Friday, April 26, 2013

Relax Into Your Writing--then Raise the Bar by Katharine Thorpe

“I think I can write a nice sentence, and a nice paragraph, and a nice chapter, etc. [but] I am also afflicted with perfectionism. […] I become aware that a sentence or chapter is not rolling along as well as ever it possibly could, and that awareness sort of rears up and blocks out everything else.”
            --Laini Taylor, YA novelist

“I dictate my first draft into a tape recorder. Then I transcribe it and edit the copy. When I’m dictating, I do it as if I’m speaking to a very bright college student. I envy people who write easily. I enjoy the process, but it’s not easeful for me.”  
            --Charles Krauthammer, nationally syndicated news columnist

“I'm always pretending that I'm sitting across from somebody. I'm telling them a story, and I don't want them to get up until it's finished.”
            --James Patterson, novelist

“Write in your own voice. Write as if you're talking to your sister. Unless you don't get along with your sister. Or don't have a sister.”
            --Ree Drummond, blogger, cookbook author, and children's book author

What happens when you sit down to write?

I'm not a very accomplished writer, but I've done a good bit of writing, reading about writing, and editing both my own and other people's writing-- and through all of it, I've come to one conclusion. Most writers fall into one of two categories: a), the ones who sit down and let their imaginations take flight, and b) the ones who sit down and struggle to produce what they think others expect from them.

Both of these techniques have benefits. The freewheeling, “imaginative” writer is usually more in touch with the subject of the piece and how to describe it, while the cautious, careful writer is usually more adept at meticulous revision.

Of course, both attitudes also have their pitfalls. The careful self-editor may have difficulty actually communicating, because of his desire to “get it right.” The imaginative writer can get so caught up in the moment that she loses the logical flow of the piece, overwrites, or fails to clear away errors in grammar, spelling, and style, leaving her reader confused.

Having observed this dichotomy, I now believe that best writing practice-- in fact maybe the only writing process that will reliably produce good work from nearly anyone-- is to pit these two writing methods against each other in order to augment their strengths and counteract their weaknesses.

Of course, there are as many ways to write as there are writers; I'm not talking about things like paper vs. digital, night vs. morning, spare time vs. full time, coffee shop vs. home office-- as important as these things are. What I am advocating is a two-pronged approach to getting your material down, whether on paper or in a cloud, and to refining its presentation.

I believe that regardless of the type of piece you're writing, when you first sit down to write your rough draft, you should do your utmost to give yourself freedom. You may have already done some freewriting or brainstorming, and that's great. But don't lose that easy, open attitude just yet. As you move into your first draft, keep the technical and stylistic demands of the project at bay a little while longer. Write, or as Charles Krauthammer does, dictate, freely-- as if you were talking to someone familiar.

This may take time and patience, especially if you're prone to editing every sentence as soon as it's written. And it's probably best, if you're doing a large project, to take small editing breaks, perhaps after each chapter. But the overall idea remains: let the draft come first, and then the revisions.

Once the first draft is done, it's time to step out of your mind. Some of you are liking this step because you feel like you're already there. But I mean it seriously--try to look at your writing through someone else's eyes. Note the places where you've taken the reader's knowledge for granted, failing to fully explain something. Look for the pesky grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes that trip the reader up. Ask someone else to read the piece and tell you the places where they lost track of your meaning.

For especially imaginative writers, this may be intensely challenging. Once the impetus of creativity is exhausted, slogging through the revision becomes a dreaded task to be hurried through or avoided. But don't let yourself down. If you went through the trouble of dreaming up the piece and tussling with its unruliness as you transcribed it, then put yourself through the trouble of sanding it down and polishing it up.

Above all, be ruthless. Be so ruthless that you can cut out your very favorite paragraphs if they don't add to the overall piece. Be so ruthless that you would rather start over than keep going on a piece that can't be edited out of its poor quality. Be so ruthless that, when it comes to your professional work, you won't accept less than your best work.

I wish I was more this way, but I loathe editing after the first couple of drafts. This has led me to the embarrassing position of having transform a blog that is equal parts portfolio and journal, and liberally sprinkled with errors, into a more coherent site that has been fully edited and corrected, even as I call myself a writer and write for other publications. Still, it will be worth it in the end, when my freely written pieces have been built up into freely readable pieces.

All in all, it's not a complicated process or an original idea: write freely, edit mercilessly. But it works; it really does. And you can't ask more of a “writing technique” than that.

You can learn more about Katharine Thorpe at her website or check out her poetry book Distil.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Racing Ahead

I’m using this phrase to describe a standard plot tactic which covers everything from ensuring the heart-warming outcome of the most bodice-tattered romance (just as the evil villain of the piece is about to spirit away the heroine) to the glory-drenched rescue of the most beleaguered troops (in the nick of time as the enemy hordes threaten to descend upon them). Hollywood's corny overuse of the latter has even caused the phrase "here come the cavalry" to be coined.

So, what's the ‘racing ahead' bit got to do with anything, then?
Time flies when you're having fun
I’m acknowledging the way in which the detrimental 'here come the cavalry' device can be happily avoided by authors. This tag refers to an almost deus ex machina solution whereby the 'good guys' (for which read anyone from the suave doctor on his white horse to a bunch of bedraggled starship warriors) arrive at exactly the right point in space and time without apparent thought for how this might occur. My label, racing ahead, is aimed at determining a viable way for describing how the hero/heroes and the victim get there.

To make both paths clear (that of the rescuer and the rescuee) two of the most popular ways of achieving this consist of separating the storylines into two discrete sections within the book or by splitting the tale into a number of discrete alternating chapters: for example, odd-numbered = victim, even-numbered = hero. It's the latter ‘alternating’ process that I'd like to discuss here and I'm going to use the book I'm currently reading to illustrate my point although I won't mention its name or title for fairly obvious reasons.
To give a bit of background, the underlying story is a harrowing one relating to the consequences of human trafficking. As our victim gets drawn ever deeper into the tenaciously sticky web of his evil abusers, his band of would-be rescuers are themselves forced to descend to depths that they would have preferred to leave unplumbed. Apart from the primary subject matter being highly worthwhile, the associated crisis of conscience for his rescue party also intrigues me.

Unfortunately the author's made a common mistake with the way in which the book's been structured, being of the erroneous opinion that chapters have to alternate between victim and rescuer. No such rule exists and I've labeled the process 'racing ahead' as it seems to resemble a race - who can get to the finish first? I'm sure that there's some literary terminology for this but I'm a plain-speaking guy and my nomenclature will have to suffice here.
Writing a book this way works if you can:

  • Control the time periods so that each chapter spans a virtually identical period of time
  • Generate a sufficient number of interesting and noteworthy actions/events for each of the characters in each of the chapters
  • Avoid the unenviable situation of B needing A to have done something before B can do something that will cause A to perform the original action - a circular argument, in other words
George R R Martin doffs his cap at the first problem in his foreword to Game of Thrones (which is a perfect example of 'racing') in which he acknowledges that chapter lengths are completely uneven in the time period that they cover. However, like him or hate him, his books are not short of action and he gets away with it.

Circular arguments are always going to be an issue and worthy of a blog topic in itself.
The problem lies with the attempt to juggle characters and the need to maintain interest. In the case of the book I'm reading, it's come at the price of cutting back on the time given to the victim's struggles with his abusers (which is fascinating) in order to give air time to what is currently a rather uninteresting travelogue as the rescuers attempt to get to where he's been taken captive. Later on their side of the story might well take over the lead from the captive’s but, at the moment, I'd rather read about him than them.

What could have been a real page-turner transforms itself into something soporific as the author strives to spin out text with labored accounts of hotel rooms, meals, the weather etc. Next thing we're back with our main man getting mutilated à la 'Kunte Kinte' (my name is not 'Toby') from Roots. The two threads are completely incomparable and almost insulting in the way in which they are being equated.
It's easy to get a raspberry
There's absolutely no reason why chapters have to alternate nor do they need to be of equal length (expressed in either words or time period). As long as the threads legitimately come together at the dénouement stage, the rest is by the way.

After all, this is one of those cases when racing ahead is not the objective – if you’re aiming for an exciting tale, what you want is a virtual dead heat.

Besides being an author, Clive West co-runs Any Subject Books, a book publishing company which specializes in seeking out new and exciting talent. Click here if you'd like to know more about the book publishing services which they offer.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Writing a Sequel: Labor of Love or a Really Good Way to Pull Your Hair Out?

I always thought writing a follow up book to a novel would be easy. Perhaps it is for some writers. However, for me it's a challenging process that makes me understand why some authors just don't do it.

I mean, is there really anything more to tell about these characters anyway?

Of course there is! There's always another path that could be explored in a character's history or world, but I guess the big question is should it be explored? And if the answer is yes, how do you go about doing it?

This past year as a ghostwriter I wrote a trilogy for a client. It was definitely one of the more challenging things I've done. Writing sequels takes time and thought, and you have to be willing to look at the overall story arc for three books rather than just focusing on the one. This means doing  a lot of pre-planning. Keep in mind that your pre-planning may go out the window if a character decides to get uppity and take on a mind of its own.

The best tools I came up with to help keep the story arc focused and coherent were to write outlines for each of the sequels to the original. I hate creating a synopsis for something I haven't written yet. It always makes me feel that my creativity is being told what to do instead of just flowing free. In this case, writing out the synopsis proved to be invaluable. Having the outline allowed me to keep sight of where I was going with each book and make little changes as needed.

This is something that I've already implemented in to my Bayou trilogy and with the follow up for Nephilim---something that is long over due!

However, I'm always curious about other writers and their processes. How do you handle writing sequels? What follow up tools do you use?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Foreseen by Terri-Lynne Smiles-- a review

Title: Foreseen
Author: Terri-Lynne Smiles
Word Count/Pages: 403
Genre: YA/NA
Format: soft cover, mobi, ePub
Total Rating: 4.6

Plot: 5
Characters: 5
Setting: 4
Execution: 4
Cover: 5

In Foreseen, debut author Terri-Lynne Smiles creates a believable world filled with sparkling characters that work their way into your heart and leave you thinking about them long after the final page is turned.

The idea behind Foreseen is quite clever and lifts the story above most others that are currently available in this genre: living among us are people with the ability to 'see' into the future and who can use that ability to read minds and influence decisions in a limited sense. These people refer to themselves as adepts. They've been around forever, have secret institutes, are bent on world domination, etc., etc., etc... Yeah, yeah, already seen that one. Except Ms. Smiles separates herself from the paranormal pack by linking these powers to actual science. I had feared the plot would get bogged down in the science but again, she does a scintillating job of using the science without trying to explain anything, a challenging tightrope from which most authors plummet shrieking to the ground. Smiles, to her credit, walks this tightrope adeptly, if I can use that word, while doing backflips and holding a chair with a tea pot balanced on a pool cue.

The main character is an awkward, though highly-intelligent, college freshman named Kinzie. While I'm not female, I do remember my freshman year and Kinzie's hangups check all the boxes without pandering. Her foil is a guy named Greg who is good looking and popular and, amazingly, a physics major. This might be part of why I like this story so much because I was a good looking, popular, physics major in college. Well, at least the third one is true. At any rate, the conflicts between them are both powerful and believable unlike much of the artificial conflict we find on pages these days. Together Greg and Kinzie get caught up in a web of intrigue centered on The Rothston Institute, the secret organization of adepts in America. It is here that Smiles also hits a home run by creating likable villains and heroes, along with a secret society of self-proclaimed do-gooders that do about as much good as congress - in every sense of the metaphor.

While the pacing of the story is a bit slow out of the gate, it picks up and builds along the way resulting in a thrilling ending. Again, this is my kind of story. I prefer stories that build and reach a climax that is actually linked to the events in the story so I've given the plot a 5. There are no holes, a biggie for me, and she does a great job setting up a sequel while at the same time providing a satisfying ending.

All of Smiles' characters are excellent as is her dialog. I really think this is her strength and see a successful career ahead of her as a writer since Character is King (and Queen) in the modern writing paradigm. 5 for characters.

If the story has any weaknesses, setting is one of them, but that is just personal preference.  I tend to like stories set in odd places, which are also the stories I like to write. Again, personal preference, but she does a good job with the setting she chooses to use. 4 on setting.

While this seems like a book that should be from a major publisher, it is, in fact, an indie publication and the editing is not as thorough. At least, the copy editing. The editing is excellent in that the story flows very well, but there are some typos here and there. Certainly not a reason to overlook this one. 4 on execution.

Being a guy I'm not a fan of covers with scantily clad guys on them. This cover is well thought out and features a surprise that ties in with the themes of the story. I'm not going to tell you what it is, only to say that it is hidden in plain sight. Whether or not it is a cover that will sell books based solely on the cover I don't know, but I personally like it. 5 on the cover.

If you're looking for a smart read with strong characters and meaningful themes that are presented well but do not beat you over the head, you should definitely give Foreseen a look. While the characters make it primarily a book for females, I liked it a lot and usually don't care for this genre. While it fits snugly into the New Adult category, it is suitable for late middle school kids as well.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Spilling the beans - writing an autobiography

Better on toast
”I'm writing my memoirs". Remember this phrase? It used to describe some old boy chewing his stubby pencil down to its point while painstakingly (or is it tediously?) reconstructing all the major events in his life. Ultimately, these 'memoirs' would almost certainly never see the light of day, and if they did, they'd probably end up being vanity published because no publisher or agent would touch them. You can just see it now, our superannuated pen-pusher desperately trying to give away copies of his life's work to any poor passing padre.

He’s the sort of person who goes to a party, family meeting etc with a trunk load of copies of his book. “Don’t invite Harry for goodness sake!!!”
She could tell a tale or two
The autobiographies that did get published were typically the semi-literate ruminations of the well-heeled and famous, descriptions of the drugged excesses of some rock guitarist or actor or an account of the trials and tribulations of an explorer who'd managed to survive six months in sub-zero temperatures with just a bag of peanuts.

I'm assuming if you're thinking of taking advantage of the self-publishing revolution and are writing an autobiography, you’re not in one of these three categories – correct? So, if you're not one of life's notables, does this mean that you've nothing worthwhile to say?
Not at all.

Especially since much of what makes a successful autobiography is merely a matter of perspective. A monarch, president or pop-star says that they like a particular brand of coffee and not only is it front page news, they're probably paid a not-so-small fortune by the coffee company for that five-second throwaway comment. Yet, if I now tell you my favorite brand, you'll go "What's this idiot raving about? BORING!".
You see, what makes an autobiography worth reading is often merely a matter of perspective.

Anyone outside the UK may not have seen the hilarious (yet well-observed) series 'Ripping Yarns' which was written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Although its Monty Python roots do make it somewhat over the top (as you can imagine), one episode in particular illustrates my comment about it not being a case of what you say, but who you are.
In 'The Testing of Eric Olthwaite', Eric (Michael Palin) is the "World's Most Boring Person". At every opportunity, he proudly drones on about his new shovel and the 'blackness' of his mother's black pudding (‘apart from the white bits’), with the unsurprising consequence that people just drive him off. At the end of the episode (and after he's involuntarily become famous), everyone wants to hear his previously boring anecdotes. When a young boy in the crowd that’s gathered around him subsequently grumbles about having to listen, his mother clips his ear and tells him that it's extremely interesting and that he should pay attention.

Thus, if you can’t be famous, you need to be entertaining. In a nutshell, an autobiography written by one of us 'plebs' needs to be something which will catch the attention of the reader and keep them entertained. This means you have to build into it humor, pathos, emotion, love, hate and all the other strong feelings. Besides this, it has to have an identifiable storyline, just like fiction.
I thought it was interesting
Sadly, too many ‘autobiographers’ will concentrate more on the minutiae than on these two simple (ahem) elements – that is, the human interest and enticing story thread. You and your immediate circle may well find your story meaningful and relevant but stop and think of it as a novel for a moment - would someone want to buy it (and keep it)? If you've got to hard-sell it to a buyer, the book’s going to flop. From the author’s point of view, a flopped autobiography is worse than a flopped novel because it's all too easy to perceive it as a slap in the face (which it isn't, by the way).

With that in mind, it's probably best to cut your teeth on fiction. Make your mistakes with some short stories or novellas which won't wound you so much if they don't rocket up the charts. If they do, then your autobiography will sell itself, of course!
Another thing is that you've also got to consider your starting point. Do you do it chronologically or do you organize it by eventfulness? Always remember the need for it to lead the reader through and keep them amused. Never labor points and maintain a light touch to your writing - a page of dense text describing some trivial item in detail is undoubtedly going to lose you your reader. The book needs to be ‘lean and mean’ because, if they encounter self-indulgence, they'll simply start flicking pages and then, the next thing, the book will get returned.

The real problem you're going to face is that no-one knows who you are. Why would anyone buy a book about a 'nobody' (no offence intended)? You've got to create interest - both with a catchy cover and title and also with as much publicity as you can muster.
On that subject, large adverts cost a lot of money and if you aren't selling what the buyer wants to buy (because you’re not famous), you'll just end up wasting your hard-earned pennies. The solution is, instead of pushing your book at people, get them to come looking for you.

But how do you do this?
Obviously much is going to depend upon what the main 'selling' point of the book is but, in general terms, you should consider:

  • Contacting all your local newspapers
  • Sending out a press release (remember, you need that angle)
  • Befriending like-minded people, groups on Facebook - maybe get a few independent readers to look over what you've done
  • Writing blog articles (like this one) and getting them put up on relevant sites
  • Creating a website and blogging about your experiences
  • Producing a short video which you can then embed in your blog
Basically, anything and everything you can do to craft a reason why someone should purchase your autobiography. They need to want to read about you so, demonstrate that you've something to say by getting 'out there'.

If you’ve taken your autobiography and shaped it into a fascinating story which creates passion and depth of feeling in an independent reader, your memoirs are now truly memorable.
Aiming True, the autobiography of Conrad Phillips has just been published by Any Subject Books. While Conrad does manage to meet the criterion of having been an actor for nearly 50 years, in his book he’s made excellent use of humor and the lightness of touch that I’ve described in this blog. Unlike many other such autobiographies, Aiming True’s not a barrage of name-dropping. If you read it, you’ll see that his anecdotes manage to both divert and entice you to read more – a goal for anyone writing up their life story.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Ending North Korea

I know this blog isn't a political forum, but if you follow my work at all you know I have an abiding interest in seeing Kim Il-sung's personality cult go the same way as Nazi Germany, namely, into the history books. And that interest is directly related to my writing.

My interest in North Korea began some years ago when I had an idea for a story. The plot followed a suspense structure and involved nuclear weapons. After researching the potential settings, Iran, Iraq, etc., it was clear that North Korea was by far the most interesting. That novel was ultimately published as The Silla Project and tells the story of a nuclear scientist abducted by North Koreans for obvious reasons.

In my mind, the novel was a Clancy-style suspense thriller but that isn't the way it came out. Not at all. Like most Americans I viewed North Korea as a land of lunatics who mindlessly worship Kim Which-ever. I mean, how else could such a tyrannical regime survive for so long if the people didn't support it? And I've seen them on TV, going nuts over some pudgy guy in coke-bottle glasses and wearing a leisure suit. I mean, why else would the population turn out in the millions for Kim Il-sung's birthday today, as if nothing was wrong at all? Such nuttiness was a perfect setting for my hero to plunge into darkness then return with guns blazing, bent on a Chuck Norris-level body count. They deserve it. How wrong I was, and it is the collective misperception of the West that allows the Kim Dynasty to continue.

Prior to really writing The Silla Project, I actually spent about four years researching the place; it is that fascinating. An alien planet right here on Earth where, through the most invasive public security apparatus the world has ever seen, citizens are kept in line through terror, intimidation, denial of outside information, universal propaganda, and starvation. Malnourished people can't foment rebellion. Imagine a place where one in four people works for the secret police as an informer. Where any negative comment about the regime by another citizen may be real, or may be a loyalty test administered by an agent. If you don't turn them in you and your entire family could wind up in a re-education camp. If you do turn them in, your neighbor may wind up there. Would you place a portrait of Kim Jong-un in your child's crib? You would in North Korea. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Is getting rid of this horror going to require unthinkable bloodshed?

It is sad that fewer and fewer of us now remember the Soviet Union. Kids today don't even know what CCCP means. If you grew up in the shadow of the Communists we all "just knew" that ending the Bolshevik scourge was going to take World War III. But I remember how it fell, and it was pretty much without a shot being fired. We like to think it was the flow of information across the Iron Curtain that brought down the Soviets but in truth, that didn't happen until the West began to understand the truth. Like with North Korea, the typical westerner, and especially the typical American, viewed Soviet citizens as fanatical nut cases, not worth saving. Why else would they have all those parades when their country was crumbling around them? That was until a series of books and movies finally began to portray them as human beings and the West decided those under the Eastern Bloc weren't willing participants as much as hostages. Chief among these might have been Tom Clancy's Hunt For Red October, primarily the movie version. The same thing needs to happen with North Korea and it is my hope that The Silla Project and other works might help bring it about. 

For whatever reason the mainstream media has little interest in North Korea other than lampooning it on late night television. One would think that one of the major publishers would pick up a North Korean nuclear thriller but, as far as I know, mine is the only one out there. And there have been no major movies set in North Korea since Pork Chop Hill in 1959. There are a few books on North Korea such as The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson or Melanie Kirkpatrick's non-fiction Escape From North Korea, but nothing that's really broken into the mainstream.

If you like a good, strong, non-fiction account of things, I'd suggest Ms. Kirkpatrick's book. If you lean more towards political espionage you would probably prefer The Orphan Master's Son, though the names can get confusing. And if you like a science fiction romance set on an alien planet, I'm going to plug my own book, The Silla Project, to fill that hole. Yes, North Korea is an alien planet and yes, my nuclear thriller is in fact a romance, though approaches it from the more traditional, less 50-Shades direction. And since the story is told primarily through the eyes of an American, the names are a lot less confusing. Let's face it, Korean names can be pretty confusing to Western readers. Any of these books will do a good job of changing the way you look at Korea, though only one of them is up for an award given specifically to the book that most redirects thought or changes the way you see things. :-)

Fortunately, Kim Jong-un is shining a light on his own travesty at the moment giving books like mine more attention than they usually get.  I was actually interviewed on Columbus Ohio's NBC affiliate on Sunday as a rocket scientist, author, and North Korea expert. As I told Colleen Marshall in the interview, North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons aren't the fear. The fear is two armies facing each other with their guns loaded and tanks fueled. Wars have started in situations like this when someone other than a leader does something stupid. Like when Gavros Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and kicked off World War I. And the more the sabers get rattled, the more likely it is that this will happen.

The West needs to get educated about North Korea the same way we drive education on thorny issues like AIDS and guns. Once the free world has a more accurate image then something meaningful will happen regarding the horrors taking place as we sit in our nice, comfortable homes reading blogs on devices still unknown to 95% of North Koreans, using freedoms unknown to all of them. I would predict that one major motion picture set in North Korea and staring Brad Pitt would bring about the end of the Kim Dynasty in less than ten years. And that is far preferable to bringing about the end of North Korea with guns, tanks, and 10 million dead. As they say, the pen really is mightier than the sword. Brad? You'd be a perfect Mitch.

Until next time,

John C. Brewer is the author of Multiplayer an MMOG YA SF novel, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance that is a finalist for the 2013 Eric Hoffer Awards, Montaigne Medal. You can learn more about him and what he is doing at his website,

Friday, April 12, 2013

Writing Advice from J.I. Bartholomew

I’ve been writing for a few years now and have been having a great time. I write adventure novels for young adults and children, although grown-ups seem to enjoy the stories too.

One of the things that astounds me the most is the nature of writing. Creative writing is about making dreams real. Looking deeply into the process, the writer has a vision, a day dream of monsters or heroes playing out across the mind, and with this miracle of words can let others share the dream. The writer’s thoughts become words, the words written down, the words read and made into thoughts which bring the vision to the reader.

I recall finding that vision as a child. I don’t know which book it was, but there was a moment when reading became effortless and the words faded into the background, vibrant images and clear voices filling my young imagination. What enlightenment! That was when reading became no chore.

The creative process for me is a delicate balance. I tend to write longhand while doing the first draft for a purely practical reason. The speed I write longhand seems to match the speed that my brain dreams the day dreams. Of course later I will type out, improve the words, neaten things up, polish, get frustrated with, enjoy, rewrite, etc. in no fixed order. So, that is my writing. I jot down my day dreams and make them sound better, offering them to others to dream too.

A little advice for anyone starting out and having no clue how to start. The snowflake method. Google it, and you might find it helpful in getting your ideas and writing organised. It’s basically about Story and Character. You think up some basic story, then you think up some basic characters to live the story. Then you go back to the story and make it denser. With the denser story, you go back and make the characters more real. And so on, switching back and forth between story and character until, at last, you have a good plot outline and a clear idea of who these people are.

I’ve always been of the opinion that anything goes. Write what you want to write, and don’t think about anything but doing it well. If you love your work then your passion will attract readers. Writers have that same need in them that other artists have, to create. We paint with words, carving out the stories, moulding what we see and hear inside, bringing this into the world. My editor says that all books are already there, existing somewhere invisible in the ether. We need only learn to read what is not yet real. The stories yet to be told, sleeping deeply in the dream world, dormant until a reader reads the words. There is the magic. Perhaps all books are spell books that make worlds inside us. 

J.I.Bartholomew is the author of the Swift Chronicles.



Beyond Tomb Mountain is available from and may be downloaded for the Kindle. Click here for the Amazon purchase link!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

All at sea, washed up or sunk without a trace - setting your story by the sea

It's not surprising that many authors set some or all of their stories on the coast. The power of the sea, the romance of the beach or a life on the waves and the tempestuous storms that can arise in a matter of minutes all make for a stunning backdrop to any tale.

Unfortunately many writers are so keen to exhaust their thesaurus for dramatic adjectives and adverbs that they forget the little details which undermine the canny reader's confidence in the whole book. If you think otherwise, just take a look at IMDB and read the 'goofs' that film-makers are deemed to have made.
Here are some typical examples of the sort of thing people complain about:

        "This song sung by the sailors wasn't popular until 2 years after when the film was set"
        "The ship's flag said that it was altering its course to starboard and yet it turned to port"
        "The sun was too low on the horizon for the supposed latitude"
... and so on.
You can call these people whatever you like but the simple fact is that if you incur the wrath of one, they are going to return your book (meaning you lose the sale) and probably rubbish it through a bad review.
Here's a short checklist. It's far from exhaustive and only intended to get you thinking along the right lines:
        Longshore drift
        Changing dune profiles
        Sand and shingle sizes
        Rock pools
        Harbour channels
Some obvious mistakes you might make:
Your character is walking along the coast. How do they cross an estuarine river or stream you've been describing? How do they get around the harbor mouth you've featured? What about passing in front of the cliffs at high tide? Many harbors are created around a river mouth. If your character tries to row directly across, the currents will sweep them out to sea - they need to row in a big curve inside the harbor.
These are just some of the physical details you may need to pick up on. Additionally there are the flora and fauna to consider. What life can be found at what time of year, at what latitude and on what sort of beach?
Even if your story is simply about someone sunbathing, you still need to consider the position of the sun in the sky, the shadows, and how someone would go about getting in the shade.

The best way of avoiding these and similar pitfalls is to draw a timeline of the action and to use a real location so that you can get plenty of pictures from Google Earth. If this is not possible or does not suit your book, then draw a detailed map of the area showing high and low tide lines, rock formations (you may need to think of the geology) and currents.
Yes, this is a lot of work but then it's part of the job description for a professional author. It's also a habit that will serve you well and prevent you from winning the 'Goof of the month' award.

If you'd like to read a well-written book which is centered around the coast, check out Skolthan by Damaris West. She really knows the land where the book is set and paints such a clear picture of it that you genuinely do see through the eyes of Hilda, the principal character and narrator. The moodiness of the salt flats and the treachery of the paths and channels clutches you and you will find yourself treading gingerly after reading it.
Skolthan - A Paranormal Thriller is an excellent story and one which uses its setting to the full. It serves as a good study for anyone looking to make the most of a pericoastal backdrop.


Damaris West is a successful novelist, short story writer, poet and publisher. She has written 3 novels, authored an anthology of children’s stories, co-written a book about dog training and penned an off-the-wall guide to Umbria, Italy, along with hundreds of poems. These books are now for sale on Amazon with an anthology of her poems due to be published shortly.
She is keenly enthusiastiac in the correct and deliberate choice of vocabulary to create a vision of characters and places that seems to give them a third dimension. Her own favorite authors are Gavin Maxwell and Rumer Godden.
Apart from writing, Damaris runs Any Subject Books Ltd along with her husband and co-writer, Clive West. New writers are always welcome at the agency.