Original Slants or Giving Readers What They Want

First Wednesday of the month and Insecure Writers’ Support Group day again. I am currently on holiday in Tenerife, with my family, including grandchildren, so doing very little writing at the moment (ie none at all for a fortnight). Yes, we are having a wonderful time, thank you, even though we’ve all been here many times before (yes, all of us, beginning in 1979). I have written numerous blog posts about Arona (where we always stay) and even had published a short story set here, entitled ‘Paradise’, which I’m very fond of, even though I wrote it aeons ago.

Southern Tenerife from the sea.

July was not a bad month writing wise, with a flash story in Cafe Lit, an book review in Together and more flash in Friday Flash Fiction and Paragraph Planet (can’t find the link for my story). I had not subbed to Paragraph Planet before; they require 75 words exactly, no mean feat.

Our option IWSG question this month is:

When you set out to write a story, do you try to be more original or do you try to give readers what they want?

Placing short stories and flash is where I have most success. When writing them, I am conscious that I may need to submit a particular story several times before it finds a home, so, as every short story/ flash market is different, it is not possible to give a particular group of readers on one particular ezine or one mag ‘what they want’. Of course, I do follow certain parameters and I may make edits between each submission. If I’m aiming at a Christian market, my protagonist might pray aloud or reflect on Bible passages, for instance. The danger is in attempting to design a story to fit all markets but which actually suits none.

I always try to include something original in every story, or adopt an original slant. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, saying what you have to say and communicating with the great readership out there?

Interested to read other IWSG bloggers take on this one, as always.

Whatever You Think Of… A Higher Being

Alistair Campbell (ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spin doctor) once said, “We don’t do God.” At least he was direct and unambiguous. Other people merely hint at opinions of this sort, often starting with the phrase, “Whatever you think of…”

Over the past twelve months the (British) Association of Christian Writers has been celebrating its Golden Jubilee, 50 years of the Association and its forerunner, the Fellowship of Christian Writers. Last weekend (3-5 June) we held the big WOWIG (Worth Our Weight in Gold) event at The Hayes in Derbyshire. I realise that, unless you were there yourself, you might be tempted to gloss over this post, but… bear with me. I do have something to say.

My church!

ACW members are two things proactively : writers (of fiction, poetry, journalistic articles and everything else, as well as overtly religious pieces) and Christians (all sorts of Christians). What many of us would like to do is to write about characters who believe in God, because we believe in God and all authors feel most comfortable about writing about people with their own mindset. We should be able to do that in the open, huggy, non-judgemental world we live in… shouldn’t we?

At our event, we heard six speakers: Paul Kerensa (script-writer and comedian); Anne Booth (writer for children and adults); Tony Collins (editor, agent and publisher in Christian publishing); Adrian and Bridget Plass (authors); Jonathan Bryan (author).

  • Paul Kerensa told us how, when working on a comedy script for the BBC which included a church setting, he wrote in a warm, welcoming and up-to-date Baptist church. However, the editors/producers at the Beeb replaced this with a cold, old fashioned church building. Stereotypes, or what?
  • Anne Booth wrote a book about a Christian teenager. Her editor told her that the book would be better if it were reduced by 40%. Guess which 40% the editor deleted? The Christian bits.
  • Jonathan Bryan is a severely disabled sixteen year old boy, confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. He campaigns for children in special schools to be educated – specifically, taught how to read and write – rather than being ‘entertained and occupied’. Jonathan himself ‘writes’ by directing his eyes on to an alphabet board. His poetry shows depth and maturity and an astounding lyrical style, which would be gobsmacking from anyone of any age. He is also a vicar’s son. When he submitted his book, Eye Can Write to his publisher, every mention of God, Jesus and his faith was crossed out with a yellow highlighter. He showed us the proofs on screen. At one point, ‘a higher being’ was substituted for God. But Jonathan is tough and Jonathan insisted. God and Jesus were brought back in.

So what is the Christian fiction writer to do? Either submit to one of the few Christian publishing houses which (between them) publish only a small amount of fiction or self-publish. A speaker at another ACW event last year, Karen Rosario Ingerslev, author of the Celery Brown and Livi Starling series, won a publishing deal but chose to self-publish instead. When I heard this, at the time I didn’t understand. Now I do.

When the Going Gets Tough…

One of my favourite expressions is ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ A good one for parents and teachers alike. I remember saying this to my son when he didn’t want to do the school cross-country run. Of course, this saying is particularly apt for writers. You start writing a novel full of enthusiasm and excitement, but by Chapter 11 you reach the ‘soggy middle’. You start asking yourself who exactly is this main character you’re writing about because you thought you knew and now you don’t… where you should start the action because you’re already overloaded with flashbacks… and, above all, what do you write next? Same for a short story or even flash! (Yes, I know some writers carry out minutely-detailed planning first and some write the ending first, but I’m not one of them. To my mind, a story has to develop and lead itself.)

So, what do I do when I get stuck? I’m afraid to say I stop. I say ‘I’m afraid’ but this works for me. Even whilst just making a cup of tea or a trip to the loo, my mind relaxes and almost always ideas spring into my brain. It’s essential to write down said ideas immediately, either on the piece itself or in a notebook, but all too often this is not possible, because I’m doing something else, driving my car for instance. I have to imprint my thoughts in my head and write them down as soon as convenient.

As you’ve probably guessed, today is first Wednesday of the month and therefore Insecure Writers Support Group day. You may also have guessed at our optional question:

When the going gets tough writing the story, how do you keep yourself writing to the end? If have not started the writing yet, why do you think that is and what do you think could help you find your groove and start?

At the moment I’m getting ready to attend the (British) Association of Christian Writers Jubilee event at the Hayes Conference Centre in Derbyshire this coming weekend. Being on the Committee, I have so much to do, collecting things for an exhibition of the Association’s history, for one, and also collecting in all the legal consents from delegates so that photos in which they appear can be used in ACW publications and online media. So I’m a bit harassed.

All around me, other people are getting ready for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (Thursday 2 June to Sunday 5 June), putting up Union Jack flags and bunting (alongside our Ukrainian flags). It takes a lot to excite the Great British Public but they usually rise to the occasion when the occasion in question comes along.

Best and Worst of Times

It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. What are your writer highs (the good times)? And what are your writer lows (the crappy times)?

This is the Insecure Writers’ Support Group’s optional question this merry month of May. My post going to be a very short because I’ve been on the computer almost all day, but not writing writing, if you understand what I mean. I was also on the phone to Apple for well over an hour sorting out why my Apple Pay doesn’t work.

Writer Lows
(These must be the easiest ones to think of.)

  1. Rejections, but not all rejections. Sometimes, you know you’re chancing your arm and you can’t really complain. The most irritating are those where you supposed the editor ought to have taken your piece. It was right up their street, you think – after all, you’d edited the story especially for them. Rejection of longer pieces (like novels) is always more hurtful than for shorter pieces. Most disappointing is being turned down by a nice editor, the one who acknowledged your submission by saying how much they were looking forward to reading it, for instance. (He/she doesn’t mean it, I’m afraid.)
  2. Editing a piece over and over again. Sssh! You can get bored with your own work sometimes.
  3. When the words won’t come, where you just can’t get hold of what you want to express on to paper. You long to create something special but it turns out ordinary.
  4. Not having a story going around and around in your head.

Writers Highs

  1. Just writing, being in the flow, not worrying too much about editors and publishers, blog viewers or anyone else. For a long time, I used to just write and say to myself I would seek a publisher one day (which never came). I was never so contented and relaxed. Last night, I wrote a review of a bad holiday we’d had on my (languishing) travel blog Travel On. I know hardly anyone will read it, but it was so good just to write for the sake of it.
  2. Having written something you know is good. See 4 above. When you finally find the words you need.

And that’s it, folks.

Is Doom and Gloom What Readers Want?

The received wisdom amongst those who write about writing is that the more miserable you can make the reader of your book the better. Heap disaster upon disaster upon your protagonist and the more your readers will like it.

Really?

So no room for romantic fiction, then? (Unless all relationships end in heartbreak, of course.)

Fact: football supporters will not stand around watching their team lose. The biggest insult fans will deliver to a team who is playing badly is to leave a match 15 minutes early, very noisily and very obviously, turning their backs to the pitch. And swear! How they swear! If you want to extend your vocabulary, sit with fans whose team is falling out of the Premiership.

Me, I’m an emotional reader. When the protagonist suffers, so do I. He/she can only take so much, and so can I. Older novelists, like Charles Dickens and George Eliot, (but not Thomas Hardy) leaven their work with comedy and happier passages. Only comparatively recently have we been told to wring our readers out. Is this what they want?

It’s all about character… isn’t it? The reader has to have confidence in the protagonist’s character. Certainly, they can do a few stupid things, but not too many. We have to feel, from the first page, that they are equal to whatever the plot will throw at them. And give us some breathers along the way, that is some feel-good bits, some little successes for this poor protagonist. All doom and gloom? That’s Thomas Hardy country and I can’t read Hardy.

In non-fiction, though, a bit of failure, shortcomings, complaint and disappointment provide the salt amongst the sugar. For instance, travel writing tends to consist mostly of rhapsodic descriptions of sights and scenery in exotic locations, together with accounts of the ‘funny man who…’ We’ve all seen sunset – and sunrise – before. For some things words cannot do justice. Know your media! A photograph is more effective. Words are for stories and the bad bits make for stories. Our attention is caught by the piece on the hotel that was awful, the inedible meal and the sight not worth seeing. In the next few days I intend to add a few posts on my languishing travel blog Travel On, about bad holiday experiences. (Wait for it! I haven’t done it yet.)

I’m writing these just for fun. Because I’ve spent so much time working on trying to get The Novel published, composing random – and different – bits and pieces demanded by publishers. My friends have submitted their works 35 times and 53 times, I tell myself, so onwards and upwards (and, yes, I know that’s a Christian publisher, although not appropriate for The Novel). So… I carry on… but I’m allowing myself a break sometimes.

Audiobooks?

First Wednesday of the month and Insecure Writers’ Support Group day again.
Are we writers all feeling insecure? Yes, of course we are. This month’s optional question is ‘Have any of your books been made into audio books? If so, what is the main challenge in producing an audiobook?‘ which makes me feel insecure immediately because I’ve never had a book published, but I’ll come on to that in a minute.

First of all, many congratulations to Alex Cavanagh, our very own fearless IWSG leader, for the publication of his latest book, CassaDark, an inventive space opera, the fourth in the series, I understand. What do you say to an author to wish him well? (To an actor, you’d say, ‘Break a leg’.)

Now, back to the audiobooks. All IWSG questions are challenging and almost every time I think to myself ‘No, I can’t do this one’ and, as I have never had a book published (boo-hoo) at all, no audio books, I’m afraid. But… but… but… a long time ago, in about 1999, two young adult novels of mine were published on a writing website. One of the other writer contributors to this site, Alexander Hawksville, a Scot, who also wrote sci-fi, and who taught partially-sighted teenagers for a day job, recorded both my novels on to cassette tape (in a Scottish accent). I still have them. The first novel was well-received by his students, but the second was banned by the ‘Wee Frees’ (The Free Church of Scotland) because, they said, a young unmarried couple slept together. In fact, said young couple didn’t. After all this was a YA book and the 1990s. They got married in more haste than British law allows – I didn’t do my research so well in those days.

Talking of audio, I have been doing some book reviewing for Hannah’s Bookshelf, on Radio for North Manchester. Because this is a radio programme, Hannah requires submissions in audio format, so I had to record three book reviews in five minutes (total time allocated). Even though I was taking two of the reviews from my (other) blog, Dear Reader, I stumbled and hesitated. Altogether I made about 10 attempts and by the time I’d finished I was ready to throw the computer out the window (difficult, I use an old fashioned desktop), but Hannah accepted my pieces.

So, what have I been doing recently? My biggest achievement has been to write the history of the (British) Association of Christian Writers and post it on the ACW website. A lot of research went into that, I can assure you, sourced from ACW members, past and present. All primary sources! I also had a flash story appear on CafeLit, about a girl accidentally named Delia (which to all of us this side of the pond means Delia Smith, cookery writer). I’ve also been honing a short story about a prostitute. The Wee Frees wouldn’t like it, I’m sure, although they must be aware of the many hookers featuring the Bible.

Back Online

Glad to report that I’m fully back online. (Last week, WordPress had temporarily disabled my reading blog (Dear Reader) because I had contravened one of their guidelines. All sorted now, although sadly I will no longer be able to take part in Great Escapes cosy crime blog tours. ) By this time, purists will be complaining about my many parentheses, but I do love a bracket (or two). They appeal to my inner programmer, not that I was ever any use at coding, as my dear friend, Felicity, will tell you. (I fell asleep in her Visual Basic class!)

The other news is that my flash story, What’s in a Name? is on CafeLit today. If you can, I’d be flattered if you read it. I wrote it to a prompt at the Association of Christian Writers Flash Fiction group.

Meanwhile, I’ve written a writing CV and I’ve been submitting The Novel again. Very demanding and soul-searching. A friend, whose novel is now published, once commented to me that submitting took up so much of her time that she couldn’t write anything else. Compiling the writing CV has been a bit packing to go on holiday; I keep remembering things I should add, stories that have been published in anthologies, in particular. Now I think there are too many on there and it will need pruning.

Also… also, I’ve been drafting the history of the Association of Christian Writers. Its not quite ready yet. We historians love our primary sources, but it’s a bit difficult doing something like this when you have only primary sources. The problem is that, even though the ACW dates back to just 1971, so many people have forgotten so much or are not quite sure and cannot provide the sort of accurate detail I need.

…And I’m supposed to be putting together a sermon for next week. That’s writing too.

One Summer, America 1927 by Bill Bryson

Yes, I know this is going to be a book review and that this is my writing blog, not my reading blog, but I’ve just discovered that Dear Reader, my reading blog, has been suspended. Apparently, it contravened WordPress’s guidelines, but I cannot find out how or why. I’m not impressed, pretty annoyed actually. I’ve written to WordPress and complained, but these things often take a long time to sort out. So, my poor writer friends, I’m foisting my book review on you.

One Summer, America 1927 was brought to me by my book club. This is not normally my sort of thing and, the book club notwithstanding, I nearly didn’t read it. The majority of the book club members didn’t and, to be fair, I had only read a few pages by the meeting when we were all supposed to have done so. The cover art shows an early sort of aeroplane, a baseball player and a scantily-clad woman. My husband lapped it up, but he is a big Bill Bryson fan.

But I lugged the book back home with me after the meeting, 500 pages in length and 15cms width and 24cm length – not pocket-sized – because something made me carry on. The style is unusual, Bryson’s own (so I believe): a few pages on one topic in detail, then, with a slick link, on to something else… another link and off we go again. Definitely not a novel, certainly no plot, although the same characters kept popping up over and over again: Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover… and many others. We read only about what they were doing between the summer months of 1927, although, towards the end of the book, the author tells us briefly what they did next.

So what kept me going? Well, Bryson’s style was easy to read, made even more so by its episodical nature and the affectionate way he writes of his own country drew me in. Moreover, I was learning, about everyday life in the 1920s. Before I read One Summer, I had no idea that American households had so many gadgets at that time, including motor cars. I was shocked at how the American public mobbed Charles Lindbergh for months following his flight across the Atlantic, thousands of people turning up just for a glimpse, while he became increasingly laconic with exhaustion. I suppose, this side of the pond, we did the same with the Beatles and later with Princess Diana.

Am I glad I finished it? (I don’t finish every book I start.) Yes. I would go so far as to give it **** (four stars).

I’ve just started reading Speculations, a set of short stories by Stephen Faulkner, which so far looks promising, even though speculative fiction is really not my genre.

Conflicted About Writing A Story/Added A Scene?

Whoops, it’s the first Wednesday of the month and I almost forgot Insecure Writers Support Group day. They would have never forgiven me. But it’s only four o’clock GMT so I’m just getting on with it and hoping nobody will notice. 2 March is also the first day of Lent – this must’ve been what distracted me.

All this month, I’ve been busy, busy, busy, writing and doing other things. February was one of those months when I seemed to be at my computer all the time but never seemed to have made any progress. However, I’ve got an article in the March edition of Together magazine (trade journal for CRT, Christian publishing) and I’ve just submitted to Together another article (a book review). There’s also been the usual round of short stories, submissions and one competition I didn’t get anywhere with, which I’m disappointed about as I’m proud of the story I submitted and believe it deserves better. It’s 4500 words long and, although I’m sure that’s part of the problem, I’m reluctant to edit it down. If editors don’t want it, that’s their loss. So there!

I’m still struggling with submitting the novel. I subbed to one publisher at the beginning of last month and they haven’t sent me the ‘Not for us’ email yet. I’m now looking at a second publisher, who wants a form completed… a synopsis half the length of the synopsis I sent to the other publisher… a writing CV… anthologies I’ve been published in… and so on. Presumably, when I’ve submitted enough times I will have all the bits and pieces publishers need.

March 2 question – Have you ever been conflicted about writing a story or adding a scene to a story? How did you decide to write it or not?

Conflicted about adding scenes? All the time. Anyone who has written a novel will say so. Sometimes you write a stonking good scene then look at it afterwards and realise it doesn’t move the novel on at all. Or you think of a better (and probably more concise) way of covering the same ground.

Conflicted about writing stories? I once wrote a horrible story about a little boy of three being snatched by a paedophile, told from the three-year-old’s point of view. It was accepted, straight off, but not before I’d come to hate every word of it, even though it ended happily with the little boy escaping. I never want to see that story again.

Another short story of mine, which got accepted first-off, concerned a girl running away from a polygamous cult. Out of my comfort zone, that was, even though the setting was purely imaginary, but maybe I need my feet on the ground too much.

Be interested to read what other people write to this one.

Synopsis Hell

And it’s Insecure Writers’ Support Group day!

Each month we have an optional question, but I’m afraid I can’t find any connection with February’s question (‘Is there someone who supported or influenced you that perhaps isn’t around anymore? Anyone you miss?’) Instead, I’m writing a post I’ve been meaning to write for several weeks. And it’s definitely relevant to this Group.

I am being slowly killed by The Synopsis.

Over the last few years, I have been writing and editing a novel set in Poland during the Solidarity trade union period. I have submitted it to several publishers – with a synopsis of sorts and all the different bits and pieces required by each publisher. This was all to no avail, and I was considering self-publishing when a good friend took me to task and persuaded me to retry traditional publishers.

I decided, before I subbed again, to rewrite the synopsis and covering letter, using the Jericho Writers One Hour Query Letter and Synopsis Builder. One hour? My foot! But, out of all the resources I looked at, this was by far the most helpful, because it’s probing, yet… over a week later, I’m still here, revising and rewriting it.

I’m not enjoying doing it either. I’m finding it very stressful. Not only do I lack confidence in my synopsis-writing skills but writing the synopsis has led me to ask awkward questions about The Novel itself. Jericho’s strategy is that, instead of trying to reduce the plot into the required number of words, one should pick out elements from a given structure. However, when I attempt to analyse The Novel into Status Quo, Inciting Incident, Development, Crisis and Resolution, it doesn’t quite fit. I wrote The Novel from the gut, not according to a template. Nevertheless, after a week of panic, I’m realising that The Novel’s plot does slot into their structure more conveniently than it seemed at first, and the points where it doesn’t are those which I need to rejig and edit a little.

Jericho tells me that the synopsis should be 450-500 words in length, but the first publisher destination I have in mind wants a synopsis of 1000 words. Ho-hum.

I’m off to look at the dreaded synopsis again…

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