Friday 15 April 2011

Friday Flash - I Thought I Knew Him

I’m sure I know the guy opposite me on the train. Only problem is, I can't remember how or why.

I pretend to read my book, but I sneak a look over the top of the pages. He has straight hair the colour of wet sand – straight except for the random kink just behind his right ear. He looks to be in his late twenties, but the cluster of spots around his mouth make him look like a gawky teenager. He fiddles with his phone, sliding his finger across the screen with merry abandon.

Ah! Matt! That’s his name. I met him on, and we had our first date in a cramped basement bar in Soho. He started every sentence with "So, like, yeah" and didn’t buy me a single drink all night. He regaled me with tales of his exploits in information distribution. It turned out he was a postman. There wasn’t a second date.

He looks up and out of the window, his attention caught by a woman pirouetting on a roof terrace above the railway line. I kick myself – he isn’t Matt. No, I recognise that slightly creepy half-smile as he watches the bikini-clad ballerina. It’s Peter, the guy who used to live downstairs when I had the flat in Putney with the leaky bathroom ceiling. He tried to flirt with me whenever he saw me on the stairs.

I wriggle down in my seat hoping he doesn’t look my way. He turns away from the window and starts rifling through his bag. I risk another look at him and I realise he’s not Peter at all. Peter would never carry a messenger bag anywhere. I’m sure I’ve seen that bag before, and then I remember where – on Brighton beach, just after I got hit in the face by a stray Frisbee. Ah yes, this guy must be Colt, the American boy who couldn’t apologise enough for his bad throw. We spent a glorious afternoon on the pier, and he gave me his number. I got mugged that night, and lost my phone.

Before I can say hi and apologise for never getting in touch, the man stands up. He slings the bag over his shoulder and walks down the carriage towards the doors. As he gets off the train, I realise it is not Colt. In fact, I never knew him at all.

A woman gets onto the train and throws herself into the seat opposite. She prods icons on her smartphone, and curses when the wrong app pops up. That smudged red lipstick and crooked black eyeliner looks so familiar. I’m sure I know her. She looks an awful lot like Denise, the woman who used to cut my hair in Crouch End. There again, she could be Natalya, the girl I shared a flat with throughout university. Wow, time has not been kind to her if she is.

She looks up at me. It takes me a few moments to realise she’s actually looking through me. I finally remember, as if I can ever really forget, but being dead can screw with your sense of perspective on things.

The train lurches out of the station and I turn away from the window. I don’t need to see where I died again. I sigh, and the woman opposite shudders. Goosebumps prickle along her bare forearm. I sigh again out of sheer devilment, and she stares at my empty seat. I muster up the energy to glare. She might think it’s bad to be haunted, but just you try being dead and haunted by your memories. I’ve got a whole lifetime of them – and an eternity in which to replay them.

Thursday 14 April 2011

[Book Review] Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

The word 'editing' often strikes fear into the heart of a writer - we just want to get the words down, we don't want to start rearranging them afterwards. Unfortunately you won't get far in the writing world if you never edit your work. With publishing houses overstretched, there is less money available to sink into a book, meaning much of the editing will be done initially by the writer themselves. Indeed, if you're planning on going down the self publishing route, then you'll need to invest a heck of a lot of time editing your manuscript before you unleash it on the unsuspecting public.

Think of it this way - filmmakers make their films, 'writing' the story on celluloid. Along comes an editor and suddenly what they've 'written' has been altered. A good editor can turn a mediocre film into something exceptional - and the same goes for your writing. However, some directors have such an authorial vision that they do as much they can during shooting to ensure that as little editing happens as possible. Take Sir Alfred Hitchcock. He used a technique known as "cutting in the camera" where he only filmed what he absolutely needed in order to tell the story as it happened in his head. He gave the editors very little to work with as their job was essentially done, and his vision remained in tact. Editing your work yourself before you send it out to query or release it as a self-publishing endeavour works in the same way. See how it's not so bad after all?

Now, it is strongly advised that you get feedback from people who know what they're talking about - other writers (especially if they've been published themselves) are a good place to start, as is anyone who has to string words together for a living. Unless your mother, spouse or flatmate have experience editing, it's probably best not to ask them. So unless you can afford a professional editor, where do you start? Well, a book like this one can certainly help. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King won't teach you the mechanics of writing, but it will teach you what editors look out for, and how to avoid making the mistakes in the first place.

The book is broken into sections to help you target particular aspects of your work. Dialogue, pacing, point of view, voice and crafting scenes are all covered, along with other tricky spots you might feel you need help with. 'Before and after' examples are given to help you see how a passage can be reworked to say the same thing but in a much clearer way, and they even cite authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald to show how writing styles have changed over time. Each chapter ends with a checklist of things to do/not do, and a series of exercises designed to get you thinking like an editor.

It's not intended as a textbook for the craft of writing, and there are plenty of excellent books available for almost every aspect of writing that you can think of, but if you practice the techniques and pay attention to the red flags raised by the authors of this book, you'll probably find yourself writing better material from scratch, and requiring less editing at a later stage.

Highly recommended, both for new writers and experienced writers who may wish to review their approach.

Four blunt pencils out of five!

Tuesday 12 April 2011

[Spotlight] Amnar - I J Black

I J Black is promoting the latest instalment in her Amnar series, called The Inheritor, and she's dropped by to have a bit of a chat about the expansive world of Amnar.

How would you sum up Amnar for newcomers?
Amnar is an epic fantasy, set in a world very different from Earth, but where the people face the same kind of problems. It's a break from the traditional, Lord of the Rings-style of quest and focuses on politics, legal drama, personal struggles and mystery as well as a splash of illusion and the occasional dragon.

What inspires the plot lines?
I'm inspired by lots of things. I've been lucky in having had the opportunity to travel a great deal, and much of Amnar has been developed from that. Most of it came from growing up in a household where there were a lot of books and there was much interest in history. All the years of study have been poured into Amnar and I find a lot of my inspiration in reading non-fiction.

Do you ever base your characters on existing people, either in the media or that you know?
Not consciously, no. I've related or adapted the experiences of people I've met, though. I travelled through China a few years ago and one of the guides who discussed her experience of surviving the Cultural Revolution inspired me to think about how individuals cope in a hostile regime - some of her stories influenced the creation of characters like Io and Nenja.

Which of the books has been your favourite to write?
I really enjoyed writing The Inheritor, but as I'm working on the sequel to that, I'm also very much enjoying writing exchanges between Vasha and Arandes. I have managed to scare myself. The third book I wrote was full of horror, very much a psychological thriller, and I used to scare myself writing it late at night after work.

Do you outline and plan your books, or stick to the tried-and-tested "make it up as you go along" method?
I do outline and plan. Once upon a time I just made it up as I went along, but Amnar books are too complex to make that easy, and I've found that the more I plan, the better and easier it is to write.

You started out giving the books away for free on Smashwords. What prompted you to step it up a notch and branch out to Kindle?
Smashwords has had continued issues with Amazon, and getting books onto the Kindle is obviously an important step to take, as people look for books there more than they do anywhere else. I think it was a natural next step, and I like the ease with which you can put work out on the Kindle.

If you were to compare Amnar to the work of existing authors, who would you choose and why?
It's very much a cross between China Mieville (in terms of its political focus), Philip Pullman, and Ursula Le Guin. I don't write like Mieville, but I do have the same interest in politics, and you find a lot of that in Amnar. Then there's the more spiritual side, the interest in religion, which appears in later Amnar books, as well as exploration of consciousness found in Philip Pullman's work. Finally, there's the personal journey of Io and other characters, and the interest in sociological perspectives that's found in Ursula le Guin.

Do you have plans for further Amnar novels?
Yes, indeed. There are a full seven books in the Inheritor series, then three in the Execution series, plus the possibility of writing more prequel series around Arandes Nashima, where he came from, and the civilisation that predated Amnar. I could probably keep going for the rest of my life and not run out of ideas.

Say an Amnar movie is to be planned. Who would you like to see direct it, and who would you cast in the principal roles?
I'm not sure about directors, although I do like Ridley Scott's work a great deal. I'm not sure about other roles, but recently, I've been convinced that Ellen Page would make a brilliant Io. She's young, but she has the kind of determination and attitude that Io does.

What do you think draws people to the fantasy genres?
I think they like the complexity of really good alternative worlds. Writing these worlds is fantastic because you have much more freedom to experiment with new ideas and mixing up different ones. In terms of reading, it's an opportunity to let go of boundaries and play with things that simply aren't possible in our own world. I think we get the chance to be people that we simply can't be in the real world.

Do you think the so-called e-book revolution will draw people back to reading for leisure, as opposed to watching movies or playing video games?
I think it's entirely possible. I think there's also a lot of scope for branching out between e-books, movies and games, where good work can be presented in all three media. E-books have definitely made it easier for writers to reach their public, and for people to explore books they might not otherwise buy because it required going to a book shop or shopping online and then waiting weeks for the things to actually show up. It also makes books much more portable, the kind of thing you can carry around like you would an iPod.

* * *

I J Black is an author of several books, and an ex-academic with a PhD in geography and history. She has run her own business and been a cinema projectionist, a writer, a secretary and a whole range of other things. When not world-building, she runs the SkepLit book club, runs and is interested in physical fitness - a great antidote to sitting down most of the rest of the time. She also loves travelling and painting.

You can find out more about Amnar by visiting the website, while the books are available from Smashwords, Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Monday 11 April 2011

Photo Prompt 28

Twenty-eighth prompt, ready and waiting.

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The twenty-eighth prompt is Oil Cans.

Oil Cans

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!