Thursday 16 August 2012

Why Oh Why Oh Why...?

Don't panic - this isn't some Points Of View-style whinge, just a writing tip inspired by a short story I read online recently.

I'm not going to link to it, because that would be mean. It was interesting and well-written, but it was one of those stories that I got to the end of and felt something substantial was missing. I read through it again and realised that if I had written it, and somebody started asking me questions about it, I would come unstuck at some point.

I'd be okay if they asked why I'd chosen that particular character, as the first-person narrator was an interesting type of guy in a challenging set of circumstances. Likewise with the setting - although it didn't add a great deal to the story it was authentic and stopped everything from happening in white space. But what if they asked, "Why this? Why now?"

You see, the story I read was one of those where the main character does something they're accustomed to doing and afterwards, at the end of the story, they're right back at the beginning and ready to do it all over again. Nothing's changed. You'd have the same story if you told your readers about the next time, or the previous time, or the time before that, and so on. A story needs to be about a unique moment. If it's too run-of-the-mill, then why bother to tell people about it? If I was down the pub with friends and I got them all to quiet down and said, "The other day, right, I went to work; I had a couple of meetings, I wrote a few emails, I ate my lunch, then had another meeting and wrote some more emails," I think the best response I could hope for would be for them to say, "Yeah? So what?"

It doesn't really matter how interesting you think the stuff that happens in a story will be to the reader, because the reader experiences the events through your characters' eyes. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that because you've made your main character a racing driver or an intergalactic warlord or a paramedic, it automatically gives you an interesting story. If you're recounting just another day at the track, or dodging black holes and plundering far-flung planets, or tearing through the city with the blue lights flashing, then - at its heart - the story's going to be no more riveting than my slice of office life above.

A story should be a special insight into a character's world. It needs to revolve around an extraordinary moment. Give your readers a glimpse of something that's never happened before, and show them how it affects your character. Make sure that at the end, even if you deposit your character back where they started, it's clear nothing's ever going to be quite the same again.

Ask yourself why you've chosen that particular moment to write about. Ask why the events you're describing are important in your characters' lives. If you can't point to the answers within the text, get the red editing pen out. You probably haven't written the story you meant to.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Burn, Baby, Burn

Just a quick note to say that my story, Spontaneous Human Combustion, has won the Summer 2012 Flash 500 competition.

I'm really pleased; Flash 500 is a market I've been trying to crack for a while. It's a well-organised competition and - having at last won a prize there - I can confirm that the stories are published online and the prize money sent out immediately after the results are announced. Why can't all competitions get it right like that?

Spontaneous Human Combustion is one of those stories that I wrote a while ago, and didn't really know what to do with. I liked it, but couldn't think of anywhere it would 'fit'. I left it for a while, subbed it out somewhere, got nowhere, left it a while longer. A couple of months ago, I dug it out again, cut it down by about a third, found a new (and better ending), and tried again. This time it worked! Sometimes things can't be rushed - if you've got a story you believe in, stick with it. Sooner or later you'll know what to do with it.

Friday 10 August 2012

Chapter One: The Final Chapter?

According to the people at Chapter One, the 2010 competition anthology is currently at the printers. It might be ready to send out by the end of August. It’s very hard to marshal my thoughts about this.

Just to put it in perspective, in January 2010, when the competition closed, Gordon Brown was the Prime Minister of the UK, the film Avatar was breaking box-office records, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad, and, tragically, Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people. All of this seems an awfully long time ago.

Since then, I have continued to write. I have not, as I hoped at the time, completed the novel I was working on. In fact, I haven’t written anywhere near as much of anything as I thought I might have done by now, and I've definitely not managed to get as many stories published as I would like. But I feel I have improved as a writer, in some ways at least. This leaves a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth, though – I’ve got better, but my biggest achievement still lurks two-and-a-half years in the past. At the moment, it's out of sight - but not, apparently, for much longer.

The prospect of it finally being made available is an exciting one. But it’s a terrifying one, too. The story I wrote, all that time ago, will be out in the world, out of my control. I don’t know how successful the Chapter One anthologies tend to be; it’s not like they are high-profile releases and I’ve never seen any marketing of the books. So I really don’t know whether anybody other than the other prizewinners and the shortlisted authors will see my story. But that’s bad enough – surely they’ll be the toughest, most critical audience? They might hate it, wonder what on earth the judge was thinking. And it feels unfair, that they’ll be judging me on something I wrote back then.

I was worried until the proof copy of my story was emailed to me. Reading it again after so many months was an odd experience. I was amazed at how much I’d forgotten, and – more importantly – I was pleased that it still read pretty well. True, there were a few sentences I’d cut, or rephrase, or reorder, but generally, I’m pleased with it. I did my best, and if people don’t like it, it’s not for any lack of effort on my part.

It got me thinking that it’s just something you have to deal with if you’re going to publish your work. You’re never going to write a story that everybody loves; it’s simply not possible. And saying that it’s an old piece won’t cut any slack. It’s still your story, and people will assume that it’s the best you can do. This is why it’s so important that you always ensure every story you send out really is the absolute best you can make it – not just because it will improve the odds of it being accepted, but because you owe it to your future self.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Mark Billingham's Rush of Blood - A Review

A quick announcement before I start - if you entered Kerry Hudson's "Tony Hogan" prize draw via the post on this blog, the results have now been announced.

Right, on to tonight's main story... As some of you might remember, a fortuitous bit of tweeting a couple of months ago won me an advance copy of crime maestro Mark Billingham's latest book:

This tiny crime story was among what seemed like a gazillion or so entries for the competition, but it was bone-ridden potatoes that caught Mark's eye, and I was very excited to receive a proof copy of the book a few days later. I was sworn to secrecy regarding the content, but as it's released tomorrow (2nd August), I can finally let you know what I thought of it.

Rush of Blood is Mark's second standalone novel (he's written nine in the popular and terribly good series featuring DI Tom Thorne). For this one, he's spread his wings a bit, moving away (initially, at least) from the London setting of his other books to kick things off in the USA.

The plot centres around three British couples who meet on holiday in sun-drenched Florida. As UK holiday makers tend to do, they hang out together and swap contact details, fully expecting never to hear from each other ever again. However, the last day of their holiday is marred by the disappearance from their resort of a young girl with learning disabilities. The local police interview the couples and decide to let them return home.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the disturbing end to their stay in paradise, the couples exchange emails and end up arranging to meet for the first in a series of increasingly strained and unpleasant dinner parties. As time progresses, and the situation in Florida develops into a murder investigation, the stress of having to confront events that they'd all rather forget about causes tensions to rise and a supporting cast of skeletons to come tumbling out of various closets.

It's an unusual book, in some ways. For a thriller, there's not a huge amount of action - no car chases, no desperate races against time, no fight scenes. Tension is maintained through a gradual drip-feed of detail and the suspense comes from the slow unravelling of the lead characters as they find themselves under the unblinking scrutiny of the law.

The characters are the driving force of the novel and at first they seem thinly drawn (the bolshy builder with a chip on his shoulder, the creepy computer geek, the bubbly housewife, the bohemian actress-wannabe, the Jack-the-Lad salesman, and his timid wife - who may or may not have a penchant for a bit of 'rough play' in the bedroom). However, what Mark does so well is peel back layer after layer of their personalities to reveal some surprising facets, and a plentiful supply of red herrings. None of them turn out to be particularly endearing characters, but they all have enough quirks, failings, and redeeming qualities to lift them above the stereotypes they might initially appear. Other readers may guess whodunnit before the end, but the twists and turns kept me guessing.

I don't read a huge amount of crime fiction, so I don't know if my only real gripe with the book is a common tactic or not. There are sections when the narrative pulls back from its close focus on the individual characters to give a much broader overview of the scene. This doesn't happen often, but it distracted me from the story the way seeing the wires on a magic trick would. There's a scene near the end where the enthusiastic rookie cop working on the UK aspect of the case arrives after the climactic event that ensures the couples won't be arranging any further dinner parties. The scene's written from her point of view, but the characters are referred to as "the suspect" or "the witnesses" - by this point the cop has interviewed all these people and delved into their murky pasts, so she knows them all by name. To me this just seemed like Mark wagging his finger and saying, "Uh-uh, I'm not going to tell you yet; you have to keep reading," and it felt a little unnecessary.

This was a minor concern, though, and on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Mark evokes the punishing heat of Florida very well, and the scenes with the missing girl's mother are realistic and heartbreakingly poignant. The London-based dinner parties are a hoot, with plenty of bitching, personality clashes, and some very dark humour. Mark's direct, clear prose hustles you along, and 400 pages zip by in no time at all. There's even a cameo from a certain Tom Thorne - although you might not recognise him at first...