Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Unravelling Visions

I'm proud and delighted to announce the publication date of the next book in the Shaman Mystery Series by Nina Milton. Midnight Ink will be publishing the follow-up to In the Moors, in October 2014. It will be titled Unravelling Visions and, as before, feature Sabbie Dare, the Somerset shaman who has burst upon the crime fiction scene.

Unravelling Visions
 opens on the hottest day in August, when a young girl is pulled from a Bridgwater wharf, her body so mutilated that it makes identification impossible. Months later Sabbie Dare’s nemesis DS Abbott is found dead after the Bridgewater Carnival. The Bridgewater police are on high alert.
Meanwhile, Romanies Kizzy and Mirela Brouviche have come to England from Bulgaria in the hope of finding their fortune, but soon after Sabbie meets Kizzy at the carnival, the Roma disappears, leaving her young sister Mirela stranded and afraid for her sister. Sabbie is determined to help her in her search, but her shamanic journeys are confusing…her visions unravelled…and they lead Sabbie into dangerous territoriy. This includes being chatted up by immigration worker Fergus Brown, who is reticent on what he knows about the Romany sisters. And while she begins to suspect that the owners of Papa Bulgaria, where Kizzy and Mirela worked, are somehow involved with Kizzy’s disappearance, she also needs to factor in Eric Atkinson, the leader of a sinister cult, who seems too interested in Sabbie's new neighbours, Drea and Andy. Sabbie journeys into Drea's spirit world and is confrontated with a terrifying anaconda. Drea is shocked and distressed by Sabbie’s revelations and shortly afterwards disappears.

Are Kizzy and Drea’s disappearances related? Is Eric Attkinson's cult a danger? What led Garry Abbott to die alone of a single gunshot to the head in a darkened alleyway? Is his death linked to Papa Bulgaria's carnival float of gypsy dancers? Should Sabbie accept a date with charming Irishman Fergus? While Sabbie is facing these questions, she also has to cope with the discovery of her long-dead mother’s family, whose surprising appearance is set to take the wind out of her sails.

A disapproving DI Rey Buckley instructs Sabbie to stay well away from his case…and away from him. Naturally, Sabbie does the opposite. Her headstrong nature leads her right to the heart of trouble.

Terri Bischof, the acquisitions editor at Midnight Ink says of Unravelling Visions…
I loved the masuscript.The Shaman Mysteries are among my favourite series. I look forward to book three very much! Again, this is a great book!

I hope you'll enjoy it too, once it's been released. Of course, if you haven't yet obtained your copy of In the Moors, now's the time to do so. Why not drop into your local library and ask for it? Or, if you're feeling flush, ask your local Waterstones to order it in for you;
(Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0738738360 Publisher:MIDNIGHT INK (1 Sep 2013) )

If you have a copy, and you've finished it, why not write your name and the date at the front and loan it to a friend or relative? That way more people get to enjoy the book before the follow-up arrives!

Monday, 10 February 2014

Writing That Very First Draft

Are you starting to write a longer piece of work for the first time? A novel for young people? A novella or novel? A full-length piece of creative non-fiction?
An article in Writing Magazine this month suggests that writing ‘little and often’ rather than ‘spurge and purge’ is the most successful way to complete that important Draft 1. 
They recommend that you either:
    • Set an achievable number of words per day (say, 500) and write this without fail (even Christmas Day if possible!)
    • Make a resolution to write something ever day, even if it’s only a paragraph.

little and often or spluge and purge
This is good advice; advice that seems to conflict with the ethos of NaNoWriMo, an annual, international novel writing project that asks subscribers to write 2000 words per day for whole of  November. This is 60,000 words done and dusted, and for me, last year, it worked really well. It meant that by the end of January I had almost completed my third novel’s first scribblings; Draft 1. However, it’s not the entire picture, and NaNoWriMo’s theory of ‘spurge and purge’ isn’t all that far away from the far less rigorous suggestions in Writing Magazine. 
The crux of both methods is regularity. In the past, every novel I’ve written, both for children and adults, was attempted sporadically, and this, I now realize, is what puts the biggest handbrake on completing a project. Every time I returned to my slowly growing body of work, I discovered that I hadn’t touched for far longer a time than I’d realized. I had to get back in the grove everytime I started writing, yet again finding the right voice…remembering the plot…reading through enough past writing to get me going again…and that usually led me to unnecessarily edit what had already been drafted and tinker with sections that, later, I removed anyway, rather than battling on with the next part of the story.

For this new project, I’m writing as often as I can. I’m not letting the story slip out of my mind for more than 24 maximum at a time. Even a paragraph is better than a day with nothing done. 
If you commence a longer piece of writing, it is most likely to fail if you can’t write it regularly; every day if possible. With that fundamental in place, it then doesn’t matter much whether you attempt a socially crippling 2000+ words or a tiny little paragraph; the important thing, I’ve found, is to write as a routine. To think of that little daily task in the same way you think about cleaning your teeth.
I started with zero words and had 60,000 on month later; two months after that I’m so close to the end, it’s frightening. But even 250 words a day for a year will net you 90,000 words. That’s a novel, folks. Think about that for one moment. Just 250 words a day.
Of course, nothing is quite that simple. Those 90,000 words (which is the amount I’ve complete in 3 months of Draft 1 work) are not going to be perfect. What you do have (and where I am right now) is a first attempt that is a concrete foundation draft you can now work on. Mind you, ‘concrete’ is not the right word at all. A ‘plasticine draft’ is a better way of looking at it. Something you can mould into the novel of your choice.
My thoughts and written notes on my 90,000 words look like this;
    • Some of the words/paras/chapters will have to go
    • Some new words – ideas, enrichments, changes – will have to be accomplished
    • Some parts will have to be moved; juggled about
    • Some character profiles need alteration, or souping up
    • Some characters should be removed from the stage altogether
    • Some of the work needed will be very bitty; sentences taken out, conversations rearranged, names changed.
    • An overall view of the draft will point up the sagging sections and where further dramatic tension should be added - not to mention whether the overall thing works!
    • Although I thought I was writing things in the order I wanted them, I haven’t done so; this suggests that it’s not necessary to write things in the right order at all at Draft 1 stage.
These changes, taken from the beginning again, constitute Draft 2. Bear in mind, I haven’t written my ending. This is because, as I headed rapidly in the direction of the last 20 or so thousand words, I realized the ending I’d been visualizing was foggy, lacking in tension, and was probably unworkable. So I made the decision to stop at 90,000 words and start on Draft 2 without a resolution. This, I have to say, is proving a good decision; already my ideas are clearer and more dramatic; they continue to shape and change. In the meantime, as I work through the novel, adding new ideas, pumping up the drama, reshaping and fine-tuning characters and taking out the dull bits, I’m getting that ‘overview’ that was impossible during Draft 1, because I didn’t read backwards at all. 
Hopefully, when I reach in Draft 2 the point where I broke off after 90,000 words in Draft 1, I’ll find myself pummelling ahead towards the finishing line, now clear in my mind how my ending will work.
As I go, I do edit – to be honest, I can’t help it. In my opinion, if you see that a full stop is missing, you’d be daft not to put it in. But Draft 2 is not the editing draft. Don’t waste time thinking it needs to be perfect for delivery to an editor. There is going to be a mighty lot of work to do in drafts 3 and 4, before anyone other than your tutor or writing group sees a word. 
Don’t look forward to much at all, it will only lead you to despair. Just keep the small, direct task in mind – writing those tiny bits every day is what will get you there. If you haven’t written Draft 1, with its red herrings, blind alleys, stone walls, wild goose chases, 2-dimensional characters, creaking conversations and other imperfections, you effectively have nothing; you don’t have any plasticine to work with.

Preperation counts for a lot
I must say one thing about preparation, though. We’ve just sacked our decorators, here at Rhos Hill, because they failed to do the preparation necessary and their coat of emulsion peeled off the walls (still internally damp from external continual rain!). Preparation is everything, whatever the task. Before you start to ‘write a tiny bit each day’ or take the challenge of 2000 word-a-day splurge, be sure to resolve that you have some sort of pathway to tread. 
It is my strong advice that you don’t start with the notion that ‘the ideas will come if I write’. What will come is a brick wall. Even if your plan for the story could be written on the back of a till receipt, or pitched in a 20 second elevator ride, make sure you have that plan. Before I started NaNoWriMo, I talked the ideas I had through with my husband and with other writers. I started a notebook, filling it with disparate thoughts. I created a rough timeline and pinned it up. I named my main characters and did little sketches about them. This was partly to create stronger characterizations, but also successfully to see where they’d fit into the prototype plot and where they might move it along. The best ideas spring out of who the characters are and what they’re doing to enrich the story. After all, that’s how our real-life stories work; they work via the people we know, love, like, hate, or tolerate.

A word to my students – all writing students, really. When your tutor or mentor reads and assesses your submitted pieces of work, they set up a paradox for my neat little template of writing a novel by not stopping and not looking back. The tutor will mark your work and suggest changes in the understanding that you’ll deal with their feedback. This is a dilemma; do you spend precious writing time sorting out the little redrafts of 3000 or so words, trying to bring Draft 1 work to Draft 2 level before you've finished your first draft? Or do you ignore the feedback and battle on with the novel? 
The obvious best plan of action is to keep to your resolution of writing every day; on…and on and on…until you have your entire Draft 1. Stopping to work on little snippets the tutor returns will only hold up your progress and might even curtail it altogether. You can only take this plan of action, however if your tutor isn’t expecting to see ‘set homework’. And if you’re an OCA student, intent on being assessed for your work then you simply must stop and deal with the feedback as it comes, or at least towards the end of the course. 
The happy medium solution is to put aside a certain number of hours for redrafting, utilizing the suggestions you like. As an example, I would suggest that every time you have some writing space, you return to some of the tutor’s comments, find the relevant sections and work on them. But do this after you’ve written your daily new lot of words. That way you’ll make even faster progress, because what you learn from redrafting completed assignments, using tutors’ comments, will be of value when you write on. 

I wish you luck with your long-term writing endeavour; I do hope you wish me luck with mine. 

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Starting to Write Short Stories

Short strories can be read on any medium;
 book, magazine or electronically

In a previous blogpost on the short story, I looked at how the short story works today and wondered at its level of popularity. I do sometimes worry that the only people who read the short story are people who write, or want to write short stories. Even worse, some people start writing short stories only as a practice run for writing a novel. But the short story is a form of literature in its own right, able to strike directly into the heart and mind without preamble. The compulsion to tell stories is a very powerful and ancient one which continues to have a place in our modern culture. Commuters on the New York subway still read the latest short fiction, as they did a hundred years ago, proving just how strong a means of expression it is.
There’s nothing wrong with getting on and putting pen to paper if you have a story in your head, but at some point, it makes sense to define what a short story is. Of course it should entertain, engage, provoke empathy and possibly inform or even inspire, but that doesn’t set it apart from other forms of creative writing – a play, for instance.  And the modern short story as it’s been developed since the beginning of the 19th century is also very different to the stories we tell over a dinner table…or the retelling of a legend, for instance. 

Short stories can demonstrate how diverse, joyful, outrageous comic, sad, illogical, cruel, and mysterious the human experience is – it should be a snapshot; a moment of illumination – enclosed in a capsule, entire to itself, drawing its being from a single point of emotion or wonder. Or, to quote Isobelle Carmody, a microcosm and a magnification

One thing that I really love about writing short stories is that there are not many fixed rules. You have carte blanche to create something original every time. If you read through the Unchained Anthology, you’ll see that diversity proved with every new story. 

Of course there are guidelines. The main ones are;
  • use a small cast of characters
  • keep the timeline as short as possible
  • have, a single theme
  • resolve your story satisfactorily
  • every word has to count

Having sorted out a single theme, never wander away from the central point, as, for instance an anecdote might do. A short story is never an anecdote (which is an account of a probably true, often humorous, possibly exaggerated incident), while a modern short story has a narrative arc which builds tension throughout or towards the end and finishes with a resolution. The narrative must demonstrate a coherent progression towards the satisfying conclusion which, by definition, is never far away.

Even so, many a fine short story has successfully handled a bevy of characters, an extended timeline, or an ending that lacks closure. It might even appear, at first glance, to be a collection of vivid but disjointed impressions. But the story still has to be rigorous in its construction…it must be a whole.

There is only one rule that can never be broken, and that is length. A short story has to be short. But how short? Are there minimum or maximum word counts that short fiction must sit between? The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms describes the short story thus: “A fictional tale of no specified length, but too short to be published as a volume of its own, as novellas sometimes and novels usually are. A short story will normally concentrate on a single event with only one or two characters, more economically than a novel’s sustained exploration of social background. This isn’t just a good definition, it’s great advice: concentrate on a single event with only one or two characters. Doing this, at least to begin with, will prevent you from falling into many of the concealed pits that have been dug across the short story writer’s path.

The blank page or screen can represent a terror to many writers, not just writing students. But there are strategies you can employ to overcome any problems with writer’s block. What I love about creating short stories, is the opportunity it gives me to conjure small moments out of my own imagination. Although, like everyone else, I sometimes chew my pen and wonder what the heck to write about, the fact is, ideas for short fiction are everywhere – look out the window for inspiration – look around the room. 
When we were asked to write on a specific theme – that of library – for the Unchained Anthology, every single member of  Bristol Women Writers came up with an amazing story. For me, almost immediately I heard about the theme, the idea of writing about the library at Alexandria came into my mind because I’m interested in the tarot and wanted to investigate the legend of it being created to represent the books lost in the fire, but also because Hypatia was an amazing, but rather forgotten, female role model and writing about her was appealing.   
So finding the clue to starting your story can be as simple as being ‘told’ what to write about, or choosing one random word, or, as writers often do in a workshop environment, choose a picture or photo and allowing the story it tells you to develop into a piece of short fiction.

The anthology can be ordered from Amazon
 or from the Unchained website (details below) 
One way I get started, which I recommend, is by sifting through a shoe box full of a miscellany of clippings, photos and picture cuttings. Every so often, I add things to this box; a quote I liked, a newspaper story, a postcard from a friend or any other material that may be of later interest in your writing. 
For my story The Library at Alexandria, from the Unchained Anthology celebrating 400 years of Bristol Libraries, I took out a cutting I'd saved from a magazine about the historic facts about the ancient library at Alexandria in northern Egypt. As I read it, I looked at the wonderful photo of a bust of Hypatia which inspired me to think about how a woman in my own world might be engender such an aura of charisma. I try to get ‘a moment of illumination’, and some part of a narrative arc revolving in my head before I open my notebook and write. Then I often start with notes which, given chance, build like a lego structure into the beginnings of an narrative arc. I like to be ‘bursting to write’ before I properly begin – then I freewrite for as long as I can without stopping, even to think too much.
If you’re desperate to write a short story, I recommend you try this method. \

A shorter version of this post can be seen at