijou literature in the near future!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments; what’s your favourite form and length of fiction, and do you read (or write) Flash or Micro fiction?

And The Buntings Flew, Reading and Books, Writing

My Name Is? Character and Place Names in Literary Fiction

I was introduced early on to the importance of names in literary fiction, being a young fan of Dickens – nearly all of Dickens’ character names feel relevant, even if we can’t place our feelings about some of them.  Compeyson, Magwitch, Pumblechook, Orlick – these names are all from one novel, Great Expectations. Other memorable Dickens names include the sinister and monstrous Daniel Quilp,  downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit, stiff and paralysed Lord Dedlock, and one of my favourites, the memorably saucy Dick Swiveller, who is almost as naughty as Oliver Twist’s Charley Bates, otherwise frequently called Master Bates by Dickens!

Dickens’ character names are often memorable, but apart from sounding “right”, do they have thematic meaning? Nineteenth century literature seems to offer the most evidence for the use of thematically important naming conventions; Thackeray’s Vanity Fair offers us the plodding “anti hero”, Dobbin, the plain and meek Lady Jane Sheepshanks and the morally bankrupt Lord Steyne (pronounced “stain”?) Similarly Hardy gives us Angel Clare, a pure, harp playing man from a clerical family, while Charlotte Bronte names the family who wrong Jane Eyre, “Reed” – are they broken reeds, morally and physically? Jane’s saviours when she casts herself on the world, destitute, have the surname “St. John”.

Such examples seem to dwindle in twentieth and twenty first century literature. Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic romance, “Rebecca” is often mistakenly believed to be the name of the young narrator, new wife of Maxim de Winter, but Rebecca is actually the first Mrs. de Winter – we never learn the narrator’s name. As the novel is really about Rebecca, this seems fitting; the second Mrs. de Winter is nowhere near as formidable, (and maybe not as interesting either?), as her predecessor, and thus undeserving of a name?

I’ve previously professed my love of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; the Finch surname not only nods to the title, it is symbolically significant – both mockingbirds and finches are small or otherwise vulnerable, yet harmless birds. “Atticus” is probably derived from the famed Roman orator, Titus Pomponius Atticus, known for his just decisions, and friend to Marcus Tullius Cicero, another of Rome’s most renowned orators. Check out, if you haven’t already, two fantastic historical novels about Cicero by Robert Harris -“Imperiumand “Lustrum.” Likewise Calpurnia; the name is most associated with the wife of Julius Caesar, who tries to warn her husband,to prevent his murder.

In my novel And The Buntings Flew, I have used both character and place names symbolically and thematically; the name of the main character and narrator, Purdey, is short for Perdita, which means “lost one” in Latin, and is the name of the the heroine in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” – Perdita is born in a prison;  her father imprisoned her mother, believing her to be unfaithful. Some of these meanings apply symbolically and thematically in my novel. The buntings referred to in the title can refer both to a small bird, the Reed Bunting, which can be found living in marshes and other wetlands, including Belfast Lough, one of the settings in my novel. The other buntings referred to are the small flags which adorned many Loyalist and Nationalist areas of Belfast during the Troubles, the period in which the novel is written.  Look out for other bird character names peppered throughout my book – there are corrs, (a type of heron), jays, doves (Colm) and some which aren’t so obvious; keep an eye out for Sooty Sheerwater!

Lastly, and perhaps surprisingly, I have made reference to biblical stories and gospels for the names of several characters (surprising because I’m a lapsed Catholic atheist who leans towards Buddhism!). The first murderer, Cain, is referenced, as are the two disciples of Jesus who preached a gospel of forgiveness, and in whose gospels the Lord’s Prayer features. Forgiveness and our own trespasses and those of others are also key to my novel; the ethnic and sectarian divide at the heart of The Troubles, although not religious in nature, was broadly drawn along religious divides, so  Christian references felt appropriate.

I have also included one or two references to classical literature and to Irish legend, but I don’t want to give away all my secrets – if you read my book, please do let me know if you pick up on any more!

xx

And The Buntings Flew, Publishing and Self Publishing

And The Buntings Flew – Free excerpts from Chapter 1

IEBookcover‘ve created a taster PDF which I’m quite pleased with; it contains the synopsis and selected excerpts from chapter 1 of And The Buntings Flew.

Please do have a read and let me know what you think and if you would like to read more excerpts; more importantly, if you would buy the book!

And The Buntings Flew Excerpts Chapter 1

And The Buntings Flew, Publishing and Self Publishing, Reading and Books, Writing Tools

And The Buntings Flew… on Pinterest

I was reading author J.F. Penn’s newsletter today (check out her excellent site by the way!) and discovered how she uses Pinterest  to great effect by having boards for her upcoming novels pinned with pictures which provide tantalising hints to readers of where the stories will take them!

Without further ado I headed over to Pinterest, and have created a board with some pictures that convey the setting and subject matter of And The Buntings Flew, to give prospective readers a taste of what’s to come. I’d love to hear what you think of this idea, which I think is brilliant (it would never have occurred to me), and your thoughts on my fledgling board!

And The Buntings Flew

Who were the Black Irish, and what is their story? – IrishCentral.com

What a serendipitous find!

Who were the Black Irish, and what is their story? – IrishCentral.com.

elizapurcell_thumbI was browsing Irish Central the other day and came across this really interesting article on the source of the phrase “Black Irish” in relation to people of Irish ancestry with dark or tanned complexions, black hair and dark eyes.

I refer to the “Black Irish” colouring in my novel, as a mixed blessing – exotic, yet very different from the majority of Irish complexions, which tend to the very pale, with light coloured eyes and either fair, red or dark hair.

Several characters in And The Buntings Flew exhibit typical Black Irish colouring, as do I, and many of my family (check out my profile picture) – pictured above is my paternal grandmother who was a beautiful example of the Black Irish colouring.

Irish Central’s article provides a great introduction to the subject, so please have a read, as it gives some context to a phrase that might otherwise be misunderstood, as it is not one in common parlance.

And The Buntings Flew, Writing

Synopsis: And The Buntings Flew

This is an updated and trimmed version of the synopsis I wrote last year, which brings the novel straight into the action; I had previously considered starting the story a couple of years before the main events outlined in the synopsis, but that may need to be included in a prequel at a later date!

###

It is 1975, and shy, thoughtful eight-year-old Purdey (short for Perdita) is a mongrel – half Catholic, half Protestant. She loves to leave behind the painted kerbs, Union flags, and street murals of her Belfast home to visit the nearby shore of Belfast Lough, but her parents don’t take her often enough.  Her mother has told her stories of her own youth spent by the Antrim coast, and has promised to take her to see the birds this summer, both residents and migrants, that nest in the reeds and bushes of the mudflats and lagoons of the lough.

Purdey and her family’s lives are shattered that fateful summer when she is an unseen witness to what appears to be a terrorist attempt on her father’s life following a stand off with the IRA. His crime? He refuses to hand over his young Catholic assistant for “punishment” after an unspoken transgression. Unknown to anyone else, Purdey catches a glimpse of the uncovered face of one of the gunmen, and recognizes him.

Not long after, Purdey’s mother is also struck down by a catastrophic brain haemorrhage, leaving her comatose in the city hospital, deep in the Republican part of town where Protestants fear to tread.

With both her parents afflicted by misfortune, Purdey faces an overwhelming dilemma: tell the grown ups that she knows who shot and injured her father, or say nothing and live with the terrible knowledge. Either way, her life and the lives of those close to her are in danger.

The violence surrounding Purdey’s family and neighbours escalates, culminating in the senseless double murder of a pair of young Catholic brothers,  shocking even the battle weary Loyalist residents of Troubles torn Ulster.

Together with help from some unlikely allies, Purdey must find her way through the fear and hatred in her community, and the betrayals by those closest to her. All is not as it seems, and loyalty is no longer a word upon which anyone can rely, on either side of the political and religious divide.

Writing, Writing Tools

Why NaNoWriMo was a No No for me – quality, not quantity is my writing goal

NaNoWriMo is a fantastic concept for the budding novelist – the National Novel Writing Month which takes place annually in November saw more than 300,000 budding writers take up the challenge of writing a 50,000 novel in 30 days for the 2013 contest.

I signed up in 2013, like so many others thinking this would be a great vehicle, tool and inspiration to knock out my début novel, which has been kicking around in my head and on Word documents and spreadsheets, scattered and unfinished.  I made a valiant effort, but I failed miserably, and that failure took a while to overcome – what had meant to be a boost to my writing brought it to a temporary, but ignominious halt.

We often refer at work to the Five P’s of success: corny but accurate:

“Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance”

My initial white-hot frenzy of creativity lasted until I reached the part of my novel beyond which I hadn’t planned (not very far indeed as it turned out). I have written quickly and with a very sketchy plan before, but mainly for non-fiction articles, and writing fiction is a very different proposition indeed. My imagination floundered because I couldn’t see where the story was taking me and I had no idea how the novel would end. Unlike non-fiction, I couldn’t Google or Wiki myself out of this writing corner. I had set out with those same disjointed notes and ideas; what I needed wasn’t word count targets, but a well planned novel outline, plot and fleshed out characters with the end in sight, if only viewed from afar!

In this respect NaNoWriMo was very useful for me, although initially dispiriting. I still hadn’t progressed my novel, but I had learned that, just like at work, if I wanted to deliver a quality project, I had to prepare, research, plan and then and only then, deliver.

Throughout 2014 I pondered on my story, trying out different outcomes and story arcs, until towards the end of the year I had my initial plan, which I’ve since fleshed out into a comprehensive outline; more importantly I’ve started to knit together and write-up all those observations, character quirks and beautiful snippets of text, easier now because I have some bones on which to hang the words and ideas. My novel is now progressing at a steady pace, the early chapters captured and ready for beta readers very shortly!

It’s purely a personal preference but the NaNoWriMo experience for me was unpleasantly reminiscent of my cramming for my MBA; something I had to achieve, but with little enthusiasm and little heart; rather it was a memory and speed exercise. Writing is an entirely different activity, and I knew that the output I had from NaNoWriMo was little better than my exam cramming notes. I discarded what I had written, although I cherished the idea and vowed to devote to it the time it deserved.

I have carried a story within me that I must tell, and it deserved my best attention and efforts to help it be born, live and reach a wider audience, and to be the very best I could make it. Another work saying is apposite here – I often say, when asked to produce work to an unrealistic deadline (and what is more unrealistic than a quality novel of 50,000 words in 30 days?) “How would you like this to be done – quickly, or correctly?!”

If like me you struggled with NaNoWriMo, use it as a useful experience on your path to becoming a published author. I am sure that there are some writers out there who can produce a quality 50,000 word draft in a month, but many cannot, and how many of the classics were written to such a deadline? We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, and I took from NaNo a very useful lesson; that style of writing is not for me; more importantly it gave me some insight on what my style was. I’m not going to be a sausage machine writer, but with hard work, diligence, planning and commitment to my work I can produce the best work I have it in me to create.

I’d be very interested to hear your experiences of NaNoWriMo, good and bad, in the comments!

Writing, Writing Tools

Using what I know to write about what I know – Using spreadsheets as a tool in my writing

progress sheet

At work I may have many names unknown to me, but one I do know and revel in is “Excel Queen”. I just love spreadsheets; when used properly they have so many uses aside from bean counting and graphs.

Excel permeates every aspect of my life, probably because I am a list person, chart your progress person, and a someone who struggles with time and task management, it helps to note things down in a way that’s easy to sort and prioritise. Conditional formatting and sorting by colour are cool too!

So where’s the connection with writing a novel I hear you ask? I actually thought I was a bit odd, because I use Excel whenever I roll up my sleeves to do some writing. I have a master spreadsheet with tabs for the timeline, plot, a broad chapter summary, and handy character and place name lists (real and fictional).

What I didn’t consider was using a spreadsheet to track my overall progress, and it wasn’t until I Googled whether there were any other weirdos out there like me that I discovered that I’m not alone, and found some other great spreadsheet tools to aid my writing..

Jill Barville has used Excel to create a simple yet very effective Progress Report spreadsheet which tracks word count against weekly targets, and against the overall goal. I’ve used Jill’s template to create my own progress sheet, and it really incentivises me to see what percentage of my novel has been written up, and spurs me on to do more!

And The Buntings Flew, Writing

My First Novel Progress: And The Buntings Flew

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve written and publish a dozen or so non fiction (heath, well-being and spirituality) articles, but I decided a long time ago that I wanted to be a novelist. Wanting to be and getting on with it are very different things, and although I’ve been gathering material, carrying out research and messing about with names and plots for a long time, I hadn’t actually sat down with my laptop and written ANY of this story that I have carried around for at least two decades. Last year I committed to actually writing, and finishing the story that burned within me, but it was sporadic.

At the end of last year I had an epiphany; I was scared. Scared that this story wasn’t worth the telling, or more likely, that I could not tell it. It would be feeble, juvenile, leaden writing, boring, cringeworthy.

I sat me down and gave me a talking to. Lets make 2015 the year you write out this story, for better or worse. Write it down, edit, print it out, re-edit, have it beta read, publish or self publish.

So these posts will follow my journey this year. I have set myself a target – to write up my story as an 80-90,000 word novel, and have it ready to publish by the end of this year. The weekly word count isn’t a huge challenge: 1600 – 1700 words. What will challenge me is to see this through, to approach it as I do a project at work, bringing my planning and execution skills to bear on something I am wrangling from my own imagination and history.

Follow my progress here and the progress of my first novel, And The Buntings Flew, together with lessons learned, any new tools I discover to help new writers, and my successes and opportunities to improve. Join me on my journey!