Category Archives: Writing

Dystopia, and Other Maladies

The genesis of Novel Number One, The Butterfly & The Bull, involved a sandy shore on the Chesapeake Bay, a beach hut, and a man running down a ravine. The story grew from that image, extending backwards in time to a beginning and forwards to an end. Early on in the process, it developed a dystopian tinge. I needed a backdrop to explain why the man was on the run. The dissolution of democratic, financial and social structures worked well.

In Novel Number Two, I used the same cast of characters, and employed stage 2 dystopia (on a ten point scale). It seemed like a logical progression.

When I began Novel Number Three, I started with a clean slate (or so I thought). Dystopia begone, I thought. The plot gestated in my head for months. A young man sets out on a perilous journey, driven by his sense of curiosity, and his genetic tendencies. A young woman does the same.

In the beginning, the story was set in the Scottish West Coast, in the present day. Try as I might, I could not make it work. The world as it exists provided too many distractions, too many potential rescue and support structures, too little opportunity for challenge. Eventually, I gave in and set the story in a dark future, after the collapse of world societies, after the chaos, warfare, disease and destruction have reduced the human population to groups of people who have managed to survive. I imagined groups of people beginning to reconnect with others and come to terms with a world which contains little or nothing of what modern society has come to take for granted.

Compared with novels and short stories I have read in this genre, my story has one major difference. The darkness has passed, and the future is not as bleak as it might once have been. In addition, the human population left on the planet behaves in much the same way as people always have, the good and the not so good.

On he other hand, the contrasts with our present-day world are stark. There are no billionaires or millionaires, no corporations, no governments, no utilities, no telecommunications. The list of things that are not there is almost endless. One outcome of all this absence is a natural world which is beginning to emerge from one of the worst eras in its long history. With the real possibility of a return to natural abundance, the survival of the human race rests on the ability of individuals, groups and communities to carve out a new way of living, to work together for a common good, and to relearn the art of survival.

In that context, the malady becomes the cure.


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The Arcane Art of the Critique

Critique (noun): an act of criticizing; especially: a critical (see critical) estimate or discussion (a critique of the poet’s work; an honest critique of her art).

There is a body of thought that considers the act of submitting your work for a critique to be akin to requesting that you be flogged in public. That seems like a harsh judgement, but I understand the sentiment behind it. After all, the very essence of the critique is that it should involve your precious work being poured over, dissected in fine detail, and commented on. Faint of heart, please do not submit.

Many writers do, though. Submit, I mean. The reason for this apparent masochism is that having your work critiqued is one of the finest ways to gain the insight and inspiration needed to improve your writing. Assuming, of course, that you don’t instantly tear the critique into tiny pieces, and then resort to rending your garment in despair.

What follows is a personal and random collection of thoughts on the art of the critique. Health warning: these should not be relied upon as a blueprint for critiquing the work of others. Though I am sure that will become obvious as you read on.

Never critique someone’s work if they have not asked you to do so. This is especially the case in the US, where you always have to bear in mind that many citizens have access to guns.

Always try to provide at least one positive comment in your critique, which will allow the author to cling to the last vestiges of her or his self-respect. However, you should be aware that following this by three hundred negative comments will almost certainly undo any good you might have done.

Detailed comments in the margin of the MS should never start with phrases like “You must… ,” or “You need to ..,” or anything else which could be interpreted as an order barked in a strident voice. A gentler approach is more likely to evince a positive response. Use phrases like “I would … ,” “You might consider … ,” or “Have you thought of … .” It is also appropriate to rewrite a phrase, sentence or paragraph to illustrate your point. Do not, however, even consider rewriting the entire piece. This is the writing equivalent of eating peas with your knife in polite company.

Never be tempted to comment “LOL” when you see a spelling mistake or a word used wrongly. Also resist the desire to say “FFS Edit your damned work before you submit it,” or anything in a similar vein. If you find yourself in this frame of mind, I can recommend the application of a fine Scots malt whisky as a remedy.

Always be specific and constructive in your comments. Phrases like “This is rubbish,” “Get yourself a thesaurus before we all die of boredom,” and “If I see another dangling participle, I shall have to pay a visit to Mr Shredder, and we don’t want that, do we?” should be avoided wherever possible. In the same way, describing the author’s plot as “puerile,” or remarking that his main character “Lacks substance to the extent of being invisible to the reader,” is bound to lead to heartache.

If your critique is related to the activities of a writers’ group, then you may also have to provide verbal feedback. It is preferable that this follows the general thrust of your written feedback. However, do not be tempted to go through your detailed comments line by line. This will almost certainly have the effect of inducing terminal somnolence in the rest of the group.

Finally, if the author has requested specific feedback on some aspect or aspects of the piece, do not be tempted to do anything but ignore her or him. Everyone else will, and you do not want to be responsible for breaking this fine tradition, do you?

Happy critiquing!

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Reference Points, and Other Sharp Objects

Over this past week, Juli and I have been spending most of our days editing. Not my writing, this time. We are doing it as a favor for a friend. It has turned out to be a salutary reminder of the of the importance of reference points, which anchor the process of writing in a common framework. It is, as I often say, all very well bending the rules, but you have to know what the rules are before you can do that with any degree of success.

Many moons ago, when I first started to write in earnest, Juli was my main reference point. With an English degree and a lifetime of teaching experience to draw on, she has a fine ear for language, character development and plot. She still edits everything I write. However, I developed a second string to my writing bow—the art of the critique. Through attending writers’ groups, and later running a group myself, I have had to sharpen up my knowledge of the “rules.”

In one sense, this has never been easier. Want to know when it is best to use a semicolon? Google it. Having doubts about the number and location of those commas you just sprinkled on your story? Google it. The problem is, as with everything on the Internet, what is and what is not a reliable source?

We all have to seek our own solutions on this one. For me, it was to turn to a style manual. I did due diligence. I searched, read reviews, looked at samples of manuals by various authors (Thomas Bernstein, Bryan Garner), checked out the AP manual (strictly for journalists), and studied a copy of Strunk and White (for upmarket journalists). I came to the conclusion that the Chicago Manual of Style was the one for me. Paired with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it provides the answers I need. It also has the major advantage of being widely recognized. It is a hefty tome (there is an online version, if weight is an issue) and costs about $50. The online version is available for an annual subscription of $39.

Of course, for the impoverished writer supping gruel and mumbling on a crust in her or his garret, such sums may be the stuff of dreams. In which case, I recommend the following site, run by the Capital Community College Foundation. It is free (although they do suggest a donation might be in order), comprehensive, and fully searchable:

Next time: The Arcane Art of the Critique

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How To Write Better (Part 2): Fighting The Flab

Now that those tenses jump to your command, punctuation is under control, and syntax lined up and saluting, it’s time to move your writing to the next level. In this exciting episode, and in Part 3 (which, strange to relate, comes next), you will find guidelines to help you achieve that goal. These are not items that have bubbled, unbidden, to the surface of the minestrone soup that passes for my brain. They are the distillation of the best advice from professional editors, authors and academics.

Fighting The Flab is the easiest way to tighten up your writing and make it stronger. It involves deleting words or phrases that are not essential. However, you should resist any temptation to take the easy way out and do this at random. The results likely be disappointment (see what I mean?).

Adjectives and Adverbs
Writing which is very, very full of nifty, sparkling adjectives can become exhausting for the poor reader. A good policy is to use no more than one adjective per noun and to make a habit of using none as often as you can.
Adverbs are in a league of their own. Nasty, lily-livered creatures which will sap the zing right out of your prose and leave it gasping for life. Deal with them by putting “ly” in the Find box in Word. Ignore the “ly” words that are not adverbs, and make extensive use of the Delete key as you go through the document. There will be times when deleting the adverb won’t be possible without an impact on meaning. In that case, find an alternative form of words. If you can’t do that, then you may just have to put up with leaving the damn thing there, but that should be a rare occurrence. Here are a couple of examples from The Butterfly & The Bull, a novel which I wrote before I knew better.

“The rain eased slightly and the malls of Huntingtown appeared, materializing obscurely.” vs “The rain eased and the malls of Huntingtown materialized.”

“He got up as he spoke. The action was totally unlike the John I knew. It reminded me of a panther, readying itself for the hunt. I suddenly found myself staring down the barrel of what I assumed to be Povey’s pistol.” vs “He got up as he spoke. The action was unlike the John I knew. It reminded me of a panther, readying itself for the hunt. I found myself staring down the barrel of what I assumed to be Povey’s pistol.” (The paragraph needs further editing, but we’ll come to that later.)

Really, just don’t
There are words that seldom belong in story-writing, because of their tendency to dither or dilute. Top of the list are: some, somehow, somewhat, almost, quite, just, (as in “he had just come to the table), very, actually, really. Words that have become worn out by overuse should also be avoided: stunning, beautiful, awesome, ultimate, literally, arguably, for example. Use the Find function and the Delete key to great effect here, too.

This comes in various guises–repetition of words, repetition of effects (like two sentences describing the same thing, or two characters described in the same way), repetition of emotion (showing the emotion and telling the reader about it at the same time), and plot-related repetition (like having several characters all playing the same role in your hero’s life, when all you need is one). Please note the repeated repetition of repetition in the previous sentence.
Dealing with repetition can be a challenge. At the end of this series, we will analyze a piece of work which contains the full range of flab, and all may become clear at that point.

Trusting your readers
Writers (novices, in particular) often overwrite in other ways. A visceral urge to make sure that readers see every action in HD and Dolby Audio, leads to a muddle of detail which has the opposite effect.
“The phone rang. Ebenezer stood up, pushed his chair back, turned and walked over to the phone stand. He picked up the phone. ‘Hello,’ he said.” vs “The phone rang. ‘Hello,’ Ebenezer said.”

Repetition (see above) applies here, too. If you describe two characters facing one another across a bed and then write, “Gertrude gazed across the bed at Englebert,” then you’re telling us more than we need to know. “Gertrude gazed at Englebert,” will do fine.

In the same way, describing a character with clenched fists and then telling us that she spoke “angrily,” gives us a double dose of information.

The “rule” that applies here is: be merciless when it comes to self-editing your work. Better to pare to the bone and add in where needed, rather than leave your prose hanging in folds of flab from its waistband.

Next up: Is your syntax showing? Are you telling when you should be showing? Are you committing the sin of head hopping? It will all be there, in How to Write Better (Part 3).

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How to Write Gooder (Part 1)

Writing is an art (if you didn’t know that – get out of here!). Like others of its kind, it comes with basic skills which have to be grasped before you can get down to the real business of creating your masterpiece. This includes a solid understanding of the Rules of Grammar.

“But I like to break the rules,” I hear someone say (probably the guy at the back of the class who spends most of his time lost in his smart phone).
“Well,” I say, “That’s excellent. Some of the most famous authors in history are rule-breakers. However. Be warned. If you don’t really understand the rules in the first place, then breaking them is more likely to create a dog’s breakfast than a work of art.”

When I published my first novel, I leaped, with the consummate enthusiasm of a newbie, into a wild attempt to sell it to a wider audience (see previous post: Marketing and Other Forms of Death).
One of my early blunders was to sign up for a forum which indulged in an authorial version of the “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” approach, much beloved by males in teenage encounters. This involved reading (and I use the term loosely) a range of self-published novels and reviewing them on Amazon. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was traumatised by this process. However, I did learn a number of useful things.

  • NEVER agree to review someone’s novel in return for them reviewing yours.
  • A limited grasp of high school English is not required to self-publish a novel.
  • The potential for well-meaning people to create awful stories execrably told is very high.
  • Authors (especially new authors) are liable to be DEEPLY offended by anything less than a five-star review.

Later, I took a more measured approach to the review process and had more success, both in providing and in receiving reviews which were thoughtful and honest. The underlying problem of thousands upon thousands of badly-written self-published novels remains, but that’s a subject for another post.

There is, of course, no way of guaranteeing that you will be able to write a good novel (or short story, or memoir, or whatever). In the same way as there is no guarantee that you will be able to paint a fine picture, or play the violin like a virtuoso. There are, however, some basic guidelines which can help you in your quest to create that elusive best seller, killer short story, or sought-after memoir.

What’s What?
Can you spot a verb at fifty paces? Do nouns announce themselves to you? Can you tell your adjectives from your adverbs? Would you be able to spot the difference between a gerund and a weasel? (Okay, that last one was a trick question). If not, then you’re going to be toiling with that modern-day version of Anna Karenina you have in your head.

Tense? What Tense?
I once met an aspiring author who declared “I’m hopeless with tenses. I rely on the writers’ group to keep me right.” Aye, right (as we Scots would say). Your chances of becoming a decent writer are small to negligible if you can’t handle those tenses. Present, past, past perfect and on and on. You need to know ‘em all. Otherwise, it’s Grammar 101 for you. There is no escape.

Punct; tu? a-tion.
Writing afflictions associated with this include: the Gatling gun approach to positioning commas, addiction to one’s favorite punctuation device (ellipsis, semi-colon, exclamation mark etc.) and the dreaded comma splice (for which I recommend the use of a marlin spike).

Syntax, Schmyntax
Syntax (n.): the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.
Along with tense, the ability to handle word order and sentence structure is crucial to the task. Most people who have passed high school English can make a decent stab at this. On the other hand, a novel written in high school English is likely to be a dreary beast. Developing a mature and innovative approach to sentence and paragraph construction is one of the first steps towards becoming an author rather than a dabbler.

Those may, or may not, be all of the basics. In any case, I must stop here and get on with writing my best-seller. In Part 2, we’ll move on to the meat of the matter and look at the gravy that’s going to give your story that special flavor that no other author can achieve.




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Weak Eye Noises

A good writing prompt should poke a sharp stick at the creative process. At a recent Portland Writers’ Group meeting (An Evening To Write, hosted by the inimitable Cathryn Bonica), one of the prompts did just that. At first, I made the mistake of ignoring its insistent jabbings and got on with revising a piece of flash fiction I’d written several years previously. However, about half way through the hour-long writing time, I found that I could ignore it no longer. Its blatant surrealism called out for a response.

The prompt was a line from an E.E. Cummings poem My Girl’s Tall With Hard Long Eyes:
“… the weak noise of her eyes easily files my impatience to an edge…”

With thirty minutes of writing time to play with, the usual staring at a blank space and seeking inspiration isn’t likely to yield much. I find that the best approach in these circumstances is just to write the first thing that comes into one’s head and then take it from there. Here’s what I came up with (unedited, typos and all, to give it that sense of authenticity). It’s only 353 words long, and the poor thing has no title as yet.

I admit it. The deafness of the stair carpet got my day off to a bad start.There is no solution for such things. No hearing aid for floor coverings. It had ambushed me with a sly, turned up corner. Bad enough, but it refused to show remorse of any kind when I yelled abuse at it’s carelessness. Spread-eagled on my dignity, saved by the banister. The coffee mug hadn’t been so lucky.

She was in the kitchen. Munching on toast and Marmite; reading Dostoyevsky, or Ivan Ivanovitch or Abdul Abulbul Amir, for all I knew.

“Enjoy your trip?” she said, without looking up.

“You need a new script writer,” I said. “And, next time, pay him enough so that you don’t live your festering life in a swamp of clichés and homilies.”

“Cat got your tongue?” she said.

“Wrong fucking cliché,” I said and grabbed a mug from the table.

“A stitch in time,” she said, “saves the spilled milk.”

I took the mug to the coffee pot. “But is fuck all use for spilled coffee and broken pottery,” I snapped and felt the edges of my sanity curling and darkening like an overcooked pancake.

“Ah,” she said. “There’s no point in crying over a broken seismograph. I wondered what that was about.”

I sat down opposite her, flowing bathrobe and gaping pajamas my only defense. She settled her half-eaten toast on a plate. The Marmite was a dark betrayer, ready to slice opinions like a honed knife. She laid down her book (the poems of E. E. Cummings I now saw) and turned to look at me. In the perfect silence of the moment, I heard the tiny, feeble noise of her eyes swiveling in the sockets of her skull.

“You’re doing it again,” I said.


“That thing that you do.”

What thing?”

“That filing thing.”

The silence drifted, a rancidity in the space between us.

Her eyes glistened.

“Get on with your breakfast, or I’ll take a chain saw to
your impatience,” she said.

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Marketing, and Other Forms of Death

It was one of those dripping hot October days in 2011. The kind of day that Southern Marylanders take in their stride, but us outlanders find hard to handle. Something to do with an aversion to having our body cells turned to a fluid which then leaks out of our pores. In a house by the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, I found myself surprised to be a button press away from publishing a novel. A moment to be savored. And yet, gut-wrenching in its own inconsequential way. In the excitement of the moment, I had no notion of the learning curve ahead, of the wasted hours which awaited me, of the mind-numbing Twittering that would be required, of the endless twaddle I’d have to read and the extent to which I would have to sell my soul to the Devil That Is Amazon. Just as well.

Self-published authors exist in the vacuum left by the traditional publishing industry as it charges onwards to the gods know where. There are legions of us, all trying to carve that little niche for ourselves in the cliff face of the Readership. A couple of my fellow authors in MD had achieved some success in this endeavor, and I took advice. “Blog, blog, blog and blog,” they said. “Then blog some more.” So I did (ish). “Tweet, Tweet, Tweet and Tweet,” they said. “Then Retweet and keep doing that until your fingers bleed and your brains begin to ooze out of your ears.” So I did (very much so) and things transpired much as expected. I also started a Facebook Page (which failed to thrive due to lack of attention), interviewed authors on my blog, took part in blog tours, indulged in giveaways on Goodreads, and numerous other things that I have long since blanked out. On the positive side, I met lots of nice people (online) and I sold a few books (but not many).

However. All of this Huge Effort for Very Little Effect was totally eclipsed by the outcome of my pact with the Devil That Is Amazon. All I had to do was to sign up with them for ninety days in an exclusive, binding, handcuffing contract which promised that I would do no business with any other publishing entity during that time. In return, I could promote my book by giving it away free for up to five of those days. Such generosity! Unfortunately, it worked (clever people, these Amazonians). During the first three-day promotion, The Butterfly and the Bull was downloaded about 1400 times and it got into the top 100 free books. From then, until the time I stopped all marketing in 2013 and got my life back, I estimate about 5000 free copies were downloaded. Not bad. And I did manage to chalk up 22 reviews during that time.

The sequel to TBatB, Flight of the Butterfly, has had no marketing whatsoever. After a few early sales, it has languished unwanted and uncared for in the deep. dark depths of Amazon’s sales list. Until this week, when my good friend Mitch Sturgeon announced that he had finished reading it and was ready to give it a review on Amazon. Good man, Mitch. I am inspired to come up with a new marketing strategy for FotB. What is that going to be? I haven’t a clue. Something that involves being able to put my toe in the water without being siezed by the Alligator That Is Social Media, I think.

Watch this space.


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